AUSTERLITZ *

By W.G. Sebald

Translated from the German

By Anthea Bell

Random House. 298 pp. $25.95

Few authors have won such widespread admiration and acclaim in so short a time as W.G. Sebald. And yet one could hardly have predicted this. After all, Sebald didn't start publishing until well into middle age -- and he writes in German, in a single flow of words without paragraph indentations, largely about lugubrious, not to say tragic, matters: the burdens of the past and the aftershocks of the Holocaust in particular; his own nervous ailments and melancholia; the largely unvisited corners of literature and scholarship (Stendhal's memoirs, Kafka in Italy, Sir Thomas Browne, railroad station architecture, the theory of fortification). What's more, Sebald's four books -- besides this one, they include The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo -- blithely ignore genre boundaries: Are they novels? Memoirs? Essays? It's impossible to say where the factual leaves off and the fictional begins. Matters are further complicated by the author's practice of illustrating his narratives with poorly reproduced photographs. Are these the honest signposts of authenticity? Or a postmodern attempt to trick the naive into unwarranted belief? There's no sure way to know.

What holds all Sebald's work together, though, is his broken-hearted voice and his warm-hearted personality. Even when a book is largely told through the words of another character, as in Austerlitz, we constantly feel Sebald's plangent presence. He is one of those endearing sad-sack figures we have come to know from Beckett: a stoic comedian, an observer of life when it falls into the sere and yellow leaf. In reality, W.G. Sebald may be a distinguished professor of German at the University of East Anglia and the former director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, but in his writing he is an unhappy wanderer through postwar Europe, a ghostly pilgrim, with a rucksack on his back and an ache in his soul, always encountering some shattered revenant from the shattered past.

"In the second half of the 1960s I traveled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks. On one of these Belgian excursions which, as it seemed to me, always took me further and further abroad, I came on a glorious summer morning to the city of Antwerp, known to me previously only by name." Here, in the railroad station cafe{acute}, Sebald encounters Austerlitz, dressed in heavy walking boots, workman's trousers and an outdated suit jacket. To his surprise, this apparent tramp turns out to be highly educated: "From the first I was astonished by the way Austerlitz put his ideas together as he talked, forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him, so to speak, and the way in which, in his mind, the passing on of his knowledge seemed to become a gradual approach to a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life."

In fact, Austerlitz proves largely a narrative about its eponymous hero's attempt to bring back to life his own forgotten past. As an old nurse tells him much later in the book, even as a boy he was always troubled by the nature of memory, of remembering: How do squirrels know where they have hidden their hoards when the ground is covered with snow? "Those were your very words, the question which constantly troubled you. How indeed do the squirrels know, what do we know ourselves, how do we remember, and what is it we find in the end?" The attempt to recover the past is, as readers of Sebald's other books know, one of his recurrent themes.

Austerlitz, it turns out, is a lecturer in art history, deeply afflicted in body and spirit. "No sooner did I become acquainted with someone than I feared I had come too close, no sooner did someone turn towards me than I began to retreat. In the end I was linked to other people only by certain forms of courtesy which I took to extremes and which I know today . . . I observed not so much for the sake of their recipients as because they allowed me to ignore the fact that my life has always, for as far back as I can remember, been overcast by an unrelieved desperation." Over the course of 300 pages, Austerlitz gradually unfolds his complex story to Sebald, touching on his suicidal impulses, his researches into architectural history, his vain attempts at love, and eventually his quest for the truth about himself.

As a boy, Austerlitz tells Sebald, he was brought up in Wales by stepparents, a stern minister named Elias and his wife Gwendolyn:

"It was the minister's unalterable custom to sit in his study, which had a view of a dark corner of the garden, thinking about next Sunday's sermon. He never wrote any of these sermons down, but worked them out in his head, toiling over them for at least four days. He would always emerge from his study in the evening in a state of deep despondency, only to disappear into it again next morning. But on Sunday, when he stood up in chapel in front of his congregation and often addressed them for a full hour, he was a changed man; he spoke with a moving eloquence which I still feel I can hear, conjuring up before the eyes of his flock the Last Judgment awaiting them all, the lurid fires of purgatory, the torments of damnation and then, with the most wonderful stellar and celestial imagery, the entry of the righteous into eternal bliss. With apparent ease, as if he were making up the most appalling horrors as he went along, he always succeeded in filling the hearts of his congregation with such sentiments of remorse that at the end of service quite a number of them went home looking white as a sheet. The minister himself, on the other hand, was in a comparatively jovial mood for the rest of Sunday."

Though reared by this religious couple, Austerlitz never feels at ease with them. And not only because of their coldness of heart. "At some time in the past, I thought, I must have made a mistake, and now I am living the wrong life." Everywhere he turns he finds a sorrow and despair that not even deep religious conviction can palliate. When Gwendolyn grows deathly ill, the minister cares for her devotedly:

"On Christmas Day, making a great effort, Gwendolyn sat up in bed once more. Elias had brought her a cup of sweet tea, but she only moistened her lips with it. Then she said, so quietly that you could hardly hear her: What was it that so darkened our world? And Elias replied: I don't know, dear, I don't know." Following his wife's death the minister loses his mind.

All this serves as prelude to the teenage boy's discovery that he is not, in fact, Dafydd Elias but Jacques Austerlitz, sent to England at 5, by unknown parents, to escape the tightening grip of the Third Reich. Much of the second half of Sebald's book chronicles Austerlitz's stumbling but persistent quest for the truth about his parentage and childhood. That journey into the past eventually takes him to Prague and from there to Terezin and the darkness at the heart of our calamitous age.

This isn't, obviously, a cheerful book: Ours is indeed a darkened world. Still, Austerlitz eventually unearths a great deal about himself and does find some kind of healing late in his troubled existence. Along the way, he enthralls us with his meditations on moths and the non-existence of time, with reflections on Balzac's Le Colonel Chabert (that wonderful short novel about a Napoleonic soldier's return from the dead), and the organization of libraries and spas, with brilliant pages on the hatred of writing that frequently besets a writer and how mankind's attempts to be rational so often lead to just the opposite. There are delicate aperc{cedil}us about life, too: "Only now did she truly understand how wonderful it is to stand by the rail of a river steamer without a care in the world. . . . We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious."

Yes, Sebald's is a crepuscular, autumnal world. Fortunately, his humanity and low-key gallows humor -- smiling through the Apocalypse -- help keep at bay the encroaching gloom, the spiritual weariness. If you're completely new to Sebald, you should probably start with his early masterpiece, The Emigrants, four accounts of lives stunted by exile; Austerlitz is, in a way, a fifth, fuller portrait, and similar in tone and character. Despite, or perhaps because of, their pervasive somberness, W.G. Sebald's are some of the most original and exhilarating books of our time. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online book discussions take place on Thursdays at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.