This book is sad, sad. A child from Prague is sent to England in ’39 to escape the common faith of “jewish” children, and is thrown from the warmth of a refined mitteleuropean family into the well-meaning but cold and finally crazed context of a elderly Welsh Calvinist preacher and his sickly wife. Getting old, starting the quest about his hidden past, Austerlitz loses his senses several times, gets lost in his environment. His life force has been strained by years of trauma removal. And yet this is a book where one can find redemption, therapy and healing. Because of the humanity, of the source of meaning, of example of clear understanding which Austerlitz exemplifies.
To what is already a great story, Sebald at the very end adds an admirable critique of architecture, specifically of the new Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. I will quote a paragraph which I marked as crucial, though it is at the end of this voluminous book:
And Several times, said Austerlitz, birds which had lost their way in the library forest flew into the mirror images of the trees in the reading-room windows, struck the glass with a dull thud and fell lifeless to the ground.
Sitting at my place in the reading-room, said Austerlitz, I thought at length about the way in which such unforseen accidents, the fall of a single creature to its death when diverted from its natural path, or the recurrent symptoms of paralysis affecting the electronic data retrieval system, relate to the Cartesian overall plan of the Bibliotheque Nationale, and I came to the conclusion that in any project we design and develop, the size and degree of complexity of the information and control systems inscribed in it are the crucial factors, so that the all-embracing and absolute perfection of the concept can in practice coincide, indeed ultimately must coincide, with its chronic dysfunction …
(I also found with surprise that this is a fragment often quoted on the web – try searching “I came to the conclusion that in any project we design and develop”: our minds are impressed in harmony.)
The intellectual strength of this book is beyond my powers of evocation. So just read it.