An excerpt from
Writing, Memory, and the City
by Alfred Thomas
W. G. Sebald
A writer of the next generation, W. G. Sebald emigrated to England from his native Germany in 1966, where he was born in the alpine Allgäu region in 1944. At the age of twenty-six he was appointed to a lectureship (assistant professorship) at the University of Manchester and settled permanently in England in 1970, becoming professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia in 1987 and the first director of the British Center for Literary Translation in 1989. Sebald never relinquished his German passport, even though he was eligible for British citizenship, and firmly believed that one cannot escape one’s cultural context. In his case this meant confronting the difficult legacy of twentieth-century German history. Shortly after establishing his reputation as one of the most important and original postwar German writers, he was killed in a car accident in 2001.
The fascination of Prague for Sebald in his last novel Austerlitz (2001) is less its function as a Heimat as the way it reflects the postwar German writer’s displacement—temporal as well as spatial—from his origins. In this sense the nostalgia for Prague experienced by the protagonist of the novel serves as a poignant metaphor for the German yearning for a pristine place unburdened by guilt and memories of the ruinous World War II. However, I shall be arguing that the novel at once perpetuates and critiques this position by questioning Austerlitz’s conviction, based on a radio broadcast, that he is a Czech Jew, and exposing the arbitrary fault line between memoir and fiction, narrator and protagonist. Most critical studies of the novel seem to take the protagonist’s past at face value, failing to understand how the novel exposes the secondary, citational function of these memories. One way Sebald achieves this epistemological uncertainty is by deliberately refusing to identify his textual sources, so that it becomes difficult—even impossible—to disentangle life from literature.
It is this model of the city as text which makes Prague such a precarious setting for the protagonist’s attempt to recover his lost past. In this respect Prague also serves as an appropriate backdrop to the larger collective enterprise of trying to memorialize the Holocaust more than sixty years after the event. Typically, Prague as Austerlitz first encounters it is not presented as a real place but as a copy or simulacrum of a place. As he looks down at it from the elevated perspective of Petřín Hill/Laurenziberg—the setting of Kafka’s story “Description of a Struggle”—he compares it with a painting: “Then I sat on a bench in the sun until nearly midday, looking out over the buildings of the Lesser Quarter and the river Vltava at the panorama of the city, which seemed to be veined with the curving cracks and rifts of past time, like the varnish on a painting.”
This spatial mediation is paralleled by Austerlitz’s temporal experience of the city. The first time that Prague is mentioned in the novel is not in connection with Austerlitz’s own memories of his childhood but in terms of somebody else’s recollection of it. An orphan brought up by strict Welsh Methodists, Austerlitz is browsing in a London bookstore when he hears a radio broadcast which relates the story of two Jewish children who had come to England from Prague on the Kindertransport in 1939.
Significantly, the first time Austerlitz hears the word “Prague” is not in the context of the city as a place but as the name of a ferry which conveyed the children across the English Channel from the Hook of Holland to Harwich. In the original German text the ferry’s name is given in uppercase English (“PRAGUE”) rather than German or Czech. Obscured in English translation—where the word “Prague” is used throughout—this detail renders problematic Austerlitz’s immediate connection to the putative city of his birth. If the word PRAGUE brings back Austerlitz’s memories of his own experience as one of the Jewish emigrants from Prague, it is not clear how such primal memories could have been triggered by a foreign (i.e., English) word, which he would not have known as a Czech baby.
A similar problem of naming and its relation to memory is provided by the exclusive use of Czech place and personal names in the German text. Throughout the novel Sebald uses the Czech forms rather than their German equivalents, which marks a major departure from established usage in German literature. On one level, this innovation can be seen as an acceptance of the fact that Prague is no longer a German city. But in terms of Austerlitz’s nostalgia for his pristine “Czech” origins, the exclusive use of Czech names also serves to efface the associations of German guilt.
Given the problematic nature of naming and memory in the novel, Sebald seems to be suggesting that Austerlitz imagines rather than remembers Prague as the city of his birth. This supposition is supported by his sudden appearance in the city on the Vltava, as if he were transported there by magic rather than reality. Following his epiphany in the London bookstore, the next thing we learn is that Austerlitz has mysteriously surfaced in Prague and is conducting research in the city archives, where he miraculously discovers crucial facts about his dead mother’s fame as an opera singer. Austerlitz seems to go about this research with the methodical rigor of a scholar, thus providing an intriguing a parallel with the German narrator’s own antiquarian disposition. However, less important than what Austerlitz discovers about his operatic mother—let alone its fantastical quality—is the process by which he arrives at the information. In the apt formulation of Amir Eshel: “Austerlitz’s search is not the means, but rather the end itself.”
Once in Prague, Austerlitz is able to confirm what he seemed to know all along: that he is an orphaned child of Czech Jews who perished in the Holocaust. In fact, it is never made clear whether Austerlitz is really a Czech Jew at all, and the fascination of the novel consists in the way the protagonist embodies the novel’s fusion of fact and fiction, memory and invention. From the outset Austerlitz is larger than life, more akin to a character in a film or a novel than a real person. When the narrator first encounters him, he is taking notes and sketching in the Centraal Station in Antwerp: “One of the people waiting in the Salle des pas perdus was Austerlitz, a man who then, in 1967, appeared almost youthful, with fair, curiously wavy hair of a kind I had seen elsewhere only on the German hero Siegfried in Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen film” (Austerlitz, 7). At their second meeting, on the promenade beside the Schelde River, Austerlitz recalls a sixteenth-century Flemish painting of the river during the Little Ice Age, when the people of Antwerp were able to amuse themselves on the ice. Austerlitz’s description of the painting is so minutely realistic that it begins to blur the distinction between memory and invention.
Austerlitz is an interstitial figure whose pedigree is more fictional and literary than real. His name recalls the famous train station in Paris—the Gare d’Austerlitz—itself named for the battle fought in Moravia (the eastern half of the present-day Czech Republic) during the Napoleonic era. In the course of the novel Austerlitz moves between the Czech Republic and France, in the first place looking for his lost mother, in the second for his lost father. If he belongs anywhere, it is between these places rather than in either or both of them. His initial impulse to go back to Prague is motivated less by the desire to revisit his putative childhood home than to reenact the journey he took as a four-year-old on the Kindertransport from there to the Hook of Holland.
As he wanders through Prague in search of his lost past, Austerlitz’s quest self-consciously recalls a whole host of literary wanderers from the Eternal Jew, Laquedem, in Apollinaire’s “The Stroller through Prague” to the newcomer to the city in Nezval’s “The Prague Walker.” To be sure, the melancholy Austerlitz does not share Laquedem’s life-affirming disposition or Nezval’s sexual fantasies, but his quest makes him the most recent incarnation of a stranger who treats Prague as a city-book with which to unlock the secrets of his identity. The self-conscious, literary nature of Austerlitz’s character is not limited to himself but also extends to his Czech relatives. His mother’s profession as a famous opera singer brings to mind Emilia Marty, the larger-than-life heroine of Čapek’s play The Makropulos Case, discussed in chapter 2. And his aunt’s name (Otýlie) is the Czech from of the name of Kafka‘s favorite sister, Ottla. Even her glove shop recalls the haberdashery business owned by the Kafka family.
The self-conscious status of Prague as a constantly rewritten text raises the question whether it is ever possible to access the past without endless reference, in Andreas Huyssen’s formulation, “to repetitions, reinscriptions, and rewritings that make any account of postwar literary developments as a stable progression through the decades inherently problematic.” Prague’s metatextual status as a city of endless rewriting and repetition can be seen to mirror the predicament of all German writers born during or shortly after the war. As a member of this second generation, Sebald was familiar with the war only through literature, films, photographs and eyewitness accounts. He first came across the raw material for his novel Austerlitz in a Channel 4 television documentary which related the experience of two orphaned Czech Jews who came to England on the Kindertransport and were brought up by Welsh Calvinists.
The notion of Prague as a site of secondary memory is reinforced in Austerlitz’s conversations about his past with his long-lost nanny Věra. Highly revealing about these passages is the way Věra’s voice weaves in and out of Austerlitz’s own narrative, creating the impression of endless displacement from a unified voice of authentic memory: “When the weather was bad, said Vera, we often visited my aunt Otýlie in the glove shop on the Šeríková, which she had been running since before the Great War and in which, as in some consecrated shrine or temple, a muted atmosphere banishing all profane ideas reigned” (Austerlitz, 159).
Who is remembering/speaking here—Věra or Austerlitz? The parenthetic “said Vera” presupposes that Austerlitz’s former nanny is the speaker; but this is complicated by the subsequent reference to “my aunt,” which suggests that Austerlitz is speaking. The problem of narrative perspective raised by Sebald’s novel had already been addressed in Kafka’s famous use of the “narrated monologue” in The Trial, with its tension between an omniscient narrator and an implied first-person speaker. Sebald takes this narrative uncertainty one stage further by interweaving three different perspectives—the German narrator, Austerlitz, and Věra. The sense of ontological instability which results from this lack of an authentic, unified voice is important in terms of Prague’s function as a multilayered palimpsest in which only traces of the past—and of the self—can be recovered.
As a consequence of the unusual mode of narration in Austerlitz no clear distinction becomes possible between Prague as a textual phenomenon and as a topographical space. Just as Austerlitz’s account of prewar Prague is mediated through others’ voices, so the city is experienced through a complex layering of literary and extraliterary citations. Kafka’s life and work are the most obvious example of this intertextuality. As already mentioned, the name of Austerlitz’s aunt Otýlie was also the name of Kafka’s youngest sister, who was murdered in Auschwitz along with her two older sisters. When Austerlitz enters the archive building in search of his parents’ identity, the archivist Mrs. Ambrosová materializes next to him rather as the two functionaries appear next to K. in The Castle, and her office, stacked high with bundles of old paper, recalls the lawyer’s office in The Trial. The account of the two men who come to arrest Austerlitz’s mother Agáta is taken virtually verbatim from the description of the stranger who comes to arrest Josef K. at the beginning of The Trial:
He was slender yet solidly built, and was wearing a fitted black jacket, which, like a traveler’s outfit, was provided with a variety of pleats, pockets, buckles, buttons and a belt, and thus appeared eminently practical, although its purpose remained unclear. (Kafka, The Trial, 3–4)Even Austerlitz’s nostalgia for Czech derives from Kafka’s biography. Kafka considered Czech to be more affective than the sterile Prague German he spoke at home and in the office. Similarly, Austerlitz feels closer to Czech than he does to German or English, although he barely remembers it. Consider the passage where Věra repeats the basic numerals in a poignant reenactment of his aunt’s efforts to teach him to count in Czech: “And I remember, Vera told me, said Austerlitz, that it was Aunt Otýlie who taught you to count at the age of three and a half, using a row of small black malachite buttons sewn to an elbow-length velvet glove which you particularly liked—jeden, dvě, tři, counted Vera, and I, said Austerlitz, went on counting—čtyři, pět, šest, sedm—feeling like someone taking uncertain steps out on the ice” (Austerlitz, 159–60).
Austerlitz’s favorite Czech word as a child was veverka (“squirrel”), which he remembers when he sees an actual stuffed squirrel in the shopwindow during his visit to the concentration camp at Terezín. The fact that his memory of this childhood word is triggered in a town where thousands of Czech Jews were transported en route to their deaths at Auschwitz and elsewhere is more than incidental, denoting both the character’s nostalgia for his lost childhood innocence and the novel’s nostalgia for a language of innocence untainted by Nazism. Here too Sebald may have been thinking of Kafka’s affection for the Czech language, which he associated with his Czech nanny. It is significant that Věra, who spoke to Austerlitz in Czech when he was a baby, turns out to be his long-lost nursery maid. As an adult Kafka requested his mistress Milena Jesenská to write to him in Czech, since he felt a stronger emotional bond to that language than he did to the German. If German is associated with his strict father, Czech is identified with the loving women in Kafka’s life.
Similarly, for Austerlitz, Czech is conceived as a maternal-connoted language which restores unmediated memory and authentic being to the alienated modern subject: “In the middle of her account Vera herself, quite involuntarily, had changed from one language to the other, and I, who had not for a moment thought that Czech could mean anything to me, not at the airport or in the state archives, or even while learning by heart the question which would have been scant use to me addressed to the wrong quarters, now understood almost everything Vera said, like a deaf man whose hearing has been miraculously restored, so that all I wanted to do was close my eyes and listen forever to her polysyllabic flood of words” (Austerlitz, 155). The enchantment of Czech speech—or rather Czech song—had provided Apollinaire with a temporary respite from the burden of writing in “Zone.” The notion of Czech speech as a miraculous medium which restores hearing to the deaf also recalls Bachmann’s poem “Prague, January ’64,” with its vision of Prague as a mystical “night of the soul” in which the fragmented self experiences the wondrous restoration of authentic being and speech: “Since that night / I have been able to walk and speak again, / It sounds Bohemian, / As if I were at home once more.” In both cases the immediacy and plenitude of Czech / Bohemian speech serves as a redemptive alternative to the inadequacy of German writing after Auschwitz. The most recent demonstration of this ongoing obsession among German writers with their language as morally handicapped is Bernhard Schlink’s Der Vorleser (The Reader, 1995), in which the central protagonist, a woman named Hanna who served as a concentration camp guard, turns out to be an illiterate whose victims—understood both as camp inmates during the war and her young German lover after it has ended—are forced to read aloud to her from the treasure-house of world literature. In order to find expiation for her crimes, Hanna must not only serve many years in prison but also learn to read and write from scratch. Far from being a motif of moral exculpation—as it has sometimes been interpreted by critics—Hanna’s need to learn to write again, like a child, can be understood as a metaphor for the ongoing experience of guilt felt by postwar German authors of Schlink’s and Sebald’s generation. Seen in this light, Hanna is not only the narrator’s lover but also his “mother”—the German language, the Muttersprache, he can neither cease to love nor fully repudiate.
Prague’s function as a purely metatextual space correlates with what Martin Swales has termed the novel’s “metasubjective” status as a multiplicity of narrative voices. He explains the lack of “authentic voice” in terms of psychic repression. According to Swales, the novel represses memories of unspeakable horror by withholding an authentic voice which could give utterance to such recollections: “And it is so because the authentic voice of that anguish, were it to be uttered, would be the long-drawn-out scream of the tortured Novelli in Austerlitz—the dreadful sequence of capital A’s filling three lines of text.”
But this lack of authentic voice can also be explained in terms of Prague as palimpsest. What the city-text ultimately reveals is not so much a repressed set of authentic memories waiting to be uncovered as a curious absence of authentic memory. There is a powerful example of this baffling emptiness when Austerlitz visits the concentration camp at Terezín. The Nazis made an infamous film of the town to mislead the Swiss Red Cross into believing it was a humane resettlement for European Jews rather than a transit camp to the death camps at Auschwitz and elsewhere. Austerlitz’s visit to the camp is intended to negate these distortions of history by recovering what happened to his mother, who was incarcerated there before being transported to the east. But the description of Terezín singularly fails to do that. Instead of a real place Austerlitz witnesses a ghost town full of closed doors and inscrutable exteriors akin to a Potemkin village.
One of the most poignant sections of the novel is when Austerlitz—now back in England—is watching the Nazi film made about Terezín, known as The Führer Presents a City to the Jews. Scrutinizing this old footage frame by frame, he is looking for a lost image of his mother and thinks he remembers her from one blurred shot. In Prague he had spent several days looking through the theatrical archives on Celetná Street (Zeltnergasse, where Kafka lived), where he came across the photograph of an anonymous actress “who seemed to resemble my dim memory of my mother” (Austerlitz, 253). The accompanying photograph of a beautiful, dark-haired woman would seem to bear out this important discovery.
But is this photograph really of his mother or just a visual prop intended to convince Austerlitz that he has successfully recovered his past? Before the visit to the theatrical archives Austerlitz and Věra look down at the city from the observation tower on Petřín Hill scrutinizing the cars and trains crawling along the banks of the river and crossing the bridge. This is not the first time we have seen Austerlitz looking down at Prague from the hillside. Now he is examining the city through a telescope, just as he subsequently scrutinizes the documents in the theatrical archives in search of his mother. Thus, the quest for the absent mother correlates with the distant city of Prague, an inversion of Kafka’s personification of the city as a “little mother” who will never let go with her claws. If maternal Prague won’t let you go, neither, it seems will she let you in. However much Austerlitz looks and searches, the mother-city remains elusive.
After his trip to Prague, Austerlitz suddenly shows up in Paris to look for his father. When the narrator visits him there, Austerlitz continues his story “without any preamble”: “When I was first in Paris at the end of the 1950s, he said, turning to me, I had a room in the apartment of an elderly lady of almost transparent appearance called Amélie Cerf, who lived at number 6, rue Émile Zola, not far from the Pont Mirabeau, a shapeless concrete block which I still sometimes see in my nightmares today” (Austerlitz, 255).
As we have seen, the avenue Émile Zola was Celan’s Paris address and the Pont Mirabeau the site of his suicide in 1970. Here too Austerlitz’s autobiography emerges as inauthentic and his memories of Paris based on Celan’s tragic fate rather than his own. Moreover, both Celan and Sebald must have known Apollinaire’s poem about the Pont Mirabeau, another example of the novel’s extraordinarily layered intertextuality. The following pages of the novel are replete with references to the suicide of French Jews as they desperately tried to avoid transportation in 1941. Austerlitz’s father was last heard of in a camp in the Pyrenees in 1942, after which he disappeared from the records. While changing trains at the Gare d’Austerlitz, Austerlitz feels that he is getting closer to his father, who must have left from this station. After giving the narrator the keys to his flat on Alderney Street in London, Austerlitz also mysteriously disappears. Does he take a train from the Gare d’Austerlitz in the search for his father? Or does he commit suicide like Celan? It is intriguing in this context to raise the question of Sebald’s own death in a car accident in 2001, which in a curious way replicates Albert Camus’s tragic end on a road south of Paris in January 1960. I suggested earlier that Celan’s death by drowning also replicates Georg Bendemann’s fate in Kafka’s story “The Judgment.” And his father’s death in a camp in the Pyrenees makes us think of Walter Benjamin’s suicide there as he tried unsuccessfully to avoid arrest and escape across the French border to Spain. How do we make sense of these replications and reenactments?
We might say that Austerlitz’s memories constitute a series of unconscious fantasies based on what he has heard and read, just as the fictional narrative of his life is derived from secondhand episodes in other people’s lives. Freud claims that memories are “manufactured by things that are heard, and utilized subsequently, and thus combine things experienced and heard.” The primacy which Freud gives to hearing in the creation of unconscious fantasy corresponds to Austerlitz’s dependence on what he hears rather than sees, the first example being the radio broadcast about the Kindertransport in the London bookstore. Freud suggests that our fantasies come to us from outside, and that through them we psychically reenact what our parents psychically enacted before us, their parents before them, and so on. Building on Freud’s insights, Jean Laplanche suggests that our memories are in effect implanted, and that the process of implantation begins with the maternal care of the infant’s body. Prague’s metatextual function as a city of citation here meshes with its phantasmatic function as the mother.
Austerlitz’s memories of Prague as his home of origin are implanted, based on what he has heard and read about the city rather than his direct experience: his descriptions of Prague are not based on his unmediated experience but are secondhand borrowings, in particular, from Kafka’s life and fiction. This process of endless revision is also evident in Freud’s essays The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, from which his essay on “screen memories” is derived: “The rehearsal of everyday life in these pages is piled high with small . . . specimens. What results is a collage or palimpsest, extrapolated through recension after recension, over two decades—from its first periodical publication in 1901, and book appearance in 1904, to progressively enlarged editions in 1907, 1910, 1912, 1917, 1919, 1920 and 1924. It is Freud’s Thousand and One Days, as if to finish would be to fail to have convinced the reader.”
Freud’s and Laplanches’s insights into memories as implants are of great relevance to our understanding of the function of the photographs in Sebald’s text. The first thing to observe about these inserted or implanted images is how they differ from more conventional book illustrations. For example, the photograph of Celan’s mother in John Felstiner’s biography of the poet is an example of this more conventional kind of illustration (Felstiner, Paul Celan, 5). With its identifying caption it is intended to support or illustrate the argument advanced in the text and is thus in some way subordinated to it. By contrast, the image of the mysterious woman in Austerlitz is typical of Sebald’s idiosyncratic use of photographic material. Lacking a caption, the picture forms a seamless continuity with the text, corresponding to the way figurative and textual material is often conflated in the dream-work.
Ostensibly, this kind of photograph provides an objective, highly specific visual record of Austerlitz’s visit to Prague. Yet the photographs also serve to underline the secondary or borrowed status of the experience they illustrate and thus destabilize the epistemological basis of the entire narrative. In other words, Austerlitz’s memories of Prague may be based on his observation of the photographs rather than the other way round. Significantly, none of the photographs in the text are identifiable as real Prague landmarks but, as in Kafka’s novels, represent anonymous urban spaces.
In this respect the novel addresses the kind of questions posed by recent forged Holocaust memoirs. As Susan Suleiman has stated in an essay on the problems of memory in the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski, a Swiss national who claimed to be a Polish Holocaust survivor, the blurred border between recollection and invention, autobiographical memoir and novel, is typical of Sebald’s previous novel, Die Ausgewanderten (The emigrants). As I have argued, the slippage between the third-person novelistic narration and the first-person autobiography is especially true of Austerlitz. In presenting Prague as the city of secondary memory, Sebald is not denying that the Holocaust actually took place, just as surely as he is not denying the existence of the city. He is not concerned with the ontological basis of the Holocaust—that it happened—but with its epistemological uncertainties—how we come to imagine the unimaginable so long after the events occurred and how prone we are to efface those events from our collective memory. Just as our attempt to memorialize the Holocaust is constructed from a collage of photographs, writings, letters, and films, so Austerlitz’s Prague consists of an assemblage of fragmentary texts and images. Suleiman detects the same mixture of memory and fabrication in the genre of the autobiographical Holocaust memoir. The difference between history and fiction, memory and invention, becomes hopelessly blurred in Sebald’s novel.
So too does the distinction between the novel and the genre of the memoir. As I have indicated, the novel does not clarify whether Austerlitz is really a Czech Jew or not. Like the Swiss Wilkomirski who wanted to be a Polish Jew, Austerlitz both as a character and as a novel can be read as a biographical extension of the German narrator’s profound identification with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Important here is the proximity of the unnamed narrator to the protagonist. As Brad Prager points out, “Austerlitz’s state of mind is reported through his German narrator, who once again is unnamed, though we have enough information that his relative proximity to Sebald is not in doubt. Not only is Sebald like the narrator, but the narrator is like Austerlitz” (Prager, “The Good German as Narrator,” 98–99).
In this sense the novel reveals an autobiographical tendency, exposing something of Sebald’s split identity within his liminal protagonist. In his own life Sebald found himself in an indeterminate location between England and Germany, neither fully at home in his adopted land nor comfortable with the land he had left. His decision to remain in England suggests a degree of repudiation as well as resignation: he does not want to be German yet recognizes that he cannot escape his past.
Another feature of the proximity between the protagonist and the German narrator/author is the problematic relation of victim to persecutor, signaled by the eerie acoustic resemblance of “Austerlitz” to “Auschwitz.” To what extent is Austerlitz a Jewish victim of the Holocaust, and to what extent is he an extension of the narrator/author’s desire to identify totally with his victim? If the German narrator shares some of the protagonist’s post-traumatic stress disorder, as Brad Prager has suggested, Austerlitz has in common with the narrator/author the obsessive need to catalog and photograph monuments and places, including the ghostly streets and facades of Terezín. This urge to document was, of course, a marked feature of the Nazis’ compulsion to catalog their murderous practices within and beyond the death camps. Christopher Bigsby has drawn our attention to the similar actions of Sebald’s own father: “One German officer even gathered together his pictures of the Krakow ghetto, its empty streets filled with the abandoned suitcases of those taken away to die, and had them mounted and leather-bound to take home. W. G. Sebald’s father, whose activities in Poland were never to be spoken aloud, nonetheless himself presented a similar album to his wife.”
Sebald’s father had been in Poland but never talked about it after the war and refused to engage when challenged by his son. Sebald’s own urge to remember the Nazi past of his own nation is curiously analogous to Austerlitz’s need to reclaim his past as the child of Czech Jews. In identifying with Austerlitz as a would-be Jew, Sebald highlights how the past can neither be fully reclaimed nor fully redeemed but only rewritten. For all the writers we have discussed in this chapter—Bachmann, Celan, and Sebald—Prague exemplifies this palimpsestic process by which every attempt to reach an authentic state of being through unmediated memory is exposed as secondary and citational.