I love it when my summer reading plans fall into place almost magically. In April, for my birthday, my nephew Timothy, a total bibliophile (I love it!) who blogs at The Mugwump Diaries, gave me the book Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. For one reason or another, I was unable to read the book until later in May.
Another thing that was put off was my correspondence with potential contributors to Teach. Write. Turned out that one of the writers, whose work you will read in the next edition, mentioned W. G. Sebald in his cover letter. In the acceptance email, I told him that I was reading Austerlitz; thus began a brief correspondence about the work and the author that helped solidify some of my thoughts about the work. He suggested that I read another of Sebald’s books, The Emigrants, which I have added to my very long reading list for this year.
In his excellent review of Austerlitz on the website The New Canon: The Best in Fiction Since 1985, Ted Gioia, music critic and book reviewer, writes that Sebald “has written a historical novel that appears to exist outside of history, yet this represents less an escape and more an exile. That dislocation is both the tragedy of Austerlitz the character, and the wonder of Austerlitz the book.” This statement reflects my understanding of the book as well.
Austerlitz is a displaced person, growing up in the UK from the age of five, feeling different and not understanding why until his adoptive parents explain his origins. As he travels through life, drawn more and more to the seemingly immutable architecture of Europe, he also explores his history and the trauma of his childhood. Further highlighting his isolation, Austerlitz tells his story not to a friend or relative but to the narrator, whom he meets by chance at a zoo in Antwerp. Their intermittent friendship develops slowly over the years when the narrator is invited to the various places Austerlitz lives, especially London, where the German-born Sebald lived and worked for a large portion of his life.
The unusual style of the book is part of its appeal. Like Nick Carraway, the narrator shapes our vision of Austerlitz. We only know what Austerlitz reveals to him and what we see in the various photographs like those below, displayed throughout the book. (You can see why I think of The Great Gatsby now, can’t you?) The long narrative passages with no chapters and very little paragraphing are often punctuated by the words “Austerlitz said,” reminding us that this is not the narrator’s story.
Also unusual are the long sentences and dialog without punctuation. The effect is not exactly stream-of-consciousness, but stream-of-conversation or narration, like when listening to an elderly relative recalling events from childhood, moving seamlessly from one memory to the next, digressing when the recollection leads to some topic of interest or area of expertise.
As a teacher and a writer, I find the digression from the story that speaks about the difficulties of writing particularly interesting. The narrator has come to visit Austerlitz at his home in Alderney St., London; photographs of architectural wonders from around the world are scattered all about, but before Austerlitz can begin taking up the story of his life once again, he explains how he, recently retired from teaching, now wishes to compile his thoughts and ideas about architecture but is having trouble focusing:
“All I could think was that such a sentence only appears to mean something, but in truth is at best a makeshift expedient, a kind of unhealthy growth issuing from our ignorance, 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” (124).
I don’t know a writer who has not felt this way at some point and time. Austerlitz goes on:
“I could see no connections anymore, the sentences resolved themselves into a series of separate words, the words into random sets of letters, the letters into disjointed signs, and those signs into a blue-gray trail gleaming silver here and there, excreted and left behind it by some crawling creature” (124).
And so I hear the words of the reviewer Gioia again–Austerlitz’ tragedy is the wonder of the book, that the character’s growing displacement can bring all of us, not just writers, not just survivors of childhood trauma, but anyone who feels displaced, into a community, giving us a place to belong.
Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz, 10th Anniversary Edition, Modern Library, 2011.
I feel that I am developing my own community of writers through editing and producing Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal. It is devoted to writing teachers who want to publish their writing, but you don’t have to be a teacher to contribute. I welcome writing from anyone.
Submissions for the Fall/Winter 2021 edition are open until September 1. Follow this link for submission guidelines. I would love to read your work.
And, no, I have not forgotten my podel (podcasted novel), but I am having some issues, not unlike those encountered by Austerlitz. I am tooling along ,though, and quite proud of the nine episodes I have produced so far and having fun, which is not the only point but a big one. If you would like to hear the podel so far, then follow this link: CAMPUS: A Novel That Wants to Be a Musical.