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 fat man manically grinning across trays of seedlings. It can’t be Austerlitz, let alone Sebald. Maybe it is one of the other disabled assistants, whom he describes as generally “cheerful.”
Their shared breakdown, depression, and loneliness suggest that perhaps Sebald sees Austerlitz as his doppelgänger, “mon semblable, mon frère,” the person he might have been, had he been Jewish. He is not Jewish, though, but a Bavarian from the village of Wertach; and for many years he has taught at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where he is professor of European literature.
It is in 1967 in the waiting room of the central station in Antwerp that the unnamed narrator we can call Sebald first catches sight of Austerlitz and his defining small rucksack. The rucksack reminds Sebald of Wittgenstein (but on the cover photograph of The Rings of Saturn, Sebald himself—for he must be the figure receding along the country road—is the one who carries a small rucksack; so perhaps he and Austerlitz really are each other’s doppelgänger). This waiting room, Sebald says, is known as the salle des pas perdus—the perfect name for the starting point of a melancholy relationship between two melancholy men.
Austerlitz, an architectural historian, is sketching details of the vast dome beneath which “exactly as [King Leopold’s] architect had intended, when we step into the entrance hall we are seized by a sense of being beyond the profane, in a cathedral consecrated to international traffic and trade.” Sebald gets into conversation with Austerlitz, and they settle down in the station buffet by a
mighty clock…with a hand some six feet long traveling round a dial which had once been gilded, but was now blackened by railway soot and tobacco smoke. During the pauses in our conversation we both noticed what an endless length of time went by before another minute had passed, and how alarming seemed the movement of the hand, which resembled a sword of justice, even though we were expecting it every time it jerked forward, slicing off the next one-sixtieth of an hour from the future and coming to a halt with such a menacing quiver that one’s heart almost stopped.
This arch-Sebaldian description, detailed and precise, resonant and ominous, announces themes that run through everything he writes: transience, neglect, decay, menace—but also a contempt for everything modern and commercial, implied here by the sneer about the cathedral of international traffic and trade. (The only really dispensable passage in this new, unconventional, willful book is a long diatribe against the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand—built near the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris—that has ousted Sebald’s beloved old Bibliothèque Nationale. The criticism may be justified, but it reads just like the grouchy letters in the London Telegraph and Times, which are categorized as “yours disgusted, Tunbridge Wells”—that being the kind of genteel retirement town where their writers would be likely to live.)
Sebald does not see Austerlitz again until 1995—once more by chance and at a railway station. Railway stations are places for experiencing transience—more than noisy, frantic airports, which have no departure platforms, so they lack the unilinear pathos of rails disappearing into the distance. This time the station is Liverpool Street in London. The trains from Norwich come in there, so Sebald has known it for years, and drifts into a wonderful, dreamy, nostalgic account of a night spent in its grand old-fashioned hotel before the place was rebuilt.
Austerlitz lives nearby in Alderney Street in the East End. Next door is an ancient Jewish cemetery, unknown to most people, because the door in its wall is never open. Austerlitz recommends it to Sebald as a place to visit when he takes him to his austere underfurnished house, and shows him his collection of photographs, explaining the weird memory game he plays with them: spreading them out face down, turning them over, and rearranging them until “he felt exhausted by the constant effort of thinking and remembering and had to rest on the ottoman.”
After that, the two men go on meeting, in London, Paris, and Prague, and Austerlitz gradually tells Sebald the story of his life. For many years, he did not know “who he really was.” At the age of four and a half, he was adopted by the Reverend Elias, a grim, disagreeable Welsh nonconformist minister and his silent wife. They lived in the little Welsh town of Bala, and they named the child Dafydd Elias. He had arrived in 1939 on the Kindertransport from Prague. His mother was an opera singer, but was now forbidden to perform. His father had already emigrated to Paris, and they expected that quite soon they would manage to reunite as a family. Instead, Austerlitz’s mother was sent to Terezín, and from there to the gas ovens; and his father disappeared when the Germans invaded France.
Mrs. Elias died after a long illness; then her husband lost his mind and had to be taken to an asylum. By this time Dafydd was at an English boarding school, and doing well at football as well as academic work. He was fifteen when the headmaster told him what his real name was, but nothing about his origins. He won scholarships, went to Oxford, studied art history at the Warburg Institute, and suppressed every memory of his early childhood. He attributes the nervous breakdown he had in 1992 to this suppression:
It was obviously of little use that I had discovered the sources of my distress and, looking back over all the past years, could now see myself with the utmost clarity as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings: reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed, and which was now breaking through the walls of its confinement.
Sometime after his recovery, when he was browsing in a London print shop, he happened to overhear a radio broadcast about the Kindertransport: his memory returned—fitfully—and he headed for Prague to reassemble the missing pieces. The city archivist found him an address where his parents might have lived. When he rang the bell, the woman who opened the door recognized him: it was Vera, who now lived in the flat. She had been a student when he was a small child, and had acted as his nanny. She had been loving and kind, and he was very fond of her. Now she was a lonely old spinster, a touching figure, quiet, affectionate, and, Sebald makes you feel, an utterly good person. She tells Austerlitz everything he wants to know, including the harrowing story of how she helped his mother pack the few belongings she was allowed to take, and then accompanied her to the assembly point for Jews destined for Terezín.
It is Vera who shows Austerlitz the photograph of himself as the little page, and it confirms the feeling he has always had, that
time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision. As far back as I can remember, said Austerlitz, I have always felt as if I had no place in reality, as if I were not there at all….
Sebald has invented a disturbing, inverted new take on ghosts, for whom we are the unreal people. It may explain why all the figures in his photographs appear ghostly: even the two couples in morning dress, one of the men in a gray top hat, who stand in what looks like a typical English garden (it is, in fact, in Wales), and stare in amazed disapproval at the other man, who has a cockatoo on his shoulder.
After his visit to Vera, Austerlitz makes his way to Terezín. The photographs of its empty streets lined with low-built, dilapidated houses are as depressing and haunting as Sebald could have wished. The place had just been turned into a museum, but on the day Austerlitz goes there, there are no other visitors. He keeps looking in the window of the only shop—a junk shop displaying a stuffed squirrel, china ornaments, old uniforms, glass paperweights with marine flowers inside them, and so on:
It was a long time before I could tear myself away from staring at the hundreds of different objects, my forehead pressed against the cold window, as if one of them or their relationship with each other must provide an unequivocal answer to the many questions I found it impossible to ask in my mind….
They were all…timeless…, perpetuated but forever just occurring, these ornaments, utensils, and mementoes stranded in the Terezín bazaar, objects that for reasons one could never know had outlived their former owners and survived the process of destruction, so that I could now see my own faint shadow image barely perceptible among them.
It’s the “cold window” and his own “faint shadow image” that makes this passage so vivid and haunting, and bring home the coexistence of past and present.
Sebald never writes to get on with the story. When thoughts occur to him, he pauses and lets them take over at their own pace. So there are ruminations—often accompanied by photographs or reproductions of drawings and prints—on subjects as varied as fortresses (which he finds have always proved useless for the purpose they were built for), Schumann’s madness and death, the creepy museum of the École Vétérinaire near the Gare d’Austerlitz, night moths, the impossibility of thinking about history except in preconceived clichés, concentration camps (Breendonk in Belgium as well as Terezín), cemeteries and spas, especially Marienbad, where as a child Austerlitz spent happy holidays with Vera and his parents.
Austerlitz went there again in the Nineties with Marie de Verneuil, a woman with whom he was—though he never uses those words—in love. She, too, is an architectural historian, and she comes from an aristocratic French family. Sebald never alludes to Austerlitz’s feelings for her, but admiration and tenderness worm their way out of the text and form the image—though he never describes her either—of a strong, impulsive, affectionate, perceptive, understanding woman. Sebald has a mysterious gift for evoking lovable characters without any apparent need to describe them; here they include a fellow pupil at his boarding school and the boy’s beautiful widowed mother who befriends him, has him to stay at the family’s beautiful house (with cockatoos flying wild in its garden); the adolescent Austerlitz falls in love with her, but that again is never quite stated. Then there is the Bloomsbury bookseller in whose shop he overhears the Kindertransport broadcast, and the Prague city archivist; as well as Vera and Marie, who are more important to the story. But Marie leaves him: she cannot cope with his unreachability when he is depressed.
Austerlitz ends with a long passage about the South African writer Dan Jacobson’s book Heshel’s Kingdom. In it Jacobson describes his journey to Kaunas in Lithuania, where his grandfather, a rabbi, died soon after World War I. His widow brought her children to South Africa, and Jacobson grew up in Kimberley. The abandoned gold mines there were unfenced, and you could look down into several thousand feet of darkness:
The chasm into which no ray of light could penetrate was Jacobson’s image of the vanished past of his family and his people which, as he knows, can never be brought up from those depths again.
Sebald reads Jacobson’s book at Breendonk, the (useless) Belgian fortress which became a concentration camp and where his own book begins.
He is one of the most gripping writers imaginable. It’s not the story so much that takes hold of the reader: it’s the descriptions and the meditations, which can be hallucinatory in their effect. This is true of all his books, but in Austerlitz the proportion of rumination and evocation to narrative is larger than ever. Just occasionally this seems self-indulgent. But it’s not: perhaps intentionally, he is writing in the same genre that Goethe used for his autobiography. Goethe called it Dichtung und Wahrheit—“fiction and fact”—and it gives the writer license to put in whatever he wants, so long as it’s interesting.
November 1, 2001