Austerlitz is a meditation on memory and loss, on what is recoverable after the greatest tragedy. Sebald keeps his distance from the Holocaust. Instead, the Holocaust is seen from fifty years later, and three mediating narrators (the narrator, Austerlitz, Austerlitz's nanny Vera). The story leaves Austerlitz's mother at the gate of Terzin, as if he can't bear to follow her in. His father meets his end without records, without a grave or any sense of closure. Their truncated narratives parallel Austerlitz's own truncated life. He isolates himself from everyone around him and has lost all of his early childhood in a fog. Sebald keeps the horrors of the war at the periphery of the narrative, but they are the unseen root out of which everything else grows.
Sebald recounts the story in a meditative, meandering thread. The narrator acknowledges that his own memory is uncertain, that he remembers things as they couldn't have been. He records how his thoughts and feelings of that moment have colored his memory and even how his present thoughts continue to alter his memories of past events. And all through the book, Sebald gives us gifts of beauty and sly humor: a memory of lantern-lit moths tracing arcs over two boys, an observation about the similarities between night-dwelling animals and philosophers, a mysterious government building with a secret inner heart, a maze of hallways and doors that lead nowhere out of an accident of poor planning.
There's a generosity in Sebald, a willingness to give thoughts and ideas and emotions their proper space, time, and attention that made me want to pay closer attention in my own life. I understand what people mean now when they say a book is "necessary," not in the way that a book might be necessary to me (and many are), but that the writing of them, their existence, is necessary to us all.
The Guardian interviewed Sebald in September 2007, just before his death in December of that year. You can check it out here: