Book Review by Paul Tebbs
Published by: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 0 241 141257
The borderlines between history and fiction have become a rich seam of ambiguity for contemporary writers. Biographers employ fantasy dialogues and meetings with their subjects; while much historical fiction is distinguished by a sheen of scholarly exactitude. The novels of W. G. Sebald are loosely aligned to this beguiling literary trend. Sebald's fictions meander, often with only a semblance of narrative vitality, through a variety of literary genres: biography, history, travel writing and personal reminiscence. What distinguishes Sebald's approach is the significance of visual imagery. Sebald's novels are punctuated by a variety of visual information - photographs, maps, paintings, drawings, newspaper cuttings, pictures of train tickets, visas, passports: all proffering an empirical visual anchor to the prose. One senses, on occasions, that the narrative possibilities Sebald is able to indulge have been generated by the peculiarity of the images at his disposal. The deployment of images reaches a new level of significance in Sebald's latest novel, Austerlitz. In this novel, photography is not only used as a source of visual information but also as a means through which the principal characterisation and dominant theme of the book are articulated.
Austerlitz tells the life story of an architectural historian (called Austerlitz), who is also an amateur photographer. His story is told by a narrator who meets Austerlitz taking photographs with 'an old Ensign with telescopic bellows' in the waiting room of Antwerp train station during the 1960s. After a number of coincidental meetings which span three decades, the narrator is entrusted with the 'many hundreds of pictures' Austerlitz has taken during his life. It is through these images and recollections of their conversations, that the story of Austerlitz's life is told. Within this fictional construct, Austerlitz's thoughts are only ever reported second-hand making the photographs the most direct access to Austerlitz. But this is only the illusion of a proximity - the use of photographic imagery being just part of the apparatus by which the 'fiction' of Austerlitz is constructed.
Austerlitz was adopted as a young boy by a joyless Calvinist couple in Wales and renamed Daffyd Elias. For reasons of their own they told him nothing about his (or their) past. Only when his two adoptive parents die does Daffyd learn his real name is Austerlitz. It is not until his retirement from academia that Austerlitz addresses the truth of his past: how at the age of 5 he was put on a Kindertransport in an attempt to escape the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.
One of the themes of this complex novel is what Austerlitz refers to as 'the laws governing the return of the past': how the past does or does not become present to the living. Photography becomes a metaphor (and means) for the possibility of this return and it is partly through Austerlitz's relation to photography that his disconnected existence is drawn by Sebald. In one of the recollected conversations between the narrator and Austerlitz, Austerlitz remarks that:
"In my photographic work I was always especially entranced... by the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night, darkening again if you try to cling to them, just like a photographic print left in the developing bath too long."
Austerlitz's interest in photography can be interpreted as an expression of trauma: the loss of family and homeland expressed through an activity that enacts a recovery of the past. One might question why the five-year-old Daffyd can remember nothing of his past (the plausibility of Sebald's narrative depends on this); but this is a recognisable symptom of trauma - the occasion of the original violation unrepresented to the conscious mind.
For most of his adult life Austerlitz studies buildings and takes photographs but avoids seeking the truth about his origin. As he says himself, my life has been 'a tuming away from myself and the world'. Austerlitz's photographs register this profound sense of alienation:
"From the outset my main concern was with the shape and the self-contained nature of discrete things... it never seemed to me right to turn the viewfinder of my camera on people."
To photograph people would be to assume a kinship with them - to act through belonging. The loss of personal history has undermined Austerlitz's sense of being - 'I had no place in reality'. Like architecture, photography can be experienced and practised with only an oblique acknowledgement of one's own or a wider humanity.
Perversely perhaps, photographs and buildings also manifest some of the reality Austerlitz believes he fails to inhabit. At one point he recounts to the narrator a conversation with a relative who refers to 'the mysterious quality peculiar to [such] photographs when they surface from oblivion. One has the impression... of something stirring in them'. Photographs possess an uneasy vitality - giving of 'small sighs of despair'. For Austerlitz, 'we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead...'. In photographs, we frequently encounter the eyes of the dead: eyes that inform us of our own unreality.
Towards the end of this playfully profound novel it becomes apparent the splendidly dressed boy cavalier on the front of the dust-jacket is Austerlitz. Unusually no photograph of the author appears on the back of the dust-jacket (past novels have). One might speculate as to the possible significance of this omission.