Thursday, 22 March 2018

W.G. Sebald, 'Austerlitz'

I picked up The Rings of Saturn more than 10 years ago, having never heard of Sebald, and now I come to this. A work of genius. A meditation on memory, and especially as it concerns the German people. A tale of great sadness, and of great beauty. Also, as another reviewer put it, the kind of thing you might read at 3 am in a foreign city, jet-lagged, and not be sure the next day what you had read. The narrator is called Jacques Austerlitz, and his parents, from whom he was separated at the age of four and sent to the UK on the Kindertransport, are .part of the memory he seeks to open up. Everything is imbued with detachment, and actual or imminent loss. A woman he clearly loves seems to become unclear at the edges, after a while, and disappear like ripples in a pool. There are themes: of railway stations (Austerlitz is of course the name of one of the great railway stations of Paris, and is named thus for the same reasons as Waterloo in London was named), of moths, of walled spaces, and of narration.  Most of the story is told in the form of narration, and is heavily punctuated with "said Austerlitz", as if trying to secure a story by emphasising the quoted nature of the speech.

I can't read German. The translation is by Anthea Bell, and is of luminous clarity. I was sad to learn quite recently that we will hear no more from Anthea Bell, who is still alive, because dementia has removed her from her work. We are all the losers for that. Did you know that it was she who translated Asterix into English? Asterix is much funnier in English than in French.

Sebald died in a car crash. What a pity the body of work he left is not larger. I don't say this about many books, but I was sorry Austerlitz was not longer ,and I wish Sebald had been able to write more.


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