Friday, 23 September 2011

1001 Books Review - Austerlitz

It's very easy to get World War II Fatigue when it comes to literature. A lot of writers behave as though they believe that history began in 1939 and ended shortly afterwards in 1945, and this, as a reader, can be annoying. All the same, though, there's something very attractive about World War II from a writer's perspective. It's not just that it was very BIG, and that the good guys were Good and the bad guys were Bad (and in easily recognisable uniforms), but, because of generations of exclusively 39-to-45 history lessons, all of your potential readers know the period, in a deep-down, under-the-skin way. Those dates are in our brains; it makes up an almost unique shared historical shorthand. We've all got these mental countdown clocks, with September 1939 bright red and labelled YOU ARE ALL BUGGERED NOW. Read 1938 and you think one year left!, read 1943 and you start calculating how long it is to summer 1945, and read Jewish and Poland and 1942 and you think, oh shit.

That's what makes it so interesting that Austerlitz's main character, Jacques Austerlitz, who arrived in Wales in 1939 as a very young child as part of the Kindertransport scheme, doesn't know anything about what happened in Europe between 1939 and 1945. He spends the first half of his life trying - mainly unconsciously - to blank it all out, so effectively that when he does come to investigate his past he discovers that he has no idea of the larger background to what really happened to him. We hear the facts of his early life - Czech Jew, four years old in 1939 and we know what he's escaped from, and what must have happened to his lost parents, but he's got to discover it all for himself, as though it was completely new.

It's a weird concept, which is fitting, because Austerlitz itself is an extremely strange book. I've never read anything else quite like it. Really what it is is a work of art that happens to be made up of a lot of words. It's set out as an intense stream-of-conscious meditation on the everything (including moths, battlements, tree roots, railway station architecture, European history, underwater villages and hats), in vast rambling sentences with almost no paragraph breaks. It's to the enormous credit of Sebald's astonishingly beautiful writing style that reading it doesn't feel like being beaten in the face by language - that, and the pictures that appear in it every page or so.

I like pictures a lot, and am all in favour of them where books, especially long and serious ones, are concerned. I have the Artistic Version of The Interpretation of Dreams, which is great - every time the words are about to wear you out, you turn the page and see A GIANT PICTURE OF A FISH EATING A TIGER and you are refreshed. The pictures in Austerlitz are even cleverer, because they actually make up part of the story that's being told. Sebald'll be describing the window display of a shop in some tiny town in the Czech Republic, with a squirrel holding a banjo, and there the squirrel is in photo form, like a visual clue from a massive Europe-wide treasure hunt. Sebald must have actually travelled to every place he mentions in the book and taken pictures of them all, which makes him a nutter, but a very visionary and thorough one.

Austerlitz really is the work of a craftsman.There is so much skill, and so much knowledge in the book that you could read it five times over and see something totally new in it every time. It's like one of those paintings by Bruegel with five hundred tiny people all doing seven things at once in very bright colours, except without the bright colours. Everything in Austerlitz is misty and sombre, all the streets are deserted and all the buildings are crumbling and it is always late afternoon in autumn and everyone is sad. Or dead.

This is not, as you might have guessed, a cheerful book. It's a treasure hunt with no resolution (we never do find Austerlitz's parents) it's a personal tragedy and it's the story, of course, of an international tragedy on a mindboggling scale. Even though I loved it, actually reading it left me feeling sort of hollow and grey inside. I'd still highly, highly recommend it, though. It's stunningly lovely in so many weird and perspective-altering ways, and it manages to make World War II as a topic seem almost new. Just make sure you're feeling really optimistic before you pick it up.

4 stars. And 18.18% complete.

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