Tag Archives: austerlitz

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”.

On Sebald’s Room in Terezin

Rick Poynor has an interesting blog post about what’s probably one of the most infamous photos in all of Sebald’s books: the one of the room of shelves that he included with Austerlitz.

It seems that on Daniel Blaufuks became so enraptured by Sebald’s photo that he went on toe make an entire book about Terezin, including his own rephotograph of the photo:

In 2007, Blaufuks’ obsession also takes him to Terezín — to the Small Fortress, where he quickly finds the room. But it isn’t possible to enter the building through the doorway that says Geschäftszimmer (office) and he peers through the window from the courtyard, from the same angle that he decides Sebald must also have seen the room, “as this was the exact point of view of the photograph in his book” — this is to assume, of course, that Sebald took the picture. Then, turning the page, one finds Blaufuk’s color photograph of the room, looking just as much like a stage set waiting for someone to enter as the empty room in Sebald’s novel, except that the furniture has changed, there are fewer files more precisely organized in their cubbyholes, and Blaufuk has omitted the clock with its hands set exactly at six o’clock. Oddly, for someone who has studied the room so closely, he cannot remember whether the clock was still there at the time of his visit. If he took this picture from the courtyard through the bars and the windowpane, as he implies he did, the results are spectacularly good.

Here’s an image of the Austerlitz spread in which Sebald’s image occurs. For me, one of the most upsetting pleasures of reading Austerlitz was the moment when I did open to this spread, unanticipated and breathtaking for the way in which the shelves first overwhelm the image, and then the image itself overwhelms the page. It’s moments like this that showed Sebald as a master of his medium, and I do not think that the experience of turning a page onto something like this can be reproduced in an electronic book.

On Representing a Scream in Literature

Fantastic find by Vertigo:

At this point in Austerlitz, while his narrator still wanders through the fortress, Sebald resorted to a nested set of memories. His narrator recalls Claude Simon’s novel Le Jardin des Plantes, into which Simon, who had been tortured in Breendonk, weaves the story of Gastone Novelli, who had been similarly tortured (albeit at Dachau). Upon his liberation, Novelli fled “civilization” for remote parts of the Brazilian jungle, where he lived with a small tribe whose language consisted “almost entirely of vowels, particularly the sound A in countless variations of intonation and emphasis” (to quote from Austerlitz). When Novelli returned to Europe, one of the recurring themes of his paintings became the letter A, often “rising and falling in waves like a long-drawn-out scream,” as Sebald put it.

It is curious to see how the two books typographically depict this string of As. In Sebald’s Austerlitz, on the left, the run of vowels is elongated into what could be a multi-row scream. On the right we see how Simon’s The Jardin des Plantes (as it is called in English) turns the As into a tidy, block-like structure that strikes me as more visual than verbal.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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