[This page by Dora Osborne]

Austerlitz (2001)

In his last prose work, Sebald recounts the story of Jacques Austerlitz, a Prague Jew who, at the age of five was sent to England on a so-called Kindertransport, a journey specially chartered to bring children in Europe to relative safety in Britain around the time of the Second World War. As a consequence, Austerlitz is separated from his parents and does not know what becomes of them, although he learns that his mother was last traced to the Theresienstadt ghetto and his father to Paris. The young boy is taken to live with an austere Welsh minister and his wife, where no one speaks of the circumstances surrounding his arrival. He is given the name Daffyd Elias until one day at school, the master tells him, without further explanation, he will from now on be called Jacques Austerlitz. Precisely because Austerlitz suffers the traumatic loss of his home, family and childhood, the work of telling his story is reconstructive. And, precisely because his losses are traumatic, which is to say, not experienced meaningfully or knowingly, that reconstructive work is thwarted by the absence of any integral sense of self or knowledge of the past. Put simply, Austerlitz wants to recover his past in order to help him understand who he is and where he came from, but because his losses are so severe, he has difficulty remembering. He begins a kind of detective work, looking for any traces of his childhood and family using photographs, visiting museums and travelling to the places he believes will tell him something about himself. The protagonist’s conversations with the narrator serve as a way of putting the pieces back together and, for our narrator, produce a fuller picture of Austerlitz, the man he comes to know only as an adult.

As we would expect from Sebald, the work of retracing the past does not (just) tell us about the eponymous protagonist; rather, it encompasses all kinds of meanderings around topics such as architectural history, the history of incarceration, the railway network of Europe, nineteenth-century French literature, Darwinism, films of the nouvelle vague and National Socialist propaganda. In some ways, as with Die Ringe des Saturn, the propensity of the text to wander is symptomatic of the impossibility of being able to write about an unknowable, unapproachable topic; in the case of Austerlitz, the fate of his family at the hands of the Nazis. Indeed, despite the richness and complexity of Sebald’s text, obscurity prevails. The combination of the protagonist’s failure to remember (he remembers lists of possible details and gives elaborate accounts of incidental ideas, but often cannot speak unequivocally about past events) and the insubstantiality of the material sources he draws on (details on photographs are small, indistinct and indeterminate), means neither Austerlitz, nor the narrator, nor the reader can know anything with certainty. Austerlitz is replete with meaning, but often relating to other things, such that ideas accrue, only to obscure the meaning we are trying to access. Sebald’s title already gives us an important example: Austerlitz is the name of a place, but it has become synonymous with the Napoleonic battle which took place there. Thus, the name of the protagonist is the name of a site of violence. Austerlitz is also the name of a train station in Paris and linked to a deposit housed in one of the station’s warehouses, used by the Nazis to store and dispatch to Germany seized Jewish property. For this reason, Austerlitz’s name is also linked to the violent misappropriation of personal effects, and to the railway system which both saved him and in all probability led his family to their death. Austerlitz’s name means all of these things, directly and by association, but until the protagonist can understand fully what happened to him and to his parents, his name cannot mean much to himself; as he says when he recounts being told this ‘new’ name by his school teacher, he can connect nothing to the word ‘Austerlitz’ [W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz (Munich: Hanser, 2001), p. 98; Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. by Anthea Bell (London: Penguin, 2002), p. 94]. Moreover, perhaps with its echo of Auschwitz, Austerlitz, with all these layers of other meanings, stands in for the unspeakable, that is, the death of millions in the Holocaust, now evoked in the single name of a single camp.

Austerlitz is distinctive for its use of photography, but as scholars have noted, these images do not help the protagonist, rather they provide a visual medium for the fact of traumatic experience. Developed belatedly, they can only show what was registered at the time. Thus, any areas of obscurity resist being deciphered in retrospect. Sebald’s narrative is also distinctive for its use of reported speech via the repeated formulation ‘sagte Austerlitz’ (‘said Austerlitz’). When the narrator recounts what the protagonist himself hears from someone else, the effect of this narrative relay is even more striking. As Sebald explained in interview, this technique is borrowed from the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard who uses the performance of speech to emphasise narrative as an act of mediation [‘Ich fürchte das Melodramatische’, interview in Der Spiegel, 12 March 2001]. In the case of Austerlitz, we are made aware that someone else is speaking and that we, as a curious third party, are even further removed from any true sense of Austerlitz’s identity than the narrator or the protagonist himself. However, as Bernhard emphasises the performative aspect of speech, there is a sense in which Sebald has his narrator slip into the role or place of the protagonist by constantly relaying his words. This should alert us to the potential moments in many of Sebald’s works where the identification of the narrator with the protagonist threatens to become an act of appropriation or literally moving in his place.

Further Reading

Stephanie Bird, ‘“Er gab mir, was äußerst ungewöhnlich war, zum Abschied die Hand”: Touch and tact in W. G. Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten and Austerlitz’, Journal of European Studies 41:3-4 (2011), 359-75

James L. Cowan, ‘Sebald’s Austerlitz and the Great Library: History, Fiction, Memory’, Part I: Monatshefte 102:1 (2010), 51-81; Part II: Monatshefte 102:2 (2010), 192-207

Richard Crownshaw, 'Reconsidering Postmemory: Photography, the Archive, and Post-Holocaust Memory in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz’, Mosaic 37 (2004), 215-36

Mererid Puw Davies, ‘On (Not) Reading Wales in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001)’, Oxford German Studies 47:1 (2018), 84-102

Jessica Dubow and Richard Steadman-Jones, 'Mapping Babel: Language and Exile in W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz', New German Critique 115 (2012), 3-26

Carolin Duttlinger, ‘Traumatic Photographs: Remembrance and the Technical Media in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz', in W. G. Sebald: A Critical Companion, ed. by Jonathan J. Long and Anne Whitehead (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), pp. 155-71

Amir Eshel, ‘Against the Power of Time: The Poetics of Suspension in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz’, New German Critique 88 (2003), 71-96

J. J. Long, W. G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007)

Martin Modlinger, ‘ “Mein wahrer Arbeitsplatz”: The Role of Theresienstadt in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz’, German Life and Letters 65:3 (2012), 344-62

Dora Osborne, ‘Blind Spots: Viewing Trauma in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz’, Seminar 43 (2007), 517-33

Samuel Pane, ‘Trauma Obscura: Photographic Media in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz’, Mosaic 38 (2005), 37-54