Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald
After you have read as many books by the author as I have , you have an idea about what to expect in a book like this. You can guess that it will involve the relationship of Judaism to Germany and have something to do with the horrors of World War II, a consistent aspect in all of Sebald’s diverse writing. You can guess that it will paint Christianity in somewhat of a bad light. You can guess that it will be deeply allusive and demonstrate the author’s keen attention to detail as well as extremely complicated aspects of history, and indeed that the novel will be so deeply literary that it seems nonfictional. All of this you will expect from this novel which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and all of this you will receive, and a good deal more besides. The author wrote the sort of books that seem custom-made to win awards from book critics, and as someone whose reading and mindset are not so far (if at all) removed from such people, I found this book both deeply impressive and enjoyable as a read as well as deeply poignant, for at its heart the titular orphan was as Nathanish a character as one could imagine in such a plot as this one.
The plot of this intensely literary novel, such as it is, consists of almost stream-of-consciousness discussions between the narrator and the shy and timid Austerlitz, who reveals a great love of fortifications (a love I happen to share ) and an astute knowledge of their weaknesses and shortcomings, and then after a while reveals a dark personal story that involves being sent to England just before World War II as a refugee, not being told anything about his family background, and finding out that he wasn’t who he had been raised to be and that his real family had been killed in Hitler’s “final solution,” which leads the author on a quest to recover his fragments of his memories as well as the black hole in the middle of his own obliterated past, a deeply touching quest that is revealed in paragraphs that are full of detail and that run on for dozens of pages at a time. If you like complicated literary novels that show a deep knowledge of history and linger on the fragments of post-traumatic memory, you will likely appreciate this novel.
There are at least a few aspects of this novel I found particularly intriguing. For one, it is moving and somewhat distressing how deeply the author feels compelled to write over and over again about the sins of the past with regards to Nazi Germany, despite being a rare German author with no war guilt since he was only an infant or toddler when the war ended. For another, the author does a good job at making a Nathanish character, and the way he does this is quite striking. This Nathanish character is intelligent, somewhat intense and driven, and has a deep amount of emotional ambivalence (at best) and a general reluctance to engage on an emotional level with others that makes his existence both a deeply lonely one and a fascinating one. When you add to this the author’s general feeling of exile from his native land and a feeling of not belonging anywhere, despite no particular fault of his own in the matter, one gets a novel that is both an exploration of the traumatic history of 20th century Europe, especially Germany, and also an exploration of the sort of person who studies fortresses because he knows emotional fortresses all too well.
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