Sebald Coverage

A Common Reader is doing a summer series on Sebald, starting with Austerlitz.

The character Austerlitz shares Sebald’s interest in architectural history, having what Sebald describes as an “astonishing professional expertise”. They are both interested in “monumentalism”, the tendency of 19th governments to “erect public building which would bring international renown to the aspiring state”. Four examples from the early parts of the book are Lucerne railway station (destroyed by fire in 1971), The Palace of Justice in Brussels, the Great Eastern Hotel in London, and the Belgian fort of Breendonk (which was used as a concentration camp by the Nazis). Sebald’s fascination with these huge buildings evokes a sense of dread, an almost agoraphobic fear of the vast spaces inside them with their closed-off rooms, endless corridors and maze-like structures. He records Austerlitz as saying, “we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them and are designed from the first witn an eye to their later existence as ruins”.

These places have the power to infest the mind with their embedded memories for days after the visit. Sebald describes a visit to Breendonk and writes that the building “seemed to be like the anatomical blueprint of some alien and crab-like creature”. While walking down one of the many tunnels inside it, he “had to resist the feeling taking root in my heart, one which to this day often comes over me in macabre places, a sense that with every forward step, the air was growing thinner and the weight above me heavier”.



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