Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Austerlitz. To read this book is to understand that the
author wants you to know one thing above all: that the
entire human race, in a sense, died in what we call for
convenience’s sake the Holocaust between 1933 and
1945, and that until we fully absorb, understand and
act on what happened—which may take centuries, if it
can be done at all—then we will live only a shadow life
at best. One of the characters in Austerlitz, Vêra,
survives the Second World War in Prague, because she
was not a Jew, but she bears witness to what happened
to those who were Jewish, particularly Austerlitz’s
mother Agáta, who is taken away to Theresienstadt,
and after that the years

raced by, seeming in retrospect like a single
leaden day. She…did what was necessary to
maintain herself, but almost all her feelings
had been extinguished, and she had not truly
breathed since that time. Only in the books
written in earlier times did she sometimes
think she found some faint idea of what it
might be like to be alive.

W G Sebald, the author of Austerlitz, writes the kind of
books that might have been written in earlier times—
or perhaps in an unlived time running parallel to our
own. Slow, meditative, elliptical, dense with closely
observed detail, part fiction, part documentary, devoid
of plot in the usual sense, they are not so much books
as acts of memory: long discursive epitaphs on Europe’s
moral self-destruction. Sebald, a German himself, born
in Bavaria in the dying days of the war but resident in
eastern England for the last 35 years of his life, chose in
middle age to make a literary career out of bearing
witness to that degradation and insisting, through the
remorseless memorializing of his prose, that it not be
forgotten. Ever. If, regarding the Holocaust, you would
like to think for one milli-second, ‘Oh we’re over that
now, that’s all in the past, we’ve moved on,’ then read
Sebald. The principal books—novels, technically, but in a
category of their own—in the order he wrote them are
Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz.


Giovanni said...

The entire human race? "we"?

I do recoil a bit when Europeans or descendants of Europeans make the Holocaust humanity's crime, as if the Chinese or the Indians or the Maori had anything whatsoever to do with it and with the logic that produced it. Although, as a person of the Italian persuasion, I suppose I should enjoy the convenience of having the guilt deflected to vague institutions like "civilisation", or "modernity".

Don't get me wrong, I see how it was people who did it, so it did redefine what being a person can mean. But making it a cosmic crime as opposed to a historically and culturally specific event can actually impair its understanding.

Tim Upperton said...

Sebald is inimitable - which is not to say that he lacks imitators. The British poet, Lavinia Greenlaw, remarked recently that Sebald displayed "a connoisseurial approach towards the idea of ruin" that she found disturbing. I admire Sebald's work very much - especially The Rings of Saturn - but I can see exactly what she means.