By W. G. Sebald
Random House, 2001, 298 pp.
Novels and films sometimes describe better than anything else the essence of a period. Sebald's last book is an extraordinary work of historical fiction. It deals with one elderly man's attempt to revisit his early years and discover the fate of his Jewish parents, who sent him at age five, in 1939, from doomed Prague to England. This book, which at first enters a maze of digressions, draws its power from its portrait of a man hollowed out by terrible experiences. We find that he has suppressed the most traumatic memories: the Nazis sent his mother to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, and they captured his father after his escape to France. As the protagonist, Austerlitz, retrieves these memories, the digressions give way to direct, searing prose that conveys the loneliness and grief of a Holocaust survivor.
The car accident last December that killed Sebald at age 57 has deprived us of a remarkable artist who gave to his characters the appearance of genuine case histories, and to the places that his characters inhabited a mythical dimension. As critics have pointed out, Sebald invented a new genre, but can anyone else pick up where he left off?