On W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz

Reading Austerlitz has been a major experience in my life, for the literary quality of the novel which I hope to discuss another day. What I have to say now is not why I am so impressed with the novel. Still, it is odd that the year’s events have placed me in a Sebald-like position.

I did not expect my father’s Y-DNA to be Ashkenazi (I thought this heritage was only on his paternal great-grandmother’s line), and I did not expect the alleged Belgian origins of our name to be in and near the Pale of Settlement. I did not expect to find the names of my 2d great grandfather the immigrant, and his father (b. 1797), and his father (b. 1773), to be recorded in the list of the Czar’s Jewish troops, Mitau-Jelgava. I did not realize that the Baltic countries were where the Final Solution was carried out the most completely, nor that I would contemplate the names of probable cousins in the lists of the dead. There were even people with my name at Theresienstadt.

From September to March I discovered all the Russian documents, which are not mysterious, but only new. From March to now I have been looking at the Latvian traces, which are far closer to me, but also much more shadowy. If I were W. G. Sebald I would illustrate these comments with a reproduction of the reproduction of the passport I found (but have misplaced) of a cousin in law, as it was turned in to police, Riga 1941.

Getting intimate with the Holocaust: the first step was realizing, by reading the Russian papers (which I must read with Google Translate, which makes me the decipherer of a distant world, as is the character Austerlitz) and realizing that some relatives of ours had been shot by the Gestapo because they were Jews and living in Crimea, which was occupied. I knew there were Jews in the family, but had not thought of this. The next, larger step was realizing how Jewish the family really was, including my direct ancestors (not just cousins by marriage, or people in other branches). This led to looking for more remote ancestors in Jewish databases. I learned that the records I was looking for, from the 18th century and earlier, had been burned, and the reconstruction focused on the twentieth century dead. It was in those lists I saw my name.


3 thoughts on “On W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz

  1. Part of why it took me so long to read it was that I had to keep looking things up. The Resnais short about the Bibliothèque Nationale is available online and obviously refers to Borges; surviving portions of the Theresienstadt documentary are available, as is the music composed there, and it turned out that one of my friends’ children had written his senior thesis on one of the composers and performed a concert of the music; I had to review certain things about Robert Desnos and Viktor Frankl; in short, the interextualities are endless and the Comp. Lit. discussions available around this text are many; making a jump one can even connect it to the work of Pedro Granados on César Vallejo. In life, I could actually visit Breendonk when I get to Antwerp, although I think that like Sebald’s narrator, I would be too creeped out to dare to go inside. Anyway, my kingdom for a Comp. Lit. program because this thing really has legs, as they say.

  2. I am now reading the current New Yorker article on Sebald, which points out many more intextualities (including some of the more obvious ones, like Kafka). I have of course determined that Austerlitz the character resembles Sebald himself, who also lives in a melancholy England and is also trying to figure out the war at a misty remove. I did not realize that Michael Hamburger was originally German. (Not in the article are the Bakhtinian chronotope and chronometric vs. horological people, viz. Melville, Pierre, but these too are worth considering.) *Key* for my interests is the recess of narrators, stories narrated at several removes, the search to make a tale out of half-heard fragments of tales, and also the representation of consciousness as a kind of half-finished building, part construction frame and part (allegorical?) ruin (Benjamin).

  3. On time in Austerlitz, here is Jameson on 100 Years, in the LRB:

    “Just as Le Corbusier described the dwelling as a ‘machine for living’, so the novel has always been a machine for living a certain kind of temporality; and in the multiple differentiations of global or postmodern capitalism, we may expect a far greater variety of these temporal machines than there were in the transitional period we call literary modernism (whose experimental temporalities, paradoxically, seemed initially on the face of it far more varied and incomparable).”

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