This is my review of Austerlitz (Penguin Essentials) by W. G. Sebald.
I would not have thought of reading a book with no paragraphs and few full stops if I had not been intrigued to understand what made "Austerlitz" so talked about when it was first published.
From the outset, I was carried along by the hypnotic power of the great wave of prose which describes the anonymous narrator's occasional, usually chance visits in railway stations or cafes with the eccentric loner, Jacques Austerlitz. I was also very taken with the strange, dark little photographs embedded into the text to illustrate certain points – these are meant to be part of Austerlitz's collection, but must have been acquired somehow from many sources by the author and the story adjusted to include them.
A lecturer in art history, Austerlitz launches into lengthy monologues without any sense that he might be boring his audience to death, which means that you need to have an interest in architecture to get through the opening pages. Realising that the narrator is the best listener he will ever find, Austerlitz proceeds to recount his odd, and rather sad childhood in Wales, as what turns out to be the fostered son of a fanatical clergyman and his wan wife. In the very striking descriptions of the Welsh countryside -like a Turner landscape in words, I began to see the author's power.
It is gradually revealed that Austerlitz was brought to Britain on the "Kindertransport" to escape the Nazis. After years of repressing his early memories, he realises that he has also avoided close emotional relationships with anyone, and feels a compelling need to trace his family, find out what befell his parents and see the places where he lived before his life was ripped apart by the Nazis. Some of the most moving passages cover his "detective work", meeting with his former "nanny" and recognition of places he must have seen before.
This novel is certainly original. It cannot be judged by normal standards in that plot is of no interest to Sebald. Although the stream of consciousness always makes perfect sense, passing impressions – such as the resemblance to strange landscapes of the shadows on a wall – are deliberately given more weight than significant events. Significant friendships are only implied in Austerlitz's emotionally stunted, autistic world – yet he can unburden himself to a near-stranger. The author is keen to convey his theory that time is not linear in our minds – in some atmospheric places – say, an old courtyard – one may experience now the time of a past age, and so on.
At times, I felt overwhelmed by the self-indulgent excess of some of the author's "verbal digressions". I found that I could only cope with a few pages at a time. There being no chapters to provide natural breaks, it was frustrating to have to put the book down mid-sentence because one could not bear to plough on to the next full stop, several pages further on.
I also wondered if the device of the narrator was necessary or even desirable, leading as it often did to the clunky "and so, as X told him, Austerlitz said….".
The sudden and arbitrary ending – making the point that the rambling account could have gone on for ever, also left me feeling flat and a little disappointed.
Overall, this is probably a flawed masterpiece. I did not need it to inform me of the horror of the Holocaust, but it makes an effective contribution to the body of work which reminds people of what no one should ever forget.