An Understated Wizard

And might it not be,” asks a character in W. G. Sebald’s most recent novel, Austerlitz, “that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?” For Sebald himself, at least, the answer seems to have been yes. In each of the four books of his published fiction, an alter-egoish narrator wanders from place to place, meditating on the lives of people now dead and on the coincidences that have brought their lives to his attention–as if he indeed has appointments to keep in the past, but doesn’t know when or where they are to take place until the very moments in which they occur. Sebald’s strange, beautiful books are compilations of such moments, uncanny occasions whose larger significance always seems to lie just over the next hill, or maybe just beyond the boundaries of what can be spoken. “Sublime” is a characterization of his work that’s been offered by more than one of the heavyweight critics who have sung his praises ever since The Emigrants, a translation of his Die Ausgewanderten, was published in 1996, and you’ll find no argument here. With the small body of work published before his sudden death in a car crash last month, Sebald had already established himself as one of the most brilliant of contemporary writers.

A German who had long lived in England and who did not start publishing fiction until he was in his forties, Sebald wrote with a kind of understated wizardry, his style at times reminiscent of other 20th-century literary wizards like Kafka and Borges (both of whom are directly invoked in his work) and yet unlike anything that preceded it. His books incorporate elements of travel diary, memoir, and history, along with dozens of black-and-white photographs that “document” both the narrators’ physical journeys and the subjects of their meditations. What holds all of it together is Sebald’s remarkable, haunted, ruminating narrative voice, which makes every journey and every digression seem part of the same circumambulation, as if the narrator is circling the source of his own despair.

His first three novels (if they may be called novels) largely eschew conventional plot lines, instead meandering dreamily through landscapes of decay. In his first book–and the third to be seamlessly translated into English by Michael Hulse, under the title Vertigo–the narrator travels from England to Austria and Italy, and also recounts certain episodes in the lives of Stendhal, Kafka, and Casanova, before venturing finally to the village in Germany where he grew up; throughout, the impermanent and unsettling act of traveling mirrors the act of recollection. The Emigrants takes the form of four short biographies of Germans in exile, whose melancholy stories mark out a kind of panorama of 20th century Europe with the Holocaust as a gaping hole in its center–each of the four exiles, too, seems to have some hole at the center of his being. The scope of his third book, The Rings of Saturn, is even more ambitious, digesting, over the course of a walking tour of East Anglia, the beginnings of modern anatomy, the herring industry, hurricanes, erosion, 17th-century naval warfare, the onset of World War I, Joseph Conrad’s travels in the Congo, the machinations of Chinese empress Tz’u-hsi, and much more besides. The result is a kind of fugue in which themes of destruction and death keep reappearing–though for all its splendor, I found that book less affecting than the lapidary Emigrants. By these inadequate descriptions, his books may all sound unbearably lugubrious, yet one of the hallmarks of Sebald’s genius is that it is not. His work is at once fanciful and sad; in history and memory there is beauty as well as grief.

Published late last year, Austerlitz hews more closely to a traditional plot structure than its predecessors, concerning itself largely with the life story of Jacques Austerlitz, a historian of architecture whom the narrator meets in a train station. Most of the photographs that once again appear in the text are now supposed to be ones that Austerlitz (not the nameless narrator) has taken, while the narrator himself all but disappears. When the two first meet, in Antwerp in 1967, Austerlitz seems a kind of double of the narrator already familiar from Sebald’s other books, erudite and impersonal. In fact, one of the first things he discusses, public architecture in Belgium and its colonial origins, was one of the narrator’s preoccupations in The Rings of Saturn, while his commentaries on other topics, such as the design of military fortifications, echo the commentaries of Sebald’s narrators elsewhere. Yet later in the book, Austerlitz becomes a different sort of storyteller. After a nine-year series of encounters the narrator loses touch with Austerlitz, and does not see him until 1996, when they embark on a second set of meetings. This time, Austerlitz relates his own tortured past. After being sent away from Prague as a young boy in 1938, he was raised in Wales knowing nothing of his own origins, and it is only after a nervous breakdown that he ventures to learn where he came from and who his parents were.

He goes to Prague, where he easily locates Vera, an old woman who was his nursery maid, and who still lives next door to where he and his parents once lived. It is no surprise to learn that Austerlitz’s mother and father were Jews who most likely perished in the camps. In relating his efforts to learn of their fates, this book, out of all Sebald’s work, enters into the most direct engagement with the Holocaust–for though it is present in all his books, it is almost never right in front of the camera. Only in Austerlitz does the accumulation of documents and photographs and stories so plainly confront its ravages.

Sebald died last December 14, at the age of 57, when the car he was driving swerved into oncoming traffic. (It has been conjectured that he suffered a heart attack.) If his death itself seemed like something out of one of his books, one reason for it is that death, and often sudden death, happens over and over within them. The Earl of Sandwich perishes when his ship goes up in flames; a pair of relatives die in a car accident in California; a pilot crashes his plane; a psychiatrist’s father dies when a boiler explodes and his body is “found in a partly poached state.” Hundreds of thousands of Croats, of Africans in the Congo, of Chinese, die at the hands of brutal regimes. Ludwig Wittgen-stein is identified as “the philosopher who died of the disease of cancer in Cambridge in 1951.”

If death is one of his primary themes, then companionship is its counterweight. His learned narrators seek out other learned men, fellow searchers, while many of the books’ embedded tales are about pairs of companions, sharing some portion of history before, inevitably, they are separated. “It was only by following the course time prescribed that we could hasten through the spaces separating us from one another,” remarks Austerlitz shortly after meeting the narrator. That one person in his peregrinations might be accompanied, for a time, by another, seems to hold out the possibility of consolation, even as Sebald’s characters seem inconsolable in the end, doomed to wander no matter what, venturing from one dilapidated old resort hotel to another, dwelling always in a Europe that is finished. Muses the narrator in Vertigo: “Poor travellers, I thought, seeing myself among them. Always somewhere else.”

One of the most harrowing scenes in Austerlitz occurs when Jacques Austerlitz, having learned that a propaganda film had been made at the camp where his mother was interned, obtains a copy of the film and tries to find his mother in it, though he has forgotten what her face looks like. When he doesn’t see anyone who might be her, he has the film altered to play in slow motion, and finally identifies a woman he thinks is his mother, though Vera later won’t confirm it. He watches this portion over and over, the time indicator on the screen obscuring the woman’s forehead and slowly marking four seconds. It’s a tremendous moment, in which the weight of Sebald’s reflections on time and memory, and documentation and artifice, and connection and loss, are collapsed into one terribly sad image. A fake document may be the only possible one. Memory is unreliable and grief-laden, and yet it’s all we have. Without memory, Austerlitz suffers a nervous breakdown, but with it, at the end of the book, he hardly seems better off. He is more stable, perhaps, but no less hollow.

Austerlitz does so much of the telling in this book, and the nameless narrator so little, that the reader is left wondering whether the narrator really serves any purpose, or is simply a vestige left over from Sebald’s previous books. If he serves any function, it would seem to be as an indicator of the departure Sebald has taken from his earlier work. In the beginning of Austerlitz, the narrator pays a visit to a Belgian fort used by the Germans as a penal camp and acknowledges his unwillingness to imagine the prisoners; just before his second set of encounters with Jacques Austerlitz, he is literally losing his eyesight. At the end, by contrast, he sits in the same fort and reads of the atrocities that took place there.

One can’t help wondering what direction Sebald might have gone in next, what other Europes he might have pulled out of his sleeve. Instead, his alter ego on the verge of disappearing, Sebald himself vanished. And yet it seems likely that he’ll be with us for some time.

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