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W G Sebald: Austerlitz (Austerlitz)

Sebald’s last novel is another gem. It is told in the form of a fictionalised biography (so well done that some commentators thought the subject really existed). The main character – Jacques Austerlitz – tells his story to an unnamed narrator and, as in previous Sebald novels, the events of his life and his interests are illustrated with photos. Austerlitz came to England as a four year child and was fostered by a childless Welsh couple. He was brought up as a Welsh boy with the name Dafydd Elias. While he is away at boarding school, his foster mother becomes ill and dies. His foster father is committed to an asylum and then dies. At this point the headmaster informs him that his real name is Jacques Austerlitz and tells him a bit about his background, though much of the information was lost in the war. A good part of the book is about how he tracks down his background. He finds an old friend of the family in Prague and learns that his father had escaped to Paris just before the Nazi invasion but his mother had been sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and probably from there to Auschwitz. He is unable to find any further trace of either parent. He himself had been sent to England as part of the Kindertransport scheme.

What makes this book is not just learning about Austerlitz searching out his antecedents, thought that is fascinating, but also about the learning he imparts to us. Though a teacher by profession, he is also interested in architectural history and we learn both through him and the narrator much about architectural history, such as the history of Theresienstadt, both the concentration camp and the castle that was used for it (which he visits), but also about all sorts of obscure information from Liverpool Street Station in London to Antwerp to various parts of Czechoslovakia he visits. Sebald brilliantly integrates the character of Austerlitz into this study so that we are reading a novel, a biography (learning about Austerlitz and what makes him tick) and a fascinating book of architectural history and how it affects those who live in it. The book is a great testament to an author whose life was so sadly cut short.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Hanser
First published in English in 2001 by Random House/Hamilton
Translated by Anthea Bell