On December 14, the German writer W.G. Sebald died, age 57, in a car accident in England, where he had lived for thirty-five years. He had published four remarkable books: fluid, melancholy novel-essays composed in beautifully rich and formal language, and studded with odd black-and-white photos rescued
from the oblivion that was his overwhelming theme. In each book, including Austerlitz, brought out just before Sebald’s death in an English translation he supervised, a solitary traveler undertakes research into devastation (of trees and animal species, of human practices and populations) and conducts interviews among the bereaved, making himself into a kind of tribune of universal loss. About the traveler we know little but that he shares the main features of the author’s life and suffers from precarious mental health, especially a “paralyzing horror…when confronted with the traces of destruction.”
I had read Sebald with uneasy admiration, and learning of his death I felt jolted, brought up short. It wasn’t only that he was in the middle of a great career; there was something in specific I still expected from him, and not until I happened to see a movie version of Hamlet could I formulate my question.
Act I, Scene 2. Queen Gertrude is remonstrating with her gloomy son: “All that lives must die,” she reminds him, “Passing through nature to eternity.” Hamlet: “Ay, madam, it is common.” Gertrude: “If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?”
But we know why grief is so particular with Hamlet: His father has just died. Likewise, in Austerlitz, we discover just why the life of Jacques Austerlitz has been “clouded by an unrelieved despair.” As Austerlitz reveals in one of several huge monologues, he was raised in Wales by a grim Calvinist couple and without any knowledge of his origins. Only as an adolescent was he told of his real name, and not until middle age, when he sits in a London train station slated for demolition, does he recall, in a sudden blow of anamnesis, that he had passed through this station once before, as a child of 4. It turns out that Jacques Austerlitz is the son of Prague Jews, saved from their fate by one of the Kindertransporten that spirited a few Jewish children to safety at the beginning of the Second World War.
Austerlitz’s recovered memory, as always in Sebald, serves only to take the measure of his loss. In this way Sebald is the counter-Proust, despite his preoccupation with memory and the serpentine elegance of his precisely measured long sentences. Memories stand in relationship to forgetting as photographs to unrecorded time and Holocaust survivors to the 6 million dead: They are a small, exceptional minority. They refer, in Sebald, more to the absence of others than to their own thin presence. Page 183 of Austerlitz reproduces a photo of a towheaded little boy dressed in operatic costume as a queen’s page, a picture Austerlitz’s childhood nanny shows him when, searching for traces of his parents, he tracks her down more than fifty years later in post-Communist Prague. She tells him that it is himself looking out from the photograph: