|Author||W. G. Sebald|
|Cover artist||Andy Carpenter|
|Publication date||6 November 2001|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
Jacques Austerlitz, the main character in the book, is an architectural historian who encounters and befriends the solitary narrator in Antwerp during the 1960s. Gradually we come to understand his life history. He arrived in Britain during the summer of 1939 as an infant refugee on a kindertransport from a Czechoslovakia threatened by Hitler's Nazis. He was adopted by an elderly Welsh Nonconformist preacher and his sickly wife, and spent his childhood near Bala, Gwynedd, before attending a minor public school. His foster parents died, and Austerlitz learned something of his background. After school he attended university and became an academic who is drawn to, and began his research in, the study of European architecture. After a nervous breakdown, Austerlitz visited Prague where he met a close friend of his lost parents, Vera, who often took care of "Jacquot" when his parents were away. As he speaks with her, memories return, including French and Czech expressions she taught him. The elderly lady tells him the fate of his mother, an actress and opera singer who was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp. From Prague, Austerlitz traveled to Theriesenstadt, and after returning to England via train, with an emotionally difficult journey through Germany, he managed to get a 14-minute video compilation of highlights from Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet, the 1944 Nazi propaganda film, in which he believed he recognized his mother. Vera, however, dismissed the woman from the documentary. Instead, she confirmed the identity of Austerlitz's mother in a photograph of an anonymous actress which Austerlitz found in the Prague theatrical archives.
The novel shifts to contemporary Paris as Austerlitz seeks out any remaining evidence about the fate of his father. He meets up with the narrator and tells him of his first sojourn in Paris, in 1959, when he suffered his first nervous breakdown and was hospitalized; Marie de Verneuil, a young Frenchwoman he acquainted in the library, helps nurse him back to health. Sebald explores the ways in which collections of records, such as the Bibliothèque nationale de France or National Library of France, entomb memories. During the novel the reader is taken on a guided tour of a lost European civilization: a world of fortresses, railway stations, concentration camps and libraries.
Style and structure
Formally, the novel is notable because of its lack of paragraphing, a digressive style, the blending of fact and fiction and very long and complex sentences. One such sentence runs to seven and a half pages and combines the history and description of Theresienstadt. It is prompted by Austerlitz after he had read the major 1995 study of the ghetto Theresienstadt 1941-1945: Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft by H. G. Adler and retold to the narrator as they are walking around London, from St Clement's Hospital where Austerlitz had been admitted in 1993 after his return from Prague back to Liverpool Street.
The novel also includes a set of mysterious and evocative photographs scattered throughout the book, which enhance the melancholy message of the text. Many of these features characterize Sebald's other works of fiction, including The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo.
Austerlitz tells his story to the narrator between 1967 and 1997. They first meet in Antwerp, and then in a few other places in Belgium (they take a ferry together back to England from Terneuzen). Between 1967 and 1975, they meet regularly in Bloomsbury, London, where Austerlitz works as an art historian and teacher; the narrator studies in England and travels to London by train. They lose touch after the narrator returns to Germany: he surmises that perhaps Austerlitz does not like to write letters to Germany. They meet in again in December 1996, in the Great Eastern Hotel, London; the narrator has returned to England and has traveled to London to visit an eye doctor, running into Austerlitz by chance. They talk until late, then meet the next day in Greenwich.
- Austerlitz. München: C. Hanser, 2001.
- Austerlitz. Translated by Anthea Bell. New York: Random House, 2001.
In the United States, Austerlitz won the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the 2001 Salon Book Award. In the UK, the book won the 2002 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the 2002 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Literary Prize. Anthea Bell won the 2002 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize, awarded by the Goethe-Institut Chicago, for her translation of Austerlitz into English.
- Smith, Charles Saumarez (29 September 2001). "Observer review: Austerlitz by WG Sebald". The Observer. Retrieved 11 April 2013.
- Smith, Dinitia (12 March 2002). "National Book Critics Circle Honors 'Austerlitz'". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
- Miller, Laura (9 January 2002). "Our favorite books". Salon. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
- "Posthumous honour for author". BBC News. 12 April 2002. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
- "Sebald and Sacks scoop top honours at the 25th Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prizes". Wingate Literary Prize. Jewish Quarterly. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
- "Anthea Bell Recipient of the 2002 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize". Wolff Translator's Prize. Goethe-Institut USA. Retrieved 22 April 2012.