Monday, 16 February 2015

Austerlizt by S. G. Sebald; my Author of the Month

Fifteen years ago, WG Sebald suffered a heart attack while driving and was killed instantly in a head-on collision with a truck. He was fifty-seven years old. He was a writer and lecturer, born in Germany but living in England. He has been describes as ‘one of contemporary literature’s most transformative figures’ – he might have won a Nobel if not for his early death.  I have only read one of his four novels, “Austerlitz”, which is a simple enough story, and one told many times before; a Jewish child, sent to England through the Kindertransporte, begins to retrace his roots.

I found it difficult to read; the structure is unsettling, making you feel disorientated, but the narrative voice is richly rewarding. Sebald has a ground-breaking take on structure and storytelling, which felt utterly unique in its breadth. In Austerlitz (and all his novels, I believe), he combines fiction with memoir, essay, psychogeography, biography and history. This is a strange fusion, and it took me a while to get my head around the figurative and literal ramblings of the novel, but in the end, after thinking the oddness through alongside the atmospheric mood of the book, I had to agree with Susan Sontag, who, in the Times Literary Supplement in 2000, was asked if literary greatness was still possible. Her reply; “one of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.” And in the New Yorker, his work was described as moving the boundaries of narrative fiction as radically as anyone since Borges. 

Reading him is a disorienting experience, partly because of this fusion of forms; I kept wanting this to ‘just be a novel’, but Sebald was not going to let me off the hook that easily. Quite a lot of the narrative is taken up with Austerlitz,  who, having been brought up in Wales as Dafyyd Elias  during and after the war, discovers his real identity and tries to piece together his first, lost four years. As he moves across the continent, he is constantly encountered by the author and at each, apparently random, meeting,  talks deeply of what is in his mind at that given time; long, winding stories, opinions and discussions on philosophical dilemmas, which slowly move things towards the heart of the matter; that his parents put him on a train before being taken to a concentration camp.. 

One of the most disconcerting areas of the book are the photos. These grimy, black and white images are dotted throughout the book and relate directly to Austrelizt's life, as if the real man had handed them to Sebald for publication. I poured over them, and their reality haunted me because, although thewriter makes it clear that he met Austrelitz and is recording their (extremely one-sidedº conversations, it is generally accepted that Austerlitz is a work of fiction. 
As Vertigo, a Sebald-themed blog, points out; The mysterious cover photograph has almost taken on a life of its own. The photograph of a young fair-haired Aryan boy in an all-white costume and holding a white tri-cornered hat…It’s an image that seems to me less connected to the character Austerlitz himself and more to Germany’s pre-World War II nostalgia for a glorious past.(Could that actually be the young Sebald or is it just one of his flea market photograph finds?)

If you want an experience beyond the norm in your reading; if you want to see where novels can go when writers are this brave, read Sebald. 

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