I read this book because it was mentioned as an example of the problems of memory in Charles Fernyhough’s book “Pieces of Light” (which I had read because of an interest in the subject and because it had been given as a link in a Psychology MOOC that I am studying).
I have to say that I found this book to be one of the finest novels I have ever read. I am not a great novel reader, but the extraordinary mix of history, geography, literary criticism and photography linked into the personal story of a man who, as a child was taken to “safety” in Britain from the perils of the Nazi scourge in 1939 on a “Kindertransport” and finished up with a very severe Welsh Calvinist preacher and his sickly wife in rural Gwynedd.
The book is written with barely a paragraph and is a continuous flow of conversation, facts, flashback interspersed with photographs. The description of places such as London (particularly Liverpool Street) is quite simply superb. It is writing of a very high class and graphically represents place better than any novel I have ever read.
The actual storyline is narrated by someone who happens to meet the main character “Jaques Austerlitz” in a cafe in Antwerp. They then meet off and on over a period of years where Austerlitz travels to Prague and other places in the Czech Republic, Germany and lastly France in order to find out what happened to his parents. His mother very probably dying in the Theresienstadt ghetto or at one of the more infamous concentration camps. His father had escaped to Paris before he had been put on the Kindertransport to Liverpool Street, London. He finds out that he had probably escaped from Paris just before the Nazis took over the city in May 1940 but thereafter he loses all trace of what became of him.
The fascination of this book is that it is one of the most graphic novels I have read about the Holocaust and was written by a non-Jewish German! In some ways, Sebald, a product of the 60’s student movement in Germany that revolted against the sterility of post-war West Germany and the way that the events of the Nazi period had largely been swept under a carpet.
Maybe this is a book that could only have been written by a German. But this is no ordinary German. Sebald had become an exile from his fatherland by leaving Germany in 1966. He became a lecturer at the University of East Anglia and lived in Britain (with a one year gap in Switzerland) for the rest of his life. Tragically he was killed in a car crash at the age of 57 in December 2001). At that time he had made a growing reputation as a first-class writer (and not just a literary critic as many of his colleagues were) and was being mentioned as a future Nobel Laureate for Literature.
Having read this great novel I will endeavour to try and read some of his other work, but can thoroughly recommend anyone to read this masterpiece. Notwithstanding its literary quality, it is also a brilliant book about memory (as Fernyhough had stated) in terms of what we remember, what we forget and what we need to forget in order to stay sane!