Literature Study GuidesAusterlitzPart 14 Austerlitz Moves To Paris 1997 Summary

Austerlitz | Study Guide

W. G. Sebald

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Austerlitz | Part 14 (Austerlitz Moves to Paris, 1997) | Summary



The narrative returns to summer 1997 as Austerlitz sees off the narrator at Liverpool Street Station. Giving the narrator Agáta Austerlitzová's photo as a memento, Austerlitz says he plans to move to Paris to search for clues about his father's life. In September, Austerlitz sends the narrator his Paris address, and they meet again.

Austerlitz has rented an apartment near Maximilian Aychenwald's last known address. A photograph shows Parisian apartment buildings. Wondering about Maximilian's final fate, Austerlitz recalls Parisian police raids to round up Jewish citizens in 1941 and 1942. Though he knows Maximilian may have been captured and sent to a concentration camp, Austerlitz feels he may see his father at any moment.

The past and present seem to collide, and Austerlitz feels "all the moments of our life occupy the same space." He believes living people often have appointments to keep with past events.

On a recent visit to the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, Austerlitz read the names of German Jews buried there. He thought of Amélie Cerf, his landlady during his 1950s stay in Paris, when he came upon the gravestones of Hippolyte Cerf and his family. Hippolyte died in 1890. Two of his descendants, Hugo and Lucie Sussfeld, died after they were deported in 1944, presumably victims of the Holocaust. Austerlitz wondered whether Amélie was the last surviving member of her family.

During his first stay in Paris, Austerlitz studied at the Bibliothèque Nationale, the city's famous library. The library is where Austerlitz met Marie de Verneuil, an employee in the records department. She shared his interest in architecture and described a paper mill she once visited. She and Austerlitz explored Paris's various landmarks together, including the city zoo. A photograph shows a family of deer Austerlitz saw while walking with Marie.

Another picture shows Austerlitz's ticket to the museum of veterinary medicine in Maisons-Alfort, which he visited on his own. He lists the dead animals that he saw as well as a life-sized horseman figure created by French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806). A photograph of artifacts at the museum accompanies the text.

After this visit Austerlitz suffered a seizure and loss of memory. He fainted during the train journey and was taken to the Salpêtrière, a Parisian hospital. There he dreamed he was wandering through abandoned train stations where dead souls lived in exile. As he regained consciousness, he remembered seeing a poster of a family on a winter holiday. The poster included a notice issued by the Paris government in July 1943. But Austerlitz could remember nothing about himself and babbled in multiple languages to the staff. Marie visited him in the hospital, and he gradually recovered.

During his next meeting with the narrator, Austerlitz discusses the history of the Bibliothèque Nationale. The former, smaller site of the Bibliothèque has been closed. The new building, the Grande Bibliothèque, is larger with a raised platform resembling the deck of a ship. The novel includes photos of the platform and Bibliothèque reading rooms.

In a process Austerlitz finds humiliating, a conveyor belt takes visitors to the library's ground floor. And he's irritated by the long process he has to endure to get into the reading room. The visitors crouched in low seats remind him of a tribe wandering through the wilderness. Austerlitz had spent hours in the library's public reading room watching nature outside the windows. Birds frequently flew into the windows and died, making Austerlitz think of how the chaos and instability of human design reflects the natural world.

For instance, despite searching the library's extensive archives, Austerlitz couldn't find information about his father. He passed the time by reading novels of French writer Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) instead. Colonel Chabert, a character in one of the novels, is thrown into a mass grave after his death in battle and returns as a ghost to claim his old property.

Austerlitz also examined maps of the Terezin ghetto and thought about the fortress where the victims died. A photograph shows the empty reading room and archives.

Library staff member Henri Lemoine noticed Austerlitz as a regular patron. Lemoine and Austerlitz discussed how the new layout, electronic data retrieval systems, and increased security measures of the Bibliothèque break library users' connections with the past.

Lemoine pointed out an area near the Austerlitz train station. This space, now covered by the library complex, was once the Austerlitz-Tolbiac storage depot, a warehouse in which the Germans stored valuables they took from the homes of Parisian Jews. German visitors would observe the objects in galleries there. These valuables remained the property of the state after the war. Library construction buried evidence of the depot.


Until Austerlitz discovers what happened to Maximilian, he can picture his father among the living. He balances this vision with what he suspects to be the truth. The Parisian raids he describes took place in July 1942, when French police took thousands of Jews from their homes during the Holocaust's largest French deportation. The narrative suggests the family in the poster enjoying a winter holiday may have met a similar fate. The notice on the corner of the poster indicates a July 1943 date, coinciding with the July 18, 1943, deportation of hundreds of Jewish prisoners from the Drancy concentration camp in a northeast suburb of Paris to a "satellite camp" in the middle of the city.

Just as he observes the menace hidden in the corner of the poster, Austerlitz sees the legacy of the Holocaust everywhere around him. He wonders whether Amélie Cerf, like him, is the last survivor of her biological family. The deaths of her family members may have compressed years into a single painful moment for her, he imagines—continuing the book's pattern of expanding and compressing time. In her case, as in his, grief and loss slow time to a crawl.

Further, he feels an increased duty to unearth the past, as if the dead are expecting him to do so. For instance, he can recite the fictional Colonel Chabert's words from a mass grave. He wants to find the truth not only in the spectacle of history but also in the details of human lives. One of his best memories of Marie, a person who isn't dead but gone from his life, is hearing her describe a place she loves.

His trip to the veterinary museum shows how Austerlitz is drawn to artifacts when they're frozen in the single moment between life and death, like Fragonard's life-size horse. The preservation of dead creatures reflects attempts to preserve human existence, as photographs do. Like the people in the Theresienstadt film, the artifacts may seem alive, but they're dead by the time the viewer observes them.

Naturally, then, Austerlitz is drawn to the library, an institution devoted to preserving memory—both individual and collective. He describes scholars in the library as part of a "constantly evolving creature," comparing the institution to a live physical organism. He sees history as a living, breathing discipline. However, the redesign of the library moves the old books and alienates the old readers. In moving toward the future, the Bibliothèque is erasing the past. The new architecture seems hostile to Austerlitz. When he visits, he feels like a commodity or a cog in a machine. The platform suggests he's exposed and helpless, at the mercy of larger forces. He's searched by authorities, and he's constantly getting lost. The design pushes away patrons; it doesn't invite them in.

Although The narrative doesn't explicitly connect the ambitious new library to the grand designs of the Nazis and the other outsized buildings discussed in the book, readers are invited to make the connection themselves. The visitors to the new library, packed close to the ground, recall the cramped people of Theresienstadt in a tiny space.

Large buildings in the novel emphasize dominance and permanence. Twice Austerlitz calls the new Bibliothèque "Babylonian," referring to the ancient empire of Babylon. The redesigned Bibliothèque Nationale was part of an ambitious Parisian improvement plan French president François Mitterand (1916–96) introduced in the 1980s. Known as the Grands Travaux, or "Big Works," the plan created new massive public buildings and renovated others, one of Mitterand's goals being to cement his legacy as a leader. The novel is consistently critical of architecture as a political tool, and the Bibliothèque is a prime example.

Indeed, Austerlitz thinks the Bibliothèque's expansion will become its destruction, like the growing fortress of Breendonk. The new library has so much information, but it's harder to access any information at all. Instant access to electronic data makes it more challenging for people to recall the past, he thinks, because the data does the remembering for them.

The galleries emerging from the old storage depot erase the past in a different way. The identities of their original owners disappear, and the depot site is literally buried. Architecture paves over mementos of the dead, in another image of burial on a mass scale.

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