Friday, December 28, 2007

W.G. Sebald: Austerlitz

AT THE END OF THE YEAR I look back over the books read, the theater seen, the meals eaten, the travels made in the last twelve months. There the books are, still waiting in many cases to be written about: for it is in writing about things that I come to understand what they mean; what they mean to me; what things mean to me.

I have written here about some of them, notably (at tedious length) Alex Ross's survey of the music of the Twentieth Century, The Rest is Noise; and Geert Mak's fine history of the Twentieth Century minus its music, In Europe. Many other titles should have been mentioned but were not: among them:
Ken Alder: The Measure of All Things
Diamond, Jared: Guns, Germs, and Steel
Freeling, Nicolas: The Village Book
Lermontov, Mihail: A Hero of our time
Lewis, Norman: Naples '44
Solnit, Rebecca: A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Swafford: Charles Ives
But none more, I think, than W.G. Sebald's magnificent Austerlitz. I read it last August, and subsequent travels and travails shouldered it aside. Austerlitz, perhaps more than any other book I've read recently, is a book I wish I had written, is the book I try to write. It so often so exactly relates experiences I have had, and draws the conclusions I have fumbled after. Unlike The Rings of Saturn, a somewhat easier book to read, Austerlitz lacks such help to the reader as chapter breaks and running heads; like other books by this writer, and like André Breton's memorable Surrealist novel Nadja, its pages contain enigmatic monochrome photographs whose presence somehow fills out the narrative.

I will not review Austerlitz: I simply transcribe the running heads and marginally checked passages my pencil left in the book. Perhaps some coherent view will Sebald-like divulge. Sebald's words are italicized.

P. 51: The drowned village p. 53 Ghosts p. 55 Moses p. 59 School (at twelve) p. 61 reading p.. 62 Tale p. 64 Gwendolyn's death p. 67 Adoption revealed p. 69 Napoleon p. 70 Austerlitz P. 71: Hilary could talk for hours about the second of December 1805, but nonetheless it was his opinion that he had to cut his accounts far too short, because, as he several times told us, it would take an endless length of time to describe the events of such a day properly… All of us, even when we think we have noted every tiny detail, resort to set peices which have already been stated often enough by others. [Longer to describe than to experience.]

P. 72: Our concern with history, so Hilary's thesis ran, is a concern with preformed images already imprinted on our brains, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered. Pp.76-77: From the outset my main concern was with the shape and the self-contained nature of discrete things, the curve of banisters on a staircase, the molding of a stone arch over a gateway, the tangled precision of the blades in a tussock of dried grass.

P. 91 Moths p. 97 Guillotine p. 100 Time p. 103 Greenwich p. 114 Flying P. 119 Photographs p. 120 (~ Arcades Project) p. 121 (Laboring past the work) P. 123 Disintegration: I already felt in my head the dreadful torpor that heralds disintegration of the personality, I sensed that in truth I had neither memory nor the power of thought, nor even any existence, that all my life had been a constant process of obliteration, a turning away from myself and the world. … the panic I felt on facing the start of any sentence that must be written, not knowing how I could begin it or indeed any other sentence, soon extended to what is in itself the simpler business of reading, until if I attempted to read a whole page I inevitably fell into a state of the greatest confusion. If language may be regarded as an old city full fo streets and squares, nooks and crannies… then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl anymore…

P. 125 Relinquishment p. 126 Noctambulation p. 128 Liverpool Street Station p. 136 Time …as if the black and white diamond pattern of the stone slabs beneath my feet were the board on which the endgame would be played, and it covered the entire plane of time. p. 138 Liverpool Street Station → recognition p. 139 Dream p. 1141 Radio p. 143 Prague p. 151 Recognition of things seen in childhood p. 165 Disembodied (radio) voices P 175 Acceleration: When I look back at the two years following the outbreak of the war, said Vera, it is as if at that time everything was caught in a vortex whirling downwards at ever-increasing speed. Bulletins came thick and fast… read … in a curiously high-pitched tone of voice, as if forced out of the larynx…

P. 185 Time: I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead… P. 201 → South: As so often when one is traveling south, I had the impression of going steadily downhill… p. 202 Casanova p. 206 Marienbad p. 214 Schumann p. 217 Prague station p. 219 Leaving Prague p. 222 Nürnberg p.225 The Rhine p. 230 Hospitalization p. 233 Adler p. 252 Return to Prague p. 254 Paris p. 260 Bibliothèque Nationale p. 268 Memory p. 269 la Salpêtrière. Stations de Métro p.272 Le cirque p. 273 Sa musique

P. 281 Complexity & Entropy …I came to the conclusion that in any project we design and develop, the size and degree of complexity of the information and control systems inscribed in it are the crucial factors, so that the all-embracing and absolute perfection of the concept can in practice coincide, indeed ultimately must coincide, with its chronic dysfunction and constitutional inability. p. 282 Balzac P. 283: …the border between life and death is less impermeable than we commonly think…

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