A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Austerlitz, like most of W.G. Sebald’s works, feels almost unwritten. You don’t sense an author behind the book, plotting, structuring, or thinking about language and grammar. At it’s very best you feel like someone is simply speaking to you, or maybe like you’ve stumbled upon someone’s personal travel journal.
This is all wrong, of course, because Sebald has carefully crafted the b0ok to feel this way. There really is very little formal structure to the novel, on purpose. There are no paragraph breaks. Very little attention is paid to traditional sentence structure. The plot develops organically, little snippets of story appearing here and there that all add up in the end. There are photographs that, though seemingly related to the tale, are given up without explanation and simply lay like found objects between the leaves.
I’m sure it all sounds artsy and pretentious if you haven’t actually read the author before. But the magic of Sebald’s books is that they are truly engrossing. At times they are even heartrendingly, sentimentally moving.
The plot is a bit difficult to encompass. It’s about two professors interested in European architectural history, Jacques Austerlitz and our narrator, who occasionally meet by chance on their travels. Slowly our narrator gets to know Austerlitz’s life story, his childhood as a Jewish refugee of the kindertransport being raised by a surrogate family in Wales, and his attempts to trace his mother’s sad fate in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
There is a wealth of factual travel narrative and history mixed into Austerlitz’s fictional tale. In fact, those details are the most effective elements of the novel. They not only give the story a feeling of reality, but help cast Austerlitz’s tragic tale on a grand, Pan-European scale.
Review by Matthew