Saturday, June 18, 2005
I picked up W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz at the suggestion of a friend and former writing teacher who thought I might like it--particularly its style. I did. Sebald writes beautifully--long, elliptical, dreamy sentences that gently illuminate places and moments that we are all surely having in our own lives--sights we could see, but are missing, moments that we may only understand as significant in another ten years, etc. One odd and pricking point of interest is that the story begins, in some ways, in the town of Bala in northern Wales; I spent a few weeks there when I was 12--my father was managing the US National Canoe and Kayaking team and we were there for the world championships. It is an otherwise (as far as I know) unremarkable town, though lovely--and I got a charge every time Sebald returned there. He also offered a few settings that I am a complete sucker for--disused train stations, ruined stone buildings in the midst of fields, flooded cities. This is the passage that prompted my friend to think I might like it:
...Elias stopped the pony-trap on the banks of this lake and walked out with me to the middle of the dam, where he told me about his family home lying down there at a depth of about a hundred feet under the dark water, and not just his own family home but at least forty other houses and farms, together with the church of St. John of Jerusalem, three chapels, and three pubs, all of them drowned when the dam was finished in the autumn of 1888. In the years before its submersion, so Elias had told him, said Austerlitz, Llanwddyn had been particularly famous for its games of football on the village green when the full moon shone in summer, often lasting all night and played over by ten dozen youths and men of almost every age, some of them from neighboring villages. The story of the football games of Llanwddyn occupied my imagination for a long time, said Austerlitz, first and foremost, I am sure, because Elias never told me anything about his own life either before or afterwards.
At this one moment on the Vyrnwy dam when, intentionally or unintentionally, he allowed me a glimpse into his clerical heart, I felt for him so much that he, the righteous man, seemed to me like the only survivor of the deluge which had destroyed Llanwddyn, while I imagined all the others -- his parents, his brothers and sisters, his relations, their neighbors, all the other villagers -- still down in the depths, sitting in their houses and walking along the road, unable to speak and with their eyes opened far too wide....

At night, before I fell asleep in my cold room, I often felt as if I too had been submerged in that dark water, and like the poor souls of Vyrnwy must keep my eyes wide open to catch a faint glimmer of light far above me, and see the reflection, broken by ripples, of the stone tower standing in such fearsome isolation on the wooded bank. Sometimes I had imagined that I had seen one or other of the people from the photographs in the album walking down the road in Bala, or out in the fields, particularly around noon on hot summer days, even when there was no one else about and the air flickered hazily. Elias said I was not to speak of such things, so instead I spent every free moment I could with Evan the cobler, whose workshop was not far from the manse and who had a reputation for seeing ghosts....Unlike Elias who had always connected illness and death with tribulations, just punishment, and guilt, Evan told tales of the dead who had been struck down by fate untimely, who knew it.

They had been cheated of what was due to them and tried to return to life. If you had an eye for them they were to be seen quite often, said Evan. At first glance they seemed to be normal people, but when you looked more closely their faces would blur or flicker slightly at the edges. And they were usually a little shorter than theyhad been in life, for the experience of death, said Evan, diminished us, just as a piece of linen shrinks when you first wash it....and it was certainly Evan, said Austerlitz, who once told me that nothing but a piece of silk like that separates us from the next world.

The book integrates a set of photos and images that is not as striking as it seems like it might be (given the attention accorded to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for doing the same thing, for example); I found it a small, interesting addition, but nothing astonishing.

The writing led for me from scene to scene in a drifty way, not accreting into a larger structure (for which I willingly point the finger at my own scattered attentions); Sebald seems to be mounting a charge as a "writer's writer", as a hidden genius that people mention as the shibboleth that marks their membership in a particularly urbane and sensitive company. Who cares. The book is a fine one and worth a read. (3.5 stars) Here's the opening:
In the second half of the 1960s I traveled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks. Not a car chase, to be sure...


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