Hardly in His Right Mind


By W. G. Sebald.
Translated, from the German, by Anthea Bell.
352 pages. Random House. $25.95.

What is immediately appealing about the mind of Jacques Austerlitz, the protagonist of W. G. [Winfried Georg] Sebald's splendid new novel, is how it can be at the same time acute and just a little unbalanced. Early on, he suggests that someone "ought to draw up a catalogue of types of buildings listed in order of size, and it would be immediately obvious that domestic buildings of less than normal size–the little cottage in the fields, the hermitage, the lockkeeper's lodge, the pavilion for viewing the landscape, the children's playhouse in the garden–are those that offer us at least a semblance of peace, whereas no one in his right mind could truthfully say that he liked a vast edifice such as the Palace of Justice on the old Gallows Hill in Brussels. At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins."

This odd remark—even more striking after the events of September 11—speaks to us not only about the world but also about the observer, who, as it turns out, is hardly in "his right mind." He is, as we soon discover, unhinged, having been told as a schoolboy that he was not, after all, the child of the Welsh preacher and his dour wife in whose gloomy household he grew up, but that he had been one of a transport of children sent from Czechoslovakia to safety in the United Kingdom just before the German occupation. From that moment of revelation onward, he is eager to know who he is (who is parents were and what happened to them) but he is also afraid of knowing. He never speaks directly either of his sense of loss or his feelings of survivor's guilt, and his curiosity is interestingly displaced so that he absorbs himself for a long time in arbitrary and arcane research–of the kind we have come to expect from Sebald's characters in The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants–that cannot possibly satisfy his deeper cravings. That "accumulation of knowledge," he says, "served as a substitute or compensatory memory. And if some dangerous piece of information came my way despite all my precautious, as it inevitably did, I was clearly capable of closing my eyes and ears to it, of simply forgetting it like any other unpleasantness."

The rhetorical advantages of this strategy are enormous, for Sebald has found a way to write not so much about the Holocaust as about our own failures of memory and imagination. Even those who have made the trip to inspect one or another of the concentration camps find themselves unable to comprehend what happened there, or how to connect those horrors with what they have always assumed as real. Austerlitz's stress justifies, or even demands, Sebald's almost Nabokovian precision. Austerlitz thus goes to the Czech Republic and arrives at Ruzyn airport "on a day which was much too bright, almost overexposed, a dayŠwhen people looked as ill and grey as if they were all chronic smokers not far from death."

The narrative line is of Austerlitz's discoveries about his mother, who was sent to Thereisenstad, and his father, who probably fled Paris–from the gare d'Austerlitz–and got to the Pyrenees only to be interned in the latter part of 1942 in the camp at Gurs. He recounts his discoveries to the nameless narrator who is some version or other of Sebald and is, himself, apparently one of the walking wounded and therefore sympathetic enough to elicit these stories that are painful indeed. This narrator is never overbearing and allows us to draw our own conclusions about what Austerlitz says.

We are not at all surprised when the rare woman who is able to have even a brief relationship with him tells him at the spa at Marienbad, "You are afraid of I don't know what. You have always been rather remote, of course, but now it's as if you stood on a threshold and you dared not step over it." He comes eventually to understand "why I felt obliged to turn away when anyone came too close to me" which was that "I thought this turning away made me safe," although, "at the same time I saw myself transformed into a frightful and hideous creature, a man beyond the pale."

Sebald is too tactful to push too hard, but it must cross any reader's mind that depression is the modern plague, and that there is, in the history of the last century, more than enough reason for spiritual anguish that would express itself in recognizable ways. Some of Austerlitz's observations reach a Proustian acuity, even though we know they are tainted and understand the reason for his distortions. Thus, wandering about in Paris, he reports that it sometimes feels to him as if his father were still in the city, "and just waiting, so to speak, for a good opportunity to reveal himself. Such ideas infallibly come to me in places which have more of the past about them than the present. For instance, if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion."

Presenting itself as a novel, Austerlitz nonetheless makes claims that go beyond those of fiction, with a great number photographs of objects and even characters that, obviously, must have their counterparts in the real world. This was Sebald's practice in his earlier books. He also demonstrates here a resistance to any conventional novelistic resolution–even if one could imagine such a thing.

Having left Austerlitz in Paris, the narrator returns to a Belgian fort at Breendonk that the SS used as a prison, and site. There he takes from his rucksack a book Austerlitz gave him, Dan Jacobson's Heshel's Kingdom, from which he rereads a chapter about the author's search for his grandfather Rabbi Yisrael Yehoshua Melamed who perished in a death camp. It is an almost willfully quirky conclusion, but it is a gesture which, like that of the photographs, points outward from the text to the real world in which others, too, have suffered and have their stories, each of them unique, painful, and precious.

A version of this review appeared in The Boston Globe.