‘Until I was 16 or 17, I had heard practically nothing about the history that preceded 1945. Only when we were 17 were we confronted with a documentary film of the opening of the Belsen camp.’
I’ve read quite a bit about the life and work of W.G. Sebald in the last couple of days, but it seems to me that the above quote taken from a Guardian interview conducted in September of 2001 is right at the centre of his work.
Austerlitz, Sebald’s last book, seems to mumble at you from the dark corner of a rural pub or bed and breakfast. Indeed, the main narrator gains all of his story told through a series of meetings with the book’s main storyteller, Austerlitz.
Austerlitz tells the story of how he discovered that he had not been born and raised in the hills of Wales but had a whole other life he had forgotton, had rediscovered through his love of architecture. I sometimes wonder whether Austerlitz is an imagined character that the narrator has created in order to deal with the revalations of his past
Always, though, we are put in the place of the young Sebald, discovering a past revealed.
It’s no surprise that the first time I read this book it was copy from lecturer, friend, and sometime mentor Dr Martin Randall that it was full of pencilled notes about labyrinths and mazes. The book is somehow a maze that continues to reveal right up until the book’s core, an eleven-page sentence. Here we learn how a rumoured holiday destination became a ghetto, how it later became a death camp, and how each step from rumour to journey, to hell-reality seemed as easy as stepping from one room to the next.
I’ve always said that this sentence is a remarkable achievement for its grammatical accuracy. Now, having read it over and over again for a few days I’m not so sure. What I am totally sure of, though, is that as a device for disorienting and pushing the reader outside and beyond the words on the page it is close to perfect.
In a sentence this long you don’t necessarily remember the details of what you’ve been told but you certainly feel them.