8/22/11: Austerlitz

Shortly after leaving the ground in Seattle, the pilot announced that we would be returning to the airport. The problem: the co-pilot’s seat-belt was malfunctioning; we expected turbulence on the flight; and the decision was made to return to the airport to fix the belt. (Had the co-pilot bothered to check the belt before take-off?) The additional problem: we were overweight for a safe landing and had to assume a holding pattern over the Cascades for about 2.5 hours (with the landing gear down to burn off fuel more quickly) before we could land, re-fuel, fix the problem and take off again, this time arriving safely in Philadelphia about 4 hours later and about 4 hours later than expected.

It was on this delayed but uneventful trip that I read W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. It was perhaps a fortuitous time for reading this book, which itself crossed a strange and unwieldy span of travel, unfolding a stranger and even more unwieldy story. It is the story of a man named Jacques Austerlitz and his occasional meetings with the book’s unnamed narrator over the course of decades as he assembles and tells his life story: one that begins with leaving his parents in Czechoslovakia on a kindertransport to Britain in 1939—fleeing to ostensible safety from the Nazis—and proceeds to ramble through his hard-won uncovering of the past and how this displacement permanently affected him.  It is a totally engrossing and moving story.

The book is replete with photographs, which add deeply to its texture. It is these photographs that I was most startled by. Uncovering one’s history involves a process of looking for clues and making up stories to link those clues into something with the least amount of blankness while offering a sense of texture and wholeness. As we know, there is no such thing, only the attempt at such. A few of the pictures seem totally in accord with the text where they are placed, but most give the viewer pause. Many of the pictures were difficult to make out altogether. What is this? How does it relate to the story here? Is it an artificial memory aid? a false memory? a wish-fulfillment? totally unrelated? 

In a way, the pictures were like dreams or fleeting snatches of memory. They served to clarify that memory cannot be trusted, that capturing a life is a fragmented task at its best, and that we can’t believe what we see or what we are told. All of these absences became the substance of Austerlitz’s life.

The first book that I read about the Shoa was, of course, The Diary of Anne Frank, which I read at about the same age as she was when she wrote it. Since that reading, I have been barely willing or able to read or view holocaust literature/films— or anything not written or produced by a direct witness to the events. It is hard enough to grapple with directly witnessed narratives without falsifying and distorting events that I can barely believe, but must believe in order to live in this world.

Austerlitz is not a direct account of anything. It is fiction. Still it is written in a lush and tentative style that speaks to the inability to trust or believe in anything, particularly accounts of history.

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