Ghost Story

Austerlitz

by W.G. Sebald, translated from the German by Anthea Bill
Random House, 298 pp., $25.95

On the cover photograph a little boy stands alone on a bleak heath. He wears the white satin costume of an eighteenth-century page and in his hand he holds a white satin tricorne with an ostrich feather. His pale blond hair blows in the wind. He is not an attractive child, and his expression is puzzled, anxious, defensive—or so it seems to me. Sebald calls it “piercing, inquiring.” The photograph is printed in moody sepia, like the others in this and Sebald’s previous books. Like them, Austerlitz hovers enigmatically on the border between fact and fiction. He has created a new genre, a mysterious defensive hedge to hide behind as he sorts out his inmost thoughts. Nearly all the photographs are either melancholy or sinister or both, even when they are architectural—which in the case of Austerlitz most of them are. Interiors of railway stations, fortresses, hotels, municipal buildings, libraries, conservatories draw one into eerie spaces somewhere between Escher’s surreal flights of stairs and Piranesi’s imaginary prisons. The prose corroborates the impression: in the disused ladies’ waiting room at London’s Liverpool Street Station, for instance,

when the blanket of cloud above the city parted for a moment or two, occasional rays of light fell into the waiting room, but they were generally extinguished again halfway down. Other beams of light followed curious trajectories which violated the laws of physics, departing from the rectilinear and twisting in spirals and eddies before being swallowed up by the wavering shadows. From time to time, and just for a split second, I saw huge halls open up, with rows of pillars and colonnades leading far into the distance, with vaults and brickwork arches bearing on them many-storied structures, with flights of stone steps, wooden stairways and ladders, all leading the eye on and on.

Most of the photographs must have been taken by Sebald, but he attributes them to Austerlitz—who is not a battlefield but a man: the little boy on the cover, now grown up; years ago his mother went to a fancy dress ball as the Rose Queen, and he carried her train. (Incidentally, Fred Astaire’s real name was Austerlitz too, so Sebald says.)

Two of the four stories in his collection The Emigrants (1992) are about Jewish refugees from Hitler, and one about a second-generation Jewish refugee from Lithuania. The main characters in all three commit suicide. Austerlitz does not do that, although he too is a Jewish refugee. He grows up instead to be a depressive loner with several nervous breakdowns behind him. Sebald went on to describe his own nervous breakdown in The Rings of Saturn (1995), an account of his journey on foot along the English east coast after he recovered. When Austerlitz is fit enough to leave the hospital, his doctor advises him to go to work in a nursery garden that employs “a certain number of assistants who suffered from disabilities.” There is a horrendous photograph of a …

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