20 April 2010

33. Austerlitz

Austerlitz - W. G. Sebald

This is an interesting story written in a very unique style. It was originally published in German in 2001.

The narrator throughout the book relates the story of Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian he meets at a train station in Antwerp, Belgium. They first meet in the 1960's. The story unfolds through a series of meetings over the following four decades at which Austerlitz reveals a bit more of the story to the narrator, who in turn tells us.

The story is about Jacques, who until he was 15 years old thought he was Dafyyd Elias, the son of a Calvinist preacher living in Wales. At fifteen his parents have both died and his school tells him his real name is Jacques Austerlitz, but they no nothing more.

This school has a history teacher who is a Napoleon buff and one day is relating the story of his battle at Austerlitz. Jacques then has a direction to begin his search for where he is from and who he really is.

Over the following decades the two fellows meet at railway stations, libraries, museums and numerous other historical places in Germany, England, Paris and Prague. Jacques relays his findings as he discovers he was sent to Wales on a Kindertransport from Prague before the Nazis took over the city. He then went to Prague where he searched archives for people with his name in hopes of finding a trail to follow. He ends up discovering a woman who knew him as a child and was close friends with his mother and father.

He finds out they were never married and went separate directions during the war. His mother was taken to a Jewish Ghetto community in Germany. His father went to Paris.

He follows these leads and eventually finds that his mother died in a concentration camp during the holocaust and that his father left Paris after the war headed to the Pyrennes mountains. Nobody knows where is has gone from there and he is never found.

The story itself is good. The reason I liked this book so much was the way it was written. It is probably the most descriptive book I have ever read. While reading, I kept thinking this author was painting with words. It was that clear a picture that I got as he described a room or a building or a bird or a woman's hat or a seemingly endless array of details. Normally this type of descriptiveness just annoys me. It is just wordy and unnecessary. Sebald makes it beautiful somehow and not dull or repetitive. I kept thinking about Walden while reading this book. Thoreau was very descriptive. Sometimes too descriptive. Sebald reminded me of that level of writing without being annoying.

This is an amazing book well worth the read.

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