Austerlitz – W.G. Sebald


Pages: 415

Published: 2001
Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

Challenges: Lost in translation, German reading challenge, Read your name; Guardian 1000 novels, WWII challenge Support your local library challenge; Orbis Terrarum challenge

Rating: 4.5/5

“I must have made a mistake, and now I am living the wrong life.”

The Austerlitz of this haunting story is Jacques Austerlitz, who our narrator meets by chance in a waiting room at Antwerp train station in Belgium. They strike up a conversation or rather, Austerlitz speaks and the narrator listens, about the history and architecture of the building. As it turns out, Austerlitz is an architectural historian and this meeting is the first of several, often random, over the course of many years. Each being of similar format, Austerlitz imparting his knowledge and the (unnamed) narrator listening and recallling this for the reader. This could all be quite dull if it wasn’t for the eloquent, almost poetic way that Austerlitz speaks, his vivid yet sensitive thoughts really are beautifully written.

Gradually we learn more Austerlitz’s desperately sad story – at the outbreak of WWII, at 4 1/2 years old, he is transported by train away from his homeland to an isolated, bleak Welsh town. Given a new name and brought up as the son of a devout minister and his introverted wife, in a cold, dark house where the windows are always kept shut, all memories and references to his past are wiped and it is not until years later at boarding school that he learns his real name.

It will be many more years before he can bring himself to take the painful journey to rediscover his past.

“It hasn’t been easy to make my way out of my own inhibitions”

This story is told as one long narrative and is written without chapters. It is also scattered with black and white photos of various topics that Austerlitz is describing and places he has been. I found these old, almost soot like photos quite eerie.

I was totally engrossed in the first half of this book where we gradually learn more about this dignified, yet terribly lonely man. I was slightly disappointed with the second part of the book. Considering the journey Austerlitz is making and the content of his discoveries, it didn’t have quite the impact I was expecting. I think I will be thinking about this book however for quite some time – overall it was very moving.

8 responses to “Austerlitz – W.G. Sebald

  1. Thanks for a nice review Tracey. This book has been on my radar for a while now, since it was spoken about in the latest issue of Five Dials magazine (the FREE literary mag of publisher Hamish Hamilton).

    I’ve got this weird idiosyncrasy when I’m reading, that I have to stop between chapters, so given that you say this novel doesn’t have chapters I don’t know how I’m going to cope with it :o) Are there blanks lines between chapters? That may offer some salvation :o)

  2. Thanks Rob. No, there are no blanks at all just continuous writing and some of the sentences are very long! It is broken up a bit by the photos. It wasn’t as hard work as I thought it might be so good luck when you do read it! I will be interested to see what you think.

  3. Sounds like an interesting book. I hadn’t heard of it before your review, but I think I’m going to add it to my list. We posted an excerpt here on War Through the Generations.


  4. I love the quotes you included! Good review. Sounds like an interesting read!

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