I’ve given up trying to describe the late W.G. Sebald’s books, other than to say they’re indescribable—or Sebaldian.
Unlike his earlier three masterpieces, Vertigo, The Emigrants, and The Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz is clearly fiction. As with those other, harder-to-classify works, Austerlitz is about Europe and memory and loss, and loss of memory.
The eponymous Austerlitz, who reveals much of his story during a series of encounters with a nameless narrator bearing an uncanny resemblance to W.G. Sebald, was, we learn, brought up under a different name by foster parents in Bala, North Wales. At boarding school, his headmaster eventually informs Austerlitz of his real name. “Excuse me, sir, but what does it mean?” asks Austerlitz. He spends the rest of the novel trying to find an answer to his own question.
No spoilers. Austerlitz is a brilliant novel, written in haunting prose without paragraph breaks, made more real with Sebald’s trademark, enigmatic black and white photographs.
A fantastic read.
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I am reading this book at the moment, and while intrigued by where it is taking me , and by some very odd similarities with my own memories and connections, including that famous photograph on the front cover, I can't see what all the fuss is about Sebald. To me it all looks quite straightforward. Austerlitz, knows a lot of data but somehow doesn't really know much else, including himself, Billy no mates chuntering on, enjoying being clever, but only in an anorak train spotter way. Reading it is a bit like being stuck on a train with someone who wants to tell you about the history of transport but has no actual social skills or social warmth, while you would rather be looking out the window at the view. I fear I might end up filing this book alongside Iain Sinclair's Orbital and Rodinsky's Room (but not the really interesting bits written by Rachel Lichtenstein) as one of those books by boys showing off how much they know,whether anyone else is interested or not, but at least you read it to the end.