Beyond Genre Essay, Research Paper
Beyond genre Austerlitz by WG Sebald trs Anthea Bell Penguin £6.99 For some reason, plausibility in fiction is becoming harder to sustain, or even achieve. The problem has got so bad that even Frank Skinner has noted it in his autobiography, saying something to the effect that when one reads a sentence such as: “Maria lit a cigarette” one is tempted to react by saying, “Oh no she didn’t”, and throwing the book away. This is not a problem with Sebald, and particularly with this novel, which may say “fiction” on the back by the barcode, but which has such an unimpugnable tang of veracity that when I called up Penguin to check on the publication date, and was asked whether I wanted to speak to someone in the fiction or non-fiction department, I was stumped, and only decided on “fiction, I suppose” after being prompted by the increasingly suspicious receptionist. This is an achievement, not, emphatically not, a failure of tone or technique. For a start, it is written in that very central-European, Thomas Bernhard-ish headlong rush, as if the whole work were itself one single train of thought – the book contains no paragraph breaks, but as it is set in fairly big type, with generous margins, this is something you hardly notice. Besides which, as with Sebald’s other work, it comes interlarded with reproductions of photographs, maps, ticket stubs, architectural diagrams, poignant and arresting, in a manner which both is and is not a gimmick. One of these photos is also printed on the front cover, of the improbably named Austerlitz, in fancy dress at the age (according to the text) of five. As at least one reviewer has pointed out, the child in the picture looks a bit older than five; could it in fact be Sebald himself? It could well be, which makes his relationship to the book all the more interesting. For the Austerlitz of the novel is a man the (nameless) narrator meets in the waiting room (Salle des pas perdus) of Antwerp Centraal Station, studying its architecture. They meet, coincidentally, in London years later, and this time Austerlitz tells him his story, in which his memories begin first with being brought up by a Welsh minister and his wife, but which, through random chance he then realises predate that: his true origins are in Prague, where at five years of age he was sent away on a Kindertransport by his Jewish mother as the Nazis began to make life in her native city not just intolerable, but dangerous. The search for the roots of childhood memory is, in life as well as in fiction, urgent and crucial. Which means that after a certain point in this book, one starts reading it through a blur of incipient tears, as well as through the triple curtain of Sebald/narrator/Austerlitz. Is it this very distancing from the events it describes that makes the book so real, more like a work of history than a novel? Or is it the posture of the narrative, at the same time level and searching – which itself has been so well translated that you cannot help thinking that, while it was written in German, it was thought in English? Sebald, born in Germany in 1944, settled permanently in England in 1970; his evocations of this country are, incidentally, unimprovable. It is hard to shake off the thought that this incredible (by which I mean credible) work is itself an atonement for the acts of the Nazis.