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Austerlitz: Looking and Speaking, Memory and Identity

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

Photograph Taken By the Narrator of the Eyes of Nocturnal Animals

Austerlitz is a novel by W. G. Sebald about the recovery of historical and personal memory, first by looking and then by speaking.

First of all, Austerlitz is about looking and thinking about what the structures and objects we walk by everyday tell us about history and how it has shaped us and the places we live in in ways we may not be aware of. In the novel, the narrator and Austerlitz keep running into each other in the same places as they both wander around Europe separately, looking at buildings and artworks, in a way that looks similar to what many tourists do, but is not. The narrator says that his excursions are undertaken as "study trips," but also "for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me." And he forms a bond with Austerlitz since they often encounter each other contemplating the same things in the same places. Observing nocturnal animals in a zoo, the narrator notes that they have "strikingly large eyes, and the fixed and inquiring gaze of certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking." In their travels he and Austerlitz note the great number of fortified structures in Europe which bear witness to an unending culture of war and aggression over the course of countless centuries, as well as the iconography of large opulent buildings that unabashedly celebrate colonialism and imperialism, and show their workings. These are traces left in the landscape, for those disposed to see them, of stories not always taught to us in school, or passed down in families.

In another book, On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald attributes the difficulty of telling some collective stories to the repression of traumatic events, and the inability of the survivors to process them and find words to describe things so inconceivable that they simply ignore them and continue on as if everything were the same as before. This was the case with the German response to the devastating end of the Second World War when Allied forces firebombed 131 German cities, completely destroying many of them, killing 600,000 people, more than twice the number of American dead, and leaving seven and a half million homeless. Sebald attributes the fact that so little has been said or written about this in Germany to the inability of the survivors to find the words to speak about the shock of experiencing, in a matter of seconds, the complete annihilation of their cities, and the loss of their homes, friends and family.

Without the places and the people with whom we share memories, without images, and without words, it is hard to remember, to fix events in memory, and to compile a set of memories that together constitute an identity. This is the plight of Austerlitz, a man haunted by half-buried memories of an early childhood in a city far away from where he was raised, a life and an identity that is inaccessible because it is never spoken about. Searching for clues in the European landscape, Austerlitz documents in photographs the buried European histories he discovers as he traverses Europe. But he is only able to recover his personal memories, and find his own place in this landscape, when words are spoken. The pivotal moment when this happens is when he finally finds Vera, his former nanny, living in Prague, in the apartment he had lived in as a child. When she opens the door, she recognizes him and speaks to him in French, the language of his childhood, This triggers the emotional response that causes them to embrace, and opens the floodgates of memory as they sit down together and start to tell their stories.

Photographs that document what Austerlitz is searching for or trying to understand appear throughout this book. But none appear of Vera, though she does show him photographs of other people and other places. This is because, in his childhood home, still furnished exactly how it had been when he lived there as a child, the immediacy of the person and the place and the words spoken make visual images unnecessary.

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