By W. G. Sebald, Anthea Bell

Over the process a thirty-year dialog unfolding in teach stations and tourists’ stops throughout England and Europe, W.G. Sebald’s unnamed narrator and Jacques Austerlitz talk about Austerlitz’s ongoing efforts to appreciate who he's. An orphan who got here to England on my own in the summertime of 1939 and used to be raised by means of a Welsh Methodist minister and his spouse as their very own, Austerlitz grew up without unsleeping reminiscence of the place he got here from.

W.G. Sebald embodies in Austerlitz the common human look for identification, the fight to impose coherence on reminiscence, a fight advanced through the mind’s defenses opposed to trauma. alongside the way in which, this novel of many riches dwells magically on quite a few subjects–railway structure, army fortifications; insets, vegetation, and animals; the constellations; artworks; the unusual contents of the museum of a veterinary institution; a small circus; and the 3 capital towns that loom over the e-book, London, Paris, and Prague–in the carrier of its superb imaginative and prescient.

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As Roland Barthes rightly says in his book Camera Lucida, a book with which Austerlitz is in deep dialogue, photographs shock us because they so finally represent what has been. ” Barthes calls photographers “agents of death,” because they freeze the subject and the moment into finitude. ”2 This effect is surely heightened when we look at photographs of victims of the Nazis—whether being rounded up, or just walking along a street in a ghetto. ” As the stolid rugby players do not, these victims seem to be looking at us (even when they are not directly looking at the camera), and asking us to do something.

This short recital, poignant though its content is, represents a kind of vandalism to Sebald’s beautiful novel, and I offer it only in the spirit of orientation. It leaves out, most importantly, all the ways in which Sebald contrives not to offer an ordinary, straightforward recital. For what is so delicate is how Sebald makes Austerlitz’s story a broken, recessed enigma, whose meaning the reader must impossibly rescue. Though Austerlitz, and hence the reader too, is involved in a journey of detection, the book really represents the deliberate frustration of detection, the perpetuation of an enigma.

Who are these young men? Where did Sebald get hold of this faded group portrait? And is it likely that any of them are still alive? ” The faces are unknown, forgotten. They are, precisely, not Wittgenstein’s famous eyes. The photograph of the little boy in his cape is even more acute in its poignancy. I have read reviews of this book that suggest it is a photograph of the young Sebald—such is our natural desire, I suppose, not to let the little boy pass into orphaned anonymity. 3 The boy’s identity has disappeared (as has the woman whose photograph is shown as Agáta, the boy’s mother), and has disappeared—it might be said—even more thoroughly than Hitler’s victims, since they at least belong to blessed memory, and their murders cry out for public memorial, while the boy has vanished into the private obscurity and ordinary silence that will befall most of us.

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