Saturday 20 August 2011

Reading Austerlitz. Nightmares in the Albert Hall

I sat on the open deck at the back of the Holyhead-Dublin ferry – it wasn’t crowded, though the day was quite warm and the sea very calm.  Everything was in shades of grey, and maybe that kept people indoors.  W G Sebald’s Austerlitz got me completely hooked.  I would read for a while, then stand up, walk around for a few minutes, look at the view, the birds – there were, I think, mixed flocks of guillemots and razorbills raft-like on the water.  Then I’d carry on reading.  The journey seemed to last ages, but in a good way.  I got myself off the ferry (foot passengers not told how to disembark, crammed on narrow staircases waiting and then left to sweat it out on a bus on the car deck, full of fumes, until all the other vehicles had left) and through Dublin to Heuston Station in a bit of a daze, though I did notice several empty office blocks.  Then I read some more on the Dublin/Cork train. 

Why is it such a wonderful book?  It seems to surface and echo unthought-out thoughts.  Reading it is like one of those dreams of walking through a vast and undefined building, through doorway after doorway, from room to room.  Each passing into a new room brings a sense of revelation.  Conversely, many of the buildings in Austerlitz are dream-like – Antwerp Station; the modern Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris; the flat in Prague and the house in Alderney St.  Fact and fiction don’t seem relevant; I was affronted when I noticed that the back cover says, near the price and in very small letters, Penguin Fiction.  The German narrator is surely Sebald, even if he isn’t.  I’ve just looked up Alderney St in the A-Z and there isn’t one in the East End, though there’s an Alderney Road.  I’m not going to look up anything else.

Some of the book’s locations are all too real, and sometimes the dream turns to waking nightmare.  The narrator visits the Breendonk fortress near Antwerp, which was used as a prison by the Nazis in the second world war.  The first part of the account of this visit can be read online, along with most of the rest of pages 1-28 of the book and a section from the end.  The following passage comes soon after p28:

My memory of the fourteen stations which the visitor to Breendonk passes between the entrance and the exit has clouded over in the course of time, or perhaps I could say it was clouding over even on the day when I was in the fort, whether because I did not really want to see what it had to show or because all the outlines seemed to merge in a world illuminated only by a few dim electric bulbs, and cut off forever from the light of nature.  Even now, when I try to remember them, when I look back at the crab-like plan of Breendonk and read the words of the captions – Former Office, Printing Works, Huts, Jacques Ochs Hall, Solitary Confinement Cell, Mortuary, Relics Store and Museum – the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.  Histories, for instance, like those of the straw mattresses which lay, shadow-like, on the stacked plank beds and which had become thinner and shorter because the chaff in them disintegrated over the years, shrunken – and now, in writing this, I do remember that such an idea occurred to me at the time – as if they were the mortal frames of those who once lay there in that darkness.  I also recollect now that as I went on down the tunnel which could be said to form the backbone of the fort, I had to resist the feeling taking root in my heart, one which to this day often comes over me in macabre places, a sense that with every forward step the air was growing thinner and the weight above me heavier.                                                                             

The blurred and odd black-and-white photos that appear in the middle of the text, printed along with the words, seem to come from the same mental hinterland as the words, and add to the mystery while also rooting it in the book’s weird reality.  (Only one photo is given a credit.)

W G Sebald is very good at the solitary mind – there are three in this book, the narrator, Austerlitz and, later, Věra.  A chance encounter between the first two leads to a story that ranges from remote post-war north Wales to the Holocaust, Prague and Terezin.  Sebald is also very good at architecture and history; and at memory and forgetting: 

I think it was between Würzburg and Frankfurt that the [railway] line ran through a densely forested region with leafless stands of oak and beech trees, and mile upon mile of conifers.  As I gazed out a distant memory came to me of a dream I often had both in the manse at Bala and later, a dream of a nameless land without borders and entirely overgrown by dark forests, which I had to cross without any idea where I was going, and it dawned upon me, said Austerlitz, that what I now saw going past outside the train was the original of the images that had haunted me for so many years. 

Sheep's Head to Beara
Maybe because the ferry journey on which I started reading Austerlitz was so grey, I felt as if I was in one of the photos, and started looking at the weird ferry architecture – the life-jacket chests like giant coffins, the strange almost pseudo-aerodynamic shapes of the two corners of the ship’s stern – through Sebald’s eyes.  The book’s effect is strong enough to re-order the mind, at least temporarily; this makes it a good book to read if one wants to be inspired to write.  Rings of Saturn is also a wonderful book, but for me Austerlitz outdoes it, in depth and resonance.   I suppose Sebald is one of those binary writers: either one has read him, and is hooked, or one has not.  He died, still in his 50s, in 2001 which is when Austerlitz was published. 

If I could bring one near-contemporary writer back to life to write some more, it would be W G Sebald.  Sebald, who spent most of his adult life as an academic in England, wrote Austerlitz in his native German.  The translator, Anthea Bell, must have done an excellent job; the book reads perfectly, but like nothing written by anyone else. 

Yesterday I returned to Austerlitz to write this.  In the evening I went to a Brahms Prom at the Albert Hall.  As I listened, from high up in the circle, the layers of sound became layers of history and collapse and I kept seeing not the vertiginous tiers of packed seats but a black and white image of a bombed theatre, or opera house, the tiers gaping dark under an open sky.  Later I read that the pianist, Emanuel Ax, was born to Jewish parents in Lvov who had survived the Holocaust but lost many in their families; and that the conductor, Bernard Haitink, listened to the Proms secretly as a boy in Nazi occupied Holland.

Attic?  Photo copyright Andeggs

I only visited the Albert Hall once as a small child, but found it scary and it became the location for a recurring nightmare.  I would be walking in what in my dream was the attic of the Albert Hall – through one small empty half-derelict room after another, each with discoloured cream walls and a blackleaded cast-iron fireplace whose hearth was like the mouth of a railway tunnel – knowing I was going in a wide circle but unable to break out of it, and knowing that in one of the rooms there would be something extremely frightening and I would die.  The visit to Breendonk in Austerlitz is like a grown-up version of that. 


  1. Austerlitz is a wonderful book and Sebald's death (in a car crash in Norfolk, after a heart attack) was a great loss. Reading him is like being with an immensely wise and profoundly melancholy guide to uncovering the layers of the past, whom one trusts completely. The pictures are indeed very much of a piece with the text – from the witty juxtaposition of the eyes of a raccoon and an owl with the penetrating stare of Wittgenstein, to the excavated skeletons at Broad Street station. His memorable comparison of the lines on a map representing a railway to sinew and muscle in a book on anatomy, and its resonance with the Holocaust, has stayed with me.

    Re the Albert Hall: it's interesting how our memories of buildings can
    become entwined in our dreams. Bachelard says a lot about it in the
    Poetics of Space (though I don't have a quote to hand). No dreamlike
    sense of foreboding for me in the Albert Hall, though, just a memory
    of sitting rather near the stage and some very hairy spear carriers of
    the Romanian national opera in a production of Aida a few years ago.
    It was memorable, though, for another event: I was pondering the
    nature of spear-carrying as a metaphor and wondering how the singers
    felt about it when there were loud blasts on whistles and the stage
    was invaded by activists from Peter Tatchell's Outrage group,
    protesting about discrimination in Romania. Uproar ensued.

  2. Thanks Stephen, lovely comment. Sorry I can't edit the weird spacing of your second para. But suppose it's in sympathy with what must have been a disorienting experience!

    Have just found a very relevant piece in the Guardian online, from today - top ten novels of solitude! Was delighted to see that the author, Teju Cole, put Sebald's Rings of Saturn at no.1.