Literature Study GuidesAusterlitzPart 6 Meeting In Austerlitzs London House 1997 Summary

Austerlitz | Study Guide

W. G. Sebald

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Austerlitz | Part 6 (Meeting in Austerlitz's London House, 1997) | Summary

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Summary

In March 1997 the narrator visits Austerlitz's London home. Having waited impatiently to hear from Austerlitz since December, the narrator is unaware that Austerlitz doesn't experience time as others do; moments have no beginnings or ends for him. Austerlitz simply sends the narrator a postcard one day with his address and a date: Saturday, March 19.

Austerlitz has a table full of old photographs, including mementos from his past. In 1991, Austerlitz explains, he retired from teaching architecture and considered writing a book. But the notes and images he'd collected felt scattered and disorganized. His favorite pastimes of reading and writing grew increasingly difficult. Eventually he stopped understanding language itself. His life seemed to be "a constant process of obliteration," and he wasn't sure where he belonged. A photograph shows a traveler walking down a road.

Lost and anxious, Austerlitz buried his notes in the yard and contemplated suicide. He began wandering through London at night and taking the train home in the morning. On the train he often thought he saw faces from his early life.

He kept returning to Liverpool Street Station and waiting there for hours. Before its development in the 1980s, the station was a dark place resembling the underworld. A photograph shows the uninhabited station. Austerlitz recounts the history of the site where the station stands. Once undeveloped marshland, the site became home to public parks, country houses, and a church. Bedlam, a church-run mental asylum, was founded on the site in the 17th century.

The land later became a graveyard when London ran out of room to bury its dead. At nearby Broad Street Station, hundreds of skeletons were excavated from the grounds in 1984. A photograph Austerlitz took of the skeletons is included in the novel. Another image shows the plan for a 19th-century London railway station expansion. Construction workers cleared land for the expansion in the 1860s, digging up the graves of the poor.

Thinking about all the dead people who once passed through London, Austerlitz felt them "returning from their exile" of death and surrounding him.

Analysis

The narrator's conversational patterns with Austerlitz, picking up where they left off whether it's been days or years since their last meeting, reflect Austerlitz's unique approach to time. He often expands or contracts time in his narration. For example, Austerlitz dwells extensively on a single day at Broad Street Station but condenses his three-decade teaching career into a single sentence.

His loss of reading and speaking abilities highlights the importance of language to identity and memory. When Austerlitz can't communicate, he can't orient himself in the world. He already lacks identifiers important to many people's sense of belonging, such as a connection to a nationality and family. Because he feels psychologically lost, he begins to get physically lost as well by wandering through London. The act of being in transit—of going from place to place—pervades the novel. The familiar, ghostly faces Austerlitz sees are almost always in transit, either walking in the streets or passing by on the train. Travelers are in states of flux and transition, going toward the unknown, and travel itself becomes a metaphor for Austerlitz's internal state.

The narrative takes on a dreamlike quality similar to a more conventional ghost story. In its description and photograph, the train station is an ethereal place slightly removed from the rest of the world, its underground nature adding to its mystique.

Austerlitz's trip to Broad Street Station puts him physically closer to the dead, the skeleton photos underscoring the point. The urban explosion of the Industrial Revolution led to crowded cities, and burial space became a greater problem. Also known as the "New Churchyard," the station grounds served as a cemetery from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Many people buried there were outsiders: poor people, plague victims, or religious dissenters who didn't want a church burial. The 19th-century construction of Broad Street and Liverpool Street Stations served to accommodate London's increased population. Austerlitz's description of the land reveals how industrial and architectural progress can attempt to destroy the past in the name of a more promising future. But like the excavated skeletons, the past won't stay buried.

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