by W.G. Sebald.
I have given up trying to describe Sebald’s books, other than to say that they are indescribable. They’re fiction, apparently, but they don’t feel like fiction, which is probably why I like them so much. They’re about Europe and memory and loss and loss-of-memory. And they have photographs to flesh out the details, or maybe help the narrator himself remember, which goes some way to explaining why they don’t feel like fiction.
Austerlitz is about a man called Austerlitz, whose first name I can’t remember as I don’t have my copy of the book to hand. Austerlitz originally went by another name because he was brought up by foster parents in Bala in North Wales (a detail I distinctly remember, because I cycled to Bala from my hometown once with some school friends, and we stayed in one of my friends’ parents’ carvan, where we drank many tins of beer and made an impressive domino-rally which resulted in all of the beer cans being knocked over). Austerlitz didn’t know that he was a foster child, and thought that his foster parents were his real parents, whom he didn’t particularly get on with, preferring his time at boarding school. Then his foster mother goes mad and dies some time later, with his foster father (who is some sort of preacher) dying shortly afterwards. It is then that Austerlitz’s headmaster informs him that his name isn’t really what he thought it was, and that he must now put the name Austerlitz on his exam papers for them to count.
Anyway, we learn all of this because the narrator of the book, whom, for want of a name, I shall refer to as WG Sebald, bumps into Austerlitz in a station (I think) somewhere in Europe, and they get to chatting about architecture, and almost certainly several other things I can’t remember.
The rest of the book describes later encounters between Sebald and Austerlitz, in which Austerlitz recounts his gradual unravelling of the history of his family, partly through research, and partly through dimly remembering details he had forgotten which get triggered by various innocuous events. He eventually traces his mother back to a concentration camp. I can’t remember where he traces his father back to. I think his father might have been some sort of musician, but I could be wrong.
There is also lots of stuff in there about buildings—particularly fortifications. I forget most of the details, but I think one of the fortifications might have had something to do with concentration camps, or the ghetto, or something like that. But I might be getting the book confused with a video documentary about the history of photography which I watched recently, which also contained a moving tale about the ghetto, and concentration camps, and long-lost lovers being reunited many years after the war thanks to a photograph. Not that that happens to Austerlitz’s parents.
Basically, what I’m saying is that I remember very little about this book, other than it was, just like Sebald’s other books, which I also remember very little about, utterly compelling. The books have now merged into one in my brain, so that I can’t remember what happens in which book.
Which is pretty much on a par with what Sebald is writing about.
Postscript, March 2012: I have just re-read Austerlitz. Like all of Sebald’s books, you should read them at least twice. The chap was a truly great writer.
Postscript, September 2013: I have just re-re-read Austerlitz. Like all of Sebald’s books, it get better with every reading. I understand it a lot better now, but I’ve left my original review as it was, as I think it sums up my original sentiments rather well.