Literature Study GuidesAusterlitzPart 5 Friendship With Gerald Fitzpatrick 1940s 50s Summary

Austerlitz | Study Guide

W. G. Sebald

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Austerlitz | Part 5 (Friendship with Gerald Fitzpatrick, 1940s–50s) | Summary

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Summary

Austerlitz's relationship with André Hilary supported him in adolescence, as did his friendship with Stower Grange classmate Gerald Fitzpatrick. The novel includes a photograph of the school rugby team, where the two met. In addition to rugby Austerlitz developed an interest in photography, and Gerald assisted him in the darkroom. Photos of a brick wall, smoke rising from a building, and shadows of tree branches appear in the text.

Gerald eagerly introduced Austerlitz to the Fitzpatrick family, including his mother, Adela, and two eccentric uncles, Alphonso and Evelyn Fitzpatrick. Austerlitz spent school holidays with the family at their large Welsh seaside estate, Andromeda Lodge, which resembled a natural history museum, full of animal specimens and home to a colony of live cockatoos. In fact, one of Gerald's ancestors befriended British scientist Charles Darwin (1809–82). Uncle Evelyn was a devout Catholic, while Uncle Alphonso was a lively naturalist and painter. The novel includes a two-page photo of Fitzpatrick family members, including Alphonso with a parrot on his shoulder. Alphonso introduced Gerald and Austerlitz to the diverse types of moths and the mysterious lives moths lead. Austerlitz still remains awed by moths. Their phantom trails of light, he says, resemble "the sudden incursion of unreality into the real world." The book includes a photograph of a moth and a painting of the Welsh countryside. Alphonso loved the Welsh coast and was aware of the slow disappearance of its marine life.

When the bar at the Great Eastern Hotel closes for the night, the narrator writes down all he can remember of Austerlitz's tales. The next day the two men visit the Royal Observatory in London. They marvel at the observational instruments on display; a photograph of a compass is shown. Austerlitz talks to the narrator about the artificial nature of time. He's curious about English physicist Isaac Newton's (1642–1727) belief that time is like a river: Where is its source, Austerlitz asks, and how does it flow?

Many people, Austerlitz continues, live "outside time." The dead, the sick, and those whose lives have been marked by misfortune are all outside time. Austerlitz himself resists the idea of passing time and refuses to own a watch. He thinks time resembles weather phenomena like eddies and whirlpools instead of a flowing river.

As the men walk through London's Greenwich neighborhood, Austerlitz describes a 1950s visit to Iver Grove, one of many abandoned houses in Oxford. Photographs include a reception room filled with barrels of grain and a billiards table in the house observatory, which remained unchanged after 150 years. Standing in a room seemingly frozen in time gave Austerlitz mixed emotions.

Next, Austerlitz recalls attending the double funeral of Evelyn and Alphonso Fitzpatrick in October 1957. The procession reminded Austerlitz of Funeral at Lausanne, a painting by English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) created when Turner was contemplating his own mortality. The painting is reproduced in the book.

Its scene of seaside mourners also makes Austerlitz think of his last walk with Gerald in summer 1966. Gerald had joined the Air Cadet Corps as a pilot and thrown himself into the study of flight and astronomy. The book includes a space photograph taken by the Hubble telescope and a photo of a man standing next to a plane. Not long after, Gerald died in a crash while flying his plane over the Savoy Alps in France. Gerald's death, Austerlitz believes, caused his own withdrawal and decline.

Analysis

Gerald represents the positive, productive life Austerlitz could have had if his life had taken a different direction. Unlike Austerlitz, Gerald has a close connection to his family, strong ambition, and certainty about his own place in the world. Gerald's enthusiasm for flight eventually kills him, leading to a certain death of hope in Austerlitz.

But Austerlitz's time with the Fitzpatrick family stokes his emerging curiosity about the world. This section of the novel highlights Sebald's fascination with catalogs and natural history, particularly what nature can tell observers about human history and mortality. Sebald's page-long lists are a distinctive part of his narrative style. Like his characters, he's a keen observer and collector of terms and ideas.

Natural history exhibits and museums figure prominently in the novel. Austerlitz thinks constantly about the border between life and death, and museums can be a prime example of how slim this border is. As Austerlitz and Gerald learn about the intriguing world of live moths, they see dead moths fixed in place for study. The moth sometimes represents the human soul in allegories, and here it reminds Austerlitz of the soul's fragility: humans die as easily as moths. The unreal nature of the moths' light trails resembles the "unreality" Austerlitz often senses when he feels ghosts beside him in train stations and cemeteries. Like the surreal natural world, the world of the dead becomes a parallel universe. And moths' personalities—dreamlike, with mysterious inner lives and a tendency to get lost—resemble Austerlitz himself.

Alphonso's amazement at the arc of natural history and his disappointment at the extinction of plants, animals, and colors, mirror Austerlitz's obsession with the constant disappearance of human lives and stories. Like Austerlitz, Alphonso thinks about time on a macro level. He notices how cliffs are shaped over millions of years and sees large-scale environmental impact in small details.

Austerlitz later draws the distinction between the natural world of Andromeda Lodge and the world of the Royal Observatory, which holds scientific instruments built to measure distance, time, and space. Compared to the entire existence of the earth, Austerlitz says, time is a relatively new invention. Timekeeping becomes another way for humans to attempt to control their world.

The fictional Fitzpatrick family's relationship with the real Charles Darwin connects the characters to the growth of modernity and scientific discovery in Europe. In the late 19th century, Darwin's theory of evolution challenged religious ideas about creation, leading to a crisis of meaning for many Europeans. Gerald's uncles, the scientist Alphonso and the Catholic Evelyn, represent the lingering tension between science and faith.

As Austerlitz observed earlier at Antwerp Station, the late 19th and 20th centuries in Europe were marked by scientific discovery, mechanical invention, and emphasis on human productivity. Austerlitz's discourse on time challenges the modern idea of constant change and growth as a positive force. He doesn't believe time is linear, progressing only in a forward direction like Newton's metaphor of a river flowing toward a certain destination. Nor does he believe the past, present, and future are distinct and unrelated. Austerlitz sees time as closer to a whirlpool than a river—events keep recurring, sometimes chaotically. The past, present, and future all collide, shaping one another. He thinks of the past as something waiting to happen. The novel is structured so that Austerlitz does move back in time, uncovering his own past and letting it happen to him again. People who are "outside time," he explains, are people whose lives no longer progress and grow in a linear fashion. Their lives stand still because of illness, or they're stuck in a traumatic past.

When Austerlitz describes the houses in Greenwich, readers see how the progress of time often leads to destruction as the houses erode. Progress can lead to erasure in other ways as well. Turner's painting of a funeral, like many paintings and photographs Austerlitz examines, is an attempt to freeze a particular moment so it won't disappear from memory. Austerlitz's contemplation of death leads him to reckon with Gerald's fate: a premature demise caused by the same passion that motivated Gerald in life.

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