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Austerlitz

by W.G. Sebald, Translated by Anthea Bell
298 pages,
ISBN: 0676974333

The Emigrants

by W.G. Sebald, Translated by Michael Hulse
237 pages,
ISBN: 0811213668

The Rings of Saturn

by W.G. Sebald, Translated by Michael Hulse
296 pages,
ISBN: 0811213781

Vertigo

by W.G. Sebald, Translated by Michael Hulse
263 pages,
ISBN: 0811214850

For Years Now

by W.G. Sebald and Tess Jaray
75 pages,
ISBN: 1904095097


Post Your Opinion
The Weltanschauung of W.G. Sebald
by Eric Miller

The first of W.G. Sebald's apertus in the collection For Years Now (2001) runs as follows:
It is said

Napoleon was
colourblind
& could not
tell red
from green

The little book that this observation inaugurates is itself vibrant with the graphic work of Tess Jaray; the cover of the volume has the bold look of an optical test, brightly red with white dots. Sebald implies that poor Napoleon could not distinguish the hue of blood from that of chlorophyll: therein, perhaps, the logic of the fields he harvested¨fields of men and not of wheat. One of the most famous of these battlefields was Austerlitz: there, in December 1805, Napoleon defeated the combined armies of Russia and Austria. He killed multitudes in many countries; but he also modified the legal codes of some lands that he subjugated to afford their minorities, such as Jews, greater liberties than they had hitherto enjoyed. Austerlitz, Sebald's last work, apart from the as-yet unavailable Luftkrieg (Air-war), has as its hero a Jewish boy, displaced from continental Europe to Britain by the calamity of the Second World War. Unlike Napoleon, the tyrant at the centre of that conflict had no intention of expanding civil liberties. The boy Jacques Austerlitz is adopted by a dour couple, dour and apocalyptic at once¨a Calvinist preacher and his wife, who withhold from him the particulars of his origins, while exposing him to the perversities of a British education and the Wordsworthian sublimities of Welsh hills, valleys and mountains.
Summarized in this way, Austerlitz sounds naturalistic. But, in common with The Emigrants (1996) and The Rings of Saturn (1998), the work relies on certain devices of a marked improbability. The Rings of Saturn, a polymathic excursus, pretends to be merely an account of a therapeutic walk in the country¨somewhat as Henry David Thoreau's Walden affects to recount how it feels to live for a year beside a pond in a forest. Austerlitz's structural strangeness results from the story's not being narrated directly by its titular hero. Another man, as sensitive as the now-mature Austerlitz, performs the role of Austerlitz's indefatigable amanuensis. Jacques Austerlitz has trained as an architectural historian, a specialty that permits saturnine expository arabesques on matters such as the London underground. From the blatancy, even the gaucheness, of this authorial artifice, the temptation to accuse Sebald of kitsch must sometimes obtrude itself on the reader. Why, for example, are the voices of the amanuensis and of Austerlitz not more clearly distinguished from each other? Who would really play secretary so meticulously to every utterance of someone whom he meets almost at random, at intervals of years?
Monologue is the dominant mode of the whole book¨monologue not even modulated by distribution into paragraphs. One almost excessively allegorical anecdote follows another. A typical instance is a meditation on the billiard room of a nineteenth-century astronomer. It has not been disturbed since his death, each ball of the nobleman's last, insomniac game immobile in its place, like planets in a broken orrery. The nineteenth century, the heavens, a mathematical game, the eccentricities of the nobility, a chamber as immutable as Miss Havisham's: surely this approaches kitsch.
But a general digression on kitsch may exonerate Sebald. His eccentric work brings into high focus a truth that figures such as Vladimir Nabokov have been reluctant to acknowledge. Not some, but all of literature is kitsch. That is because kitschiness is really a property or quality that belongs to the reader, not to the writer. For this reason, any author can be parodied; we can convict any author of the Nabokovian crime of poshlust, of material and spiritual pretension¨not excluding Nabokov himself. No satirist can exempt him- or herself from the retribution of subsequent satire. To mandate taste is impossible, though an authoritative voice may scare a generation or two into compliance. Sebald surprises me and makes me love him because he has the capacity to override such strong initial critical doubt.
Austerlitz and the rest of Sebald's oeuvre verge on kitsch especially because they evoke with such emulous affection the hesitancies and mad scruple of the lovely German writers Heinrich von Kleist, Robert Walser and Kafka. A number of passages in Austerlitz simply paraphrase these authors. "You soon begin to wonder why," Austerlitz muses, having clearly read Kafka's parables, "you soon begin to wonder why, apparently because of some agreement concluded long ago, Londoners of all ages lie in their beds in those countless buildings in Greenwich, Bayswater, or Kensington, under a safe roof, as they suppose, while really they are only stretched out with their faces turned to the earth in fear, like travelers of the past resting on their way through the desert." In another place, Austerlitz confesses to a sense of crisis in his vocation as writer that reads like a pastiche of Hugo von Hofmannstal's Lord Chandos Letter.
Yet Sebald secures for himself and for us the living right to use Kafka and Walser and Kleist, a great gift to the reader who has been taught that Kafka is exhausted, Kafka is merely an artifact¨moving but useless, never to be seen again, stuck in an attitude tragico-comical, like the stuffed Passenger Pigeons at the Royal Ontario Museum. So it is, without a wink of irony, that a Sebald character can remark of a McDonald's fast food joint: "the glaring light Ó allowed not even the hint of a shadow and perpetuated the momentary terror of a lightning flash." Kafka might have written such a remark in his diary while Fletcherizing a small order of French fries. Sebald invents personnel who discourse in a way that we hardly imagine permissible any more. He escapes irony not by earnestness but by some lunatic, unswerving hybrid of pastiche with something akin to possession. He thus reassures me of something many would prefer to deny: every style is forever allowable; parody itself may be parodied, and we may outflank it by the deployment of a particularly sophisticated sort of seriousness. Austerlitz, like Napoleon's outnumbered army, prevails over the combined armies of skepticism and derision.
Laurence Sterne's hero Tristram Shandy somewhere announces, to justify his own manner of proceeding, that digressions are the sunshine of life. For W.G. Sebald, they spread, instead, the Cimmerian tenebrosity of a condition more like life-in-death. Jacques Austerlitz talks as copiously as Tristram. Why such garrulity? Sterne and Sebald both explore the linguistic consequences of trauma. For them, trauma begets volubility. Tristram wants to thwart as thoroughly as he can the straight trajectory that links birth with death, disfigurement with destiny, names with bodies; his is a prolix art of cubbyholes and curlicues. His Uncle Toby is likewise an obsessive, or¨in the terms that Tristram proposes¨the dedicated rider of a hobbyhorse. In Latin, obsessio (from which derives the English "obession") means a siege. Uncle Toby's war-games recreate in miniature the conflict at Namur, in the course of which a stone broken from a hornwork apparently castrated him. Toby's obsessive toy campaigning half-redeems an organic loss, and devises a compensatory world out of the trauma of impotency. Uncle Toby lays siege to the place and occasion of his wounding with repetitive solicitude, mournfully immortalizing the circumstances that neutered him.
Austerlitz and other Sebald characters, though siblings, perhaps, of Tristram Shandy's, grope more tenuously, with hazier reliance on transitional objects, toward the origins of their trauma. That trauma is not usually sexual, though Sebald's early¨and somewhat too obvious¨story "Dr. K takes the waters at Riva" does speculate about the nature of Franz Kafka's orientation, surmising a love for men. But the unease of Sebald's characters usually ramifies from the near-extinction of European Jewry in the course of the Second World War. The marvel of Sebald's digressive style is that, rather than seizing on the highest peaks of sorrow and scorning the lowlands, the writer achieves a sympathetic inclusiveness by exploring all kinds of melancholy. The momentous Holocaust would seem to impugn the significance of any less extreme loss. Yet, as though they corporately contributed to the treatises of a Linnaeus of the nerves, Sebald's speakers and writers compose in aggregate a global system of nature and society, and propose that oblique pain may sensitize us to special registers of glum humour, spectral beauty. Disruption of origins opens the sad and generous prospect of everyone's displacement. We are in a labyrinth and none has the privilege of the centre. Circuitousness¨the wandering of feet and thoughts through a cenotaphic universe¨creates the kind of movement that enables an unusual margin of compassion.
Austerlitz contains elements that seem prophetic of W.G. Sebald's recent death at the too-young age of 57, in a car collision in England. The image of the homing pigeon recurs in the novel. A bird-obsessed friend of Jacques Austerlitz's, Gerald, loves these animals and extols their celerity of flight, their sagacity in navigation: "You can dispatch a pigeon from shipboard in the middle of a snowstorm over the North Sea, and if its strength holds it will infallibly find its way home. To this day no one knows how these birds, sent off on their journey into so menacing a void, their hearts surely almost breaking with fear in their presentiment of the vast distances they must cover, make straight for their place of origin." Analogous courage in the face of a void is what Austerlitz himself must muster: but human architecture and human history clutter the domain of human migration; moreover, there remains the insuperable fact that, for him, the place of origin itself has been erased. So Jacques Austerlitz himself more nearly resembles another pigeon described in the novel: "Once, toward the end of last summer, Tilly the white pigeon did stay away much longer than the homeward flight should have taken her Ó and it was not until the following day, when [Gerald] was on the point of giving up hope, that she finally returned¨on foot, walking up the gravel drive with a broken wing. I often thought later of this tale of the bird making her long journey home alone, wondering how she had managed to reach her destination over the steep terrain." A homing pigeon paradoxically embodies two human wishes: to rise above everything and to locate the one place proper to oneself. Emulating his birds, Gerald takes flying lessons, and eventually crashes "in the Savoy Alps." Reflecting on the death of this dear friend, Austerlitz conjectures: "perhaps that was the beginning of my own decline." A fictional character's accident augurs Sebald's own demise, in which both selves (the man and the writer) were extinguished together. Jacques Austerlitz has a male muse in Gerald, even as the narrator of the novel discovers inspiration in Austerlitz himself: a thoroughly male world, with actors as laterally vagabond as Kafka's Hunter Gracchus.
W.G. Sebald's characters have always possessed something of the aura of what the Germans call Luftmenschen, people supported admirably but provisionally by thin air. It is apt that the last of Sebald's books should be entitled Luftkrieg, or Air-war. There, he explores the destructiveness of the element as thoroughly as its clear and buoyant properties. The final apertu of Sebald's aphoristic collection For Years Now runs, in its entirety, as follows:

For years now

I've had this
whistling
sound in

my ears.

Surely just such a sound is what attends the migratory exertions of homing pigeons; and it rings in the ears of the amateur pilot. But the frequencies that Sebald heard were finer than most of us can register, and his death will sadden those of us who found his peculiar aptitude for demi-shades both a liberation and a homecoming. He demonstrates, for those of us who care, that no style is forbidden and no elaboration too excessive, whatever the tone-deaf and the colour-blind may assert.

Eric Miller, author of Song of the Vulgar Starling and the forthcoming Nemesis Divina, teaches at the University of Victoria.
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