Posts tagged ‘Austerlitz’

March 24, 2011

Memories More Permanent than Stone

Austerlitz, the main (the only?!) character of Austerlitz, the novel by W. G. Sebald, is not telling the story of his life. Or rather, we get very few facts of his biography. The novel is one long tale of moments he spent with other people, mostly retelling things they tell him. This whole poly-thread narrative (if one can call it that) is wrapped in the voice of a nameless, almost non-existent narrator (indeed, but for the frequent reminders “Austerlitz said,” he would be imperceptible), who does not sound any different than Austerlitz himself. Like in Vertigo, the narration slips fluidly from character to character without any real indication of change. You’d be excused for thinking that all the human voices in the book are one character, tied into the name Austerlitz.

Which is only his second second name. Jacques Austerlitz really remembers his childhood name being Dafydd Elias, adopted son of a Welsh preacher. After the death of the preacher and his wife, the boy is told in boarding school that he was adopted at age four on the eve of World War II. It is only in his old age, in the 1980s, that he goes in search of his roots in Prague, where the Austerlitz family is from. From scraps, old photos, records, stories, museum notes, left over objects, and of course stories of other people, he reconstructs that Austerlitz who wasn’t. Only, reconstruct is not the right word. It’s more an archeology of an Austerlitz who wasn’t. It’s all there, in the name, it just needs to be brought out. When he sees a photo of himself, a self he did not remember until that moment, Austerlitz tells us that “the pictures had a memory of their own and remembered us, remembered the roles that we, the survivors, and those no longer among us had played in our former lives.”

This permanence of memory, of past and others’ lives dissolves time itself. The present is endlessly bound up with the past and the invisibility of history makes it all the more present. Looking out over Paris, an acquaintance says: “Sometimes, so Lemoine told me, said Austerlitz, he felt the current of time streaming round his temples and brow when he was up here, but perhaps, he added, that is only a reflex of the awareness formed in my mind over the years of the various layers which have been superimposed on each other to form the carapace of the city.”


To the archeology of the human voices the book opposes the architecture of the inhuman. From the beginning to the end of the book we get descriptions of various castles, towers, fortifications, walls. All of which were built with ruthless precision, unyielding reason, planned out to the last detail and made from the hardest stone. “…a kind of ideal typical pattern derived from the Golden Section, which indeed, as study of the intricately sketched plans of such fortified complexes as those of Coevorden, Neuf-Brisach, and Saarlouis will show, immediately strikes the layman as an emblem both of absolute power and of the ingenuity the engineers put to the service of that power.” Not only do these fortresses fail to protect the people they are designed to protect, however, they become the perfect place to imprison, torture and from which to terrorize people. Like the fort of Mechelen in Belgium, which had “the result that the entire Belgian army would have been insufficient to garrison the fortifications.” Or indeed “the fortress of Breendonk, said Austerlitz, a fort completed just before the outbreak of the First World War in which, within a few months, it proved completely useless for the defense of the city and the country.

One such fortification build in the 18th century is Terezín in Bohemia. The Gestapo converted it into Theresienstadt, a concentration camp where Agáta, Austerlitz’s mother is deported after he himself is sent to England. Despite the horror of the camp (or perhaps because of it), to try and understand the architecture of such a place only renders it less, not more real. In reading a book about the architecture of the camp, he tells us:

“The long compounds, not listed in my dictionary, which were obviously being spawned the whole time by the pseudo-technical jargon governing everything in Theresienstadt had to be unraveled syllable by syllable. When I finally discovered the meaning of such terms and concepts as Barackenbestandteillager, Zusatzkostenberechnungsschein, Bagatellreparaturwerkstätte, Menagetransportkolonnen, Küchenbeschwerdeorgane, Reinlichkeitsreihenuntersuchung, and Entwesungsübersiedlung […] when I had worked out what they meant, he continued, I had to make just as much of an effort to fit the presumptive sense of my reconstructions into the sentences and the wider context, which kept threatening to elude me, first because it quite often took me until midnight to master a single page, and a good deal was lost in this lengthy process, and second because in its almost futuristic deformation of social life the ghetto system had something incomprehensible and unreal about it, even though Adler describes it down to the last detail in its objective actuality.”

The actuality of it, does not make it real, but precisely unreal. The reality of the stones of Terezín is measured here against something more real: words. Even the fake architecture of putting words together can be broken down into its own bricks. And the whole thing would completely fall apart were it not for the context of memory and consciousness holding it together.


I am of two minds whether Austerlitz can be said to be about the Holocaust. I mean, of course the Holocaust is ever present in the book; but I am not sure if it is more than a backdrop. But I wonder if since the end of WWII there have been six million books written worldwide about the people who perished in it?