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This was recommended to me after I fell in love with Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes. It's a novel in which Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian, tells the story of how he unearths his own past at a very late age, the ways in which he finds out that he was sent from Prague to Wales just before the outbreak of World War II, the ways he looks for his childhood home and the memory of his parents and the knowledge of what might have happened to them.


This is where I run into the issue, as a critic, that I am essentially a genre reader. I tend not to pay attention to the mainstream of literature (if such a thing really exists), and I have what I jokingly refer to as an obscurity curse, which means that if I find I have read something by a famous writer it will be their least famous work. I read science fiction, I read fantasy, and I spend a lot of time reading unclassifiable postmodern whatsits, and biographies, and I have studied architecture a lot, and so on, just about anything that doesn't get filed under literary fiction.

I watch anime, also. Therefore when I saw Aronofsky's The Black Swan, which was much loved by many critics and award-givers, the only thing I could think of it was 'well, somebody believes nobody's ever watched Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue'.

And so I look at this really very well-crafted, very careful, very subtle book by W.G. Sebald, which was much loved by many critics and award-givers, with its neatly circling and quite effective symbolism and the way it obliterates time on objective and subjective levels and the way the unnamed narrator and Austerlitz are and are not each other and the way that it uses uncaptioned black-and-white photographs of unknown provenance to emotionally amplify portions of the text and the only thing I can think about it is 'well, I guess Mainstream Literature did not read Iain Sinclair's Downriver?'

There are three (3) differences between this book and Downriver: 1), this one is about the Holocaust and Sinclair is talking about London; 2), Sinclair is willing to go anywhere at all in the service of his premise which means his work has little to do with realism, and when we are talking about the blurring together of time past and time present a lack of realism is really a better idea; and 3), Sinclair's prose can be a tad purple on occasion and Sebald, or his translators, are almost fanatically restrained.

Other than that, same approach to history (through architecture, a lot of the time), same allusions to all of pop culture (yes, Sebald, we get that Austerlitz has wandered into Last Year at Marienbad when he goes to, in fact, Marienbad, where he does not remember having been as a child), even some of the same landmarks when Austerlitz spends some time in London. Like, I think there are photographs of the same cemetery in each book. I will admit it is an extraordinarily evocative cemetery.

So I spent this entire book feeling as though I'd read it already, only better, previously.

Please note that I am not trying to say I think the Sebald is derivative in any way. I don't think so. I think that Sebald has independently evolved the same set of literary devices to deal with time and applied them to a different set of times and spaces. It's just that it has, in fact, been done, and that Sinclair's insane throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks passions work better with these methods than subtle and allusive understatement. There is one detail in the Sebald I did like, which drops the reader into the void below the text as he is trying to do. In south Germany in 1933 Austerlitz's father, hiking, buys a new kind of boiled sweet which are pink and have a raspberry-colored melt-in-your-mouth swastika swirled into them; this is what convinces Austerlitz's father that the entire German polity has gone mad, not just the military and media. I believe that those existed. That paragraph of the book is a trapdoor leading somewhere unthinkably dark.

But then Austerlitz has to go and start talking about the distribution of the forested areas of Bavaria and the whole thing diffuses again.

Oh, I don't know, the Sinclair is probably not to everybody's taste and probably shouldn't be, and is I think not famous and probably not famous for good reasons, but I cannot help admiring the person who invents the tools more than the person who merely makes an occasionally very fine use of them. (Did anybody else read Downriver? Angela Carter told me to, in her collected journalism, back in the late nineties, which is why I did.) Maybe I am just reading the wrong Sebald, although the internet thinks it is his most praised. Maybe the tools you can use to write (in my opinion) the Great Novel about London do not work on the Holocaust, which would not surprise me. Maybe something Sebald is doing is going over my head. At least this does not suffer from the traditional problems with the Holocaust novel, which are legion and execrable; it never has the sense of undervaluing tragedy or of using history for unearned emotion, so that makes it better than much of its genre right there.

Anyway: very fine. Very well done. Go read the Sinclair.


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