Loneliness and abandonment are two themes that I believe pervades Sebald’s Austerlitz and help convey its striking sense of melancholy. Both of them revolve around a kind of ostracization and alienation, a sense of not belonging, which deftly encapsulates Austerlitz, who really has no idea of where his roots are before his early childhood memories become unlocked. Even then, he can only wonder what could have been if he had been raised in Czechoslovakia instead of in London, but he can never return to it. He is in a halfway space between countries, neither one of them feeling truly like home. There is England, which he grew up in, France, where he studied in, and Czechoslovakia, where he was born in. But they are unable to form a cohesive whole together, and Austerlitz seemed stretched across these three countries, never fully tangible in one exact place.
One important aspect of this book is how little Sebald focuses on the complex dynamics between people, instead choosing to explore their inward natures. He could have constructed a network of acquaintances and close friends that Austerlitz interacts with, considering that it is often a person’s friends that shape a character’s personality, but it is his absence of these that allows him to tell his story in full to the narrator, who acts very much as a window to the audience. The narrator and Austerlitz connect not only because of their interest in architecture but also their solitary natures, the narrator also being seemingly free to wander about Europe not bound by any obligations to other people. Perhaps Austerlitz sees the narrator as someone that he can finally open up to, so much that he discards any form of greeting or pleasantries, as Sebald notes through the novel and instead delves straight into the story. Maybe the narrator can be seen as a figment of Austerlitz’s imagination, a long-awaited reprieve that never comes and so emerges out of necessity as a hallucination. Sebald’s treatment can be explained as a result of Austerlitz’s position, or perhaps a way to exemplify/exacerbate it; because Austerlitz’s predicament is so uncommon, having not realized who his true parents are even after turning more than 50 years old, he is not truly able to connect with people who have strong ties to their country, their home and their family.
“I was ill at ease among artists and intellectuals as in bourgeois life, and it was a very long time since I had felt able to make personal friendships. No sooner did I become acquainted with someone that I feared I had come too close…” (125-126)
Also worthy of mentioning is the different layers of relationships and interactions present within the book. The relationship between the narrator and Austerlitz is the ground level, the one taken for granted as a means to enable the story to be told. The second level, according to my understanding, involves Austerlitz’s relationships with other characters, which vary tremendously but also share a lot in common. Austerlitz’s solitary nature lends power to these relationships, as they exist only in relation to Austerlitz. We as the author never see these other characters through their own eyes, so the illusion is created that they exist to rescue Austerlitz from his isolation and loneliness; we are grateful for that but heartbroken when they leave, which they often do in some way or another. His friend Gerald dies in a plane crash, his history teacher Hilary does see him regularly during his college studies but is not mentioned afterward, so one assumes that he has died or drifted apart, Elias and Gwendolyn, despite not being that well-liked by Austerlitz do keep him company, and both of them are disposed of in quick succession, Gwendolyn succumbs to sickness and Elias grows depressed and is sent to an asylum. Further on, Gerald’s family also disappear, Evelyn and Alphonso also end up dying and Adela ends up moving to America; Austerlitz remembering her “unchanged, as beautiful as she was then” (111). Finally, Marie eventually leaves Austerlitz and breaks off their relationship. Each of the characters that keep Austerlitz company end up disappearing, causing him to revert back to his solitary disposition, his liminal state causing his relationships to eventually fade. Maybe the reason why he continues to search is because the narrator, as a kindred spirit, will not leave him, will eventually return after thirty years or so and be there to accompany him. But perhaps there is also a beauty in remembering someone as they were before; they become trapped in time just as photographs are, never growing old or digressing from what you remember them as, that uncertainty being what keeps you company. Austerlitz’s pleasant memories of being with Adela and Marie retain their power because they can never be replicated or degraded. If his relationship with Marie had ended in a more protracted manner, the bitter taste would have overwhelmed his vision of her as a kind individual who despite her family name selflessly cares for him after he suffers a nervous breakdown, and leave him uninterested to search for her whereabouts in the end. All in all, having only two people in a scene projects a sense of vulnerability; if one of them leaves, both of them will be left alone, and it is through this fear that the beauty of togetherness can be achieved and not taken for granted.
Another point I would like to make is Austerlitz’s overall view on the world and what is happening around hm. People tend to impress their current state of mind on their surroundings, so that if they are happy, the day seems to shine more brightly, and if they are sad, darkness seems to butt their senses. This holds through for Austerlitz in his view of other people. When he arrives in Prague, he senses that the people appear to be “ill and gray[,] as if they were all chronic smokers not far from death” (143), and when walking the streets, he observes their “pale, sad faces” (201), and in other scenes, the people around him are often as morose and desolate as he is. For example, he describes two characters as being “pale [women] of almost transparent appearance” (146); his own state of mind perhaps discoloring their faces more than an ordinary person might see. He is likely compensating for his own alienation by imagining and keying in on others as being equally alone. His description of other people rarely seem to be endowed with optimism or curiosity, he does not ponder about their background or what else they do outside of their current activity; it is simply plain and factual. Also complementing that is Sebald’s utilization of weather. “Dark, oppressive” (219) days predominate in many scenes within Austerlitz’s story, so that we appreciate the beauty of the sun as it finally emerges such as when he enters Germany for the first term, the train suddenly moving faster as the dark butts of his repressed memories lift, and Austerlitz’s recollection of his childhood in Bala involves the noticeable use of a winter setting, engaging in a kind of pathetic fallacy where the snowy, desolate landscape mirrors the coldness of these memories and the slow, lingering loss of life that Gwendolyn succumbs to.
Finally, both the narrator and Austerlitz explore abandoned places, such as the fortress of Breendonk and Terezin. In these places, shadows and gloominess prevail, and Sebald notes that there are rarely any other people in sight. When he first takes the train from Prague, he cannot see any other vehicles or people in the countryside except for the stationmasters. Also, when the author and the narrator visit the Greenwich observatory, they do not “remember meeting anyone” (98). Maybe their wandering way of life slots in between the normal routines of most people, so that they manage to procure historical attractions for themselves only. And it seems that what Austerlitz explores are often just as lonely and alienated as he is, languishing in time and space and waiting for someone to finally uncover them and allow them to tell their story.
One thought on “Loneliness and Abandonment in Austerlitz”
There are so many interesting observations here I hardly know where to start. One thing that struck me in your post was what you said about the relationship between Austerlitz and the narrator, how the latter might be a figment of Austerlitz’s imagination. This would explain why Austerlitz just jumps right into his story each time, though it would be hard to explain other parts of the narrative this way (like how the narrator starts and ends the book without him!). Still, their relationship is a very unusual one, and it is both very close in a way though also quite distant. Close in that it is as if they have never been apart when they meet, and distant in that all it is made up of, so far as we can tell from the narrator, is Austerlitz talking. But then again close in the depth of what Austerlitz reveals to the narrator.
When I read this book last year and again this year I kept wondering: why does Austerlitz reveal so much to this person he barely knows? I noticed that Austerlitz decides to tell his story when he meets the narrator in London, where the narrator has gone because he is losing sight in one eye (39). I wondered if what was going on here was that the narrator’s sight is restored somewhat through Austerlitz. The narrator was fascinated with the Nocturama, with animals that see into the dark (and philosophers who try to do so too), and he may be having his own difficulties with his past–he says at one point he had lived with the German military until he was 20 (23). By hearing Austerlitz’s story it may help him to some degree come to terms with a past he would not like to think about either, so maybe it helps him regain his sight to some degree.
This doesn’t help explain why Austerlitz would take up the conversation as if they had never left it off, every time they met, though! Unless maybe their connection is so close because they are very similar in some ways. Maybe the narrator could be a figment of Austerlitz’s imagination, but I suppose equally it could be the other way around–Austerlitz is what the narrator has to generate to help himself come to terms with his own alienation from his home and his history.