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Austerlitz - W.G. Sebald, Anthea Bell, James    Wood Austerlitz fascinated me, but I couldn't say I loved it. Reading this book gave me the feeling of being jet-lagged somewhere in a strange city at three o'clock in the morning, having strange revelations that would seem bizarre in the daylight. Not a feeling I dislike, by any means. Sebald's attempts to find a prose style to match his explorations of memory and loss are beautiful and haunting, but for me at least the effect was more soporific than exhilarating. Maybe ‘hypnotic’ is a better word. The sentences ramble carefully, the sense reaching you faintly through a multiple-framing effect whereby the story is told by Jacques Austerlitz, to our distant, Sebaldesque narrator, meaning the sentences have a characteristic double-tagging device for reported speech which gives them a steady, sleepy rhythm:

Can't you tell me the reason, she asked, said Austerlitz…
Sometimes, so Lemoine told me, said Austerlitz…


One sentence near the end sprawls across eight or nine pages, the clauses fading in and out of each other dreamily, like an interesting train of thought that goes through your mind just before you drop off to sleep. The number of paragraph breaks in the whole book can be counted on one hand. All this is in the service of recreating the effects of memory, as Sebald sees it: its unreliability, its fluidity compared to the rigid unchangeability of actual past events.

Especially past tragedy. Because what Austerlitz is remembering is something he has spent his life trying to repress: his early childhood as part of a Jewish family in Prague in the 1930s. Hence, his meditations on architecture or natural history in the early part of the book all seem to be skirting round something else, as yet unnamed; and when finally he begins to trace the fate of his parents, there is a series of complex and rewarding thematic call-backs which tie the novel together very beautifully: an illustration seen in a Welsh children's Bible, for instance, of Israelites camped out in the desert, is echoed later by a description of a Nazi encampment in central Europe. Austerlitz's own name seems to be working hard, with its associations of war; and indeed it's only a few central letters away from the most infamous Holocaust site of all – one that's never mentioned in this book but which can be intimated from comments about family members ‘sent east’.

This is not a ‘Holocaust novel’ in the usual sense, though – its real subject is not exactly what happened in the middle of the last century, but rather how Europe can and should remember it (Europe as a whole – this is a novel that deliberately ranges over cities, and languages, from across the whole continent). The vital importance of remembering, and also the complete futility of trying. And the futility also of expressing what we feel about it, because for Sebald language is always at best a poor approximation of reality, ‘something which we use, in the same way as many sea plants and animals use their tentacles, to grope blindly through the darkness enveloping us’. I disagree with this assessment, and I think Sebald's novel is in itself a weighty counter-argument. But nevertheless it's a very moving thesis written with a great deal of artistry, and if I felt more admiration than affection for it, that's perhaps just because I read it in a state of cold wonder at what he was managing to describe – ‘a kind of wonder,’ as Sebald says elsewhere, ‘which is in itself a form of dawning horror.’

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Emir Abd El-Kader: Hero and Saint of Islam
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