I have spent the afternoon, as if in retreat from a world that does not welcome me, lying in bed and reading, much as I did as a teenage boy when I fled a family that tormented me into the world that I conjured from the novels of Trollope, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, a world which came to wrap my senses in muslin cloth and made me into a walking apparition of a no longer living sensibility; and the book that I have read, itself composed in a modern ghostly form of nineteenth century style, is Austerlitz by the great German emigrant writer, Winfried G. “Max” Sebald.
Sebald enjoys a renown that comes in part from the unclassifiable genre of writing that he practised; he combined personal memoir, fiction, travelogue and history into a cabinet of human curiosities, lined with a dark soft cloth of sadness: yet underneath all the strangeness of his forms, there is an ornate, stately, otherworldly beauty of his sentences.
The story is told of some writer who once was asked by a budding practitioner of the art what might sustain them on a journey to fame. “Do you like sentences?” the writer replied. So, to dwell on Sebald’s sentences seems the best way to honour his memory, and to hope to emulate his art, which found a way to speak of human destruction outside the boundaries of our own time and through a style schooled in the writing of German naturalist description of the nineteenth century.
Throughout Austerlitz, there fall these delicate strings, which also provide some kind of clue to the seemingly undirected perambulations of his melancholy mind. So from early in Austerlitz, Sebald writes, as if inscribing the fractal pattern of his intention deeply in the enigmatic curls and twists of his maze,:
From the first I was astonished by the way Austerlitz put his ideas together as he talked, forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him, so to speak, and the way in which, in his mind, the passing on of his knowledge seemed to become a gradual approach to a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life.” (Sebald, Austerlitz p 14)
There is too this graceful concatenation of, on the one hand, the precisely descriptive details of the outer world, of memories, of photographs, of the minor details of fortifications, and the forgotten stories of ambition behind the construction of the Central Railway Station of Antwerp, and, on the other hand, an ethereal uncertainty about our minds’ ability to grasp the experiences that beset them and to stop the torrent of emotions with which we perceive the world. Sebald’s enigmatic prose is born from this coupling of a strangely meticulous prose with the constant evocation that much of our lives are spent in mirages of our own conception. The very first sentence of Austerlitz contains this quality of a dream, dreamt through the miscegenation of a gentlemanly scholarship with the perplexity of a mind that knows its own madness.
“In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study, partly for other reasons that were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks” (Sebald, Austerlitz, p 1) my emphasis
The phrase that I have underlined (“partly for other reasons…) disrupts the reasoned preoccupations of the apparent narrative, and opens the reader to the disordered world of Sebald’s deeper meditations, which come to him with many qualifications, always with a question of whether he has been deceived. Many states of mind “seem” to be in this prose. They visit the narrator uninvited, unexplained, and lead from the seemingly solid into the always uncertain mists of our own minds.
This theme is conveyed in a passage in which Sebald finds in the image of a captive raccoon in the Nocturama of Antwerp, an image of the longing we have, those of us who sit and polish our words like the raccoon, to reach beyond the darkness that we see all around us.
“The only animal which has remained lingering in my memory is the raccoon. I watched it for a long time as it sat beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own. Otherwise, all I remember of the denizens of the Nocturama is that several of them had striking 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. (Austerlitz pp 2-3)