In W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, an unnamed narrator reiterates the story of his friend, Jacques Austerlitz, who has only recently pieced together his true identity. Austerlitz tells his companion, through words and photographs, about the discovery of his real name, birthplace and parentage slowly over time, spanning a number of years and taking place in various countries in Europe.
While the stream of consciousness writing from William Faulkner and James Joyce may drift off topic on a regular basis, leaving the reader with incomplete thoughts and, at times, total nonsense (making it that much more authentic to the true behavior of our minds), Sebald isn’t this type of writer. Each complete idea written in this novel- no matter how layered or complex- is seen through to the end and delivered with perfect clarity. In my opinion, Sebald seems absolutely devoted in Austerlitz to tightly tying every single thought and spoken word of his characters together and weighing each down with meaning by bring them to life through articulate description. For me, this book demanded constant engagement and numerous re-reads, simply because I knew the punch that was thrown 7 or 8 or a dozen lines of text back would eventually land with precision.
Many complain of the emotionless and austere way in which the narrative can sound at times, but I think that this is due to the fact that Austerlitz is dealing with such horror, pain and loss, that his only way to truly process it is through telling his story to his companion in the most matter-of-fact way possible.
There is a continuous bombardment, in Austerlitz, of minutely detailed setting descriptions, immersed in viseral memories from Jacques past that are steeped in architecture, history, culture and language and shoot, totally unannounced, back and forth through time.
This isn’t an easy read, but I cannot tell you how worth it I found it.