To keep this review spoiler-free, I decided to take a cue from the book’s titular character, who has a flair for “marginal remarks and glosses, whichTo keep this review spoiler-free, I decided to take a cue from the book’s titular character, who has a flair for “marginal remarks and glosses, which increasingly diverged into the most varied and impenetrable of ramifications,” and stray pretty far away from plot by focusing on the associations I made while reading the book. But here is some background information to go on:
Austerlitz is a record of a one-sided conversation between Jacques Austerlitz and a friend, the first person narrator, which takes place in two short bursts over the course of maybe twenty years. Austerlitz speaks about architecture, time and the search for his past. There are pictures. By way of endorsement, I will say this: Austerlitz will intrigue you, it will shut you down. There may be a certain cohort of readers who will say something like “Austerlitz? More like Austerlit-ZZzzzzz!” I would argue that those readers really aren’t Readers. This is a book without mistakes. This is the five-star book you should be judging all your other reviews on. This is one of the best books I have ever read.
I knew I would read Austerlitz, eventually. For years though, the eyes of the boy on the cover followed me around the bookstore, asking: “What about now?” and “Are you reading anything now?” And of course the answers were always “No” and “Yes,” respectively. Despite that, despite not having read the book, or even any review of the book, despite having no idea about the plot or the narrative style in any way, I knew Austerlitz would be a book for me, as if Austerlitz was right when he said: “all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last.” That is how Austerlitz perceives time, and that is important.
Austerlitz is described as a character being out of time: that could be applied to the book as well; it’s tone. “Sebald is the Joyce of the 21st century” says a blurb from The Times. Besides the fact that both writers are non-Jews with titanic books on Jewish themes, and the fact that I hate applying one writer’s name to another as if it were a form of reincarnation, Sebald isn't anything like James Joyce. Austerlitz is exclusively cerebral—it's the kind of book that never farts. And Sebald is also unlike Joyce in that he doesn’t invade the text with his personality and neuroses the way Joyce does from Ulysses onwards. The author Sebald’s style does suggest to me is Roberto Bolaño. Because of the interview frame and in part because of his distinctive voice and the European milieu, in a sort of fanfictiony way I can picture Austerlitz among the many characters confessing what they know about the goings and comings of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano in The Savage Detectives. Sebald is Bolaño's senior by less than ten years, but something about his writing makes me think that these are writers of the same generation. They both were able to take the mundane and give it a sense of dread—the uncanny, more or less. Unfortunately, and uniting them even more so in my mind, both authors died in the early 2000s as well.
But back to the book itself. This is a book made of sentences. I know that applies to any book, but to this book more so. I don’t recall any paragraph breaks. There are one or two caesuras. We only have Austerlitz, who is described as speaking in these fully formed, flawlessly structured lines. Ultimately, these lines are Sebald’s babies, but reading in translation, Anthea Bell is just as responsible as he is. In fact, from here on out in this review let's consider Sebald/Bell a type of hybrid author (Half German! Half English!), a new addition to the population of ancient Greek monstrosity, and Austerlitz its labyrinth. Throughout the book the sentences hide their intent, they are defensive, as defensive as the fort architecture that Austerlitz finds so quixotic in the history of cities in Europe. It’s not exactly "dancing about architecture," but it is sentence composition like architecture, 19th century imperial architecture at that, which, as Austerlitz points out, is folly.
Architecture brings me to the pictures. This book is littered with odd photographs, a kind of documentation, taken by or given to Austerlitz during the course of his life. I didn't see the point. I don't know if it’s only my edition of the book, but their placement seemed out of synch with the text, like a picture box randomly dropped in a Word document. There is a disconnect between the pictures and the words, that makes the pictures seem not purposeful. I felt that Jonathan Safran Foer did a better job incorporating pictures into the text of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and that’s saying a lot because I hated that book. When Austerlitz talks about the pictures’ contents he says that their emptiness “reflected my orphaned frame of mind”—my issue is not with the pictures themselves but their arrangement. It seems strange to me that a book with so much invested in the trope of architecture would be so haphazard with its own structure. Or is that a key? The photographs may be out of phase with the text because this is a book about being out of place in the world.
OK, at the risk of being spoiler-ish—read this paragraph at your own risk—my last point brings up something else that needs to be mentioned. Is Austerlitz even more out of place than he says he is? The plot of the novel deals with his search for his real identity, but the text hints that what he says, in those long, detail-laden sentences, should not all be taken for granted. Why, if he had attended English boarding school and taught in England for a long period of his life, is his English pointed out for being so inept? Why is it that Austerlitz is so emphatic when he says that he knows nothing about Germany, the German language, or German culture, and yet his ability to handle complicated German compound words is so flawless? Is Austerlitz, buffered as he is by time and a secondhand account, unreliable? I think we have to question whose identity it is Austerlitz is trying to salvage from the past, and why. Even so, this may make Austerlitz an even stronger, more complex, and maybe even more moral character than we thought he was when we were taking him at his word.
The story of this man who lives displaced in time closes with a kind of future shocked analysis of France’s new Bibliothèque Nationale. The absurdity of the building, its layout and meaning are disturbing to Austerlitz. The future is a territory where Austerlitz won’t be able to settle. New buildings will not lead to a regained heritage: “the all-embracing and absolute perfection of the concept can in practice coincide, indeed ultimately must coincide, with its chronic dysfunction and constitutional instability” he says. Such construction is hostile to living people—to life itself—and “the official manifestation of the increasingly importunate urge to break with everything which still has some living connection to the past.” But it’s only the absolutism of the future Austerlitz despairs: in the next scene he is buoyed when he observes two maintenance men at work refurbishing the old Gare d’Austerlitz train station, a place that shares more than just his name, but his fate. As long as the past can coexist with the present and the future, Austerlitz lives. ...more