If The Rings of Saturn is W. G. Sebald's most professorial performance, his most austerely intellectual book (and this case is at least arguable), Austerlitz is by far his most emotional. While the other three books impress me deeply, Austerlitz is the only one that also, each of the three times I've read it, has made me weep. (The moment that moves me so deeply is one of the book's simplest, the recognition scene between Austerlitz and Vera: Jacquot, dis, est-ce que c'est vraiment toi?) This heightened emotionalism is surely due to the facts that in Jacques Austerlitz Sebald gives us the only major character he ever lived to create (The only comparably complex figure in Sebald's fiction is the narrator, a seemingly consistent personage in the four books and an interestingly slippery character composed of equal parts neurosis, bitterness, paranoia, melancholia, sarcasm, and a capacity for perception that lies at the root of it all.) and that Austerlitz is Sebald's most traditional work, a psychological novel that reads like a late, late Modernist addition to the shelf that holds Dostoyevsky and Kafka. Indeed, I am struck on this reading by the way the discussion of fortifications near the beginning of the book is presented in a rhetoric that begs for psychological interpretation. For Austerlitz speaks here not merely of the antiquated fortifications of Belgium but of his own formidable psychological armor, a series of protective walls to which history, both personal and continental, will lay siege over the course of the book, ultimately forcing his mind back upon itself and into the childhood he has self-protectively repressed. Immediately after this early conversation, the narrator travels to the former Nazi prison in the fortress at Breendonk, and his experience there forms an anticipatory counterpoint to Austerlitz's subsequent encounters with his own past. Standing at the doorway of a torture chamber deep inside the fortress, the narrator is assailed by memories from his childhood in post-WWII Germany. His response will surprise no attentive readers of Sebald's previous novels: rather than force himself to face his personal past, he retreats into remembered texts narrating the horrific experiences of torture victims--experiences surely more horrible than anything we've been told about the narrator's childhood. So it's not a comforting retreat, but it's still a swerve away from the self, and therein lies the key to the narrator's fascination with Austerlitz. For Austerlitz does what the narrator cannot bring himself to do. When the past assaults Austerlitz, he does not turn away.
Jacques Austerlitz, like his creator, is a master semiotician. (Sebald would probably have bristled at this description of himself, with its air of the trendily academic.) So it's appropriate that the near-suicidal depression into which he descends manifests itself as a deconstructive melancholia, an inability to read any sign, that leads to a radical emptying of meaning from language. Austerlitz's description of the emotional impact of such emptying is the nauseating opposite of the aporistic jouissance beloved of deconstructionists:
"I could see no connections anymore, the sentences resolved themselves into a series of separate words, the words into random sets of letters, the letters into disjointed signs, and those signs into a blue-gray trail gleaming silver here and there, excreted and left behind it by some crawling creature, and the sight of it increasingly filled me with feelings of horror and shame"(124).
It is equally appropriate that when Austerlitz takes the first steps toward recovering his childhood by traveling to his old neighborhood in Prague, his excitement at each discovery expresses itself as a semiotic mania in which every object becomes a sign charged with personal meaning. (Austerlitz has much to say about the shadowy place where deconstruction and critical theory meet depression and repression; and critical theorists, if they are to live up to their adjective, should ponder the implications of Sebald's work. One thing he suggests is that labyrinthine academic critical endeavors are so many structures of repression, that critical theory is a vast airport where all flights travel away from the self.) So we should not be surprised when Austerlitz's investigation of his past takes a specifically semiotic form. The world of his childhood is tragically closed to him, all but obliterated by the Nazi genocide, so he is forced to search for traces, floating signifiers to which he might attach the signifieds that tear at his mind: Mother, Father. His investigation of his mother's past (or at least that portion of it narrated in the novel) concludes with his discovery of a photograph which he can, not entirely arbitrarily, identify as an image of his mother. The identification is confirmed by a family friend who may be lying in order to avoid adding yet another disappointment to Austerlitz's tragic life. But Austerlitz, driven by a desire to connect signifier and signified, is no longer critical enough to consider this possibility. (As Philip Larkin knew, "...where / Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic...") So the investigation ends, like every successful investigation, with the construction of a sign, a union of signifier and signified, photograph and name. But this photograph, 'reproduced' on page 253, shows only the shadowy features of a woman's face looming out of a blackness darker than ink. It is a sign fading into nothingness. More than a possible image of Austerlitz's mother, it is a visual image of the murderous oblivion in which she remains lost.
The Nazi genocide obliterated even the signs of the past, and this process of obliteration by no means ended in 1945. The burden of Austerlitz's lengthy description of the Mitterrand Bibliotheque (and the reason for its prominent placement near the novel's end) is to show that Austerlitz's quest is rendered even more futile by the fact that the work of obliteration begun by the Nazis has now become one of the unspoken, unspeakable imperatives of modern culture:
"The new library building, which in both its entire layout and its near-ludicrous internal regulation seeks to exclude the reader as a potential enemy, might be described...as the official manifestation of the increasingly importunate urge to break with everything which still has some living connection to the past"(286).
The library, built atop the site of a former warehouse where the Germans stored loot stolen from the homes of deported Jews, is a manifold symbol of the past's destruction--the exact opposite of what a library should be. (It is also one of the ugliest architectural excrescences I have ever had the displeasure of visiting; everything Sebald says about it is true.) If even libraries have become sites of forgetting, then forgetting is surely condition general.
Amidst all this hopelessness, the book leaves Austerlitz still searching for signs that almost certainly do not exist and follows the narrator back to Breendonk. Thirty years after his visit at the beginning of the book, the old prison is now an educational museum on the outskirts of encroaching suburbs. Schoolchildren dutifully troop inside, but the narrator cannot. Sitting outside he reads Dan Jacobson's Heshel's Kingdom, another narrative of the near-impossibility of recovering Eastern European Jewish memory, and the image of the abyssal abandoned diamond mine in that book (an image paralleling the abyss near the end of Sebald's Vertigo) becomes associated with the image of Breendonk, two unfathomable places where nothingness breaks terrifyingly out into the world, erasing the border between "ordinary life on one side and its unimaginable opposite on the other"(297). The narrator reads on, and his reading becomes that almost unimaginable thing, an act of historical recovery. Through signs, through words, through representation, through all these things that Sebald has spent his entire tragically truncated career as a novelist radically questioning, a connection is achieved to a group of prisoners who would otherwise have died unnamed and unremembered in a Nazi dungeon. The witness of writing is far from perfect, this ending tells us, but it is the best witness we have.