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REVIEW Austerlitz By W G. Sebald Translated by Anthea Bell Random House 352 pages, $25.95 66nd might it not be,” asks a A character in W. G. Sebald’s most recent novel, Austerlitz, “that we also have appoint ments 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 attentionas 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 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 tional plot lines, instead meandering dreamily through landscapes of decay. In his first bookand 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 centereach 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 reappearingthough 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 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 ori An Understated Wizard BY KAREN OLSSON 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 1/18/02