Austerlitz

( 5 )

Overview

This tenth anniversary edition of W. G. Sebald’s celebrated masterpiece includes a new Introduction by acclaimed critic James Wood. Austerlitz is the story of a man’s search for the answer to his life’s central riddle. A small child when he comes to England on a Kindertransport in the summer of 1939, Jacques Austerlitz is told nothing of his real family by the Welsh Methodist minister and his wife who raise him. When he is a much older man, fleeting memories return to him, and obeying an instinct he only dimly ...

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Austerlitz

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Overview

This tenth anniversary edition of W. G. Sebald’s celebrated masterpiece includes a new Introduction by acclaimed critic James Wood. Austerlitz is the story of a man’s search for the answer to his life’s central riddle. A small child when he comes to England on a Kindertransport in the summer of 1939, Jacques Austerlitz is told nothing of his real family by the Welsh Methodist minister and his wife who raise him. When he is a much older man, fleeting memories return to him, and obeying an instinct he only dimly understands, Austerlitz follows their trail back to the world he left behind a half century before. There, faced with the void at the heart of twentieth-century Europe, he struggles to rescue his heritage from oblivion.

Winner of the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award, Fiction.
Winner of the Berlin Literature and Literatur Nord prizes and the Los Angeles Times Book Award.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[A] beautiful novel . . . quietly breathtaking . . . Sebald contrives not to offer an ordinary, straightforward recital. For what is so delicate is how Sebald makes Austerlitz’s story a broken, recessed enigma whose meaning the reader must impossibly rescue.”—James Wood, from the Introduction
 
“Sebald stands with Primo Levi as the prime speaker of the Holocaust and, with him, the prime contradiction of Adorno’s dictum that after it, there can be no art.”—Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review
 
“Sebald is a rare and elusive species . . . but still, he is an easy read, just as Kafka is. . . . He is an addiction, and once buttonholed by his books, you have neither the wish nor the will to tear yourself away.”—Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

“Sebald’s final novel; his masterpiece, and one of the supreme works of art of our time.”—John Banville, The Guardian

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF 2001 BY
THE LOS ANGELES TIMES • NEW YORK MAGAZINE • ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY
 
Winner of the Koret Jewish Book Award,
the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize,
and the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize
 
Translator Anthea Bell—Recipient of the Schlegel-Tieck Prize and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize for
Outstanding Translation from German into English

From The Critics
The new European discovery of highbrow American critics is German writer W.G. Sebald. "What would a noble literary enterprise look like?" asks Susan Sontag, who replies, "One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W.G. Sebald." He has published translations of three mixed-genre books since 1996: The Emigrants, linked stories that have been compared to those of Vladimir Nabokov; The Rings of Saturn, a travel narrative likened to the work of Italo Calvino; and Vertigo, a novel called Proustian and Kafkaesque. These same names will reappear in reviews of Austerlitz, which shares qualities with Sebald's earlier works. Again the book follows a refined and preternaturally perceptive protagonist visiting offbeat European spaces. Again the prose is, to use an American comparison, Jamesian: delicate, infolding, elegiac, almost private. But in Austerlitz, Sebald's subject is—or becomes—more explicitly public: Czech Jews caught in the Holocaust.

At fifteen, a boy named Dafydd Elias, adopted at four in 1939 and living in Wales, learns that his real name is Jacques Austerlitz. He becomes a student of architectural history, lives an ascetic life in London as a lecturer on art history, takes early retirement in 1991 and belatedly, very belatedly, pursues his past, which takes him to Czechoslovakia. In Prague, Austerlitz discovers that his parents were Jewish, that they shipped him away to safety, that his father escaped to Paris and that his mother probably died in a specially constructed ghetto at Terezin, which Austerlitz visits. Eventually he travels to Paris to investigate what happened to his father, whomay have been one of 13,000 Jews rounded up in 1942. I retell the plot of Austerlitz because without this information, most readers might never get to the novel's second half and the story of Austerlitz's parents, both of which seem intentionally withheld. Austerlitz confesses to repressing early memories he could have recovered. Late in his life, he does tell his findings to an unnamed narrator; unfortunately, like Austerlitz, he too resists knowing the past.

Since Sebald enjoys digressing, assembling curiosities and displaying his esoteric learning, readers must wait for the author to tell the story that gives the novel its weight. While waiting, I wondered if Austerlitz actually existed or if the narrator invented him as a double. The narrator coincidentally meets Austerlitz in Belgium several times in 1967, and then they run into each other twenty years later in London in a scene resembling the setting of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Man of the Crowd," in which a sickly narrator (like Sebald's) stalks an alter ego in his nocturnal wanderings. Austerlitz's travels are literal, literary and dreamed, and the narrator dutifully writes all of them down.

I admire European sophistication as much as the next guy at The New York Review of Books, and I enjoy literary detection of the Nabokov kind, and I even find interesting the My Dinner With André monologue Sebald employs, but his treatment of the Holocaust disturbs me. The novel is like a painstakingly embroidered bedspread with the extermination of the Jews in the center—yes, in the center as cause of the rest—but this center is very small in proportion to all the intricate, abstract patterning that surrounds it.

In Austerlitz, as in the fortifications Austerlitz describes, there is a "tendency towards paranoid elaboration." The elaborate patterns are imagistic (a submerged town, squirrels burying food, characters suppressing memories), referential (historical fortifications, prisons, paintings) and linguistic ("Austerlitz" is a battle, a railway station in Paris and a gallery of goods collected from Jews during the Nazi occupation of Paris). Sebald ingeniously collects and connects, but his stitches often seem self-indulgent, and the patterns are sometimes self-congratulating metaphors for the atemporal and associative movement of his book. The photographs Sebald includes should be a welcome antidote to the self-containment of the novel. More often than not, though, the photos exist to extend one of his patterns. Austerlitz comments on the "oracular utterance" of brass mortars in a shop window, and another character speaks of "the mysterious quality peculiar to such photographs when they surface from oblivion." But no matter how much Sebald's characters attempt to make readers feel the "uncanny," a key word in the novel, the photos are as artificial as the mannered, insistently anachronistic prose. When we finally get to a description of Czech Jews forced into a ghetto, Sebald presents the Nazis as if they were plot-oriented novelists.

Perhaps the form and style of Austerlitz are supposed to provide an aesthetic alternative to Nazi efficiency, a text that retains qualities of personal eccentricity and dreamy memory, facets of a European culture that Nazis attempted to destroy. Maybe, but I don't believe it. Just as finally I don't believe in Austerlitz or the narrator or the photographs, just as I don't believe in what Sontag calls Sebald's "nobility." Here's what I do believe: The Holocaust should not be an occasion for embroidery.
—by Tom LeClair

Publishers Weekly
The ghost of what historian Peter Gay calls "the bourgeois experience," molded in the liberalism and neurasthenia of the 19th century and destroyed in the wars and concentration camps of the 20th century, haunts W.G. Sebald's unique novels. His latest concerns the melancholic life of Jacques Austerlitz who, justifiably, exclaims, "At some point in the past, I thought, I must have made a mistake, and now I am living the wrong life." The unnamed narrator met Austerlitz, an architectural historian, in Belgium in the '60s, then lost track of his friend in the '70s. When they accidentally run into each other in 1996, Austerlitz tells the story that occupies the rest of the book the story of Austerlitz's life. For a long time, Austerlitz did not know his real mother and father were Prague Jews his first memories were of his foster parents, a joyless Welsh couple. While exploring the Liverpool Street railroad station in London, Austerlitz experiences a flashback of himself as a four-year-old. Gradually, he tracks his history, from his birth in Prague to a cultivated couple through his flight to England, on the eve of WWII, on a train filled with refugee children. His mother, Agata, was deported first to Theresienstadt and then, presumably, to Auschwitz. His father disappeared in Paris. Austerlitz's isolation and depression deepen after learning these facts. As Sebald's readers will expect, the novel is filled with scholarly digressions, ranging from the natural history of moths to the typically overbearing architecture of the Central European spas. In this novel as in previous ones, Sebald writes as if Walter Benjamin's terrible "angel of history" were perched on his shoulder. B&w photos. (Oct.)Forecast: Gambling (safely) on Sebald's progress from cult favorite to major figure, Random House has picked up the author from former publisher New Directions and is sending him on an author tour. Though his latest isn't as startling and exciting as The Emigrants or The Rings of Saturn, it is a significant achievement, and Sebald should continue to attract ever more attention. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This tremendously emotional novel is far easier to sum up than to evaluate: Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian, tells his life story to the unnamed narrator over the course of 30 years. What unfolds is the tale of one man's search for the truth behind his identity after he learned that the Welsh couple who raised him are not his real parents. He discovers that his birth parents were Prague Jews who sent him to England in 1939 on a Kindertransport before being deported to concentration camps. Contrary to what some say, Sebald is not an easy read. In fact, this novel, much like his previous ones (The Emigrants, Vertigo), cries to be reread before it even ends. Sebald constructs the narrative as if to convey that even the mundane seems more meaningful if we are unaware of the facts. The black-and-white photographs scattered throughout do not add to the depth of the story, but they do add to its genuineness, serving to validate the events and reconstruct the novel as a tangible historical document. Ultimately, the narrative transcends fiction and becomes history. The overbearing details of architectural history that saturate much of the text are the only distractions. Ultimately, this is a work of rare originality. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/01.] Mirela Roncevic, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812982619
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/6/2011
  • Series: Modern Library Paperbacks Series
  • Edition description: 10th Anniversary Edition
  • Edition number: 10
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 117,607
  • Product dimensions: 5.34 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

W.G. Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgau, Germany, in 1944. He studied German language and literature in Freiburg, Switzerland, and Manchester. He has taught at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, since 1970, becoming professor of European literature in 1987, and from 1989 to 194 was the first director of the British Center for Literary Translation. His three previous books have won a number of international awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Award for fiction, the Berlin Literature Prize, and the Literatur Nord Prize.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

In the second half of the 1960s I traveled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks. On one of these Belgian excursions which, as it seemed to me, always took me further and further abroad, I came on a glorious early summer's day to the city of Antwerp, known to me previously only by name. Even on my arrival, as the train rolled slowly over the viaduct with its curious pointed turrets on both sides and into the dark station concourse, I had begun to feel unwell, and this sense of indisposition persisted for the whole of my visit to Belgium on that occasion. I still remember the uncertainty of my footsteps as I walked all round the inner city, down Jeruzalemstraat, Nachtegaalstraat, Pelikaanstraat, Paradijsstraat, Immerseelstraat, and many other streets and alleyways, until at last, plagued by a headache and my uneasy thoughts, I took refuge in the zoo by the Astridplein, next to the Centraal Station, waiting for the pain to subside. I sat there on a bench in dappled shade, beside an aviary full of brightly feathered finches and siskins fluttering about. As the afternoon drew to a close I walked through the park, and finally went to see the Nocturama, which had first been opened only a few months earlier. It was some time before my eyes became used to its artificial dusk and I could make out different animals leading their sombrous lives behind the glass by the light of a pale moon. I cannot now recall exactly what creatures I saw on that visit to the Antwerp Nocturama, but there were probably bats and jerboas from Egypt and the Gobi Desert, native European hedgehogs and owls, Australian opossums, pine martens, dormice, and lemurs, leaping from branch to branch, darting back and forth over the grayish-yellow sandy ground, or disappearing into a bamboo thicket. The only animal which has remained lingering in my memory is the raccoon. I watched it for a long time as it sat beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it to escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own. Otherwise, all I remember of the denizens of the Nocturama is that several of them had strikingly large eyes, and the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking. I believe that my mind also dwelt on the question of whether the electric light was turned on for the creatures in the Nocturama when real night fell and the zoo was closed to the public, so that as day dawned over their topsy-turvy miniature universe they could fall asleep with some degree of reassurance. Over the years, images of the interior of the Nocturama have become confused in my mind with my memories of the Salle des pas perdus, as it is called, in Antwerp Centraal Station. If I try to conjure up a picture of that waiting room today I immediately see the Nocturama, and if I think of the Nocturama the waiting room springs to my mind, probably because when I left the zoo that afternoon I went straight into the station, or rather first stood in the square outside it for some time to look up at the façade of that fantastical building, which I had taken in only vaguely when I arrived in the morning. Now, however, I saw how far the station constructed under the patronage of King Leopold exceeded its purely utilitarian function, and I marveled at the verdigris-covered Negro boy who, for a century now, has sat upon his dromedary on an oriel turret to the left of the station façade, a monument to the world of the animals and native peoples of the African continent, alone against the Flemish sky. When I entered the great hall of the Centraal Station with its dome arching sixty meters high above it, my first thought, perhaps triggered by my visit to the zoo and the sight of the dromedary, was that this magnificent although then severely dilapidated foyer ought to have cages for lions and leopards let into its marble niches, and aquaria for sharks, octopuses, and crocodiles, just as some zoos, conversely, have little railway trains in which you can, so to speak, travel to the farthest corners of the earth. It was probably because of ideas like these, occurring to me almost of their own accord there in Antwerp, that the waiting room which, I know, has now been turned into a staff canteen struck me as another Nocturama, a curious confusion which may of course have been the result of the sun's sinking behind the city rooftops just as I entered the room. The gleam of gold and silver on the huge, half-obscured mirrors on the wall facing the windows was not yet entirely extinguished before a subterranean twilight filled the waiting room, where a few travelers sat far apart, silent and motionless. Like the creatures in the Nocturama, which had included a strikingly large number of dwarf species-tiny fennec foxes, spring-hares, hamsters-the railway passengers seemed to me somehow miniaturized, whether by the unusual height of the ceiling or because of the gathering dusk, and it was this, I suppose, which prompted the passing thought, nonsensical in itself, that they were the last members of a diminutive race which had perished or had been expelled from its homeland, and that because they alone survived they wore the same sorrowful expression as the creatures in the zoo. One of the people waiting in the Salle des pas perdus was Austerlitz, a man who then, in 1967, appeared almost youthful, with fair, curiously wavy hair of a kind I had seen elsewhere only on the German hero Siegfried in Fritz Lang's Nibelungen film. That day in Antwerp, as on all our later meetings, Austerlitz wore heavy walking boots and workman's trousers made of faded blue calico, together with a tailor-made but long outdated suit jacket. Apart from these externals he also differed from the other travelers in being the only one who was not staring apathetically into space, but instead was occupied in making notes and sketches obviously relating to the room where we were both sitting-a magnificent hall more suitable, to my mind, for a state ceremony than as a place to wait for the next connection to Paris or Oostende-for when he was not actually writing something down his glance often dwelt on the row of windows, the fluted pilasters, and other structural details of the waiting room. Once Austerlitz took a camera out of his rucksack, an old Ensign with telescopic bellows, and took several pictures of the mirrors, which were now quite dark, but so far I have been unable to find them among the many hundreds of pictures, most of them unsorted, that he entrusted to me soon after we met again in the winter of 1996. When I finally went over to Austerlitz with a question about his obvious interest in the waiting room, he was not at all surprised by my direct approach but answered me at once, without the slightest hesitation, as I have variously found since that solitary travelers, who so often pass days on end in uninterrupted silence, are glad to be spoken to. Now and then they are even ready to open up to a stranger unreservedly on such occasions, although that was not the case with Austerlitz in the Salle des pas perdus, nor did he subsequently tell me very much about his origins and his own life. Our Antwerp conversations, as he sometimes called them later, turned primarily on architectural history, in accordance with his own astonishing professional expertise, and it was the subject we discussed that evening as we sat together until nearly midnight in the restaurant facing the waiting room on the other side of the great domed hall. The few guests still lingering at that late hour one by one deserted the buffet, which was constructed like a mirror image of the waiting room, until we were left alone with a solitary man drinking Fernet and the barmaid, who sat enthroned on a stool behind the counter, legs crossed, filing her nails with complete devotion and concentration. Austerlitz commented in passing of this lady, whose peroxide-blond hair was piled up into a sort of bird's nest, that she was the goddess of time past. And on the wall behind her, under the lion crest of the kingdom of Belgium, there was indeed a mighty clock, the dominating feature of the buffet, with a hand some six feet long traveling round a dial which had once been gilded, but was now blackened by railway soot and tobacco smoke. During the pauses in our conversation we both noticed what an endless length of time went by before another minute had passed, and how alarming seemed the movement of that hand, which resembled a sword of justice, even though we were expecting it every time it jerked forward, slicing off the next one-sixtieth of an hour from the future and coming to a halt with such a menacing quiver that one's heart almost stopped. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Austerlitz began, in reply to my questions about the history of the building of Antwerp station, when Belgium, a little patch of yellowish gray barely visible on the map of the world, spread its sphere of influence to the African continent with its colonial enterprises, when deals of huge proportions were done on the capital markets and raw-materials exchanges of Brussels, and the citizens of Belgium, full of boundless optimism, believed that their country, which had been subject so long to foreign rule and was divided and disunited in itself, was about to become a great new economic power-at that time, now so long ago although it determines our lives to this day, it was the personal wish of King Leopold, under whose auspices such apparently inexorable progress was being made, that the money suddenly and abundantly available should be used to erect public buildings which would bring international renown to his aspiring state. One of the projects thus initiated by the highest authority in the land was the central station of the Flemish metropolis, where we were sitting now, said Austerlitz; designed by Louis Delacenserie, it was inaugurated in the summer of 1905, after ten years of planning and building, in the presence of the King himself. The model Leopold had recommended to his architects was the new railway station of Lucerne, where he had been particularly struck by the concept of the dome, so dramatically exceeding the usual modest height of railway buildings, a concept realized by Delacenserie in his own design, which was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, in such stupendous fashion that even today, said Austerlitz, exactly as the architect intended, when we step into the entrance hall we are seized by a sense of being beyond the profane, in a cathedral consecrated to international traffic and trade. Delacenserie borrowed the main elements of his monumental structure from the palaces of the Italian Renaissance, but he also struck Byzantine and Moorish notes, and perhaps when I arrived, said Austerlitz, I myself had noticed the round gray and white granite turrets, the sole purpose of which was to arouse medieval associations in the minds of railway passengers. However laughable in itself, Delacenserie's eclecticism, uniting past and future in the Centraal Station with its marble stairway in the foyer and the steel and glass roof spanning the platforms, was in fact a logical stylistic approach to the new epoch, said Austerlitz, and it was also appropriate, he continued, that in Antwerp Station the elevated level from which the gods looked down on visitors to the Roman Pantheon should display, in hierarchical order, the deities of the nineteenth century-mining, industry, transport, trade, and capital. For halfway up the walls of the entrance hall, as I must have noticed, there were stone escutcheons bearing symbolic sheaves of corn, crossed hammers, winged wheels, and so on, with the heraldic motif of the beehive standing not, as one might at first think, for nature made serviceable to mankind, or even industrious labor as a social good, but symbolizing the principle of capital accumulation. And Time, said Austerlitz, represented by the hands and dial of the clock, reigns supreme among these emblems. The clock is placed above the only baroque element in the entire ensemble, the cruciform stairway which leads from the foyer to the platforms, just where the image of the emperor stood in the Pantheon in a line directly prolonged from the portal; as governor of a new omnipotence it was set even above the royal coat of arms and the motto Endracht maakt macht. The movements of all travelers could be surveyed from the central position occupied by the clock in Antwerp Station, and conversely all travelers had to look up at the clock and were obliged to adjust their activities to its demands. In fact, said Austerlitz, until the railway timetables were synchronized the clocks of Lille and Liège did not keep the same time as the clocks of Ghent and Antwerp, and not until they were all standardized around the middle of the nineteenth century did time truly reign supreme. It was only by following the course time prescribed that we could hasten through the gigantic spaces separating us from each other. And indeed, said Austerlitz after a while, to this day there is something illusionistic and illusory about the relationship of time and space as we experience it in traveling, which is why whenever we come home from elsewhere we never feel quite sure if we have really been abroad. From the first I was astonished by the way Austerlitz put his ideas together as he talked, forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him, so to speak, and the way in which, in his mind, the passing on of his knowledge seemed to become a gradual approach to a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life. I shall never forget how he concluded his comments on the manufacture of the tall waiting-room mirrors by wondering, glancing up once more at their dimly shimmering surfaces as he left, combien des ouvriers périrent, lors de la manufacture de tels miroirs, de malignes et funestes affectations à la suite de l'inhalation de vapeurs de mercure et de cyanide. And just as Austerlitz had broken off with these words that first evening, so he continued his observations the following day, for which we had arranged a meeting on the promenade beside the Schelde.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Foreword

1. In what ways can Sebald’s work be said to create a new genre? Do we know whether to take Austerlitz as fact or fiction?

2. Why do you suppose Sebald incorporates photographs into his work? To what effect?

3. Where does the name Jacques Austerlitz come from? Why do you think Sebald chose it?

4. What is the relationship between past and present throughout the book? What tricks does Sebald play with the passage of time? What does Austerlitz have to say on his experience of time?

5. What sort of mood does Sebald’s use of language create throughout the novel? How does Sebald’s language function in the same way that character and plot do in a more traditional novel?

6. Some critics have called attention to Sebald’s wan sense of humor–a “low-key gallows humor.” What examples of this humor can you find in the book?

7. What type of architecture most appeals to Austerlitz? What do you make of this fascination?

8. Various animals appear throughout the novel. What does the novel make of the relationships between humans and other creatures, and between all animals–humans included–and their environment? How do animals in the novel orient themselves, and what does it mean, throughout, to become literally dis-oriented?

9. What does the novel have to say about the mind’s defenses against great trauma?

10. At the novel’s end, Austerlitz tells the narrator of a Jewish cemetery located just behind his house in London, behind a wall, whose existence he’d only discovered during his last days in the city. How does the discovery of the cemetery replicateAusterlitz’s discovery of his heritage, and what does this link suggest about the connection between physical artifacts and the workings of memory? In what way could it be said that this cemetery’s presence in the novel honors the durability of the world of European Jewry that Nazi Germany attempted to expunge?

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Reading Group Guide

1. In what ways can Sebald’s work be said to create a new genre? Do we know whether to take Austerlitz as fact or fiction?

2. Why do you suppose Sebald incorporates photographs into his work? To what effect?

3. Where does the name Jacques Austerlitz come from? Why do you think Sebald chose it?

4. What is the relationship between past and present throughout the book? What tricks does Sebald play with the passage of time? What does Austerlitz have to say on his experience of time?

5. What sort of mood does Sebald’s use of language create throughout the novel? How does Sebald’s language function in the same way that character and plot do in a more traditional novel?

6. Some critics have called attention to Sebald’s wan sense of humor–a “low-key gallows humor.” What examples of this humor can you find in the book?

7. What type of architecture most appeals to Austerlitz? What do you make of this fascination?

8. Various animals appear throughout the novel. What does the novel make of the relationships between humans and other creatures, and between all animals–humans included–and their environment? How do animals in the novel orient themselves, and what does it mean, throughout, to become literally dis-oriented?

9. What does the novel have to say about the mind’s defenses against great trauma?

10. At the novel’s end, Austerlitz tells the narrator of a Jewish cemetery located just behind his house in London, behind a wall, whose existence he’d only discovered during his last days in the city. How does the discovery of the cemetery replicateAusterlitz’s discovery of his heritage, and what does this link suggest about the connection between physical artifacts and the workings of memory? In what way could it be said that this cemetery’s presence in the novel honors the durability of the world of European Jewry that Nazi Germany attempted to expunge?

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2007

    To make you see

    Occasionally there appears a writer who makes us see the world in a new way. Sebald is such a writer. He notices and concentrates upon details and aspects of reality which otherwise ordinarily go unobserved. So this book is filled with descriptions of things, of places, of sights, scenes, objects which we in the course of ordinary lives go by barely noticing. Sebald observes with precision and obsession, and is a thorough and systematic recorder of these thinglike aspects of the universe most of us ordinarily ignore. He is a philosophical writer but not in a formal way, but rather through the presentation of experience in a reflective and meditative way. The story of Jacques Austerlitz which is at the heart of this work is not told in a conventional way. It is told to the narrator of the work who himself has no name no apparent identity no history in a series of meetings. In these meetings the voice of Austerlitz takes over and the telling tone becomes indistinguishable from that of the narrator. This does not seem to make any difference, in much the same way as the absence of a certain kind of ordinary expression of close feeling seems to make no difference. For the tale is told as travelogue as essay in memory in a kind of detached manner, a manner which reflects the relation to life of Austerlitz himself and Sebald also. Sebald is a German writer born in 1944 who first saw his father at the age of three, when the father returned from being a war prisoner. The father had served in the Wehrmacht and would remain estranged from Sebald. Sebald's grandfather was the male figure in his life. When in his teens Sebald was shown in school a film of the concentration camp Belsen and this totally shocked him, and estranged him from the ordinary German life he saw around him. He would later make his adopted country England his home, though he makes clear that even in East Anglia where he taught German Literature for many years he was never at home. The shock of the past and the reality of the past, and the past never being past are all central in Sebald's work . Thus the hero of this work Jacques Austerlitz a child sent at the age of four from the family home in Prague on the Kindertransport to England is adopted by a Welsh childless couple and raised in a remote world where he too never feels at home. The story of his life in Wales and then at school are prelude to his tracing of his family , and his meeting again with his Czech nursemaid, the woman who closely remembers his parents. Austerlitz tells the tale of tracing the life of his actress mother who eventually was interned at Theirenstadt, and his socialist- activist father who disappeared after the Nazi roundups of Jews in France. But in this work the story is only one element in the whole literary construction, a construction whose atmosphere and feeling, and again way of seeing things are so unique and singular. Here is a small taste of the prose which will give some feeling of the work, though certainly not encompass wholly its descriptive and reflective richness. Austerlitz speaks of losing his power to write. 'But now I found writing such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, and no sooner had I thought such a sentence out, with the greatest effort and written it down , then I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed.' 'If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares nooks and crannies , ith some quarters dating far back in times while others have been torn down, clearned up and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching futher and further into the surrounding country, then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through the urban sprawl any more, no longer knows what a bus stop is for , or what a back yard is, or a street junction, or an avenue , or a bridge.' This is writing in which enormous knowledge from many are

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2004

    To the Ruins and Back

    I had a difficult time getting past the first 30-40 pages, because of the content, and how it didn't seem to relate to anything insightful. I wasn't even certain if the narrator was an actual person, or another persona of the main character, Austerlitz, perhabs he had been writing in a diary, or talking to himself. His addiction to drawing architectural sites and writing notes about the architecture, is the foundation or building block of his character, his life, unbeknownst to him. Austerlitz, not coincidentally was the name of a railway station, and a historical civilization, gone to ruins. Well, much in this book has gone to ruins, the lives lost during the Holocaust, the cities , architecture and cemeteries, the life forces of Austerlitz and the narrator, all seeming to take a turn for the worst, amidst depressive states of Being. But, within the novel, there are analogies, comparisons, subtle, but there, if we look for them...moths, butterflies, their life and death patterns analyzed and compared to human lives. The novel finally made more sense after the first 100+ pages, and things came together a bit more, as far as Austerlitz's ancestry, and more interest develops within his character. He seems to come to terms with his foster parents, his kindertransport to Wales, his identity (not known until he was told by a teacher, just before exams), and his Jewishness. The book ends on both a positive and sad note, and finally we understand what is behind the words and drawings.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2003

    Slow terror of jewish child sent to safety...

    This novel was reccommended by a friend. As I read I thought this is easy reading, not the hammer blows of the holocaust. The hero's stay in Scotland with all those strange words like Llanwddyn, Vyrnwy. It reminded me of Tolkein. I thought I noticed some errors, like when Austerlitz says that his Calvinist foster father preached about purgatory, I thought that only Roman Catholics believed in that. I enjoyed the sytle of writing and I liked the plot and how it unfolded.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2002

    Finally, A Book That Was Meant To Be Read

    Tthe narrator's tale of his odd friend, Austerlitz, is poetic and brilliant. Who doesn't identify with Austerliz and his struggle to piece together his rapidly disappearing past as he ages? Ultimately we are all reduced to this. Sebald's early death in December 2001 gives the book a special gravity. A quote from early in the book, '...the pavilion for viewing the landscape, the children's playhouse in the garden - are those [buildings] that offer us at least a semblance of peace, whereas no one in his right mind could truthfully say that he liked a vast edifice such as the Palace of Justice on the Old Gallows Hill in Brussels. At the most we gaze at it in wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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