On the train back from London one Sunday I got into conversation with the guy sitting next to me. That could have been a scene or scenario from W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Indeed, the book was the catalyst for our discussion. My fellow passenger had read the book and seen me reading my copy. I was a third of the way through when he asked me what I thought. Much of my reading centres on fiction and waiting for that conflict to germinate into something all-powerful and consuming. But I couldn’t see that in Austerlitz. A sense of pathos lingered on every page and engendered a hint of dread as I turned to the next, particularly as I progressed. Needless to say I engaged in my little battle with Austerlitz in eager curiosity. I found the book a thorough and informative, yet light, read. Conflict did come. Subtly, and as inexorably as in a novel.
Conflict is internalized in Austerlitz as he seems to resist the inevitable. Austerlitz’s foster parents bury his past, during his childhood, only to hint at who he was as he enters adolescence, and as their own demise crashes about him. From his teenage years Austerlitz knows he is someone different from the person he believed himself to be. Yet he employed none of the curiosity and intellect that earned him a living. So several burning questions went unanswered. The negation of his task and the tension in his subconscious, which plagued his life, reached a critical point, and he had no choice but to study his own history.
This is the journey of an architectural historian and the lavish imagery pasted on the framework of the plot gives a rounded view of Europe from the 1930s and at some critical post-war epochs, and the book notices how much has changed, and how much has remained the same, familiar. As a lover of history, I found this aspect particularly enriching. As a connoisseur of the human psyche, I found myself at odds, on occasions, with Austerlitz. I felt sometimes he had only himself to blame for his state of mind. He had the opportunity, largely, to achieve contentment in his own life, but chose to ignore his past. Quite ironic for an historian. I did warm to him, and the people he met and his lost parents, in the temperate environment of history and the fate of European Jews in the 1930s and ’40s. I could vividly see, and feel, the four-year-old Austerlitz being ripped from the bosom of his loved ones, and sent across a strange world to a strange land. “The horror. The horror.” To quote Kurtz from another critique of the results of ideology, pseudo-science and eugenics, and imperialist endeavour.
Austerlitz, Sebald, W.G. is translated by Anthea Bell and published by Penguin Books (ISBN: 9780241951804).