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Book Review of Austerlitz

Judyh avatar reviewed on + 227 more book reviews

Recommended for: readers who love beautiful prose
Read from February 12 to 22, 2013

Susan Sontag, in a 2000 essay in the Times Literary Supplement, asked whether literary greatness [was] still possible. She concluded that one of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.

Sebald himself sometimes described his work as documentary fiction, which truly makes sense to me -- the term captures the style of prose in which Sebald so beautifully integrates apparently inharmonious elements. "Austerlitz" is a hybrid of factual and heavily-detailed documentary, actual discussion and daily activity, travelogue, and fanciful thought. I found the book at times too dense for reading (when I was tired) and also at times compelling and intensely thought-provoking. The story itself, about the life of a man who was transported away from his family at the age of four by kindertransport train from Prague to Wales, was intriguing, appalling, suspenseful, heartbreaking. I was fascinated also by the style of prose -- the widely ranging thoughts, the imagery, the long run-on sentences, and the incorporation of photos. Since reading this book, published just around the time of the author's untimely death in an auto accident 12 years ago, I can see influences in other books I have read that were published later, such as in the wonderful book by Jonathan Safran Foer, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close". I found an interesting description in the NY Times article by Mark O'Connell of Sebald's style of writing: "Reading him is a wonderfully disorienting experience, not least because of the odd, invigorating uncertainty as to what it is, precisely, we are reading. His books occupy an unsettled, disputed territory on the border of fiction and fact, and this generic ambivalence is mirrored in the protean movements of his prose. Often what is on the page, the writing itself, gives the impression of being only the faint, flickering shadow of its actual referent. What Sebald seems to be writing about, in other words, is frequently not what he wants us to be thinking about." I was never 100% sure what I was reading about in "Austerlitz", and yet I always had the sense that it was important and would explain itself in time or if I considered its meaning long enough.

Sebald was born in Germany at the very end of WWII, and so grew up in the chaotic aftermath in which the adults did not want to talk at all about the war or their role in in. Sebald wrote about the recent history of Germany in an indirect way, as if confronting it head-on was too horrible or even possibly because it made it seem less horrible, that we couldn't grasp the enormity of the immorality of what happened. Instead, he approached the Holocaust obliquely, from a different geometric plane. He attempted to help us to understand what happened in the Holocaust by showing us how much we cannot understand it. Have you ever tried looking at something out of the corner of your eye to see what it really looks like? That's what happens in Sebald's "Austerlitz".

Highly recommended.