Austerlitz is probably my favorite novel, despite the fact that I eschew such categories for art, or try to (mostly out of necessity; if you really lo...moreAusterlitz is probably my favorite novel, despite the fact that I eschew such categories for art, or try to (mostly out of necessity; if you really love something, like reading or film or food, how CAN you have one favorite?). The book is just so beautiful, so rich, so complex, and so rewarding. I feel that the more I think about it, the more dynamic it grows, and instead of diminishing with time in my imagination, it takes on new facets about which I hadn't previously thought. There's so much to engage with in this book that I hardly feel like I can write about it at all--at least succinctly. So I'll just touch on one of the elements that I admire deeply.
When I was first reading Austerlitz, I noted its frame--the retelling of Austerlitz's story (albeit in the first person) through the novel's ostensible narrator proper. I didn't pay that much attention to the doubled narrator, except to note that it reinforced the motif of memory as a necessarily subjective, slippery, fungible creature, given that any retelling, no matter how reliable, is problematic as a record of fact (if such records are available at all via the channels of memory). Later, it came to seem to me that I had paid this choice of Sebald's short shrift (and I was uncomfortable with what had appeared to be my relativist reading; I do not think that colonial empires, graveyards, railways, or the European Holocaust are questionably factual matters of personal memory).
The structural element of a doubled narrative may serve to reinforce certain thematic elements, but it does something far more functional--and sneaky, if I may say so (with utmost admiration). To wit: Austerlitz tells his story to our narrator; he speaks; his tale is thus necessarily first person. Had Austerlitz's tale been told by an omniscient third person narrator (as opposed to being recounted by our narrator), we would lose that sense of shared intimacy, the artifice of "listening in," which the first person narrator provides. Instead, we would traverse the more conventional reader's terrain as observers of the novel. In that construct, we still lose ourselves in the world of the novel, but are imaginatively more subject to the nameless authorial hand.
Crucially, such a relationship, such a narrator, would obstruct the possibility of one of the novel's primary modes: Austerlitz's meditations (and our narrator's) on such themes as the palimpsest nature of cities; the secret life of the sites we unthinkingly inhabit; the intersections by fate or chance of the historical and the personal; the porous membrane that is time; the animation of the inanimate, which is, in some sense, the very tissue, the body, the blood of the book--the Story. In a novel narrated in the third person, these observations (I almost typed "observances," which I think, emotionally, is at least as accurate) would be pedantic, heavy-handed, directive, indulgent. Their existence would mark for the reader an authorial intrusion; the novel would function simply as an opportunity for intellectual showboating, for what character in the novel could truly own those ideas? Our hypothetical omniscient narrator might tell us, "...Austerlitz thought," but our distance from this Austerlitz, our reliance on the narrator, might render these potent investigations flaccid.
So why not just render Austerlitz in the first person then? What function might our nameless narrator serve? Why not have Austerlitz tell his story directly? Our novel deals in a history of violence, an impulse at the heart of the urge to order, to mechanize, to "civilize," as evidenced by the systems of empire, culminating for Austerlitz, at least, in the holocaust and the erasure of his very identity. The scope is grand, but it is also human, painfully so--otherwise, why would it matter? But the book's work, its project, is too important to be impactful only as the illustration of one man's experience; it is too important to slip, for the lazy reader, into the realm of sentimentality.
If Austerlitz were the sole narrator of Austerlitz, the novel would perch uncomfortably on the precipice of memoir, in that spot of direct appeal to the reader. While many, many works of unforgettable literature employ that very mode, and secure the reader's empathy and engage her curiosity about the world, while they can and do extend the reader beyond herself, they work, most often, by the reader's act of projecting herself into the world and experiences described in the pages of the book at hand. The reader imagines the horror for herself; she sees herself on the train to Terezin; she feels her sister's hand in hers for the last time, as they are separated, one to the left, one to the right. This is an invaluable experience to have as a reader, as a human being. It spurs the desire to do right by each other, it informs, and it may lead a reader to seek out more information. But these types of works are not impersonal in the way that Austerlitz is, in that it manipulates personal experience and personal memory to illuminate the larger history that leads to such atrocities. Austerlitz is not about what happens to Jacques Austerlitz per se, but about HOW what happens to Jacques Austerlitz is what happens to the European people; it is about how what happens to Jacques Austerlitz happens to the subjects of empire; it is about how what happens to Jacques Austerlitz comes to infect the lives of those who are the architects or willing citizens of the society that produces the Third Reich or the Bibliotheque Nationale; it is about how what happens to Jacques Austerlitz, how his experience of it, is what matters to our narrator.
We understand finally, that the book could not have been narrated by Austerlitz, ever. For a book to begin, there must be some occasion for its story. Austerlitz, in a sense, begins where it ends; our narrator returns to Breendonk. We grasp that the novel is (in a fictive sense), has been all along, a response to this visit; it is an astonishing act of memory on the part of our narrator. The novel's opening sequence, in which he first meets Austerlitz, is a response to the narrator's experience of friendship with this man, culminating intellectualy in his last trip to to the Belgian fortress and one-time concentration camp, now a museum. At novel's end, Austerlitz disappears; he leaves to search for Marie de Verneuil and for answers to the fate of his father. A first person narrator must see you off, so to speak, he must bring your reading to some end, some measure of resolve. But, as Austerlitz is not our narrator, we are left with our nameless companion, who, unable to enter Breendonk, sits on the banks of its moat, reading a book in which the dungeon walls of an interment camp, inscribed with the world's most hopeless graffiti, are described: "Others had left only a date and place of origin with their names: Lob, Marcel, de St. Nazaire; Weschler, Abram, de Limoges; Max Stern, Paris 18.5.44."(less)
Like many people (Americans, anyway) this is the first book I read by Murakami. I'm grateful for that, because it is definitely his most accessible no...moreLike many people (Americans, anyway) this is the first book I read by Murakami. I'm grateful for that, because it is definitely his most accessible novel. My love affair with this book primed me for his weirder, and maybe ultimately more wonderful, other novels like A Wild Sheep Chase, which I love dearly. If you haven't read his short stories, you should. (less)
This is part of my personal cannon. Like many aspiring writers coming of age in the '90s, it had a profound impact on my idea of what constitutes a sh...moreThis is part of my personal cannon. Like many aspiring writers coming of age in the '90s, it had a profound impact on my idea of what constitutes a short story. The prose is perfection. I don't think I could live without this book.(less)
I am so very happy that this book is back in print. "Pet Milk"is one of the single best short stories I've ever read (along with another Dybek piece,...moreI am so very happy that this book is back in print. "Pet Milk"is one of the single best short stories I've ever read (along with another Dybek piece, "We Didn't"). I don't know how he does it. It's magic, this writing. Also part of the Libby cannon.(less)
I'm not really an "airport book" kind of person. However, I did once find myself stuck at La Guardia on some hideously delayed flight, with no reading...moreI'm not really an "airport book" kind of person. However, I did once find myself stuck at La Guardia on some hideously delayed flight, with no reading material left to see me through the hours of wait time. Even I can read only so many magazines before my eyes start bleeding,though, so in desperation I bought this book, thinking it would be a light, fun read, if not terribly intelligent.
I was completely unprepared for Melissa Bank's enormous talent. After I read "Advanced Beginners" (the first story in the novel-in-stories) I was in total shock. This book is laceratingly honest, written in clear, precise prose. It makes me incredibly angry that this book has been lumped in with the genre novels that constitute the dungheap of "Chick Lit." But, beware, if you are a woman, and dare to write about the lives of women--including their romantic lives--be prepared to be dismissed and disparaged. (less)
When I first read this book, in 1992, in the ninth grade, some part of me believed that FLB was speaking directly to me, that she had written this boo...moreWhen I first read this book, in 1992, in the ninth grade, some part of me believed that FLB was speaking directly to me, that she had written this book for me. Whenever I am homesick for my lovely faraway L.A., and my sad little Valley Girl heart feels like it's going to break, I reread this book (and its sequels). Just the sight of its hot pink spine cheers me up, and is totally transporting.(less)
The Canterbury Tales are desert island material for me. Read it out loud in middle english. After a few days the spelling and pronunciation will becom...moreThe Canterbury Tales are desert island material for me. Read it out loud in middle english. After a few days the spelling and pronunciation will become so natural that trying to read a translated edition will feel wrong and dirty. Paltry. Chaucer is so funny, so sharp, so human. There is so much at work in the CT, every single reading is rewarding, no matter how many times you've read it.
Favorite tale: The Miller's Tale. Or maybe The Pardoner's Tale.(less)
I moved this book from "read" as I am currently rereading "Miss Lonelyhearts" for one of my grad classes (narrative efficiency); I did not ever really...moreI moved this book from "read" as I am currently rereading "Miss Lonelyhearts" for one of my grad classes (narrative efficiency); I did not ever really "get" this little piece of fiction previously, but time has made me a better reader for it (the five stars were for "Day of the Locust"). More on this...
Continued: When I was younger I read almost entirely for story and for character, as I think most readers do (which is not a judgment, merely an observation). I did not find interesting, and thus did not think about, novels as art, novels as a product of craft; in other words, it did not even enter my consciousness as a reader to imagine/examine a novel's aim or aims, its project. Miss Lonelyhearts does not lend itself well to this kind of reader/reading. It is an intense, highly stylized, brutal little book that prefigures a lot of writing that I think we take for granted today, from Flannery O'Connor to George Saunders.
The world of Miss Lonely hearts offers us a reality in which there is a choice between two unworkable options: killing irony (as represented by Shrike) and absurd faith (as represented by Christ). The middle has been excluded. Language has suffered a complete breakdown: there is silence, or there is habitualized speech, the depersonalized substitute for individualized communication. Human suffering is rampant and incurable, objects are in revolt, and entropy bares its teeth. Genius.(less)