While WG Sebald’s Austerlitz won’t be among the top five favorite reads of 2010, it will be among the top books that I’m glad I read. Using stream-of-consciousness narrative, Austerlitz is the title character’s story as he tells it to an unnamed, first-person recorder. And while this style isn’t my favorite, it is profoundly appropriate in this instance.
Austerlitz and the narrator meet by happenstance, and what commences is a series of conversations that take place over many years in which Austerlitz reveals the journey he has taken to learn of his origins. Adopted by a Welsh couple in 1939 when many children were being deported from Europe to England, he isn’t told his birth name until his teenage years, when an instructor at his boarding school recognizes the opportunities that will be available to him if he performs well on his exams, but which require a legal name to be considered legitimate.
It is as an adult that Austerlitz, stricken by a scene of a child in a train station, has a flashback to his own childhood and remembers being picked up by the couple who raised him, but for whom he never could conjure affection. This memory drives Austerlitz back to Czechoslovakia to his birthplace and a caregiver from his toddler years who helps him learn the identity of his parents and the tragic end that kept the three of them from ever reuniting.
What makes this story so touching and has garnered such notoriety for Sebald is his delicacy in the portrayal of Austerlitz’ fragile emotional state. This quest for identity is heart wrenching.
The stream-of-consciousness imitates memory in its ability to regard time, not as a constant, but with periods passing hastily interrupted by segments of halting detail. Augmenting the personal nature of the narrative and creating the facade of a non-fiction memoir is the inclusion of photographs, snapshots that illustrate Austerlitz’ life and journeys. The two combined make this WWII novel unlike any account of the Holocaust I’ve ever read.
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