'The traumatised patient “does not remember anything at all of what he has forgotten and repressed, but rather acts it out”'(LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

December 26, 2023   10 mins

Over several recent weeks, as November turned to December and autumn to winter, I spent the first hour of each day reading W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz. I read slowly, and when I looked up from the page I could see, from the window of my third-floor flat, dawn rising over the rooftops opposite, beyond which lay the east London Sebald describes in parts of his book: Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Liverpool Street. It was among the profound reading experiences of my life, and like other profound reading experiences — Madame Bovary in an empty Whitechapel Starbucks one Christmas Day, East of Eden in a series of Istanbul cafes in springtime — it often left me feeling strangely lonely. Putting the book down was like waking from a powerful dream at a loss how to relate it or to whom.

My first literary obsession, aged 15, was with Kafka. Night after night I stayed up late, immersed in the phantasmagoria of his stories; for a while I felt bereft that I had nobody to discuss them with, until I practically bullied a school friend into reading Metamorphosis. (Yes, I was a normal, well-adjusted teen.) It was largely my desire to talk about literature that motivated me, for several years, to maintain a Twitter account. Mine was probably the most benign corner of social media. Instead of engaging in daily orgies of outrage and denunciation, I and the few thousand people I followed, and who followed me, spent our time online liking each other’s photos of paperbacks by Annie Ernaux or Rachel Cusk next to flat whites.

But by this summer I’d begun to feel that social media was corroding, if not destroying, my life as a reader. Having been told by a few people online that they enjoyed my book recommendations, I found myself not-quite-unconsciously tailoring my reading for them. Even when I learned to turn my phone off and put it in another room while reading, something in my brain’s wiring felt off. I still loved books, but my last experience of full literary immersion had come when I ran out of mobile data while reading Steinbeck in Turkey.

At the same time that I was discovering Kafka, W.G. Sebald was writing what would prove to be his final book. Austerlitz was published in 2001 and the question of how to be a “true reader” is central to it. The book contains no dialogue; it is the story of a story, a report almost entirely made up of memories relayed by the Czech-born Holocaust refugee Jacques Austerlitz to an unnamed Sebald-like narrator (whom I’ll take the liberty of calling “S.”). This is what gives the book its distinctive formal tic: almost every page contains the phrase “said Austerlitz”, or a more layered attribution such as “Vera remarked, said Austerlitz” or “Gerald once commented, said Austerlitz”. At times it becomes a set of nested stories; here is Austerlitz describing Balzac’s Colonel Chabert:

Je suis le Colonel Chabert, celui qui est mort à Eylau are the words with which he introduces himself, and then he tells the tale of the mass grave (a fosse des morts, as Balzac describes it, said Austerlitz), into which he was thrown…

A modernist like Kafka undermines our faith in subjectivity, but what are we to make of this more radical challenge to the possibility of narration, where Chabert’s story of returning from the grave is transmitted fifth-hand via a chain of proxies (Balzac, Austerlitz, S., Sebald — and now, to add a sixth, me)?

Such conundrums have prompted the critic James Wood to call Sebald a “postmodernist”. But the label sits uneasily, because his books display a passionate (if anguished) commitment to necessity of truthfulness. Primo Levi reported in The Drowned and the Saved that almost all concentration camp survivors experienced a similar recurring dream: “they had returned home and with passion and relief were describing their past sufferings, addressing themselves to a loved person, and were not believed, indeed were not even listened to”. For this reason Levi had no patience with the “frivolous and irritating” postmodern idea of “incommunicability”. Communication, for Levi, is a responsibility of humans, and especially of survivors: “When the destruction was terminated, the work accomplished was not told by anyone, just as no one ever returned to recount his own death… We speak in their stead, by proxy.”

What kind of readers, what kind of people, must we be if we are to hear, and to bear, the tales of those come back from the grave? This is one way of stating the problem that obsessed Sebald, a German born in 1944 who was appalled by the “conspiracy of silence” caused by his compatriots’ “inability to mourn” their wartime losses and inability to confront their wartime crimes. Modernist and postmodernist novels emphasise the difficulty of telling our tales, but Sebald is as concerned with the problem of hearing the tales of others as the problem of transmitting them. For a member of a guilty people to attend and attest to the sufferings of its victims is not easy, nor should it be.

Except for one 11-page sentence, Austerlitz’s prose is syntactically conventional, and Anthea Bell’s translation (overseen and authorised by Sebald) contains some of the most beautiful English writing of modern times. But, with its 415 pages divided into five sections of a single paragraph each, the book makes substantial demands on the reader. By repeatedly obliging you to break off from its elliptical story mid-paragraph before reorientating yourself by circling back a few lines, the novel evokes the sense of a recurring dream, and one that never quite leaves you during waking hours.

It is easy to overlook the fact that Austerlitz is the story of a relationship. Jacques Austerlitz has much in common with earlier Sebald characters: his fissured sense of self; his parents’ death in the Holocaust; the fact that he is (as Freud wrote of one patient) “suffering from memories”. But it is in the depiction of his almost brotherly relationship with the book’s narrator (“S.”) that he is unique in Sebald’s oeuvre. We meet S. — a saturnine German-born scholar who has been living for many years in England — for the first time in Sebald’s first novel Vertigo, where he seemingly suffers a psychotic episode on a trip back to his homeland. After a brief disappearance from the text he returns, and becomes a constant presence in Sebald’s fiction.

In Austerlitz S., the book’s narrator, is both everywhere present and curiously absent. It is the work in which Sebald dares to draw closest to one of Germany’s Jewish victims, and so it required of him a kind of shrinking back, a self-recession, in order to make space for the protagonist. After the opening pages, apart from a few autobiographical interjections, the book is entirely given over to Jacques Austerlitz. The pair first meet in 1967 as solo travellers in Antwerp’s Centraal train station and, over several meetings in the succeeding years, S. listens patiently to Austerlitz’s ruminations, disquisitions and speculations, in which certain themes continually recur. For reasons Austerlitz “did not really understand” he is fascinated by trains and railway stations. He is as obsessed with moths as Nabokov (one of Sebald’s literary heroes) was obsessed with butterflies. He is much preoccupied with the history of fortifications, which he regards as an “insanity”, because “the more you entrench yourself the more you remain on the defensive”, helpless to repel the enemy’s attacks.

Early in the book Austerlitz tells S. that he suffers from total amnesia with respect to his earliest years. Raised by Welsh Calvinist foster parents, he discovered his true name as a teenager, but still he is unable to recall the circumstances of his arrival in Wales. There is then an interregnum of some two decades in Austerlitz and S.’s “close and distant” friendship, before they meet again by chance on the platform of Liverpool Street station in east London. This time Austerlitz, who has since had a breakdown, tells S. that he has recently discovered the truth about his past: his birth in pre-war Czechoslovakia, his escape from the Holocaust on a 1939 Kindertransport, and his parents’ capture by the Nazis before being “sent east” to their fate. He now needs the kind of listener S. once was in order to relate his sufferings.

In his eulogy for David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen defined literature as “a way of connecting, on relatively safe middle ground, with another human being”. Foster Wallace had spoken in similar terms, calling literature a space “where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated”. Sebald was as concerned with the problem of existential solitude as those writers but, as a German attempting to confront his country’s crimes and look its victims in the eye, his solution was more complex. He wrote witheringly of the several German writers of the Fifties in whose novels there is a “love story in which a good German man meets a Polish or Jewish girl”, allowing the “incriminating past” to be “‘reappraised’ sentimentally”. The need for “relatively safe middle ground” on which S. and Austerlitz can meet explains why, after first talking in Antwerp, communication breaks down between them while S. spends some years in Germany. But even when their conversation resumes in England, Austerlitz remains for S. (and for the reader) far from the kind of transparent, fully realised characters Franzen and Foster Wallace created.

In fact S.’s meetings with Austeritz seem to take place in a kind of extra-territorial afterlife or dreamworld, usually in the dying light of day (twilight functions as leitmotif in Sebald much like the fog in Dickens’s Bleak House), in landscapes of eerie silence where, in a phrase that recurs in various ways throughout Sebald’s writing, “there was not a soul in sight”. This labyrinthine alternate universe, where the pair are constantly losing and finding one another, is filled (as Sebald wrote of Nabokov’s fiction) with “curiously iridescent effects of light, mysterious coincidences and strange chance meetings”.

In his 1914 paper “Remembering, Repeating and Working Through” the father of dream analysis might almost have been thinking of Austerlitz’s obsession with train travel when he observed that the traumatised patient “does not remember anything at all of what he has forgotten and repressed, but rather acts it out”. And his description of the psychoanalyst’s task — to “study the surface level of the patient’s mind” until, liberated from his repression, he “recounts without any difficulty the situations and contexts that he had forgotten” — calls to mind the way S. listens patiently to Austerlitz. The manner in which Austerlitz “put his ideas together as he talked… out of whatever occurred to him”, thus “bringing remembered events back to life”, is a perfect definition of Freud’s idea of “free association”. And it also characterises Sebald’s distinctive narrative style, which (to quote S.’s description of the paintings of Pisanello from Vertigo) succeeds in “creating the effect of the real, without suggesting a depth dimension, upon an essentially flat surface”.

James Wood, writing about The Emigrants, remarked that Sebald’s work is “not really about the Holocaust”. This is true in the sense that a person might undertake psychotherapy and not really speak about her trauma — might, in fact, speak about anything but. And yet the Holocaust is present everywhere in Sebald’s work, even — or perhaps especially — when it appears to be absent or repressed. As early as the second part of Vertigo, S. meets Malochio, a Jewish astrophysicist, who speaks to him of “the miracle of life born of carbon… going up in flames”. Carbon is both the fundamental stuff of life and the part of human bodies that burns; Sebald may also have had in mind the compound hydrogen cyanide (HCN), which some scientists believe may have triggered the evolution of animal life and, in a satanic irony noted by Primo Levi, formed the basis of the Zyklon B.

The word “Auschwitz” — the final destination, it is hinted, of both Austerlitz’s parents — never appears in Austerlitz. But, thanks to what Sebald calls in another context the “phantom traces created by the sluggish reaction of the human eye” it seems to appear on almost every page, as though it were part of the text’s barely suppressed unconscious.

Just as we have appointments to keep in our daily lives, writes Sebald in one of Austerlitz’s most piercing passages, it may be “that we also have appointments to keep in the past… and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time”. In October 2019, believing I was belatedly ready to keep my own appointments in the past, I agreed to write a book about my upbringing by Welsh Calvinist parents, my teenage crisis of identity, and the addiction with which I had tried to blot out those memories and which had nearly killed me.

Then, on 20 November, my brother Jonathan died suddenly as a result of what had seemed his much milder addictions. A week later I watched his coffin lowered out of sight in a Swansea crematorium, and I began to fall apart. Unable to mourn, I fortified myself against pain by lapsing into silence over my loss, and over my guilt at having somehow survived, as it were, in my brother’s place. At one point, I broke down and was hospitalised. I spoke to several psychotherapists without ever mentioning my brother. We met, of course, in my dreams.

Although I finished writing my history of self-destruction, and saw it published last year, in the time after my brother’s death I receded further and further away from people, or they receded from me. I could no more bear other people’s company than I could bear to be alone. I drew people close to assuage my grief and loneliness and then, hating them for their proximity, repelled them. When the time came for me to talk publicly about my life in relation to my memoir, I increasingly found myself struck dumb, overcome by a sense of irremediable fissure between the self who had survived the past and the self who was struggling to survive the present. Attempting to outrun the same “paralysing horror” Sebald’s narrator describes after his own breakdown in The Rings of Saturn, I travelled to Istanbul, Connecticut and, as though I might find my brother in our childhood home, Wales. But I felt, in every place I went, abysmally out of place.

Throughout this time, social media — a space where people were both “distant and close” — presented itself as a kind of solution to my problem. Twitter relieves loneliness in the same way that walking alone into a crowd of shouting people surely would. But on some level I knew that the ersatz connection with others provided by its infinite churn of speech was banishing from my life deeper forms of intimacy based on listening and attention. I knew in theory it was possible to possible to maintain both a social media account and meaningful human relationships; after all, I saw other people doing just that. But I began to believe there was a connection between my Twitter use and my growing isolation, my inability to describe my sufferings to myself or others, and my inability to mourn.

Literature, said Sebald in 2001, a month before the publication of Austerlitz and two months before he died in a car crash, “ought to be, as it were, a saving, or at least an attempt at the saving, of souls”. Soon after I left Twitter this summer, something began to shift. In the ensuing quiet, there was relief, and a more complete loneliness too. That, I had expected. I’d decided I had become incapable of being with other people because I was incapable of being alone. By giving up the ability to say anything to everyone at all times, I hoped to hear other things, to give myself a chance to tune into the unspeakable and the ineffable, from within or without.

Then, when the dog days were over, or at least seemingly coming to an end, I began reading Austerlitz. And I thought I sensed, as Sebald wrote (in relation, again, to Nabokov), the “tiny spiritual movement which releases the ideas that are shut inside our heads and always going around in circles, letting them out into a universe where, as in a good sentence, there is a place for everything and everything is in its place”.

Matt Rowland Hill is the author of Original Sins and his Substack is Bibliopathology