In the summer of 1967, a man who remains unnamed but who resembles the author W.G. Sebald is visiting Belgium. At the Centraal Station in Antwerp, he sees a fellow traveller, with fair, curiously wavy hair, who is wearing heavy walking boots, workman’s trousers made of blue calico and a well-made but antiquated jacket. He is intently studying the room and taking notes. This is Jacques Austerlitz. The two men fall into conversation, have dinner at the station restaurant and talk into the night. Austerlitz is a voluble scholar – he explicates the slightly grotesque display of colonial confidence represented by Antwerp’s Centraal Station, and talks generally about the history of fortification. It is often our mightiest projects, he suggests, which most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity.
Austerlitz and the Sebald-like narrator meet again a few months later, in Brussels; then, later still, on the promenade at Zeebrugge. It emerges that Jacques Austerlitz is a lecturer at an institute of art history in London, and that his scholarship is unconventional. He is obsessed with monumental public buildings, such as law courts and prisons, railway stations and lunatic asylums, and his investigations have swollen beyond any reasonable raison d’être, ‘proliferating in his hands into endless preliminary sketches for a study, based entirely on his own views, of the family likeness between all these buildings’. For a while, the narrator visits Austerlitz regularly in London, but they fall out of touch until 1996, when they happen to meet again, this time at Liverpool Street Station. Austerlitz explains that only recently has he learned the story of his life, and he needs the kind of listener that the narrator had been in Belgium, 30 years before.
And so Austerlitz begins the story that will gradually occupy the rest of the book: how he was brought up in a small town in Wales by foster parents; how he discovered, as a teenager, that his true name was not Dafydd Elias but Jacques Austerlitz; how he went to Oxford, and then into academic life. Though clearly a refugee, for many years he was unable to discover the precise nature of his exile until he experienced a visionary moment, in the late 1980s, in the Ladies’ Waiting Room of Liverpool Street Station. Standing transfixed for perhaps hours, in a room hitherto unknown to him (and about to be demolished, to enable an expansion of the Victorian station), he feels as if the space contains ‘all the hours of my past life, all the suppressed and extinguished fears and wishes I had ever entertained’. He suddenly sees, in his mind’s eye, his foster parents, ‘but also the boy they had come to meet’, and he realises that he must have arrived at this station a half-century ago.
In the spring of 1993, having suffered a nervous breakdown in the meantime, Austerlitz has another visionary experience, this time in a Bloomsbury bookshop. The bookseller is listening to the radio, which features two women discussing the summer of 1939, when, as children, they had come on the ferry Prague to England, as part of the Kindertransport: ‘Only then did I know beyond any doubt that these fragments of memory were part of my own life as well,’ Austerlitz tells the narrator. The mere mention of ‘Prague’ impels Austerlitz to the Czech capital, where he eventually discovers his old nanny, Vera Rysanova, and uncovers the stories of his parents’ abbreviated lives. His father, Maximilian Aychenwald, escaped the Nazis in Prague by leaving for Paris; but, we learn at the end of the book, he was eventually captured and interned in late 1942, in the French camp of Gurs, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. His mother, Agata Austerlitz, stayed on in Prague, insouciantly confident, but was rounded up and sent to the Terezin ghetto (better known by its German name of Theresienstadt) in December 1942. Of the final destination of Maximilian and Agata, we are not told, but infer the worst: Vera tells us only that Agata was ‘sent east’ from Terezin, in September 1944.
This short recital, poignant though its content is, represents a kind of vandalism to Sebald’s novel, and I offer it only in the spirit of orientation. It leaves out, most importantly, all the ways in which Sebald contrives not to offer an ordinary, straightforward recital. For what is so delicate is how Sebald makes Austerlitz’s story a broken, recessed enigma, whose meaning the reader must impossibly rescue. Though Austerlitz, and hence the reader, is involved in a journey of detection, the book really represents the deliberate frustration of detection, the perpetuation of an enigma. By the end, we certainly know a great deal about Jacques Austerlitz – about the tragic turns of his life, his family background, about his obsessions and anxieties and breakdowns – but it can’t be said that we really know him. A life has been filled in for us, but not a self. He remains as unknowable at the end as he was at the beginning, and indeed seems to leave the book as randomly and as unexpectedly as he entered it.