A review of the novel Austerlitz by WG Sebald

Austerlitz, which I first read shortly after it came out, is like much of the author’s work, not an ‘easy’ book.  However, you don’t have to be an academic or look for the serious in literature to get a lot out of it. In fact I found that once it got going, the novel’s main story is fairly simple and very engaging.

The main thread of this story concerns the eponymous character Austerlitz, who is in the process of slowly piecing together the facts about his very early life in pre-War Europe. Austerlitz is a jew, and was sent to Great Britain as part of the Kindertransport programme in order to escape Nazi persecution. Much of Sebald’s other writing concerns the nature of memory and how it helps inform and shape our identities, and Austerlitz is in large part another essay in this vein.

However, Sebald also maintained that one of his main concerns as a writer was with Germany and its place in Europe and European culture. Of course this also meant that the crimes committed by the Nazis cast their shadow over his work, whether he alluded to them directly or not. By the time of “Austerlitz”, he finally engaged with the subject of the persecution of the Jews, by making his eponymous main character into someone touched directly that persecution.

Some complain about Sebald’s style, and certainly you have to bear with him, for a lot of the sentences are quite long (I don’t mean to patronise anyone in saying this. It’s just that tight, short syntax is so much the norm these days, from mainstream writing, to websites and daily papers, so that longer, snaking sentences take a while to get used to again). He’s also a very allusive writer, making reference to a myriad different cultural and historical facts and points of interest. If you read this novel then hopefully not only will you be engaged by the actual story, but you will also come away having learned a lot of other fascinating tidbits of information too.

There are actually two different edition of Austerlita in circulation (new and second hand) in the UK. Starved since the author’s death in 2001 of any new substantial ‘product’ to sell, you could accuse Penguin books of cashing in by reprinting “Austerlitz” in a ‘tenth anniversary’ edition a few years ago. Certainly those familiar with the work should think twice about buying this, since the text is the same. However, the anniversary book contains a very good introduction, which is long on insight and common sense interpretation, and aimed at our good friend General Reader rather than just at students and lecturers. This renders Sebald’s work more accessible to all, and in fact it’s useful not only as an introduction to this book, but also to the writer’s whole body of work. Overall I’d recommend this book as a good place to start with Sebald for those new to his work.

As I stated earlier, this is not an ‘easy’ book, because of the demands it places on the reader’s concentration and because of the weighty subject matter. However, the rewards are there if you put the effort in. “Austerlitz”, unfortunately, became something as a memorial to Sebald, since he died shortly after its publication. In it’s own way, however, the book also stands as a memorial to the suffering of so many. For once the hype was justified: Sebald is one of the great European writers, and this is a seminal work in our shared cultural heritage. This edition and Wood’s intro help to put all this into context.

WG Sebald: A review of his collection “Campo Santo”.

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Campo Santo is a posthumously published selection of works by the German writer WG Sebald. It would be unfair to say this book is for completists only, but it would help if you’ve read at least a couple of his major works before you come to this book, because I would not recommend it for people who are new to his writing. This collection stands as a companion to his longer works, since it amplifies some of the themes and concerns dealt with in those books.
“Campo Santo” actually refers to a few chapters of an aborted work about Corsica from the mid 90’s. These passages are full of Sebaldian atmosphere and observation and as such are worth reading. I’m guessing, too, that reading them is as close to looking into his notebooks as we are going to get: you can enjoy them as stand alone pieces, and there are some memorable passages of description, which as usual are leavened by interesting and quirky facts.  However, to my mind Sebald was clearly still finding his way through this material, trying to find the right perspective to bring to bear, and overall it lacks some of the focus and drive of a ‘finished’ work.

The rest of the book contains essays, reviews and speeches made over three decades. Again, they all help give us more perspective on the other books and may well send you off to re-read them. They also reveal much about Sebald’s views on his own writing and literature in general. There are two pieces on Kafka, several on the relationship between German writers and recent German history, and a review of Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Bruce Chatwin which, unlike most British reviews of anything by/ about Chatwin, doesn’t fall into the trap of either praising him to the skies on the one hand, or slamming him as overrated and repeating the more outlandish gossip about his life on the other. Sebald sticks to Chatwin’s writing itself, and confirms himself as a generous, perceptive and above all shrewd critic once again.

Overall this book overall exhibits a quality I really value in Sebald, which is how he tackles extremely important and fundamental questions about european culture in an engaging and original way.