W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz
Recently at church I remarked that to comprehend sadness requires great courage and resolve. I admit that I’m often a coward, whether in relation to taking in the scope of the hurricane destruction of my hometown, New Orleans, the tsunami that brought havoc to Japan, or something like the Holocaust, the subject of W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Too much.
Schindler’s List, another Holocaust remembrance, was a wonderful movie, but I only saw it once. For all of the tragic beauty of the film, why would I endure witnessing panels from that genocide again? So I’ve avoided Holocaust fiction, which is a large genre, for the same general reason. Individual sadnesses seem easier to comprehend than mass ones.
I’m puzzled that I’ve now read a representative of Holocaust fiction—Sebald’s—but I suspect that Austerlitz itself gives the clue. The title character of this novel—published here in translation from the German in 2001—is an old British academic strangely drawn to train stations. One time, as Austerlitz wanders through a particular Paris depot, a sudden flashback overtakes him. He vividly recalls sitting in the same area as a four year-old child waiting to be adopted by a childless Welsh couple. Austerlitz has known that he was not native Welsh but had known very little of his previous life, where he was from and why he was given away. The recognition of the Parisian train station, however, causes him to excavate his own past. After psychologically torturous reconstructions, he finds his way back to the Czech Republic and to the now elderly nanny that long ago had set him on a train ultimately to Wales. Austerlitz was Jewish, and as Hitler tightened his grip upon Eastern Europe, his parents spirited him away to safer shores; his father, an anti-Hitler agitator, was hunted down by the SS in occupied Paris, and his mother, a stage actress, perished in a concentration camp.
Before coming to understand his true identity and past, Austerlitz was a man haunted and distracted. At the beginning of the novel, he tells a confidant “about the marks of pain which, as he said he well knew, trace countless fine lines through history.” Full knowledge of his beginnings, however, turns this distant person into a devastated one:
In the end I was linked to other people only by certain forms of courtesy which I took to extremes and which I know today. . . I observed not so much for the sake of their recipients as because they allowed me to ignore the fact that my life has always. . . been clouded by an unrelieved despair.
What a strange novel. How strange of me to read it.
I know next to nothing about W. G. Sebald, who had enjoyed a long literary career but died before Austerlitz was released. Why would he tell such a story? Why does Austerlitz compulsively seek knowledge that will unravel him? And less importantly but still interestingly for me (of course), why would I read such a book? I think the answer is the same for all three questions, namely that human beings possess the peculiar quality of desiring ugly truths over pretty falsehoods. At least the (sometimes) courageous ones do. Why live if we don’t want to know?