#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

September 23, 2009 | 3 books mentioned 3

coverWhen I discovered W.G. Sebald, I read Vertigo first, and then The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn. Minutes after I read the final page of The Rings of Saturn, I flipped it over and began again. I read that book six times, maybe seven, and taught it once. Still I avoided Austerlitz. Maybe I was saving the finest chocolate for last or maybe it was fear: fear of the subject matter, fear that the book would fail my expectations, fear that it would be so good that I would never write again. When finally I read it (nearly straight through, though its complicating visual interruptions give less relief than its scanty paragraph breaks), I understood it to be Sebald’s greatest work of art. My description implies that the novel is breathless but in fact it is calm and wise, its terror subtle, creeping, accumulative.

In its layered explorations of the limitations and possibilities of the narrative I and the narrative eye, Austerlitz changed how I read and how I think. The novel offers evidence that silence not the only decent response to atrocity, that art can carry a fiery, gentle intelligence to our hardest questions, that the human heart can be reached—broken—through the intellect.

Read an excerpt from Austerlitz.
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is the author of the novels Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, and Grub. Her fourth novel, An Unfinished Score, is forthcoming in spring 2010. Read more at eliseblackwell.com.


  1. I recall vividly my first encounter with The Rings of Saturn, filled with its curious photographs. Reading Sebald’s prose creates an almost otherworldly spell…he captures us with his glistening prose that leads directly to the center of the universe. A critic describes Sebald’s panoramic vision as “extraterrestrial.”
    Perhaps future generations will grasp the meaning of “cables of cobwebs”
    punned by the “cobwebs of cables” photo of the African mines. On that page lies the center of The Rings of Saturn along with Sebald’s remark that it is almost frightening that we know so little of the origin of our species and its purpose. The Temple of Solomon, its sacred geometry…the white line over the dead sea, the photo of the Cedars of Lebanon near Baalbek, the African mines create a narrative grid. Connect them with a pencil on a map, and you will draw a straight line. Understanding that geometry, archaic and dusty, fed Sebald’s genius, and made him our greatest living writer at the time of his death.

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