U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Writers and Readers, Pens and Texts: An Exhortation for Historians to Read W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz

Guest post by Brad Baranowski*
University of Wisconsin-Madison
The late W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitzis that rare sort of book that one ought not read with a pen in hand but will probably have to nonetheless. This is not because the book is in need of a good critical thrashing or that its development is so hard to follow that one must map out its twists and turns in the margins; on the contrary, Sebald draws everything to the fore in the most illustrative and radiant way: by hiding the core themes of the book right in plain sight. Along the way, Sebald ruminates on man’s historicity as well as Europe’s history, making Austerlitz a “must read” for historians of all stripes.
The major motifs of the novel—repressed memories, nonlinear time, presence of the past, and self-exploration—are clear to the reader before he or she can fully articulate this fact. In this way, the reader walks by Jacques Austerlitz’s, the book’s main character, side as he explores the relation of his own history to that of Europe’s and the connection of his own emotions, long thought dead, to the unexplained anxiety attacks and spells of amnesia that plague him. Naturally, this necessitates a different sort of reading than many other novels require. One does not read this book; one simply is with this book. So why did I have recourse to the pen?
The short answer: the book is simply too close, too intense, when the only thing separating the reader from its exegesis of the ways emotions such as sorrow, lose, and other feelings in the lack family subtly structure our daily lives that one must, regrettably, reach for a pen as a way to push it away when the separation afforded by spectacles alone proves inadequate.
I ought not universalize so hastily, writing “one” where “I” might be more appropriate. In fact, it is.
All along, I had resisted the urge to underline a sentence, bracket a passage, star a page, or scribble some notes along the edge. When Austerlitz, who left continental Europe as well as his parent behind as a young boy on a Kindertransport to England in the 1930s, discourses on his relation of past to present in history, on how he doubts the existence of linear time and wonders aloud if events we think already occurred aren’t really just waiting to unfold in the future, my mind leaped from the text and to a dozen or so directions this could be taken if seriously pursued. To jot down a few of my own philosophical speculations next to those of Austerlitz’s seemed the most necessary thing at that moment. And yet, the compulsion was not without its undertow: a voice harkened me back to the text and I left my pen sheathed. So why did I have no recourse to the pen then?
Chalk up the resistance to Sebald’s haunting prose that, in never quite addressing the real matter at hand, perfectly captures the anxiety and depression of Austerlitz, or the photos that add to the silent discussion between reader and writer, or simply the frank but fair assessments of some of Europe’s most iconic buildings—holistically speaking, the book creates a world that one must inhabit before even attempting to map [1]. Thus the pen seemed, at first, an obstacle to this. After all, how could I be a cartographer before even getting my own bearings down?
In the end, I don’t think I accomplished this latter bit—discovering where I was either in the text or in relation to the text. But that did not hurt my reading of Sebald, that is, not until I turned the page on Austerlitz’s awkward yet touching brief romance with Marie who, like the protagonist, is fascinated by European architecture.
The scene is set as the two travel together on the continent. Austerlitz draws distant as the journey wears on, becoming more and more taciturn, less and less approachable by Marie. The present sojourn has a tacit dimension rooted in Austerlitz’s largely repressed and unknown past, traced along similar routes that Marie and he follow. Felt but not seen, absent but also immediate, Austerlitz’s own unresolved, tragedy-scarred history quickly dictates his reception of the historical sites around which Marie guides him. At first, this passes by unconsciously, at least by Austerlitz. Soon, however, the issue is confronted obliquely:
“We stood there a couple of paces apart, like two actors on stage. The color of Marie’s eyes changed as the light dimmed. And once again I tried to explain to her and to myself what incomprehensible feelings had been weighing on me over the last few days; how I kept thinking, like a madman, that there were mysterious signs and portents all around me here; how it even seemed to me as if the silent façades of the buildings knew something ominous about me, how I had always believed I must be alone, and in spite of my longing for her I now felt it more than ever before (Sebald, 216).”
Marie protests these feelings, discarding them as obstacles to Austerlitz’s fulfillment, to his own mental health, and to her relation with him. These entreaties, though heartfelt and understandable by Austerlitz’s reckoning, fail. Here are his thoughts on the matter:
“That evening in Marienbad, said Austerlitz, I could not admit to myself how right everything Marie said was, but today I know why I felt obliged to turn away when anyone came too close to me, I know that I thought this turning away made me safe, and that at the same time I saw myself transformed into a frightful and hideous creature, a man beyond the pale (ibid).”
After reading these words, I picked up my pen and wrote beside them: “Vivid.”
Vivid indeed. Both Austerlitz’s description and, at least to myself, the fact that I could not resist the same urge that had earlier been thwarted brought home in a bright and radiant way the stakes of Sebald’s last work. Austerlitz does a lot of kinds of work for a novel. It subtly interrogates the relation of contemporary Europe to the Holocaust; presents new insight on old issues concerning artistic representation and memory; speculates on the philosophy of history and its dependency on linear notions of time; and even, on top of all this, experiments in matters of style, weaving Sebald’s unique prose around dozens of aptly placed photos, maps, and images.
Yet foremost to me among all the things it is doing is what Austerlitz does to the reader. Maybe this is naïve literary criticism; maybe it is just idiosyncratic or egocentric (depending on how you read me); or possibly I am just dabbling in pop psychology. But regardless if any or none of these statements are the case, I must assert that the most important work a piece of art can perform is how it reforms or transforms its interlocutors, be these viewers or readers.
As the American rhetorician and philosopher Kenneth Burke was right to note: “Critical and imaginative works are answers to questions posed by the situation in which they arose. They are not merely answers, they are strategic answers, stylized answers. . . . These strategies size up the situations, name their structure and outstanding ingredients, and name them in a way that contains an attitude towards them [2].” Once more, they answer questions for the reader without him or her even knowing at first. Pieces of art, and Austerlitz is undoubtedly this, size us up even as we try to size them up. Novels, painting, songs, folklore, dirty jokes—these are agents, doers. One simply cannot interact with them without having a perspective emerge [3].
What Austerlitzdoes is make an intervention on this accord that is as timely as it is personal. In an age where insurance companies are eager to outsource the work of the therapist to that of the druggist, where issues of anxiety, depression, neurosis, and other mental health issues are things to be medicated as if they were ahistoric, timeless issues, Sebald performs a valuable service. Austerlitz is a stand in for anyone who has suffered in silence from the traces of repressed memories, who has looked at the commercials selling happiness through pills only to wonder: is this condition I feel only chemical in make-up? And even if this were the case, that these issues are merely the result of “atoms in the void” (to have resort to a Greek while talking about a German), don’t these atoms at least have a past? Austerlitz’s response: Depression, for all its chemical trappings, is a historical condition in the deepest sense of that term. Sebald’s tour of one man’s relation—or, at times, seeming lack thereof—to his own past shows this in spades. His present is the past, refracted through the layers of repression, reverberating through crippling anxiety and severe despondency.
The pen, then, is more a mark of Sebald’s success to connect readers to a complex set of emotions—past and present, explicit and repressed. Writing in the margins at moments of particular intensity is akin to a psychoanalyst asking you to linger on a slip of the tongue: you are at first slightly embarrassed by the incident, then outright confused at its meaning, only to be fueled by a deeper sense indicated by a perturbed feeling that whatever you just said actually had larger significance.  Drawing out these slippages that had been lodged within the readers own subconscious and allowing them to spill in the form of ink onto it pages for later reflection, this might be the most potent sign of Austerlitz’sgreatness.
Novel writing and reading is likely more than just a therapeutic enterprise. Indeed, its uses extend well beyond this endeavor into the realm of creating usable alternatives—be these anywhere ranging from a policy or an argument about something—for contemporaries to deploy in the task of living. But that does not mean that its ability to draw out and treat the emotions such as Sebald details should be either overlooked or underappreciated. As Austerlitzdepicts the great difficulty in accomplishing this feat, so Sebald reminds the reader that a novelist’s approach to the Socratic injunction of “Know thyself” provide valuable tools for its undertaking. At the very least, Austerlitz places at the forefront of this endeavor what all too often gets relegated to the background: humanity’s historicity. For this reason alone, W.G. Sebald’s final piece is well worth the read, whether or not you can keep the pen out of your hand.
*Thank you to Andrew Hartman for suggesting that I post something to the USIH blog. Also, thank you to Gregory Jones-Katz for recommending this book to me in the first place.
1. I started Austerlitzon my way back from Paris this summer. After visiting the Bibliothèque nationale de France in all its grotesque splendor, these lines of Sebald were well-received: “In order to reach the Grande Bibliothèque you have to travel through a desolate no-man’s land in one of those robot-driven Métro trains steered by a ghostly voice, or alternatively you have to catch a bus in the place Valhubert and then walk along the wind-swept riverbank towards the hideous, outsize building, the monumental dimensions of which were evidently inspired by the late President’s wish to perpetuate his memory whilst, perhaps because it had to serve this purpose, it was so conceived that it is, as I realized on my first visit, said Austerlitz, both in its outer appearance and inner constitution unwelcoming if not inimical to human beings, and runs counter, on principle, one might say, to the requirements of any true reader. (276)”
2. The Philosophy of Literary Form, 1.
3. Burke recognized an important distinction that is worth flagging. “Many of the things that a poet’s work does for him,” Burke wrote, “are not things that the same work does for us (i.e., there is a difference in act between the poem as being-written and the poem as being-read).” I think that the distinction between these two is more pragmatic than essential: that the effects, say, a piece of literature has on its author can also be channeled by the reader insofar as these authorial effects dialectically structured his or her writing of the text from which readerial effects flow. (A point that Burke would likely agree with, I think.) The usefulness of the distinction, however, is that it alerts the critic to the problems—latent or manifest—that the reader brings to the text, as well as the subtle framing that the text does on these issues, and makes the exploration of these an important factor in any fuller work of criticism. (The Philosophy of Literary Form, 73)

One Thought on this Post

  1. If you’re interested in views of history that try to formulate non-linear notions of time, I’d check out Heidegger. And, I’d also check out Derrida, who, in _Of Grammatology_, assaults linear time, which he claims is not simply the “traditional concept of time,” but, “an entire organization of the world and of language.” Of course, Derrida never gets to/at what may be “outside” this organization of the world and of language. For Derrida, such an “outside” is a dangerous illusion produced by the metaphysics of presence. Rather, Derrida endlessly dislocates the linear concept of time. Heidegger tries to get to/at an “outside,” though. He’s who I turn to for insights into those moments that give us a peak “outside” the metaphysics of presence, moments such as those that Sebald offers in _Austerlitz_.

    Here’s a bad pun: Derrida is never on time.


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