Signs you’re not reading an ordinary book:
1. You read a passage and then immediately go back to the beginning of it and read it again, slower, because it was so hauntingly beautiful that you need to re-experience it.
2. You’re pretty sure, by page 20, that the author is going to become one of your new favorites.
3. It makes you impulse-buy a taxidermy moth on Etsy late at night.
Austerlitz, by W. G. Sebald, made me experience all three. It’s completely different than anything I’ve ever read, which makes me unsure how to describe it or figure out who to recommend it to. At its heart is the concept of memory: What we remember and don’t remember and how those memories shape us and how we convey those memories to people we meet. It’s a journey through a life by way of memories – Austerlitz’s – as told to an unknown narrator (who resembles the real life Sebald). Austerlitz was sent to England at age five as part of the Kinder-transport program during WWII, and grew up not knowing his past. Sebald’s description of time, places, architecture are all stunning. It’s not a book you really read for the plot, although the story that unfolds is captivating. You read it for Sebald’s masterful writing and the truths that he unfolds about memory and experiences.
I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite sentences/passages:
The further you can rise above the earth the better, he said, and for that same reason he had decided to study astronomy. (page 111)
You can dispatch a pigeon from shipboard in the middle of a snowstorm over the North Sea, and if its strength holds out it will infallibly find its way home. To this day no one knows how these birds, sent off from their journey into so menacing a void, their hearts surely almost breaking with fear in their presentiment of the vast distances they must cover, make straight for their place of origin. (page 114)
For instance, if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down into the gravitational field of oblivion. It seems to me then as if all moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time. And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak? (page 257-258)
In case you don’t believe the moth purchase story, here’s a photo. It’s huge, it takes up most of a 7×10 frame. It’s terrifying and incredible, and I’m growing quite fond of it.
I also just bought Sebald’s The Emigrants, to see if he really will become one of my favorite authors, and not just the author of one of my favorite books. To be continued.