The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews
Austerlitz
 by W.G. Sebald.
Austerlitz
by W.G. Sebald

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

If W. G. Sebald had lived longer—he died in a 2001 automobile
accident at the age of 57—he probably would have been named a
Nobel laureate. Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Swedish
Academy (perhaps best known for his
critique of the insularity of American
writers) mentioned Sebald during a
2007 interview when listing deceased
authors who would have been worthy
recipients of the Nobel Prize in
Literature. (The other names cited
by Engdahl were
Ryszard Kapuściński
and Jacques Derrida.)

Sebald is poised midway between these
two other figures, Kapuściński the
practical man of the world and Derrida
the theorizing thaumaturge of the
academy.  Sebald's writing
seems on
the surface to be deeply immersed in
the day-to-day—an effect accentuated by his unconventional
incorporation of black-and-white photographs into his novels.  Yet
the more deeply one penetrates his stories, the more ethereal they
become, existing less in the world around us, and rather in the
memories, dreams, obsessions and volatile emotions of his
characters.

In
Austerlitz, published around the time of his death, Sebald deals
with the most solid facts of Germany history, centering on World
War II and the Holocaust. This sense of rock-hard reality is further
reflected in the title character, who is fixated on architecture and
the monuments of civilization, especially fortresses, train stations
and other grand edifices meant to stand up against the onslaught of
decades or even centuries. But by the time the reader has finished
with the novel, this sense of solidity has vanished.  
Austerlitz seems
to exist outside of time and place; characters have the quality of
ghosts, and sometimes come across as less real than the dead, who in
Sebald's cosmology, can be more consequential than neighbors or
friends or even lovers.

Sebald's main character, Jacques Austerlitz, is raised by a taciturn
Calvinist family in a Welsh foster home during the 1940s.  During
this period, he thinks his name is Dafydd Elias, and though he knows
little of his true origins, he feels alienated from his new family and
surroundings.  He retains dim memories of an earlier life, a period
which ended before his fifth birthday, but he spends his formative
years stifling any curiosity as to what these recollections might
portend.  He is a middle-aged man by the time he starts to unravel
the mystery of his own existence, and trace the path that leads him
back to his childhood in Czechoslovakia.

Sebald's narrative possesses its own pristine and almost relentless
logic, yet the author constructs chronological and geographical
mazes in which readers can feel the same sense of dislocation from
which Austerlitz himself suffers. At a critical point in the story,
Austerlitz recalls a series of events that are related in a run-on
sentence of more than ten pages. The collapse of mental equilibrium
in our character is thus mimicked in a corresponding abandonment
of linguistic borders and limits. But even when the sentences are
crisp and clear the story line turns in on itself like a snake
swallowing its own tail.

For example: The narrator meets up with Austerlitz in London on
Saturday, March 19, 1997, and hears him recall his visits to a train
station in 1984, which prompts a lengthy discourse on the
construction of the station in the 1860s, and the relation of an
anecdote about explorations in the station's now disused waiting
room that reminded Austerlitz of an afternoon meeting in
November of 1968 . . . but Austerlitz hardly gives this 1968 story
time to form when he switches gears and recalls his sudden
realization (in 1984) that this train station waiting room was the
place where he had first come to England as a small child fifty years
before. On and on the maze winds, in lengthy paragraphs—usually
continuing for so many pages that it sometimes seems as if this novel
is one single paragraph—until all sense of where the narrative is
centered is eradicated in a blissful yet anxiety-provoking
simultaneity.

This is the "Madeleine moment" in Sebald's book. But if Proust saw
the recapturing of childhood memories as essentially magical and
transformative, Austerlitz's probing into the previously hidden
world of his early childhood proves psychically draining and
potentially dangerous. The door opening on his past leads to a
nervous breakdown and further dissolution of his already fragile
sense of self.

Sebald further removes his narrative from reality by the
introduction of a narrator who has no name and almost no
biography. Perhaps the narrator is a stand-in for the author, but the
overall effect is quite curious. We are all familiar with first-person
novels—such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's
The Great Gatsby or Joseph
O'Neill's
Netherland—in which a rapt onlooker tells of some
mysterious main character, charismatic and enigmatic, who inspires
curiosity and perhaps even an obsessive fascination. Yet what are
we to make Sebald's odd variation in which a vague narrator fixates
on a protagonist who comes across as less and less substantive as the
story progresses?

"I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all," Austerlitz muses
at one point, "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."

The ultimate effect of this novel is corrosive and unsettling, and we
find ourselves drawn into the void—psychological, personal and
ultimately sociological as well—with almost no tools with which to
extricate ourselves. Sebald has done something quite remarkable
here. He has written a historical novel that appears to exist outside
of history, yet this represents less an escape and more an exile. That
dislocation is both the tragedy of Austerlitz the character, and the
wonder of
Austerlitz the book.
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