After reading the first three novels of W.G. Sebald, we feel that we know their author very well. Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, and The Emigrants are all narrated by a middle-aged German, native of W., who has long been a professor at a university in Englandˇlike Sebald, born in Wertach im Allgau in 1944, and for thirty years a professor at the University of East Anglia. They tell the story of his travels, of people he has known, of books he has read. But at the same time, we do not know him at all. Did Sebald, like the narrator of The Rings of Saturn, fall into a nervous paralysis in August 1993, after a walking tour of Suffolk? Did Sebald, like the narrator of The Emigrants, have a Jewish schoolteacher whose family was killed during the Holocaust and who later took his own life?
This uncertainty is the stone cast into the pool of Sebald's fiction, from which ripples of confusion spread. The strange beauty of his first three books was born of the reader's doubt about every painstakingly assembled memory, historical anecdote, and photograph. Photographs, in particular, are emblematic of Sebald's technique. On the first page of The Emigrants, he tells us that in 1970 he drove to Hingham along a road that runs "beneath spreading oak trees," and at the top of the page there is a snapshot of just such a tree. Almost two hundred pages later, however, he mentions in passing that he has always been fond of a certain painting by Courbet, The Oak of Vercingetorix, which he also reproducesˇand it looks exactly like the photograph of the tree.
Rather than bolster Sebald's story, the photograph now begins to undermine it. Did Sebald happen upon a photo resembling the painting he already knew, and invent an anecdote to go with it? Or did he actually take the photo in 1970, and later realize its resemblance to the Courbet? As he writes in Vertigo, "the more images I gathered from the past . . . the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way."
Such ambiguity has been the engine of Sebald's workˇuntil now. Austerlitz begins as another personal account, but this time the narrative is quickly handed over to the title character, Jacques Austerlitz, who recounts his history to Sebald. In some ways, the two are not very different. Austerlitz is another middle-aged professor, another Continental transplant to England; when Austerlitz talks, we hear Sebald's voice.
But in his life story Austerlitz differs significantly from his creator. As we know in advance, but he himself only gradually discovers, Austerlitz is not Dafydd Elias, the son of a Welsh pastor; he is a Jewish refugee child, sent to England in 1939 and raised unaware of his past. He learns his birth name as a teenager, but nothing more, and it is evident that this void has created a corresponding void in his soul. Most of his adult life is spent in scholarly research, withdrawn from the world. A school friend dies in an airplane crash, a potential love affair fails to developˇthese are his few close relationships.