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Austerlitz – W. G. Sebald

07 May

Litz GreatIn 1939, five-year-old Jacques Austerlitz is sent to England on a Kindertransport and placed with foster parents. This childless couple promptly erase from the boy all knowledge of his identity and he grows up ignorant of his past. Later in life, after a career as an architectural historian, Austerlitz – having avoided all clues that might point to his origin – finds the past returning to haunt him and he is forced to explore what happened fifty years before

somewhere I came across a list of translated books that ‘should’ be read so seeing this in Oxfam,  it was worth a £2 punt for an author I’ve never read before; literature in exchange for a bit of cash to be towards ending poverty sounds like the noblest form of deal to me.

For such a small sum, what was handed over was a sensitively handled tale of melancholy, an exploration of the fragility of life and the horrors of history.  It’s also a book of secrets – in a personal and wider sense of history – of eliminated past and the memories of another time.  In short this was a bargain at the price and well worth a read for anybody passing by (or going out of their way for) a copy.

The name Austerlitz can be recognised both as a town near the battle of the same name (Napoleon beating combined armies of Russia and Austria) and also a railway station in Paris.  It’s this latter that is more immediately symbolic, it’s an intersection, a point in the lives of many people, where they go meet, move on and a place one suspects holds many memories.  It is surely not a coincidence that we first meet Austerlitz in a railway station.

Austerlitz as character is a methodical and observant architectural historian, one who lives intensely in his own world, lost to wider history but taken with the form of buildings.  The telling of his story is both articulate and detached, shaped by loss of people and deprived of his earliest memories, it’s a poignant position with which the reader connects and is the perfect platform for the piecing together of a personal history of another time.

Told with an experienced world wary voice, the book is a mixture of many different genres, travel book, memoir, guide to architecture, history book and part detective story, it’s a blend that is to be savoured as the story is peeled back one layer at a time.  For those of you who like a story that meanders sometimes, there are digressions aplenty which did – the odd time – make me impatient to progress but I’m glad it was written this way as each digression is fascinating.

It’s a book that can be read quickly though, the pages seem to fly by, partly because it is so readable and also because of the photos and maps which are liberally scattered throughout, allowing the reader more of a connection with places or to better understand an architectural point.  The photographs are all black and white and whilst colour would have made them more clearer and given more detail, the monochrome images does help connect the reader to the past and I find them more beautiful in an understated way just for that reason.

If I had to pick a minor irritant it would be the need to punctuate Austerlitz’s reminiscences with a reference to the speaker, putting for example ‘said Austerlitz’ every so often is unnecessary, I know he is speaking, he is telling me his story.  Reminding me just shatters the spell I was so frequently under and pulls me out of the that time to the modern-day where he is telling it, for no purpose other than presumably as a natural break as there are hardly any paragraphs and only a handful of line breaks throughout the whole book.  There are no speech marks either, yet I found it oddly less annoying than I do with Cormac McCarthy’s works.

With its mixing of genres the book is both intriguing and moving.  It has an atmosphere of sombreness in regards to the faded remnants of the past, yet also seems dislocated from real life with its chance meetings.  The characters felt unworldly, like their stories, epxeriences and lives may never have happened but in reality are a testament to the lost people with their hopes and dreams, obliterated by the horror and cruelties of war.  All this is not a negative though it just adds to this arty and understated read that is as precisely defined as any of the great old buildings.

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32 Comments

Posted by on 07/05/2016 in Architecture, Fiction

 

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32 responses to “Austerlitz – W. G. Sebald

  1. Sarah

    07/05/2016 at 14:45

    Cracking review of a wonderful book Steve! I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

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    • Ste J

      07/05/2016 at 14:51

      I had no idea what to expect but I’m glad I took the leap, it was a book of much depth and will be waved in many people’s faces whether I know them or not. Thank you for your not pressured in anyway vote for me reading this.

      Like

       
  2. Alastair Savage

    07/05/2016 at 16:38

    Sebald seems to divide people. You either love him or hate him. I really enjoyed The Rings of Saturn which is about him stomping around Suffolk in search of long-forgotten eccentrics. It is absurdly overwritten at times, but at others rather wonderful and moving.

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    • Ste J

      08/05/2016 at 11:24

      This was my first Sebald and I’m definitely up for picking up some more. Stomping around Suffolk should be the tagline for the book, it’d be an instant hit especially with casual passersby.

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    • Jeff

      20/05/2016 at 15:07

      Even individual readers can love him and hate him by turns! I still haven’t got to my copy of Rings of Saturn yet. A good reminder.

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  3. Jill Weatherholt

    07/05/2016 at 18:40

    Great review, Ste J! It sounds as though you really enjoyed this one.

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    • Ste J

      08/05/2016 at 11:18

      I did, it was such a mixture of styles and it seemed to fly by. It’s a book that will definitely inspire many writers.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  4. shoshibookblog

    07/05/2016 at 19:06

    ‘Intriguing and moving’, I completely agree – and well worth the £2 cost!

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    • Ste J

      08/05/2016 at 11:19

      It was a steal, I may have to go back to that shop tomorrow in case they have filled up with some more great bargains.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  5. macjam47

    08/05/2016 at 20:33

    A great review, Steve. I love how the words just seem to roll off the pen, much as one would speak. Austerlitz sounds like a wonderful read.

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    • Ste J

      10/05/2016 at 14:01

      You will enjoy the book, there is so much to be fascinated by and to think upon, a wonderful character study to boot. I think there are too many WWII fiction books around but this is one of the ones that deserves a read above a lot of others in the genre.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  6. clarepooley33

    09/05/2016 at 00:44

    I have ‘Rings of Saturn’ waiting for me to have time to read it so was pleased to read this review of another Sebald book. Thanks very much SteJ.

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    • Ste J

      10/05/2016 at 13:49

      On the strength of this book, it will be a good read, Rings of Saturn on my list to buy at some point soon and looking forward to it.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  7. Jilanne Hoffmann

    09/05/2016 at 18:39

    Yet another one hiding in my boxes. You’ve moved it higher up my TBR list. Thank you, I think. 😀

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    • Ste J

      10/05/2016 at 13:44

      You seem to spend more time rearranging your TBR list than anything hehe.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Jilanne Hoffmann

        10/05/2016 at 17:00

        It’s maddening. I’ve never been a decisive person when it comes to literature and tend to be easily influenced by gorgeous reviews.

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        • Ste J

          11/05/2016 at 09:01

          Sorry to add to your pain haha, you need tunnel vision, read a review and go seek the book then all the rest can go on your list for the next time you need a handful of books because having money isn’t fun when there are books around. That is how I live my life.

          Liked by 1 person

           
  8. Lucy

    10/05/2016 at 06:44

    I really enjoyed this, too, it was very strange and surreal, and would have made my English teacher angry. My Sebald would have got a board rubber upside the head for his creative non-use of punctuation and traditional structure, but it works and adds to the realness.

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    • Ste J

      10/05/2016 at 13:55

      This and Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch are really effective with the stream of consciousness structure. It made me feel like a reading rebel stopping each time I closed the book not at the end of a paragraph. We get taught all these rules just so we can see authors flout them, what a world we live in!

      Liked by 1 person

       
  9. Asha

    10/05/2016 at 14:08

    It’s remarkable how you stumble across some of the best lesser-known books. It’s sad though it’s not an ebook. I’d ask for it elsewise.

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    • Ste J

      10/05/2016 at 14:13

      I’m surprised it isn’t although I hear that they have issues reproducing photos and drawings on that device though. If I was ebook capable I would send you everything I had, because I am nice like that.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Asha

        10/05/2016 at 14:31

        I don’t doubt that at all. Btw, is this horror?

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        • Ste J

          10/05/2016 at 14:34

          It isn’t but as it deals with the Holocaust their is an element of horror in it. It’s more of a stream of consciousness book about the journey to discover the fate of Jacques Austerlitz’s parents. It is one that will move you and make you think, it’s right up your street.

          Liked by 1 person

           
  10. shadowoperator

    10/05/2016 at 18:43

    So (humor my ignorance), since you said it’s part memoir, is Austerlitz then a real person? Or are you referring to the mode of writing which is fiction imitating memoir? It sounds like a good read, whatever the case. Thanks for the review!

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    • Ste J

      11/05/2016 at 09:10

      I haven’t delved into the author’s background as the review took me about two hours to write but it seems that he saw a BBC documentary call Whatever Happened to Susi? and that inspired him to write the story. A mix of both fact and fiction which explains why it leaves its mark.

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  11. Resa

    14/05/2016 at 15:59

    It sounds like a fascinating book. I like the idea of pictures and maps helping with the telling. The cover is very appealing, and although never judge a book by it’s cover, It does scream little lost boy. Another great review, Ste J

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    • Ste J

      14/05/2016 at 21:38

      To me the cover looks melancholy partly for as you say the little lost boy effect but also just all the associated thoughts of World War II. The photos and maps are handy to help visualise the places and they do add to the overall effect of the book, interestingly had I not have known anything about the book I think the cover wouldn’t have appealed to me.

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  12. angela

    18/05/2016 at 02:41

    Pictures and no marks of punctuation! I’ve passed over this book many times in the used book shop, now I must circle back as it sounds like my type of read.

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    • Ste J

      19/05/2016 at 12:48

      I find it has a very unassuming cover, once you open it though and read a bit I think you will be intrigued.

      Like

       
  13. Jeff

    20/05/2016 at 15:11

    Craig Brown recorded a great parody of Sebald for Radio 4 – it sounded very much like Austerlitz, moving from a tiny incident through a person to another and then, of course, to cataclysmic world events, and all with that accent (actually more Werner Herzog than WG). There’s a good interview with WG here:

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    • Ste J

      22/05/2016 at 19:45

      I’m always a fan of the stuff Brown does in Private Eye, I will have to seek it out. Thanks for the link, it’s rare that I manage to remember to listen to such things, a timely reminder is always appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

       

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