Not until middle age, and about halfway through the tale, does Austerlitz accidentally recover a memory from his childhood, setting off a chain reaction of remembrance and exploration. It would be ruinous to reveal how and what he discovers, since this processóbeautifully described by Sebald, with genuine suspenseó is the whole drama of the book. Suffice it to say that, in the novel's second half, much about Austerlitz's origins becomes clear, and when it ends he is still trying to find out the rest.
Blurred memories, the slow return of the past, the shadow of the Holocaust on Europeóthese have always been Sebald's themes, and in Austerlitz's life he finds their perfect fictional armature. In fact, the match is too perfect. Mysteries of time past that, in earlier books, were genuine mysteriesógaps in the structure of realityóare here given overly logical, novelistic explanations.
In his earlier work, Sebald hints that time is not organized the way we usually think: that the past is not really past, but can invade the present. In The Emigrants, he writes of looking through an old photo album and thinking that "it truly seemed to me, and still does, as if the dead were coming back, or as if we were on the point of joining them." This delicate, evanescent insight gains imaginative power from its very tentativeness. In Austerlitz, the same idea appears, but in a very different form:
A clock has always struck me as something ridiculous, a thoroughly mendacious object, perhaps because I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood, cutting myself off from so-called current events in the hope, as I now think . . . that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back after it, and when I arrive I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them, although that, of course, opens up the bleak prospect of everlasting misery and neverending anguish.
An insight has become an argument, one so insistent it no longer slips around the defenses of reason. Even worse, this proposal about the structure of time has been demoted, in Austerlitz, from metaphysics to psychology. We don't really believe that time does not pass away; we believe only that Jacques Austerlitz's time has not passed away. He alone can move from the present to the past becauseódue to the idiosyncrasy of his lifeóhe has never moved from the past to the present. We experience his story less as a mystery than as a curiosity.
Admirers of Sebald's work will want to read Austerlitz, if only to follow his development as a novelist. But this novel feels less groundbreaking and uncanny than his earlier books, especially The Emigrants, which is still the best point of entry to his fiction. Perhaps, for Sebald's brilliance to appear, that elusive "I" needs to return to the center of his story.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic living in New York City.