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In the summer of 1939, five-year-old Jacques Austerlitz is sent to England on one of the Kindertransports and placed with foster parents in Wales. For reasons of their own, the childless Calvinist couple erase from the boy all knowledge of his identity. Throughout his life Austerlitz is haunted by feelings of otherness, but it is not until retirement that he embarks on a journey to make sense of his curious early memories and explores what happened to him half a century ago.
Penguin Books Ltd
Publisher and industry reviews
"Sebald is the Joyce of the 21st Century" The Times
UK Kirkus review
W G Sebald is one of the most eccentric as well as one of the most breathtakingly imaginative of living novelists. Although he still writes in his native German, he has lived permanently in England for about 30 years, and this aspect of the writer's life resonates aptly with his themes of memory and displacement. His latest book focuses on autobiographical episodes told to the narrator by Jacques Austerlitz in a series of long monologues in Antwerp, London and Paris. In baroquely cadenced prose this most buttonholing of ancient mariners recalls a desperate childhood with adoptive Calvinist parents in Wales culminating in his discovery that his birthplace had been Prague, whence in 1939 he was evacuated at the age of five by one of the Kindertransports - the trains that took Jewish refugee children to safety. As he strives in adult life to recapture his memories long and comprehensively suppressed, he feels himself to be a lost soul, and indeed endures breakdown. In Paris he balks at an opportunity for redemption through love. We travel with him to Theresienstadt, where his mother was interned, and the cruel madness of the Third Reich comes through in a devastating picture of life in the concentration camp. As in Sebald's previous fiction, black-and-white photographs punctuate the text - literally illustrating its descriptions but remaining cryptic as a fictional device. One new stylistic feature here is a complete lack of paragraphs: the novel flows like a beautiful river of pain, reminiscent of Proust in its long, retrospective sentences (one is ten pages long) and of Beckett in the obsessive pedantry of its logic, seldom far from dementia. The narrator, too, seems to have a precarious grip on reason: for example, it is he, not Austerlitz, who says, '...the thought passed through my mind that the hair on my head might catch fire, as St Julian's did on his way through the desert.' This is a complex book - exhausting, compelling, humourless, hopeless, and utterly original. (Kirkus UK)
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