W.G. Sebald's unforgettable and extraordinary The Rings of Saturn concluded with an astonishing and unforgettable meditation on the art of silk-making in ancient China. For page after page he expatiated on the miraculous evolution of the craft, going on to consider its meaning, its inner symbolism, its effects on Europe once the secret of the silkworms and their diet of mulberry leaves had finally been smuggled out to the West, and much more.
At the book's center was a walking tour round the English country of Suffolk, but gradually his concerns widened to encompass the Low Countries, then Europe in general, and finally China and the Far East. Much of the wealth of the often derelict country houses he viewed in Suffolk had come from trade with Asia, and the narrative ended, appropriately, on an Asian crescendo.
Sebald was born in Germany but lived in England from the mid-1960s, latterly as a Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia. He wrote his six books in German, but during the late 1990s rose to fame in the English-speaking world as, essentially, a stylist in the English language (Austerlitz is superbly rendered into English by Anthea Bell). He died in a road accident in December 2001 at the age of 57.
Austerlitz was Sebald's last book and, according to those who've read them all, his masterpiece. By any standards it's a remarkable performance.
It isn't hard to read, but it's very unconventional. The first thing that will strike most readers is that the entire book, though 415 pages long, consists of one single, enormous paragraph. There's also one sentence two-thirds of the way through that goes on for a total of 11 pages.
Style is the essence of Sebald's attraction, as it was almost certainly central to his interest. The form of his books, too, is highly original.
Austerlitz is made up of a sequence of meditations, some lasting a few pages, others maybe for 50. These are almost invariably linked by only a single sentence, giving the effect of a gigantic literary patchwork quilt. It doesn't smother you exactly, but the way the tone of voice continues without change, and without stumbling, from one subject to another is so extraordinary it seems at times almost comic.
The tone itself must first and foremost be described as lofty. It's also somber, ruminative, and building to magnificent set-pieces that nonetheless manage to avoid grandiloquence. To anyone familiar with the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, these will provide a close parallel. Bruckner's symphonies have been brilliantly described as "boa constrictor" works. Like the great snake, they slowly and almost imperceptibly slide round you, and then proceed to crush you with a series of devastating and laughingly triumphant climaxes.
There's nothing laughing about Sebald, though there are undoubtedly some quiet and all-but hidden jokes for those on the look out for them. But the parallel of an insidious progression leading to some grand and marvelous effects is otherwise valid. Sebald, like Bruckner, appears to meander while in fact having his end clearly in view.
What is also striking is the oddity of Sebald's formal structures. In Austerlitz there appears at first to be a single narrator, but soon he gets into conversation with a stranger, a Czech called Austerlitz, in the Central Station in Antwerp, Belgium. Austerlitz then proceeds to tell his tale, and this ends up constituting nine-tenths of the book. (Some of Joseph Conrad's narratives come to mind here). As a result "said Austerlitz" recurs hundreds of times in the book's pages, so much so that you find yourself tensing as you anticipate the phrase's reappearance, and sometimes chuckling at the strange place Sebald chooses to place it -- phrases like "`said Vera,' said Austerlitz," are not uncommon. This, combined with the endless paragraph and the often very long sentences, produces a hallucinatory effect, and also one of unstoppability. The narrative rolls on like a huge snowball, with you, the reader, rolled up, legs flailing in vain, inside it.