“Austerlitz” by W.G.Sebald

This novel was not to my personal taste. However that didn’t stop a slew of literary authors and experts putting it on their book of the year list when it was published. He was often cited as a potential winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I may be wrong. They may be wrong. Ultimately you’ll have to decide for yourself. However I can give a rough idea of what sort of book it is.

The story follows a young Jewish boy called Austerlitz who is evacuated from war-torn Europe in 1939 on a KinderTransport. When he arrives in Britain he is placed with a strict Calvinist Welsh couple who raise him without telling him about his past. When he’s fifteen and both his foster parents die, he discovers his real name but even then he blocks all memories of his origins from his mind. Much later in life he unravels his past and tells his story to the narrator of the novel, a friend whom he sees infrequently.

Sebald writes lovely prose and some of the images he creates in the book are haunting. He takes memory as his theme and explores it throughout the book. Of course memory is disjointed and patchy by nature, and so is the narrative. Austerlitz’s life story is found out in spurts and out of chronological order, and that’s how it’s presented to the reader. I liked his surprising use of black and white photos throughout the book. Austerlitz is a keen photographer as well as an architecture and art professor, so Sebald includes many snaps the character takes as he travels around Europe for work, leisure, and while hunting his past.

Who would like this book? I think lovers of literary fiction will find much here to enjoy. Sebald was clearly trying something a bit different. Lovers of architecture will enjoy Austerlitz’s observations. Those interested in the KinderTransports will find some items of interest, although this is not a historical novel, he clearly did his research.

Why didn’t I enjoy it? Ultimately despite the quality of the writing I was overwhelmed by descriptions and observations which for me didn’t bring me closer to the character or to his story. I felt the book stopped abruptly rather than having a proper ending. There was very little about Austerlitz’s interaction with other people – he finds his former babysitter but there’s no indication of his feelings there or towards his birth parents. We don’t even find out why or how he eventually lost the only woman who ever tried to become close to him. Even the narrator and Austerlitz barely connect. I just couldn’t get to the heart of Austerlitz.

(read February 2012)

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