Winfried Georg Sebald, W. G. Sebald, , trans. from the German by Anthea Bell. . Random, $25.95 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-375-50483-9
The ghost of what historian Peter Gay calls "the bourgeois experience," molded in the liberalism and neurasthenia of the 19th century and destroyed in the wars and concentration camps of the 20th century, haunts W.G. Sebald's unique novels. His latest concerns the melancholic life of Jacques Austerlitz who, justifiably, exclaims, "At some point in the past, I thought, I must have made a mistake, and now I am living the wrong life." The unnamed narrator met Austerlitz, an architectural historian, in Belgium in the '60s, then lost track of his friend in the '70s. When they accidentally run into each other in 1996, Austerlitz tells the story that occupies the rest of the book—the story of Austerlitz's life. For a long time, Austerlitz did not know his real mother and father were Prague Jews—his first memories were of his foster parents, a joyless Welsh couple. While exploring the Liverpool Street railroad station in London, Austerlitz experiences a flashback of himself as a four-year-old. Gradually, he tracks his history, from his birth in Prague to a cultivated couple through his flight to England, on the eve of WWII, on a train filled with refugee children. His mother, Agata, was deported first to Theresienstadt and then, presumably, to Auschwitz. His father disappeared in Paris. Austerlitz's isolation and depression deepen after learning these facts. As Sebald's readers will expect, the novel is filled with scholarly digressions, ranging from the natural history of moths to the typically overbearing architecture of the Central European spas. In this novel as in previous ones, Sebald writes as if Walter Benjamin's terrible "angel of history" were perched on his shoulder.
Reviewed on: 08/13/2001