Blending Fact With Fiction

In "Austerlitz," W. G. Sebald performs a small but significant miracle: he wrests the Holocaust out of the clutches of stale cliche. He does this without ever showing us a death camp or a gas chamber. Instead, this superb novel concentrates on the wreckage of one man's life. Orphaned as a young boy during the Nazi occupation of Prague, Jacques Austerlitz devotes the rest of his life to finding out who he really is and what happened to his parents, and all the while he is haunted by the feeling that he is living a borrowed life. Chronicling this strange odyssey, Sebald shows us, much as he did in "The Emigrants," a previous masterpiece on the same theme, that the horrors of mid-20th-century Europe have no expiration date.

In four genre-bending works of fiction published in the past decade, the 57-year-old Sebald has established himself as one of Europe's most distinctive authors, and certainly its most idiosyncratic. Two of his "novels" are collections of interrelated stories. All of them are narrated in a memoir style by a writer who at least superficially resembles Sebald, who, born and raised in Germany, has spent his adult life as a literature professor in England (he continues to write in German). And all are generously salted with grainy black-and-white photographs, and maps, floor plans and railroad timetables that mysteriously both add to and subtract from the idea that these stories are pretending to be factual.

Reading a Sebald book is like nothing else. Confronted with his strange, intoxicating brew of fact and fiction and digressions on everything from European train stations to the lives and times of certain moths, you wind up not knowing what to believe, or whom. Everything--history, memory--is called into question. It's even hard knowing what to call the books themselves. Clearly they are not novels, a form that Sebald scorns. "It's the quality of the writing which is much more important than the question of the genre," he said in a recent interview in New York City, where he was promoting his new book. "The reader doesn't care what form it is in. I do find that in the standard novel you have to say things like 'said she as she got up and walked over to the mantelpiece.' The grinding noises that the novel makes on every page so irritate me that I can't bear to read them anymore. I'd rather read a telephone directory from Prague in 1920."

Monkeying with fact and fiction is always a tricky business, and trickier still when one's work is so often preoccupied with the Holocaust. In this regard, Sebald is quick to say that there are limits to his method: "I would certainly not invent horror. There is enough of that, and it is practically impossible to describe it, as it were, face to face. I consider the gratuitous invention of horror one of the major faults of our present culture. And it gets peddled everywhere."

There is something of Poe in these books, and Borges and Kafka, which is to say, here is a storyteller who knows his stuff. Sebald is a master of the tiny detail that implies a world. In "Austerlitz," a Prague Jew in the '30s comes to understand how deeply the Nazis have sunk their claws into the German psyche when he happens upon "a new kind of boiled sweet which had, embedded in its sugary mass, a raspberry-colored swastika that literally melted in the mouth. At the sight of these Nazi treats... he suddenly realized that the Germans had wholly reorganized their production lines... not because they had been ordered to do so but each of his own accord."

For Austerlitz, it is facts themselves, paradoxically, that undo him. An architectural historian, he hoards and savors the details of floor plans, facades, elevations and renovations. But when he meshes this almost unseemly lust for facts with the search for his parents, his mania takes on the weird specificity of a dream or a nightmare--one from which there is no awakening, and whose answers mean very little. Austerlitz discovers where he came from, but he cannot discover who he is. Facts alone are not enough. Likewise, the more we learn about the Holocaust, the more mysteriously evil and harder to grasp it becomes. As Sebald says, referring to horrors on the scale of the firebombing of German cities during World War II or the attack on the World Trade Center, "It's impossible to say any more about it, except that it seems one of the characteristics of our species to do things like this. Other species don't. We do, repeatedly. We really don't learn from what's come before. We learn from history as much as a rabbit learns from an experiment that's performed upon it." Our only solace at the close of this haunting novel is that the horrors that continue to engulf people like Austerlitz can also inspire this singularly beautiful work of art.