Austerlitz | Study Guide

W. G. Sebald

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Austerlitz | Plot Summary

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Summary

First Meetings with Austerlitz

In 1967 the narrator, an unnamed German scholar, visits Antwerp, Belgium. In the Antwerp train station he meets the mysterious Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian living in London, England. The men discuss Belgian architecture and what it reveals about modern society's fears.

The narrator and Austerlitz meet several times over the next 30 years in different European cities. Each time they see each other they continue their ongoing conversation. During a 1996 meeting in London, Austerlitz reveals that he has recently learned the story of his origins.

Austerlitz tells the narrator he was raised by a Welsh couple in the 1940s. The couple took him in when he was four and gave him the Welsh name Dafydd Elias. When he turned 15 Austerlitz learned his birth name from his school's headmaster.

Discovering Austerlitz's History

Austerlitz relates how, in the late 1980s, he experienced severe anxiety and began wandering through London. One day at Liverpool Street Station he realized he'd passed through the station long ago. Then, Austerlitz tells the narrator, in the 1990s he learned that he had left his hometown of Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), on a ferry in 1939.

Hoping to learn more about his birth family, Austerlitz traveled to Prague. There he met Vera Ryšanová, his former nursemaid and his parents' close friend, who still lived in Vera's building at that time. Vera described Austerlitz's parents, socialist politician Maximilian Aychenwald and opera singer Agáta Austerlitzová. Both were Jews who feared persecution as the Nazis gained power in 1930s Europe.

Maximilian escaped for Paris, France, the day before Nazi troops occupied Prague. Several months later Agáta sent young Austerlitz to London with the Kindertransport, a rescue effort for Jewish children. Agáta stayed in Prague until she was sent to Terezin, a German-controlled Jewish ghetto in Czechoslovakia. She was later "sent east" to an unnamed destination.

Journeys to the Past

Austerlitz tells the narrator that after talking with Vera, he visited Terezin, now a deserted town with a memorial museum. He retraced his childhood journey from Prague to London on the train, including a stop in Germany, a country he'd always feared. Also, hoping to see Agáta, he watched a Nazi propaganda movie filmed in Terezin.

When he finishes telling the narrator his story in 1997, Austerlitz announces that he is moving to Paris to search for evidence of his father's life. He learns that Maximilian was sent to Gurs, a concentration camp in France. He and the narrator part for a final time, and Austerlitz gives the narrator the photographs of his life.

Austerlitz Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Maximilian Aychenwald leaves Prague for Paris.

Rising Action

2 Nazi forces occupy Czechoslovakia.

3 Agáta sends Austerlitz to London on the Kindertransport.

4 World War II begins.

5 Maximilian and Agáta are sent to concentration camps.

6 At Stower Grange Austerlitz learns his real name.

7 The narrator and Austerlitz meet for the first time.

8 Over the years the two men meet repeatedly.

Climax

9 In Liverpool Street Station Austerlitz recalls his past.

Falling Action

10 Vera and Austerlitz reunite in Prague.

11 Austerlitz visits Terezin and retraces his old journey.

Resolution

12 Moving to Paris, Austerlitz learns more about his father.

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