Reading, Writing, Hatching

Part of the Edition Voldemeer book series (VOLDEMEER)


A is for Austerlitz. We need to start at the beginning. A is for Austerlitz and so many other names besides:02 for Agáta Austerlizová his mother, and for Tereza03 Ambrosová, the archivist who brings him back to her, almost. A is for the family name of Maximilian Aychenwald, his father. We need to start at the beginning of an alphabet in which it is established that B follows A, as assuredly as beta its alpha, and as certainly as Buchenwald follows Aychenwald.04 We need to take as our point of departure those signs on which we depend to read, an alphabet that phonetically encodes and recapitulates the spoken word and promises other far-reaching powers of ordering as well. We need to relearn our A, B, C’s, to return to childhood, to bring it back from the shadows, to relive even the earliest moments in which speaking began, or at least to the time of an originary mother tongue, however squirrely that grasp of language might be. Isn’t this the point of W.G. Sebald’s book, as some of his readers insist: an account of “recovered memory” that retells the life story of Jacques Austerlitz?05


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  1. 01.
    All citations of Austerlitz are from W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, translation Anthea Bell, New York: Random House, 2001, and Austerlitz, München / Wien: Carl Hanser, 2001. Page numbers from the translation are followed by an “e,” from the German edition are followed by a “g.” The English translation has often been slightly altered.Google Scholar
  2. 07.
    Amir Eshel, in a stunning and carefully reflective essay (“Against the Power of Time: The Poetics of Suspension in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz,” in: New German Critique 88 [Winter 2003], 71–96), makes the connection between Austerlitz and Ulysses, though on another basis than that suggested here. Eschel speaks of “Austerlitz’s Ulyssian journey back to his past [...] to Prague, where, much like Ulysses, he encounters his childhood in the figure of his nursemaid” (78). There is an irony, however, in this particular passage: at the moment when Austerlitz first consciously hears of the Kindertransport, he is already with his Penelope, Penelope Peacefull, and he makes his trip to Prague, not by finding but by leaving her, casting in doubt the place of home. For the trip’ home’ to Prague, which follows upon a severe linguistic breakdown will precipitate an even greater breakdown. The return home to Prague, then, has all the ambiguity of Odysseus’s embrace of Telemachus. Homer describes that embrace, which recuperates the son for the father, with a hardly peaceful simile that speaks of a mother bird whose nestlings have been stolen away: “and they cried shrill in a pulsing voice, even more than the outcry of birds, ospreys or vultures with hooked claws, whose children were stolen away by the men of the fields” (XVI, 216–19, Homer, The Odyssey of Homer, translation Richard Lattimore, New York: Harper and Row, 1965, 245).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 09.
    W.G. Sebald, Campo Santo, München / Wien: Carl Hanser, 2003, and translation Anthea Bell, New York: Random House, 2005. Page numbers from the translation are followed by an e, from the German edition are followed by a g. The English translation has often been slightly altered. References to Campo Santo are preceded by CS in the body of the text.Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    See Klaus Jeziorkowski’s wonderfully intelligent commentary on the concept of web in Austerlitz, although, to be sure, the tone and gesture of the essay are in many senses a counterpoint to rather than a confirmation of what is written here. Thus he speaks of a “Lesbarmachen” (a making readable), or of the idea of a network that is to be thought of as all encompassing, or, in the title as in the closing line, of the periphery as middle, which seems to solidify the concept of periphery in a manner Sebald astutely avoids (Klaus Jeziorkowski, “’Peripherie als Mitte’: Zur Ästhetik von Zivilität — W.G. Sebald und sein Roman Austerlitz” in: Sigurd Martin/ Ingo Wintermeyer [eds.], Verschiebebahnhöfe der Erinnerung: Zum Werk W.G. Seebalds, Würzburg: Konigshausen & Neumann, 2007).Google Scholar

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© Springer 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Germanic Languages and LiteraturesYale UniversityYale

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