Austerlitz – W.G. Sebald

Modern Library
2001

It’s like a novelistic version of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil,
said Jon, which was good enough recommendation for me. However my experience of Austerlitz is really a tale of two readings. The first half was unwisely choosing to read the book at home, at night, as my bedside reading. For a novel that rambles, stream-o-conch’ like through various stories and ages, with very few fullstops and no chapters, this was a poor choice for the late night read. It defeated my poor brain at every turn. Once I finished “Getting Things Done” at work, I brought in Sebold’s book and on breaks got into the second half and was done in days. The second half, coincidentally or not, is where the rough edges of a plot begin, and where the novel becomes less experimental.
The title character is a wandering eccentric, who makes friends with the narrator, and whose stories and search for his vanished history take over the book, such as what happens in Heart of Darkness. Austerlitz discovers later in his childhood that he was spirited out of Nazi Europe by the Kindertransport, to be adopted by a Welsh family. Years later he goes looking for clues to his parents by retracing the transport route back. It’s a journey into an old Europe of evocative places and place names, and the empty center for those who want to go looking for history after it has been annihilated. There are no conclusions, only infinite possibilities.
By the end I was rather underwhelmed by it all, as it ends on such an uncertain note. But I did like this passage on time:

And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?

Why yes, it most probably is…

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