What was it that so darkened our world?

Benjamin Markovits

  • Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, translated by Anthea Bell
    Hamish Hamilton, 415 pp, £16.99, October 2001, ISBN 0 241 14125 7

Philip Larkin once wondered what it would be like for a lover to step inside his skull. ‘She’d be stopping her ears,’ he decided, ‘against the incessant recital/Intoned by reality, larded with technical terms.’ Stepping inside the mind (or prose) of W.G. Sebald elicits a similar reaction – at any rate, it is always a relief to step outside again. Inside, the light is rather painful, the chairs austere and uncomfortable, the room cold and, though beautifully furnished, somewhat dusty. And always, from the radio, that troubling recital. Sebald has said that he chooses not to describe horror outright but rather to suggest that it informs everything he thinks and writes. His new book, Austerlitz, is in this sense informed by favourite miseries: the nature, or rather the denaturing, of an emigrant’s life; the passage and effects of time; the frailty of individual sensibilities; the cruelty of history, in particular, of the Third Reich. The purpose of art, Auden wrote (in the grip of similar horrors), is to ‘show an affirming flame’: Sebald has turned the flame down low, to scarcely a flicker.

The source of Austerlitz can be traced to the fourth part of The Emigrants, the first of Sebald’s novels to be translated from his native German (by Michael Hulse) and published in Britain, where Sebald has lived since 1966. In that episode, Sebald describes the life of Max Ferber (based loosely on the painter Frank Auerbach), a Jewish boy sent to England in 1939 to escape the Third Reich, in whose concentration camps his parents are eventually killed. Sebald’s account emphasises less the grief of separation than the emptiness that follows it. Ferber begins to realise that his parents have been murdered as their letters to his boarding school dry up. ‘The correspondence became something of a chore,’ he writes, ‘and when the letters stopped coming, in November 1941, I was relieved at first, in a way that now strikes me as quite terrible. Only gradually did it dawn on me that I would never again be able to write home.’ It is not so much that Sebald’s characters can’t cope with sorrow but that sorrow ultimately destroys itself (without leaving happiness in its place). As Ferber remarks of his condition, ‘I gradually understood that, beyond a certain point, pain blots out the one thing that is essential to its being experienced – consciousness – and so perhaps extinguishes itself; we know very little about this.’

In Austerlitz, Sebald goes back to this phenomenon, through the story of an emigrant coming to terms with his forgotten roots. The narrator, in the manner of his previous novels a version of Sebald himself, spots a man in the railway station in Antwerp studying the architecture and enquires after his interest in it. The man is Jacques Austerlitz, a college lecturer from London. This is the first in a series of chance encounters between them, in the course of which Austerlitz gradually relates his (cheerless) life story. ‘Since my childhood and youth,’ he tells the narrator, eventually shifting the conversation from architectural history to his own, ‘I have never known who I really was.’ He was raised, as Dafydd Elias, in ‘the little country town of Bala in Wales’ by a Calvinist preacher, Emyr Elias, and his ‘timid-natured’ English wife, Gwendolyn, who had adopted him at the age of five – ‘perhaps’, Austerlitz speculates, ‘to reverse the petrifaction of their emotions, which must have been becoming more unbearable to them every day’. They are for the most part cold and indifferent parents, and his childhood is relieved only by the miseries of boarding school, which are to him a welcome release. Gwendolyn dies, asking her husband: ‘What was it that so darkened our world?’ The husband soon follows her – as if, their foster son remarks, ‘they were slowly being killed by the chill in their hearts.’

Dafydd discovers his real name, Jacques Austerlitz, only on the death of his foster father, when his headmaster explains to him that he must sign his upcoming exam papers ‘Austerlitz’ – the name was confided to the master by the boy’s foster parents – to avoid invalidating the results. Austerlitz explains:

From where I stand now, I can see that my name alone, and the fact that it was kept from me until my 15th year, ought to have put me on the track of my origins, but it has also become clear to me of late why an agency greater than or superior to my own capacity for thought, which circumspectly directs operations somewhere in my brain, has always preserved me from my secret, systematically preventing me from drawing the obvious conclusions and embarking on the enquiries they have suggested to me.

Pain destroys, or at the least obscures, the evidence of itself. The novel is the story of how Austerlitz, clue by painful clue, overcomes this ‘agency’ to discover not so much who he really was, but the life he did not, but should have, lived.

At first he remembers little of his early youth and his welcome in Wales beyond that it ‘hurt to be suddenly called by a new name, and how dreadful it was, once my own clothes had disappeared, to have to go around dressed in the English fashion’. But as he grows older, he becomes increasingly sensitive to intimations of his undiscovered history, of his ‘consciousness blotted out’. A schoolmaster obsessed with Napoleon lectures the class on the battle of Austerlitz, impressing the boy with a sense of the importance of his new name and, consequently, his new self: ‘All that school year I felt as if I had been chosen, and although, as I also knew, such a belief in no way matched my uncertain status, I have held fast to it almost my whole life.’ He spends most of his life, however, in ignorance of his ‘real status’. Only as an old man does he stumble on the series of clues which illuminate his pre-English childhood. Wandering into the disused waiting-room at Liverpool Street Station, he suddenly remembers his arrival in England more than half a century before. Hearing on the radio ‘two women talking to each other about the summer of 1939, when they were children and had been sent to England on a special transport’, he realises ‘beyond any doubt that these fragments of memory were part of my own life as well’.

Yet the prose, despite the care which has gone into it, fails to convey the true shock of a split self. Austerlitz’s awakened memory replaces nothing. Revelation surprises when it contradicts something: these memories simply fill a gap. Austerlitz never seemed to belong anywhere, certainly not in Wales, where he spent the only childhood years he could remember. Though he himself remarks on ‘the destructive effect on me of my desolation through all those past years, and . . . the idea that I had never really been alive, or was only now being born, almost on the eve of my death’, the necessity for his previous unhappiness, his death in life, remains unpersuasive. Austerlitz fails as a character, in that his early dislocation left him not so much ‘unborn’ as unreal: humourless, natureless, without country or idiosyncrasy, a child of books. He continues much as before after the revelation, but now he has found a better subject for his historical and architectural investigations: those fragments of memory that will lead him to his past.

This investigation proves rather more emotional, though Sebald’s prose has an air of vulnerability rather than intimacy – a fault perhaps not of Anthea Bell’s excellent translation but of the English language. When Sebald reads in his native tongue, in his strong Bavarian accent, the heaviness of the language bears the load of his thoughts much more easily, more lightly in fact; and Austerlitz himself appears a more natural creature, less the child of books, more at home in a language given to convolution and reflection. But of course Austerlitz is not German, and he is not anything else either. And despite his painful susceptibility to impressions, he does not grow more familiar as the story goes on. Tracing his name through Czech archives, he discovers his former nanny still living in his family’s apartment in Prague. She recounts the circumstances of his childhood, the occasion of his being sent to England, his mother’s detention in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. All this involves further journeys, historical enquiries, fresh collections of anecdotes and emblems, all of them gloriously described, many of them fascinating. As an account of the horrors of the Third Reich, the book succeeds both wonderfully and awfully. Sebald’s lucid prose pours through his fingers as the horrors mount, culminating in a single sentence, ten pages long, running through the chambers of the camp where Austerlitz’s mother was killed. The book ends with Austerlitz pursuing his father to his father’s death in a French concentration camp, and the narrator turning back to visit Antwerp, where the two men first met.

Sebald’s novels read like a greatly elaborated version of the child’s game in which a block of seemingly random letters yields sudden sequences, loops of words running up, down and sideways in hidden messages. Among his many architectural excursions, Austerlitz at one point describes the Flemish response to the taking of Antwerp in 1832: ‘Although the whole insanity of fortification and siegecraft was clearly revealed . . . the only conclusion anyone drew from it, incredibly, was that the defences surrounding the city must be rebuilt even more strongly than before, and moved further out.’ In the thirty years it takes to complete the new fortress, the city has expanded beyond its limits, and yet, Austerlitz remarks, ‘they just went on working to complete the system already under construction, although they knew it was now far from being able to meet the actual requirements.’ Slowly a picture not of Flemish defence but of the human character emerges. Austerlitz is an instance of a personality constructed after his first cause, his heritage, has been removed; he is chasing a past that can no longer do him any good. And just as the system takes shape, Sebald offers the reader a more direct connection between the history of fortification and the story of Austerlitz: the last part of the fortification to be built, Breendonk, is later converted by the Germans into a concentration camp.

Sebald’s previous books have all been travelogues of a kind, intellectual and physical journeys loosely connected by certain preoccupations. Austerlitz also follows a pattern of visit and anecdote, of gathering connections, but the underlying story is much more traditional: the account of a man, separated from his family at an early age, searching for his forgotten past. Sebald’s style suits such a straight story less well. Austerlitz himself, though his discourse dominates the novel, seems strangely neglected by the narrative. This is a book about his self-discovery, but we never get a sense of what he is like – and his accumulating memories cannot change this. Sebald offers few ordinary details: the humours and habits, tricks of conversation, appetites, that keep people busy and – from time to time – even happy. Yet there is enough material for him to have told the story quite differently, focusing on a Welsh lad, fond of rugger, who wins a scholarship to Oxford and settles in London, only to discover on the ‘eve of his death’ his true roots, and their suggestion of an alternative life. Sebald has said that the photographs (with which he peppers all his novels) suggest both reality and how easily it might be faked: the hotel in a picture he once used appeared to be crumbling into the sand only because he had cut off the busy street in front of it. To offer an emblem after his own heart: Sebald has cut off the busy street in front of Austerlitz and left him similarly falling into nothing.

Austerlitz is like Sebald’s previous heroes: reflective, curious, increasingly isolated, genteel, unhappy – people for whom the only honourable reaction is despair. A love story, between Austerlitz and a librarian, is briefly suggested, then brushed aside. The lovers visit a holiday retreat Austerlitz suddenly recognises from a happy boyhood visit with his real mother. Overwhelmed by regret, he lets the girl slip away. Like Max Ferber, whose history he shares, Austerlitz offers some curious theories on the nature of time:

I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood, cutting myself off from so-called current events in the hope, as I now think, said Austerlitz, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back after it, and when I arrive I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely shall find that all moments of time have coexisted simultaneously.

Sebald writes from the point of view of the scholar, to whom all time is indeed available at once, like books in a library. But a corollary of this is that Austerlitz cannot create new experience. He is emotionally impotent, as his affair with the librarian reveals; and the book suffers from the frustration this impotence involves.

No doubt such frustration is part of Sebald’s point, yet the sense of impotence – induced by excessive, rather than a blunted sensibility – runs so strongly through all his work that it seems more a characteristic of his general pessimism than a particular response to an unhappy story. Their impotence makes it hard for Sebald to separate his creations from each other. Most plots revolve around the distinct creative impulses of their protagonists, who act, speak, struggle, and shape their lives in some way that reflects who they are. In this sense, Sebald’s books are never about the play of characters at all. The amorphousness of his prose, its dependence on cumulative effect, may derive from the fact that his characters lack the willpower to shape their lives and thus the novel that describes them. Yet they seem strong enough to deserve a more generous treatment. Austerlitz survives an early trauma and a narrow upbringing to establish himself in London as a college lecturer, and eventually overcomes the subtle inhibitions that had kept his history a secret from himself, discovering at last the story of his murdered parents. But there is little sense of triumph in this knowledge, rescued briefly from the oblivion to which, Austerlitz believes, ‘everything is constantly lapsing.’ (‘With every extinguished life,’ he reflects, ‘the world is, as it were, draining itself.’) Sebald has remarked that ‘people without memory are happier than those who suffer from it’ – Austerlitz suffers both ways.