Saturday, September 27, 2008


On the outside they are dazzlingly gilded, but
within they are all of lead, so heavy that the ones
Frederick put on people must have been made of straw.

Oh eternally laborious mantle!

- Dante, Inferno

W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz is an odd, otherworldly book whose detached, meandering prose conceals awful truths and unspeakable horrors. At times it seems to talk about everything but the Holocaust, but that is actually where its true power lies. Through its forays into such seemingly unrelated topics as zoos and architecture, Austerlitz is in fact rebuilding vanished people out of the troubled landscape of twentieth-century Europe. ("These fragments I have shored against my ruins.") The title character, before commencing his quest to recreate his lost past, has failed to recognize the precedent to mass murder set in "the compulsive sense of order and the tendency towards monumentalism evident in law courts and penal institutions, railways and stock exchanges, opera houses and lunatic asylums, and the dwellings built to rectangular grid patterns for the labor force." Austerlitz is only dimly aware of "an impulse which he himself, to this day, did not really understand, but which was somehow linked to his early fascination with the idea of a network such as that of the entire railway system." Although the theme of the Holocaust does eventually emerge, like "the sudden incursion of unreality into the real world," Sebald's novel is also a voyage through the haunted miasma that continually hovers over Europe as it attempts to evolve beyond its terrible past.

The feeling I got from Austerlitz was truly one of gray skies, industrial ruin, and empty plains. It was the Gothic ambiance of, say, Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" or Brontë's Wuthering Heights, but without the romanticism and tragic splendor. In the wake of two World Wars and several genocides, misery can no longer be made painfully beautiful. It can only be as Austerlitz standing alone "in a kind of trance on the platform of the bleak station at Holešovice, [where] the railway lines ran away into infinity on both sides." Or, in the words of T.S. Eliot, writing already in 1925: "The eyes are not here / There are no eyes here / In this valley of dying stars / In this hollow valley / This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms." It is like the panorama he described in "The Waste Land," following what everyone thought could only be the War to End All Wars. But here no redemptive rain falls, though there is still growth "feeding / A little life with dried tubers." Austerlitz relearns his parents' names, recovers his native tongue, is reacquainted with his old nursemaid, and visits his family's old home in the Prague. It is better than the "nothing again nothing" that he wore like a lead cloak; he no longer has to continue on that worn stage against a faded backdrop and dusty set, for he has regained his submerged identity.

Despite my troubles with Faulkner, Austerlitz really did echo Absalom! Absalom!, a story of the likewise historically haunted American South, which also featured the detective work of reconstructing a tragic past amid the crumbling plaster and overgrown fields of a dead plantation. In fact, it has often intrigued me that the Spanish words for "story" and "history," historia and historía respectively, are identical except for a single accent. To record history is indeed to sort through a multitude of individual accounts and physical evidences and then to assemble these into a coherent narrative with cause, effect, and conclusion. That is also why I believe Sebald chose to write fiction: because he could illuminate and elucidate that hidden humanity that often overpowers pure objective fact. A textbook is not a novel. Both have their distinct purposes: one to educate, the other to educate and humanize.


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