Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

This curious book has more of an ethereal quality than any I have read in years. It starts off with an elaborate frame. The unnamed narrator travels from England to Belgium several times on business, and each time he notices a solitary man taking pictures of the train station and writing elaborate notes. Driven by curiosity, he approaches the man, Austerlitz, and the two develop a long-lasting friendship.

Gradually, the novel devolves into Austerlitz’s story of his search for his roots in Prague in the middle of the 1930s. His mother evacuated him to England at the age of 12 to live with a Welsh minister and his wife. Austerlitz remembers nothing of his family and his childhood, but his obsession with architecture provides fleeting glimpses of his past.

It took a while to get use to Sebald’s unusual style. Some paragraphs go on for ten or more pages. Only a few breaks in the narrative occur marked by a single star centered on the page. This proved no problem, because as Austerlitz’s story progressed – with incredible descriptive detail – I could scarcely stop reading this meditation on art, architecture, and psychology.

In addition to long paragraphs, Sebald uses long sentences. Here is an example of his style:

“As I lay down I turned on the radio set standing on the wine crate beside the bed. The names of cities and radio stations with which I used to link the most exotic ideas in my childhood appeared on its round, illuminated dial – Monte Ceneri, Rome, Ljubljana, Stockholm, Beromünster, Hilversum, Prague and others besides. I turned the volume down very low and listened to a language I did not understand drifting in the air from a great distance: a female voice, which was sometimes lost in the ether, but then emerged again and mingled with the performance of two careful hands moving, in some place unknown to me, over the keyboard of a Bösendorfer or Pleyel and playing certain musical passages, I think from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which accompanied me far into the realms of slumber" (165).

This passage, and many others, provide clues to Austerlitz, as he begins to piece his past back together.

In addition, photographs are interspersed throughout the book that relate to people, places, and architecture referred to in the texts. These ghostly images from the past and present add to the ethereal quality I mentioned above.

I see more of Sebald’s works in my future. 5 stars

--Chiron, 5/26/09

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