Saturday, April 21, 2007

Austerlitz: A Book Review

W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz (New York: Random House/Modern Library, 2001), 298 pages

This might be the most honest novel ever written in that it describes stuff just as our brains (or maybe it’s just my brain) operates. The pages leaps from one topic to another, yet it’s all held together with a thin thread of commonality. Like a brain exploring topics, so does Sebald’s last novel (Sebald died in a car wreck in 2001). With paragraphs that vary from a dozen to several dozen pages in length (if a paragraph is defined as one indention to another), Sebald’s novel wanders through architecture, nature and history with special attention given to creating lists of stuff. However, Sebald’s prose is wonderfully descriptive; it’s just a chore to get through this book. And now that I’ve read it, it’ll hang in the recesses of my mind for a while as I try to understand what it all means.

Austerlitz is told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who either has the patience of Job or is a glutton for punishment. The narrator befriends the rather unapproachable Austerlitz, a lover of architecture, in the 60s. Over the next twenty years, first by accident and later by design they continue meeting and the narrator gradually learns Austerlitz’s story. He was raised by a Welsh Calvinist-Methodist (isn’t that an oxymoron) pastor, who adopted him at the beginning of the Second World War. It turns out that Austerlitz, whose parents were Czech Jews, was saved from the horrors of the holocaust by being sent to Britain. He makes it his life’s goal to rediscover his past life, traveling all over Europe, commenting on the architecture of libraries and train stations along the way.

There are some interesting themes in the book. Darkness is one. The book starts out in the Antwerp Nocturama (a collection of night animals), but the narrator quickly moves from the eyes of owls to gazes of “certain painters and philosophers to a waiting room in the Antwerp train station, all this in just three pages of a 27 page paragraph. History is another. As Austerlitz discovers his history, the reader is given a history of Europe from Napoleonic Wars (Austerlitz was also the name of a battle in the war) to Nazi Germany. Architecture is another. Austerlitz is a student of architecture and the narrator is constantly telling us about the design of some building. By the way, I take great pleasure in writing three word sentences while describing this book. I’m not sure there is a sentence in the book that’s less than a dozen words, and a dozen words would be a short sentence for Sebald.

I’m not sure I recommend this book. I suppose I’ll recommend it with a warning. It took me a couple tries to get into it. The writer has a wonderful ability to paint scenes, but his writing is not at all conventional. However, breaking up the prose are interesting black and white photographs. These images are mostly stark, but haunting, as is much of the prose. If you have read this book, I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts. If you haven’t read it, does it sound like something you’d want to read?
Click here for a list of other book and movie reviews by Sage.


  1. Could one get the gist of the book by looking at the pictures?

  2. Have to look into this one since I've become a history buff.

    But right now I need to get outside and enjoy this bea-u-ti-ful day!

  3. In certain ways Sebald is a modern Huysmans. If you read La-Bas, you would have learned about church bells as much or more of what you learn about architecture and train stations in Sebald. He shares his collection of personal treasures and interests with the reader, who, of course, needs to be receptive to these dissertations. What attracted me to his writings is the way in which he describes the pain of being a foreigner, that sense of displacement, of void, of not belonging that is often simplified with the wimpish term "homesickness", as if it could be solved by going back home.

  4. This is the first I have heard of the book and the author, Sebald. As I don't read many books to begin with, my books to read list grows ever longer. So I'd be hard pressed to add this intriguing but difficult read to the list. But this is from a first impression, I'd most likely delve into the book and author (check out the wikipedia entry to each) a little further before making a final decision.

    In any case, great review and post!

  5. I appreciate yout honesty about the book, Sage. I don't know if I have the patience to read that right now. I am reading one that is interesting, but hard to get into. It skips around so much that you are never sure (in a new chapter) if it is the current year and person or a different set of people and decade entirely. Reading it is very hard work - and I don't want another one like that right now. I like reading your reviews!

  6. Murf, NO

    Karen, yes it was beautiful today! I took the canoe out for a paddle this morning

    Seawyf, you're right about the sense of not belonging, I should have mentioned it in my review. BTW, I'm glad to have read the book and like I said, in some ways I felt his mind was working like mine.

    V, Sebald beats reading jurisprudence any day! ;-)

    Kenju, even thought Sebald throws in all kinds of tidbits of information, he doesn't jump around in the story.

  7. It does sound interesting. My late sister in law as a child fled with her family from Austria to Britain but when they learned they would be interned they continued to USA and Lottie never quite forgave that.
    I am always being berated for flitting from one subject to another without warning so there's that in common but sadly I am in a phase where my reading time is sparse. I do miss curling up with a good book.
    Michele sent me.

  8. Hi Sage

    I started to read this book in the original German (as I'm bilingual) but had to abandon it as I wasn't really getting into it. I thought at the time that this was because I'm more used to reading for pleasure in English, but obviously it sounds like it wasn't the language barrier that was the problem. I may pick it up again at some point as its still on my shelves...

  9. This book has been lying with me for some months now. I never got around more than 20 pages. I plan to finish it but the operative word.

  10. I seem to be inspiring you to use your caps lock button more often lately.

  11. I'm not sure I'd want to read a book that required that much work to understand, but it does sound interesting . . . I'll look into the book and the author!

  12. Pi, interesting history about your late sister-in-law, this book might connect to you on a different level

    Heidijane, thanks for stopping by. I'm often a bit of sarcastic, so I have to ask, is Heidi your german persona and Jane your English?

    Gautami, I read the first 30-40 pages 3 times

    Murf, I don't bother with cap lock for two letters!

    Diane, if you read it, let me know your take.

  13. I enjoy a Sunsay sipping tea and looking at architecture books. This may be afascinating read to add to my list!

  14. Everytime I come here, I keep thinking this book is about the Holocaust. I like the third person reference in the last sentence.