July 4, 2011

Austerlitz (W G Sebald)

The story of Austerlitz is told in the voice of an unnamed narrator. Its setting constantly changes from one European country to the next. Its themes appear to be the same ones Max Sebald tackled in his other works of fiction: memory, melancholy, ghosts, the Holocaust. It shares a lot of obsessions and motifs with his other books (e.g., constant travel and detailed descriptions of architecture of buildings and railway stations). The style is in his trademark style. Long paragraphs contain long sinuous sentences. Uncaptioned photographs accompany the text. A difference with the other novels is that Austerlitz is one long sustained story of a troubled life. By Sebald's exacting standards, this is a conventional novel, but it's no less enchanting. And still, like his other novels, the text is built up of fragments of travel, biography, memoir, and natural history. At the time it was published, before his untimely demise in 2001, it already represents a distillation of his strengths as a writer. It displays all his strengths as a consistently sublime writer and proves to be an astonishing variation of his earlier fiction.

The gleam of gold and silver on the huge, half-obscured mirrors on the wall facing the windows was not yet entirely extinguished before a subterranean twilight filled the waiting-room, where a few travellers sat far apart, silent and motionless. Like the creatures in the Nocturama, which had included a striking number of dwarf species - tiny fennec foxes, springhares, hamsters - the railway passengers seemed to me somehow miniaturized, whether by the unusual height of the ceiling or because of the gathering dusk, and it was this, I suppose, which prompted the passing thought, nonsensical in itself, that they were the last members of a diminutive race which had perished or had been expelled from its homeland, and that because they alone survived they wore the same sorrowful expression as the creatures in the zoo.

The story opened up with an unsettling image of the Nocturama. The eyes of recluse philosophers were juxtaposed beside the eyes of animals. The narrator and Austerlitz were presented as solitary characters and the people surrounding them are also depicted as distant figures, like ghosts. People and objects were described as foreshortened or miniaturized. This physical aberration was implied as a kind of consequence of historical or natural events. Physically humans shrank in size when they get old, but there's a kind of length contraction that Sebald described that was somehow related to an accelerated passage of time. One may think of the principle of physics, specifically the length contraction described by Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity.

I have to admit I found it hard to get into the rhythm of this book. I abandoned it after a few pages the first time I tried to read it 3 years ago. I thought "boring" was written all over it. There's something suffocating in reading the early passages. It must be the quality of the translation and/or the darker aspects of the book. It would require a specific mental state to tolerate Sebald's assault on the psyche. The deliberate lack of paragraphing didn't help ease the feeling of helplessness and oppressiveness. Some blocks of text are encased in a creepy, menacing, breathless, and ghostly atmosphere; they require lungfuls of air to get through. Here's a passage, plucked out of a longer one, telling of entering a passage in an old building structure.

Histories, for instance, like those of the straw mattresses which lay, shadow-like, on the stacked plank beds and which had become thinner and shorter because the chaff in them disintegrated over the years, shrunken - and now, in writing this, I do remember that such [an] idea occurred to me at the time - as if they were the mortal frames of those who once lay there in that darkness. I also recollect now that as I went on down the tunnel which could be said to form the backbone of the fort, I had to resist the feeling taking root in my heart, one which to this day often comes over me in macabre places, a sense that with every forward step the air was growing thinner and the weight above me heavier.

The novel seemed to be creating narrative momentum and tension through the same connect-the-dots approach he deployed in his hybrid fiction, as exemplified by the image of Sir Thomas Browne's quincunx in The Rings of Saturn. The narrative building blocks of the novel relied on streams of memories and digressions, with temporal and narrative shifts announcing sharp transitions. What's brilliant about it was the seamless integration of otherwise disparate ideas. A brilliant example was Austerlitz's discussion of the casement torture chambers, which led to his reflection on Jean Améry's torture (cf. the essay in On the Natural History of Destruction), and then to a passage in Simon Claude's memoir Le Jardin des Plantes which described that torture. That memoir contained a profile of a certain Gastone Novelli who was also tortured and later had some dealings with a Brazilian tribe, documenting their language: "[Novelli] adopted [the tribe's] customs, and to the best of his ability compiled a dictionary of their language, consisting almost entirely of vowels, particularly the sound A in countless variations of intonation and emphasis ..." Later, Novelli became a painter and incorporated the letter A in his pictures, tracing them out closely together and on top of each other, "rising and falling in waves like a long-drawn-out scream".


Like this visual painting, the progression of ideas in Austerlitz, based on the selected facts of the novelist's reading of writers and thinkers, were "crowding closely together and above one another". Just like the quincunx, the novel was becoming a network of stories tied together by the novelist's sensibility. The drawn-out scream was like the anguished expression of tortured individuals.

For more on Novelli's painting, these two articles are recommended:

Vertigo blog: "Sebald, Simon, Novelli and the Long-Drawn-Out Scream"

The Silo: "Gastone Novelli" by Raphael Rubinstein

The recurring phrase "_____ told me, said Austerlitz" in the book was too conspicuous. It represented a two-tiered (or even three-tiered) narrative attribution wherein the recounting was filtered and shaped by distant memories. In an essay, "Terrible Rain: W.G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard and the bombing of Europe" (2003), the English novelist Geoff Dyer traced this mannerism to Thomas Bernhard:

It was from Bernhard that Sebald derived his inverse telescoping of reported speech ("I was particularly anxious, Vera told me, said Austerlitz") whereby the narrative recedes in the act of progressing. The comic obsessiveness and neurosis common to many of Sebald's characters are like a sedated version of the raging frenzy into which Bernhard's narrators habitually drive themselves. The influence was most explicit in Austerlitz, whose long pages of unparagraphed meanderings even look like Bernhard's.

Specifically, the influence came from Bernhard's Old Masters. Dyer expanded on this essay and described the "inverse telescoping" narrative device by Sebald - from "W.G. Sebald, Bombing, and Thomas Bernhard," in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011), quoted in Conversational Reading - as emphasized below.

It is possible that the similarities between the two appear more striking in the English translations than in the German originals, but it was, surely, from Bernhard that Sebald derived the inverse telescoping whereby the reliability of the narrative recedes and diminishes the more incessantly it is vouched for. “You concealed your shock very well, I said to the Englishman, Reger said to me,” writes Atzbacher, the narrator of Bernhard’s Old Masters. “I was particularly anxious, Vera told me, said Austerlitz,” writes the narrator of Sebald’s Austerlitz.

I don't totally buy Dyer's explanation of the narrative receding and diminishing the more repeatedly it is vouched for. It seemed Sebald was constantly using the double attributive phrase to convey a sense of reliance on memory rather than on undermining it. Memories were like ghosts haunting the characters. The transfer of memory through telling and retelling was the only way to exorcize the ghosts. They may not always be clear, objective, and 100% accurate, but the insistence on attribution strengthened the narration from memory and brought out to the light of day what was otherwise receding from the background. Sebald himself called this a periscope, instead of an inverse telescope (yes, there was a difference!). His last interview (KCRW interview, December 2001) bore this out:

What he [Bernhard] achieved, I think, was also to move away from the standard pattern of the standard novel. He only tells you in his books what he heard from others so he invented, as it were, a kind of periscopic form of narrative so you're always sure that what he tells you is related at one remove, at two removes, at two or three. And that appeals to me very much.... Bernhard single-handedly, I think, invented a new form of narrating which appealed to me from the start.

The periscopic form of narration only tells what is heard from others. In this way, perhaps, the question of reliability was minimized and the role of memory to give witness, in the face of selective or total amnesia, whether voluntary or involuntary, was justified.


  1. I took Cortázar's Rayuela and Sebald's Austerlitz on vacation to Argentina with me two or three years back and found them so unfitting as vacation reads (we were too on the go to devote much time to reading at the end of a day anyway, I suppose) that I am only now getting to the Cortázar and thinking about this Sebald again. Love your description of the "periscopic" narrative technique here and where it derives from--found it more subtle in the little of Austerlitz I read than in Bernhard's The Loser, where almost every other sentence maddeningly ends in the "somebody told me or said, I thought" construction. Anyway, think I will try to get to this book or The Rings of Saturn before the end of the year.

  2. was mesmerised by the images & the haiku like poetry in unrecounted that I've picked up The Rings of Saturn, to read some point soon. this does interest tho.

  3. I agree with you Rise that memory and melancholia are themes shared by Sebald and Browne.

    One reason why Austerlitz is less reader friendly may well be due to a less sympathetic translation, something which will always impinge upon Sebald's opaque prose.

    Earlier today I too used the word 'hybrid' to describe Sebald's prose ! Agreed !

  4. Richard, I also had several false starts with Hopscotch. I couldn't get into the groove of it. But it's on the near horizon for me. Given the appropriate background jazz music, I might have a breakthrough with it.

    I remember that recurring phrase in The Loser. I'm wondering whether the original German for that phrase sounds as clunky as the translation, as you said, I thought. :p

    Gary, it may be interesting to approach Sebald's other works from your first encounter with him as (haiku) poet. Interestingly, he first published a long poem (After Nature) prior to his fiction. His prose are extended prose poems, in a way. And Bernhard too was a poet first before a novelist. And Bolano. I see a pattern ...

    Kevin, I read that Max approved of Anthea Bell's translation and that he worked closely with her. My sense is that Austerlitz is really a darker work than his previous ones. I actually was in awe of the translation. It really conveyed a sense of claustrophobia in many instances. And there are passages in it - the one about the life cycle of moths - that just plain took off in flights of poetry.

  5. Okay, fair point that the translator worked closely with the author. I didn't know that. But how can one ever judge whether or not a translation is good unless one has a fluent mastery of the original language (German in this case)? If one has no mastery of the original language one simply holds out a hand in trust to a translator in the hope that their rendition of the text is faithful to the author's creativity/spirit/expression.

  6. Kevin, a good question. One at the heart of translation studies. I guess appreciation of the spirit of creativity/spirit/expression in a translation can be as subjective as in the original language. It's a subject one can possibly explore through reading supposedly excellently translated works. I find this and these to be very useful and illuminating opinions on the matter.