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Monday, March 12, 2018

Austerlitz (2001) by W.G. Sebald


Book  Review
Austerlitz (2001)
 by W.G. Sebald

  Published just a month before W.G. Sebald died in an auto accident, Austerlitz was his last novel.  One of the major consequences of the unexpected demise of a Nobel Prize in Literature level talent is that it forecloses the opportunity to actually win the Nobel Prize in Literature, since none of the Nobel's are awarded posthumously.  Austerlitz, I think, is an impressive argument that Sebald was Nobel Prize worthy- it's a deeply moving account of a man, Jacques Austerlitz, and how rediscovers his family past after being orphaned during World War II.  To call a work "Sebaldian" is to claim that said work is digressive, mingles plot and place indiscriminately, includes both fictional and non-fictional elements and defies easy categorization.  Reading that list of descriptive characteristics, it's easy to see that the resulting work might be more alienating than appealing, but in Austerlitz, technique and story marry fully.

 I listened to Austerlitz as an audio book on the hunch that Sebaldian prose would sound better spoken than read.  Indeed, such was the case.  I don't doubt that anyone who has trouble with written Sebald would be advised to try an audio book to really get the rhythm of the writing- which often takes the for of speech- one character relating to another a story told by a third character, or even a story told by another character, who told it to the relater, who is now telling it to the narrator.  The prior sentence describes EVERY Sebald novel, not just Austerlitz, but it all really comes together in winning fashion in Austerlitz, which is, natch, another fine example of a German author grappling with the consequence of World War II in Germany.  Perhaps unusual is that Sebald is a non Jewish German author writing a book from the perspective of the child of a Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  The last layer of Austerlitz relating his story to the narrator saves it from being a book written directly from the perspective of a Jew (though now that I think about it, Austerlitz, raised in Wales, never says that he is a Jew, and he wasn't raised as one) but Austerlitz is a book, written by a German, that truly confronts the evil of the Holocaust, focusing on the mania for order that characterized the German effort at genocide.

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