Jonathan Blaney: historical fiction opinion piece


Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald

One of the most moving exhibitions I have seen was at the Gare du Nord in Paris: set up on the concourse was a series of photographs of children, with their names and their ages when they died. What made it so immediate was that this was spot from which the children were deported by train for extermination.

W. G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz connects railway stations with the Holocaust and a meditation on  human civilisation. The title character, Jacques Austerlitz, was sent from Prague at the age of four on a Kindertransport and grew up in Wales. In adulthood he tries to discover what happened to his parents.

There is a dreamlike quality to Austerlitz, making the book both precise and elusive. Eerie black-and-white photographs add to the impression of a past that is fully realised and yet unreachable. Jacques travels to Terezín concentration camp, where his mother was imprisoned, and to Paris, where his father was last seen. At the new Bibliothèque Nationale he learns that the vast building was constructed on the site of a warehouse complex where goods taken from the Jews of Paris were stored.

In the years from 1942 onwards everything our civilisation has produced, whether for the embellishment of life or merely for everyday use, from Louis XVI chests of drawers, Meissen porcelain, Persian rugs and whole libraries, down to the last salt-cellar and pepper-mill, was stacked there in the Austerlitz-Tolbiac storage depot.

Sebald’s novels attempt a kind of moral archaeology. Austerlitz was the last work published before the author’s untimely death and it is surely one of the great literary achievements of our time.

Jonathan Blaney is Project Editor for British History Online (BHO)

This entry was posted in Opinion pieces by Matt Phillpott. Bookmark the permalink.

About Matt Phillpott

I am an historian of early modern Britain and the Digital Resources Manager at the School of Advanced Study. My main area of interest is in the authentication of knowledge in early print, including religious, historical, and agricultural texts.

2 thoughts on “Jonathan Blaney: historical fiction opinion piece

  1. Having struggled a bit with ‘Austerlitz’, I’m going to go back to it, having just read and really enjoyed Sebald’s ‘Rings of Saturn’, in which he manages to draw what seems like all of world history into an account of a dreary holiday in East Anglia. A singular writer…

  2. Also excellent is Sebald’s earlier ‘The Emigrants’, which consists of four separate stories. I particularly love the section about the narrator’s primary school teacher in postwar, rural Germany; I don’t know how much is fiction and how much is based on a real character, but it’s an elegiac portrait of a wonderfully humane man.


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