Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

While studying history, the two world wars captured my imagination more than any other historical event. However, even amidst these, I was most haunted by the holocaust - a tragedy of boundless dimensions that touched and wrecked the life of millions of beings. Since then, I have come across this horrific truth in many movies and books, and it is still a mystery to me as to why this ugliness fascinates me and the rest of the world so much that we pursue it time and again.
This fascination and a suggestion from a fellow blogger prompted me to pick up this book. It is said that Sebald is an authority on holocaust, and thus what I was expecting from this book was another vivid account of the misery afflicted on Jews. But in stead, this book completely stormed me by giving a haunting account of life after the holocaust and a victim's almost violent denial and suppression of its memories.
The book is about the life of Jacques Austerlitz - an academician who, in his childhood, is forced to leave Prague as a refugee due to the Nazi accession of Czech territory. He lives in London under an alias and does not come to know his true identity until senior years of schooling. During this phase of anonymity, his subconscious mind suppresses all memories of his exile and childhood spent in Prague.
At some stage, perhaps after meeting the narrator of the novel (who almost seems indistinguishable from Austerlitz himself), he decides to go down the memory lane and uncover the fate of his parents, who, it turns out were not able to escape the holocaust. To piece together the history he goes first to Prague, then tries to trace his mother's movements from one ghetto to another. Eventually he attempts to find an account of his father's life.
Austerlitz's life through these narratives, appears to be a tale of melancholy, disorientation and identity confusion. He is almost friendless and detached, seeking solace only in buildings and their stories. It is this silent loneliness and personality disintegration which makes the story so powerful and heart-wrenching.
Sebald's narration is monotonous. He uses a narrator to convey Austerlitz's story, but apparently the only purpose the narrator serves is to screen off parts of the story and emotions that a first person narrator could not have escaped. The gaps between the meetings of the two serve well to cover the gaps in the protagonist's life. An interesting dimension is added by the use of pictures, and I understand that it is a dimension used by Sebald in most of his works. The pictures do not have any labeling and sometimes you have to struggle to find a connection between them and the accompanying text. While this may be disconcerting at times, the pictures also say their own story and somehow make the sense of a haunting isolation more acute. I particularly liked the use of Turner's watercolor 'Funeral at Lausanne', which reminds Austerlitz of farewell and a funeral he himself attended.
It is difficult to imagine how many lives would have been shattered by a whimsical tyranny, and when we shudder it is only for those who met this terror. But it seems much harder to imagine the agony of those who lived in the aftermath of this terror and survived to face the tremors everyday.

7 comments:

Alok said...

just a comment about the narrative device of reported monologue which you also identified. It is very effective in this book because it strikes up a good balance between distance and immediacy. It is getting away from both - a third person omniscient narrator and a first person narrator which will be too emotionally immediate for readers to have any distance required for a critical and intellectual reflection about the story. Actually the style in this book is some kind of homage to Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer who mastered this narrative style and took it to extremes.

Also I agree the book is written in a monotone which I think serves the purpose of the story well. It is a story about desolation, trauma and melancholy and as a result the range is limited... this is like a one note music but the note itself is beautiful. Monotonous need not always be boring!

Madhuri said...

I did not think for even a moment that the narration was boring - as you say, even though a monotone, it was a beautiful tone and I loved the book, even for all the sadness that it illustrated.
I have read about Bernhard's writing style and did identify it here, though I did not know there was a direct homage. Does Sebald write most of his books in the same style?
Thank you for suggesting Sebald, it was a very good read. I am now on a lookout for Rings of Saturn.

Alok said...

Oh the last comment disappeared somehow...

anyway, This book is a little different in style from his other books. His other books are more diffuse and amorphous unlike this book where there is only one narrative thread, that of the life of the central character. Even though here too writing is essentially digressive. In all his books there is the same central narrator - a stand-in for Sebald himself. the same wry, academic, measured and distanced tone. (he was a literary scholar and a professor in England.) in all of his books the narrator travels to ghostly places - European countrysides, remote train stations, empty beaches. There is a lot of absence, suggestion and obliqueness involved even when the prose itself is very direct and uncluttered. In austerlitz also if you notice, Holocaust is relatively absent from the surface but it is suggested everywhere always indirectly.

The Rings of Saturn is my personal favourite. It may be a bit confusing initially but stick with it. Only after a while you will start seeing patterns. You will like it since I gather you like travelling very much. It is more about "mental travel" and travelling as discovery rather than sightseeing. This is same about his books too -- reading and writing as a means of discovery just like travelling.

Alok said...

Also check out this audio interview. Last time I opened it, it was working but somehow it is not working now... anyway try if it works at your end. It is quite good.

runawaysun said...

If you found "Austerlitz" fascinating, you may like reading Anne Michaels' "Fugitive Pieces".

Madhuri said...

Alok, I am more and more tempted to pick up Rings of Saturn now and have ordered a copy already.I do love travel and it is for his introspective journeys that Pirsig has been one of my favorite authors. Thanks for the interview link - I have never heard Bookworm before and he seems to be pretty knowledgeable about the books he is discussing.
Runawaysun, isn't there a movie called fugitive pieces? I did not know it was based on a novel.

runawaysun said...

Do not know if Anne Michaels' "Fugitive Pieces" has been made into a film. If it has, and has been done well, it may be worth viewing.