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Summary and book reviews of Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

Austerlitz

by W.G. Sebald

Austerlitz
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2001, 300 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2002, 304 pages

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Book Summary

Embodies the universal human search for identity, the struggle to impose coherence on memory, a struggle complicated by the mind’s defenses against trauma.

Over the course of a thirty-year conversation unfolding in train stations and travelers’ stops across England and Europe, W.G. Sebald’s unnamed narrator and Jacques Austerlitz discuss Austerlitz’s ongoing efforts to understand who he is. An orphan who came to England alone in the summer of 1939 and was raised by a Welsh Methodist minister and his wife as their own, Austerlitz grew up with no conscious memory of where he came from.

W.G. Sebald embodies in Austerlitz the universal human search for identity, the struggle to impose coherence on memory, a struggle complicated by the mind’s defenses against trauma. Along the way, this novel of many riches dwells magically on a variety of subjects–railway architecture, military fortifications; insets, plants, and animals; the constellations; works of art; the strange contents of the museum of a veterinary school; a small circus; and the three capital cities that loom over the book, London, Paris, and Prague–in the service of its astounding vision.

BookBrowse Note: This chapter is reproduced as it reproduced in the book itself - without paragraph breaks.

Chapter 1

In the second half of the 1960s I traveled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks. On one of these Belgian excursions which, as it seemed to me, always took me further and further abroad, I came on a glorious early summer's day to the city of Antwerp, known to me previously only by name. Even on my arrival, as the train rolled slowly over the viaduct with its curious pointed turrets on both sides and into the dark station concourse, I had begun to feel unwell, and this sense of indisposition persisted for the whole of my visit to Belgium on that occasion. I still remember the uncertainty of my footsteps as I walked all round the inner city, down Jeruzalemstraat, Nachtegaalstraat, Pelikaanstraat, ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In what ways can Sebald's work be said to create a new genre? Do we know whether to take Austerlitz as fact or fiction?

     
  2. Why do you suppose Sebald incorporates photographs into his work? To what effect?

     
  3. Where does the name Jacques Austerlitz come from? Why do you think Sebald chose it?

     
  4. What is the relationship between past and present throughout the book? What tricks does Sebald play with the passage of time? What does Austerlitz have to say on his experience of time?

     
  5. What sort of mood does Sebald's use of language create throughout the novel? How does Sebald's language function in the same way that character and plot do in a more traditional novel?

     
  6. Some critics have ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

Book Magazine - Tom LeClair

Perhaps the form and style of Austerlitz are supposed to provide an aesthetic alternative to Nazi efficiency, a text that retains qualities of personal eccentricity and dreamy memory, facets of a European culture that Nazis attempted to destroy. Maybe, but I don't believe it. Just as finally I don't believe in Austerlitz or the narrator or the photographs, just as I don't believe in what Sontag calls Sebald's nobility. Here's what I do believe: The Holocaust should not be an occasion for embroidery.

Publishers Weekly

Though his latest isn't as startling and exciting as The Emigrants or The Rings of Saturn, it is a significant achievement, and Sebald should continue to attract ever more attention.

Library Journal

Ultimately, the narrative transcends fiction and becomes history. The overbearing details of architectural history that saturate much of the text are the only distractions. Ultimately, this is a work of rare originality.

Author Blurb W. S. Merwin
With untraceable swiftness and assurance, W. G. Sebald's writing conjures from the details and sequences of daily life, and their circumstances and encounters, from apparent chance and its unsounded calculus, the dimension of dream and a sense of the depth of time that make his books, one by one, indispensable. He evokes at once the minutiae and the vastness of individual existence, the inconsolable sorrow of history and the scintillating beauty of the moment and its ground of memory. Each book seems to be something that surely was impossible, and each (upon every re-reading) is unique and astonishing.

Author Blurb Dave Eggers
W. G. Sebald is a monster -- a gorgeous and unwaveringly assured writer, a bold formal innovator, and a man always plunging into the core of identity, singular and national. In Austerlitz, he's created his richest and most emotionally devastating story, and this book might be his finest.

Reader Reviews

Alan Bradley

Sebald's eccentric architecture lifts one outside of a time-bounded universe and reveals our lives, and history in general, as a mere series of points on the space-time grid that offer no revelations as to the mystery of life and reveal no pattern, ...   Read More

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