W.G. Sebald. Austerlitz. The Emigrants

photo: Émile-Alexandre Taskin and Adèle Isaac as Dr. Miracle and Antonia in the premiere of The Tales of Hoffmann, 1881 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Musique)

Austerlitz is a novel that subversively and gracefully explores the art and artifice of the memoir form: an unnamed narrator reports on the memoirs of a man named Austerlitz, who has only recently begun to research and discover his own past, which has been obscured from him for decades by traumatic amnesia, and of which virtually no traces of supporting data remain after the Holocaust. How does Austerlitz discover that past? By an obsessive study of architecture, which leads him away from the book he’s supposed to be writing, and on a quest to discover why certain kinds of railway stations, village layouts, and styles of fortification bother him so much. Memory exists in buildings; memory is made, brick by brick, image by image, word by word; memory is built at several removes from “experience” and only in fragments. It’s a view of fiction/memoir that allows fiction writers to get past the more defensive and self-limiting aspects of the fiction/memoir divide, yet challenges the assumption that fiction is only imagination, while memoir is a depository of unvarnished, authentic truth.

And, reading The Emigrants during jury duty in October 2010:

For The Emigrants, add to “architecture” the words “photography,” “painting,” “journal-keeping,” and any number of other words that serve as tools for, metaphors for, and/or obliterations of (that last, very important) the processes of memory-making. Sebald questions the artistic means by which people create, keep, resuscitate, alter, and destroy memories. You need only note the amusing motif of Vladimir Nabokov, memoirist/fictioneer extraordinaire, popping up at crucial junctures in everybody’s memories with his butterfly net in hand, to realize how thoroughly Sebald means to ask how and why one remembers That Which Must Not Be Forgotten.

Read: in 2008 and 2010

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