I think I bought this book my senior year of college and started reading it for a class I ended up dropping: I opened the book to find that I’d underlined/taken notes in the margins up to page 29, at which point I found a ticket stub for a student ticket to the ballet ($10!) from Friday, January 30, 2004. I’m glad I kept this book for all those years, and glad I finally read it: it’s beautiful and sad, haunted, haunting.
The book opens with an unnamed narrator (who is German, we later learn) talking about meeting a somewhat older man by chance in the train station in Antwerp in 1967, and continuing to run into that man, Jacques Austerlitz, in the late 1960s. We later find that the narrator and Austerlitz fell out of touch, then reconnected decades later, in 1996. When the narrator meets Austerlitz, he learns that he’s a scholar, an expert in “architectural history”; the narrator and Austerlitz talk for hours, and Austerlitz regales him with the history of forts and fortifications in Europe, after which the narrator sees an article in the newspaper that mentions Breendonk and decides to go visit. (It is not coincidental that when the narrator first meets Austerlitz, he finds himself looking at the people in the vast, high-ceilinged waiting room at the train station and comparing them to the animals he’s just seen at the zoo, somehow struck by the fancy that the people in the waiting room “were the last members of a diminutive race which had perished or had been expelled from its homeland, and that because they alone survived they wore the same sorrowful expression as the creatures in the zoo.”)
As the book proceeds, we learn about Austerlitz’s origins, the details of which he learned only late in life. He grew up in Wales, we learn, and learned his true name at the age of fifteen—he had been raised by a minister and that minister’s wife and had grown up with the Welsh name they’d given him. But as a young adult he never tried to find out where he came from; he tells the narrator about his avoidance of all things that might be related to his past, to the history of the Holocaust. But all that avoidance and repression takes a toll: after having had a number of breakdowns, Austerlitz finally accepts that his Jewish parents must have sent him to England so he would be safe, and determines to go to Prague to learn what he can about his early life and his family.
The text is interspersed with black and white photos (a staircase with a wrought-iron railing, the glass roof of a train station, butterflies in a display case, billiards balls on a table); the photos add to the book’s concern with history and memory and time and its passing. Fairly early in the book, after his visit to Breendonk, we get this, from the narrator: “I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.” Austerlitz’s belated determination to unearth his own hidden/forgotten/repressed family history, and the photos he takes of all the places he travels, both serve as a kind of rejoinder to that, an exploration of what we can remember.
I love the long sentences of this book (there’s one about the workings of Theresienstadt that is more than seven pages long, no joke, and is an emotional wallop for both the reader and Austerlitz) and the descriptions of places, like this, when the narrator talks about seeing Austerlitz in Liège: “The sun was just breaking once again through the inky blue wall of cloud heralding a storm, and the factory buildings and yards, the long rows of terraced housing for the laborers, the brick walls, the slate roofs, and the windowpanes shone as if a fire were glowing within them.”