Burying the past in Sebald’s Austerlitz


In Arts One this week we read W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, and I had to miss one of our seminar meetings due to a health concern so we just had one discussion on this rich and complicated text. I wanted to share some thoughts on a few things I focused on when reading it, that we didn’t get a chance to talk about in our one discussion today.

Light, sight, darkness

The novel begins with the unnamed narrator visiting the Nocturama in Antwerp, from which visit what he recalls the most is “that several of [the animals] had strikingly large eyes, and the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking” (4-5).

In our lecture on this book, Jason Lieblang talked about how with this discussion of the Nocturama, as well as the discussion of moths (90-94), Sebald may be asking us to consider a different way of looking at the world: to look at things that are usually ignored, to look into what may often be left in the dark such as the minutiae of life (rather than the monumental, the massive). This connects to the criticism of large buildings in the novel, such as the new Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris: a “hideous, outsize building” that has “monumental dimensions” (276). Instead, “domestic buildings of less than normal size–the little cottage in the fields, the hermitage . . . — are those that offer us at least a semblance of peace” (18).

The eyes that penetrate the darkness are also those of Austerlitz, as he is penetrating the darkness of his own history. After one of his mental breakdowns he begins nocturnal wanderings of London (126), during which he was “always irresistibly drawn” to Liverpool Street Station (127)–the place where he arrived as a child on the kindertransport.

It is in Liverpool Street Station that he begins to finally see into his own past, and we get that through a visual image of the Ladies’ Waiting Room being a place that had been “disused for years” (134) and where the light only penetrated about halfway down into the room (135). Then Austerlitz says,

From time to time, and just for a split second, I saw huge halls open up, with rows of pillars and colonnades leading far into the distance, with vaults and brickwork arches bearing on them many-storied structures, with flights of stone teps, wooden stairways and ladders, leading the eye on and on. … I felt as if the room where I stood were expanding, going on for ever and ever …. (135)

This architectural image connects to his memory, as he says that memories came back to him in this room, “memories behind and within which many thing much further back in the past seemed to lie, all interlocking like the labyrinthine faults I saw in the dusty gray light …” (136).

The darkness for Austerlitz hides the past–his own past as well as the past of Europe, as discussed in lecture, since his story is not unique. At the end of the novel the narrator is reading a book given to him by Austerlitz, by a man named Jacobsen who was similarly searching for traces of his family’s past. He grew up in South Africa because his grandmother left Lithuania after her husband died and so that part of the family escaped the “annihilation” that others of his forebears suffered (297). Jacobsen peers into a disused mine in South Africa:

The chasm into which no ray of light could penetrate was Jacobsen’s image of the vanished past of his family and his people which, as he knows, can never be brought up from those depths again. (297)

As we discussed in class today, Austerlitz doesn’t end up with full answers about his family–he doesn’t know where his mother went after Theresienstadt, and our last glimpse of him is when he is going off to try to find his father–and neither does Jacobsen. At least, so far as we know; the narrator says he reads “until the fifteenth chapter” of the book (298), but perhaps there is more, and more will be revealed. But the point is that we don’t get any more about either Austerlitz or Jacobsen in this novel; their stories are left unfinished.

Or rather, they are left for the reader to finish. Austerlitz states that he felt at times “as if all the 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” (258), but if that’s the case then the future is left up to readers to determine.

But I am digressing … back to light, sight and darkness.

One other thing that is important in this set of topics is the narrator’s brush with losing his sight (starting p. 35). It is after he visits an eye doctor that he meets Austerlitz for the first time in nearly 20 years (39), and it is at this point that Austerlitz starts to tell the narrator his history as he has come to understand it. I don’t fully have a reading on this, but it surely is significant that it is when the narrator is losing his own sight that Austerlitz tells of what he himself has begun to see of his history. And as Miguel Mota said in our lecture this week, the narrator is equally as important a character as Austerlitz, and it may be that Austerlitz gives his photos to the narrator because he sees in the narrator someone like himself. The narrator, too, finds memories bubbling up in a dark place, in Breendonk, in a casemate (25).


Burying the past

I also found, related to the above, several images of things being buried and yet somehow returning to light. I can’t help but think of Freud and repression when we’re talking about burying the past, burying memories.

The clearest example of this is that, under the Bibliothèque Nationale was a warehouse that stored household goods stolen from Jews by the Nazis: “Les Galéries d’Austerlitz,” where military officers and their wives would go to pick out things for their own homes (289). This “whole affair is buried in the most literal sense beneath the foundations of our pharaonic President’s Grande Biblitohèque” (289). As noted in lecture, a place that is meant to house vast quantities of human knowledge is literally burying a past many people don’t want to remember.

This huge edifice of the library reminds me of the fortresses that are discussed in several places in the novel, attempts to defend ourselves against unwanted intrusions that nevertheless continually fail (14-18). Austerlitz’s own attempts at “self-censorship” fail (140), and after his memories begin to resurface in Liverpool Street Station he dreams he is in the middle of a fortress trying to find his way out (138-139). The fortress can also be a defense against what might come up from below, and burying the past with a monumental edifice like the library may also be a similar unconscious attempt at defense and censorship.

Other images of burial and reemergence of what has been buried include that the Liverpool Street Station is built on the site of the Bedlam mental hospital (129-130), and Austerlitz wonders whether “the pain and suffering accumulated on this site over the centuries had ever really ebbed away” (130). Nearby, the remains of the dead who had been buried one on top of the other in graves “dug through existing graves” because there were simply too many bodies to accommodate, are “brought to light” during renovations of Broad Street Station (130).

In addition, there is the village in Wales that was entirely buried under water when a dam was built, the village of Austerlitz’s foster father (51). Austerlitz imagines the inhabitants of the village still living there, underwater, and at times he “often felt as if [he] too had been submerged in that dark water” (52-53), which one could say he is insofar as a part of himself is also buried when he is shipped off to Wales. Austerlitz even thinks perhaps he sees the ghosts of those who lived in the village, those he saw in the photographs of residents (53-54). It’s not hard to imagine the ghosts being those of his own past.


There is much more that could be said about all of these issues, I’m sure, but these are the things that stood out to me, and hopefully some of this can spark new ideas in others!


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