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.

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