The novel centers upon the character of Jacques Austerlitz, an English architectural historian who suffers a nervous breakdown late in life, followed by the traumatic recovery of his earliest childhood memories, when he had been evacuated from Prague on the Kindertransport in the months running up to the outbreak of World War 2.
The book is written in Sebald's characteristically allusive, digressionary style, situated somewhere between novel, architectural treatise, memoir, and travelogue, the text punctuated with often cryptic black and white images.
The events of the novel are recounted by an unnamed narrator, as he recalls meeting Austerlitz in a series of often coincidental encounters between 1967 and 1975 and then, after a twenty-year gap, in 1996/1997.
Their discussions focus initially on Austerlitz's studies of what he calls "the architectural style of the capitalist era": the extravagant public buildings constructed by the European colonial powers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Austerlitz has been particularly drawn to the ornate railway stations of France and Belgium, and it is in the elaborately decorated waiting room of the Antwerp Central Station that they first meet.
After the narrator moves to Germany in 1975, the pair fall out of contact and it is only after another chance meeting in 1996, this time in Liverpool Street Station, London, that they resume the thread of their conversations.
Austerlitz unfolds the story of the traumatic recovery of his true identity in the years since they had last met.
He was brought up by a Calvinist minister and his wife in Wales who changed his name and completely erased any memory of his real origins. When the minister dies while Austerlitz is a boarder at Stower Grange school, a history teacher who has taken him under his wing reveals to Austerlitz his real name, but has access to no further details than that. Later, when Austerlitz is pursuing his studies in Paris, he has the first of what will turn out to be a series of panic-induced fainting spells accompanied by memory loss.
Upon completion of his studies, Austerlitz returns to London to take up an academic position, which he works at for thirty years before taking early retirement in 1991, in order to "set out on paper my investigations into the history of architecture and civilization". He quickly runs into problems with the project, however, and ends up burning his notes and sinking ever further into depression and stasis. During a nocturnal walk across the city, he finds himself hallucinating in Liverpool Street Station and drawn toward a disused waiting room, where he finally recovers the memory of himself as a child arriving in England in 1939 and being met by the minister and his wife.
This traumatic episode precipitates a full nervous breakdown and it is a year before Austerlitz is able to venture out again. In an antiquarian bookshop, he overhears a radio documentary about the Kindertransport: the evacuation of Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Europe to families in Britain in the late 1930's. Austerlitz remembers standing in a line with other children on a dockside and, on an intuition, he travels to Prague to seek out information at the state archives in the city.
In a sudden acceleration of events, he finds the address of an Austerlitz family living in Prague in 1938, and as he approaches the apartment, experiences an increasing sense of familiarity in the architectural details, smells, and air temperature; he rings the apartment doorbell and finds himself face-to-face with an elderly woman, Vera, who had been his childhood nanny in the 1930's.
Vera gradually unfolds the story of Austerlitz's early childhood: of his Jewish parents Max and Agáta, his evacuation on a transport for England in 1939, the eventual disappearance of his father, who had fled to France, and the deportation of his mother - initially to the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1942, and further east in September 1944.
After spending several days with Vera, during which time he visits the garrison town of Terezin, location of the Theresienstadt camp, Austerlitz takes the same train journey from Prague to the Hook of Holland that he had traveled as a child.
Following further time spent hospitalized in London, Austerlitz reads HG Adler's multi-volume account of the Theresienstadt Ghetto and searches in vain for signs of his mother in a grainy copy of the 1944 Nazi propaganda film shot at the camp.
Austerlitz and the narrator then meet for the final time in Paris in August 1997, where Austerlitz has been researching his father's disappearance. He explains his lack of success finding any information in the alienating surroundings of the city's new Bibliotheque Nationale. Before they finally part, Austerlitz has something of a breakthrough, discovering that his father had been deported from Paris in 1942 for the Gurs internment camp. The narrator leaves Austerlitz as he prepares to embark from another railway station, the Gare d'Austerlitz, to follow up this lead.
Architecture and its metaphors loom large throughout the novel, acting as both the bulwark against his true past that Austerlitz has employed throughout his life, as well as the ultimate key to the recovery of his true identity.
The Architectural Style of the Capitalist Era The location might suggest the Warburg Institute, affiliated with the University of London, and itself an institution that had been transplanted to England to escape the Nazis. The interdisciplinary focus of the Warburg might also have provided a suitable environment for Austerlitz given what we do learn of his researches from the book's narrator:
"I remember to this day how easily I could grasp what he called his tentative ideas when he talked about the architectural style of the capitalist era, a subject which he said had fascinated him since his own student days, speaking in particular of the compulsive sense of order and the tendency towards monumentalism evident in law courts and penal institutions, railway stations and stock exchanges, opera houses and lunatic asylums, and the dwellings built to rectangular grid patterns for the labor force. [...] Why he had embarked on such a wide field, said Austerlitz, he did not know; very likely he had been poorly advised when he first began his research work. But then again, it was also true that he was still obeying an impulse which he himself, to this day, did not really understand, but which was somehow linked to his early fascination with the idea of a network such as that of the entire railway system."
The novel has Austerlitz repeatedly drawn to some of the sites that might unlock the memory of his identity, including the railway termini that he passed through as a child; he is unable to truly access these memories, however, keeping the potential of doing so at a distance due to his maintenance of a rigorous scholarly objectivity. During one of their early meetings, Austerlitz tells the narrator of how, in his studies of railway architecture, he "could never quite shake off thoughts of the agony of leave-taking", but admits, however, that "such thoughts were not part of architectural history proper".
Fortifications of the Mind
The metaphor of architectural fortification can be seen to relate to Jacques Lacan's celebrated use of the same in his essay on "The Mirror Stage". Lacan speaks of the mind as a fortified encampment where the "ideal-I" of the ego acts as a bastion between the destabilizing forces of our own id, on the one side, and the hostile outside world on the other:
"... the 'I' formation is symbolized in dreams by a fortified camp, or even a stadium - distributing, between the arena within its walls and its outer border of gravel-pits and marshes, two opposed fields of battle where the subject bogs down in his quest for the proud, remote inner castle whose form (sometimes juxtaposed in the same scenario) strikingly symbolizes the id."
Our attempts to maintain the fragile integrity of the ego can often lead to an inertia riven by neuroses, Lacan observes. And, echoing the crumbling of defense mechanisms that Austerlitz experiences during his crisis, " incidents of psychosis occur when the fortification breaks down and the subject can no longer distinguish the internal from the external world, when the external world captates the ego."
The Type-Case of Forgotten Things
Austerlitz's breakdown is precipitated when, taking early retirement, he finally gets down to his long-planned book, only to find the project crumbling in his hands.
We learn of his intended subject, "a series of essays on such subjects as hygiene and sanitation, the architecture of the penal system, secular temples, hydrotherapy, zoological gardens, departure and arrival, light and shade, steam and gas, and so forth."
This shading from a neo-Foucauldian politics of spatiality toward an architecture of the experiential and the ineffable plots Austerlitz's overall trajectory as the novel then develops. It is only after he has burned all of his notes and journals and recovered from his breakdown that he is able to piece together his true past through the constellation of small details he experiences approaching his childhood apartment where he will come face-to-face with Vera:
"As I walked through the labyrinth of alleyways, thoroughfares, and courtyards between the Vlasska and Nerudova, and still more so when I felt the uneven paving of the Sporkova underfoot as step by step I climbed uphill, it was as if I had already been this way before and memories were revealing themselves to me not by means of any mental effort but through my senses, so long numbed and now coming back to life. It was true that I could recognize nothing for certain, yet I had to keep stopping now and then because my glance was caught by a finely wrought window grating, the iron handle of a bell pull, or the branches of an almond tree growing over a garden wall. [...] Then there was the cool air as I entered the front hall of Number 12 Sporkova, the metal box for the electrics built into the wall beside the entrance with its lightning symbol, the octofoil mosaic flower in shades of dove gray and snow white set in the flecked artificial-stone floor of the hall, the smell of damp limewash, the gently rising flight of stairs, with hazelnut-shaped iron knobs placed at intervals in the handrail of the banisters - all of them signs and characters from the type case of forgotten things..."
Austerlitz's failure to effect the necessary objectivity over his amassed notes and materials when he comes to write his book can be seen as a breakdown in the traditional subject-object foundation necessary to any scholarly endeavor. Indeed, the objectivity that he has maintained in his architectural studies up until then has demonstrably failed to bring him any closer to his true identity, even when confronted with the spaces and details he had witnessed as a child on the Kindertransport. This sense of being caught in a labyrinth of knowledge echoes in his unease when studying the vast and intricate cast-iron windows of the Gare d'Austerlitz, where two tiny human figures carrying out repairs are "like black spiders in their web."
Later, when attempting to navigate the labyrinthine bureaucratic system of the new Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris in search of evidence of his father, Austerlitz again becomes subsumed:
"I came to the conclusion that in any project we design and develop, the size and degree of complexity of the information and control systems inscribed in it are the crucial factors, so that the all-embracing and absolute perfection of the concept can in practice coincide, indeed ultimately must coincide, with its chronic dysfunction and constitutional instability."
It is only through entering the more mutely receptive state exemplified by his use of photography that Austerlitz comes close to unlocking his own personal architectural code. During his return train journey from Prague, taking the same route he had traveled as a child, he photographs a cast-iron column on a railway platform and, in the process, undergoes a kind of reversal of the subject-object relationship:
"What made me uneasy at the sight of it, ... was not the question whether the complex form of the capital, now covered with a puce-tinged encrustation, had really impressed itself on my mind when I passed through Pilsen with the children’s transport in the summer of 1939, but the idea, ridiculous in itself, that this cast-iron column, which with its scaly surface seemed almost to approach the nature of a living being, might remember me and was, if I may so put it, said Austerlitz, a witness to what I could no longer recollect for myself."
Indeed, his collection of photographs amassed over the years has been the only element of his research to have survived his earlier breakdown and purge. As they part for the final time, Austerlitz hands the narrator a key to his London house: "I could stay there whenever I liked, he said, and study the black and white photographs which, one day, would be all that was left of his life."
- W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 33
- Ibid., 32
- Ibid., 33
- Ibid., 14
- Ibid., 138-139
- Jacques Lacan, "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function", in Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), 78
- "Lacan: The Mirror Stage", CritaLink, retrieved October 18, 2016
- Sebald, Austerlitz, 121
- Ibid., 150-151
- Ibid., 260
- Ibid., 292
- Ibid., 281
- Ibid., 221
- Ibid., 293