Saturday, 15 October 2016

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

The first paragraph in Austerlitz goes on for about 17 pages. Or until page 17, I can't quite remember which. The point is, it's well over 10 pages long. I don't know that that's ever repeated (and perhaps it's a good sign that I never again felt the need to keep track of this), but it's...uh, quite something. I suppose it's a little bit of a hint that this book is going to be stream of consciousness and pretty much never made up of short, snappy lines. 

Also, it has a lot of pictures (photos). I'm doing a terrible job of selling it. I'm not really sure I want to sell it. I'm not sure I liked it that much. I didn't hate it either, and by the end, I was slightly more moved than I expected to be, but nowhere near as moved as I also expected to be, if that makes sense. I ended up in this strange kind of limbo, neither bored, nor angry, nor tearful, nor enthused. 

I picked up Austerlitz because it was on that list of the Best Books of the 21st Century So Far that I've been working my way through (it's twenty books total, and I'm almost 3/4 of the way through). By far and large, the books I've read off it live up to that daunting accolade, but somehow I just never connected with Austerlitz enough, either on an emotional or on an intellectual level.

I do feel like I've got a sneaking respect for it, though. There's an underlying theme that I can dimly grasp the edges of, and I think it's doing something very interesting. In certain ways, it builds on some of the things I was saying I liked the most about Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You, although with important differences.

Before that will make sense, though, let's talk a little about what the book is about. It is narrated by an unnamed man who is occasional friends with a man named Austerlitz over many decades. They run into each other entirely by accident, sometimes decades apart. They always talk, mostly about architecture, at least to start. Austerlitz seems to lead a detached, lonely life, and eventually starts telling his story to the narrator. 

He was raised by a dour Welsh minister and his wife, both of whom died or were incapacitated before he came to adulthood. He discovered they'd meant to but never actually adopted him, and that his former last name was Austerlitz, which leads him on a search for his birth parents, who end up having been Polish Jews who were able to get him away to Britain during World War II before the noose had tightened fully around the Jewish community in Krakow. 

That is, as far as it goes, pretty much the plot. Of course, if you're going to be put on someone's Best Books of the 21st Century, even if I don't agree entirely, there's more to it than that. It's also a study of depression, of isolation, of growing up feeling lost amongst others, of having been abandoned utterly and thoroughly, through no fault of his parents. 

It is also, curiously, about objects (hence all the photos), and more specifically about buildings and the uses that their architecture tends towards. Unlike Ng's book, Austerlitz isn't looking at these to uncover personal things about individuals. He's looking at what was built by an amorphous "they" that ended up, behind all these words, sending people to architecture meant for death. 

It is about how Austerlitz finds it impossible to live what would, by most standards, a "normal" life for his time and place, how he cannot find a connection to the world he lives in, with so much loss, even though the vast majority was loss that he doesn't remember or did not experience. There's a despair here that is affecting. (And it's coming to mind because it seems to tie in thematically with another book I'm almost finished reading, Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North. I'm sure I'll be following up when I get around to writing that one next week some time.)

And yet. And yet. And yet...I appreciated what Sebald was trying to do here, without getting much closer than respect. Which I have in full, but there are other books that would spring to mind to recommend first. Perhaps it is the depression of the main character (and perhaps the narrator, but we don't get to know him) that keeps us all at bay, but there's a level past which the narrator and the reader cannot seem to breach.

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