Thursday 8 August 2013

A Labyrinthine Disquisition

I first read about 'Austerlitz' by W.G. Sebald back in 2010 in Susan Hill's book 'Howards End is on the Landing' so when I came across it in a charity shop I bought it, and it has sat waiting patiently ever since. The book has developed a worrying spray of mildew inside the cover after getting a mild soaking during a thunderstorm at Hesfes, in fact the front pages are also still damp and watermarked, but it was the perfect book to take camping because it really needs some serious quiet time; I read the last forty pages or so to a background of some folk music being played on the outdoor acoustic stage.

The cover image of an old black and white photo of a young boy in a very flamboyant formal outfit sets the scene for a historical mystery; who is he, and what became of him, but not in the way you might think. 
"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." (p.3)
There is a Battle of Austerlitz and so I had imagined the book was about a place, but it is about a man and his life, and his search to find things in the darkness of his past. We have a nameless narrator who recalls his first encounter with Austerlitz in the waiting room at Antwerp station and so begins his retelling of the story that Austerlitz starts on that day and picks up on each occasion at their future meetings. I was fifty or so pages into the book before I realised that not only were there no chapters but there were no paragraphs. The writing continues, unbroken, in one solid block down the pages (this was a stylistic technique I encountered in The Road, and it is very effective for drawing you into the flow of the tale). At a couple of points, maybe half a dozen or so in a 400 page book, there are little asterisks that mark a break in the story, a long gap between meetings, just the briefest pause for breath, otherwise the words march on. This aspect of the writing has a kind of mesmerising quality, hypnotic, and when you look up or are interrupted it is the kind of experience you sometimes get from a very long and engaging film when you come out of the cinema and blink in unexpected daylight, coming back to the real world. The other aspect of the writing that also struck me was how he is the master of digression; he would be telling you of a particular incident or event, only to make an aside comment and then go off to describe in exquisite detail a room he found himself in or a person, and then he would digress again, and again, and then finally a page or so later return to the original event and the point he had been about to make. And yet he does this without it feeling as if he is rambling, every word feels as if it has been deliberately chosen and placed. His style also reminded me forcefully of Virginia Woolf; his sentences were often incredibly long and convoluted, with sub-clause after sub-clause that would often take a second reading to be sure of the meaning. And then almost to prevent you getting too overwhelmed he, almost randomly it seems, inserts the words, 'said Austerlitz', so that his name becomes almost like punctuation. It is as if to remind you that our narrator is merely the conveyor of someone else's story; it is rarely any word other than 'said', just a simple interruption to the flow, mostly just once on each page, but occasionally, perhaps for emphasis, it will be there two or three sentences in succession.

As usual it's going to be hard to get across everything that I loved about this book, the way that the writing conveys the atmosphere. It is a story about a stretch of human history that the world has tried to move on from and yet which is so deeply embedded in our memory, in living memory. Austerlitz lives though his childhood and youth before discovering that the part of his life that he had chosen to forget would not stay silent. And then there are the photographs, scattered throughout the book, some referenced so precisely within the story that you would be forgiven for thinking it was all real; of course some of them are real, of real places he visits, but some are chosen to fit in with characters he has created. Of course you are meant to feel they are real, because it is about the idea that history is a story and stories are history, and how do you know what is real, and why is this book less real than a biography of a child torn from his parents to save him from the consequences of war. Austerlitz draws our narrator into this search for the past and at times you wonder if the lines between the two of them had become a little blurred, here they become 'we':

"It was night by the time the ferry sailed. We stood together on the stern deck. The white wake vanished into the darkness, and I remember that we once thought we saw a few snowflakes swirling in the lamplight." (p.41-2)

Describing his school experiences Austerlitz recalls his history teacher's passion for the Battle of Austerlitz; it seems to take on a kind of symbolism for the way history sweeps over such events and fails to understand the significance of an individual day, in the same way that the experiences of individuals are subsumed under that of the general population:

"... as he several times told us, it would take an endless length of time to describe the events of such a day properly, in some inconceivably complex form recoding who had perished, who survived, and exactly where and how, or simply saying what the battlefield was like at nightfall, with the screams and groans of the wounded and dying. In the end all anyone could ever do was sum up the unknown factors in the ridiculous phrase, 'The fortunes of battle swayed this way and that,' or some similarly feeble and useless cliché." (p.100-1)  

It is this teacher who begins to draw the young Austerlitz out of his shell and open him to a new understanding of the world. As well as his own life he gives us detailed background to the events and places that surrounded him, all of which is vital to the atmosphere. His early years are dominated by the impression of cold and desolation. This is his reflection when passing through his former home town on the way to the home of a school friend, the only relationship that lifted the weight of loneliness:

"And every time I set eyes on Lake Bala, particularly when its surface was churned up by the wind in winter, I remembered the story Evan the cobbler had told me, about the two headstreams of Dwy Fawr and Dwy Fach which are said to flow right through the lake, far down in its dark depths, never mingling their waters with its own. The two rivers, according to Evan, said Austerlitz, were called after the only human beings not drowned but saved from the biblical deluge in the distant past." (p.112)

Not only does Austerlitz digress in the telling of his story but his mind wanders into all manner of subjects, upon which he then gives his duly considered opinion (and here is where I came across the word 'disquisition' {a long or elaborate essay or discussion on a particular subject} which I love and have added to my vocabulary):

"... and while he was still busy with his camera he embarked on a disquisition of some length on time, much of which has remained clear in my memory. Time, said Austerlitz in the observation room in Greenwich, was by far the most artificial of all our inventions, and in being bound to the planet turning on its own axis was no less arbitrary than would be, say, a calculation based on the growth of trees or the duration required for a piece of limestone to disintegrate, quite apart from the fact that the solar day which we take as our guideline does not provide any precise measurement, so that in order to recon time we have to devise an imaginary, average sun which has an invariable speed of movement and does not incline towards the equator in its orbit." (p. 141-2)

And then there were myriad lovely lyrical moments:

"After our game  we usually stayed in the ballroom for a little while, looking at the images cast on the wall opposite the tall, arched window by the last rays of the sun shining low through the moving branches of a hawthorn, until at last they were extinguished." (p.158)

followed by a crashing back into the late twentieth century:
"Only at Liverpool Street station, where he waited with me in McDonald's until my train left ..." (p.159)

As Austerlitz gradually opens himself up to the memories he had long denied about his early years he finds himself travelling back to Prague where his unusual name makes discovering his family background surprisingly straightforward. Trapped by her own memories of the events of 1939 he finds Vera, the young woman who had been his nanny, now an elderly recluse. And she in her turn begins a tale for him of the years of his infancy and the threat of war that led to his being sent to safety in Britain. This part of the book creates another layer of storytelling, as Vera relates to Austerlitz, who in turn is relating her words to our narrator, who in turn is relating the story to the reader, so the pages are now punctuated with 'said Vera' as well as 'said Austerlitz'. It is almost as if she intuitively understand what he needs to know, what details he craves most, and how to spark in him his own memories of those years. It is poignant and heartbreaking to read her retelling of his departure and the impact it had on the two women (Vera and his mother Agáta) left behind:

"I have only an indistinct, rather blurred picture of the moment of farewell at the Wilsonova station, said Vera, adding, after a few moments' reflection, that I had my things with me in a little leather suitcase, and food for the journey in a rucksack - un petit sac a dos avec quelques viatiques, said Austerlitz, those had been Vera's exact words, summing up, as he now thought, the whole of his later life." (p.245)

He retraces his mother's wartime experience of having been interned at the ghetto at Terezin and he describes the making of a propaganda film by the Nazis created to dupe the Red Cross and to be used as a tool to counter Allied reports about persecution of Jews. He goes seeking some meaning but finds only an apparently deserted town. Having spent several pages describing in detail the random contents of a shop window:

"I could not tear myself away from staring at the hundreds of different objects, my forehead pressed against the cold window, as if one of them or their relationship with each other must provide an unequivocal answer to the many questions I found it impossible to ask in my mind." (p274-5)

then he finally walks away:

"I found myself outside the so-called Ghetto Museum, which I had overlooked before. I climbed the steps and entered the lobby, where a lady of uncertain age in a lilac blouse, her hair waved in an old fashioned style, sat behind a kind of cash desk. She put down the crochet work she was doing and leaned slightly forward to give me a ticket. When I asked if I was the only visitor today she said that the museum had only recently been opened and not many people from outside the town had come to see it, particularly at this time of year and in such weather. And the people of Terezin didn't come anyway, she added, picking up the white handkerchief  she was edging with loops like flower petals. So I went round the exhibition by myself, said Austerlitz..." (p.277-8)

The intertwining of real events and places with the story is very vivid; it is as if we follow Austerlitz as he discovers for himself this part of history that he had chosen to avoid. The emptiness of the places he goes (several places he visits are similarly devoid of other visitors) feels very symbolic of how alone he is, how alone he has chosen to be but also how the search he is making is deeply personal and solitary. It is intensified as he then also retraces his own journey away from Prague (this one is long, showing off Sebald's meandering style and also mentioning yet again a scene devoid of people):

"As the train rolled very slowly out of the station, through a passage between the backs of blocks of flats and into the dark tunnel under the New Town, and then crossed the Vltava with a regular beat, it really seemed to me, said Austerlitz, as if time had stood still since the day when I first left Prague. It was a dark, oppressive morning. The small lamp with a pink pleated shade, the kind of thing one used to see in the windows of Belgian brothels, stood on the white cloth covering the little table in the Czech State Railways dining car, where I was sitting in order to get a better view. The chef, his toque at an angle on his head, leaned in the entrance to the galley smoking and talking to the waiter, a curly-haired, slight little man in a check waistcoat and yellow bow-tie. Outside, under the lowering sky, meadows and fields passed by, fishponds, woods, the curve of a bend in a river, a stand of alders, hills and valleys, and at Beroun, if I remember correctly, a lime-works extending over a square mile or more, with chimneys and towering silos disappearing into the low clouds above, huge square buildings of crumbling concrete roofed with rusty corrugated iron, conveyor belts moving up and down, mills to grind the stone, conical mounds of gravel, huts and freight trucks, all of it uniformly covered with pale-grey sinter and dust. Then the wide countryside opened out again, and all the time I was looking out I never saw a vehicle on the roads, or a single human being except for the station masters who, whether from boredom or habit or because of some regulation which they had to observe, had come out on the platform at even the smallest stations such as Holoubkov, Chrast or Rokycany in their red uniform caps, most of them, it seems to me, sporting blond moustaches, and determined not to miss the Prague express as it thundered by on this plaid April morning." (p. 309-11)

There is no nice tidy ending, no completion of the mission, life goes on, and his quest to understand the fate of his parents goes on. I am not sure how to draw all my thoughts together because it is so complex, so as usual I will just have to leave it there. The book certainly deserves the praise that has been heaped upon it. There are very few books that I am certain I will read again, this will be one of them.

1 comment:

  1. that is pretty high praise that it would be one of the books that you would read again....i have a shelf of those books....sadly i will say i had not heard of this one, but will check it out...and maybe schedule a camping trip....smiles.


Thanks for stopping by. Thoughts, opinions and suggestions (reading or otherwise) always most welcome.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin