The Plight of the Erudite:
Words and Trauma in Sebald’s Austerlitz
by Robert Russell
W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz is a novel that contains a multitude of recurring themes, motifs, and images. In it is an exploration that spans a litany of subjects: from architecture to science, from history to the arts, from nature to the body, from the past to the present, and the memory that divides the two. It is a novel interested in the “archival consciousness of the modern subject” (Long 149), one that limns a tacit knowledge, a silent understanding of the world, which is captured in words and pictures. However, because words contain a certain power, a strength which pervades the text and maims the characters within, trauma is inherently tied to the words. In the attempt to reconcile truth and memory, both the narrator and the eponymous Jacques Austerlitz himself become “plagued” by words and memories. The unpredictable propensity of words to induce memories, revelations, and anxiety is at the heart of Sebald’s novel.
Words and trauma are inherently linked in the unnamed narrator who, from the onset of the novel, finds himself enchanted by Austerlitz and the never-ending narrative of his life. While the narrator conveys Austerlitz’s personal account, it is a narrative that objectively remains separate from his own. However, there are a few tiny moments wherein the two seemingly separated stories converge, moments that catalyst certain traumatic events–the first event coming as a result of the narrator coincidentally noticing a familiar name in the newspaper:
“If the name Breendonk had not come up in my conversation with Austerlitz the previous evening, this mention of it in the paper, even supposing I had noticed it at all, would hardly have made me go to see the fort that very day” (Sebald 19).
It is by sheer coincidence that the narrator is compelled to travel to the old fortress which was initially constructed to defend Belgium against a German attack, but had been transformed into a detention camp after the Germans occupied Belgium in May of 1940 (USHMM). It is here, in the dungeons of the old camp, that the narrator experiences a revelation. Amid the incomprehension of his surroundings, the narrator finds himself able to “well imagine the sight of the good fathers and dutiful sons…sitting here when they came off duty to play cards or write letters (Sebald 23). Considering the SS guards rather than the prisoners is what inspires the narrator’s own recollection, and when he enters the final oubliette, he remembers his childhood: “As I stared at the smooth, gray floor of this pit…a picture of our laundry room at home in W. rose from the abyss and with it, suggested perhaps by the iron hook hanging on a cord from the ceiling, the image of the butcher’s shop I always had to pass on my way to school” (Sebald 25). Again, the narrator is seized by the images, the instruments of torture connecting to a certain nostalgia and pleasant memories. However, the brief inclination of such a recollection is immediately thwarted with the recognition of the horrors the room inspires, which foments the narrator’s nightmarish revelation:
“Black striations began to quiver before my eyes, and I had to rest my forehead against the wall, which was gritty, covered with bluish spots, and seemed to me to be perspiring with cold beads of sweat…I read Jean Améry’s descriptions of the dreadful physical closeness between torturers and their victims” (Sebald 26).
In this moment, the narrator experiences the close proximity between himself and the torturers and the victims, and that his initial childhood recollection inspired by the walls of the camp was both a positive one and one borne of a connection with the past torturers only exacerbates his traumatic revelation. It is a moment wherein the narrator experiences a connection between himself and the past, one riddled with the horrors of torture and the incomprehensibility of it, the final event in the sequence of events initially incited by the name “Breendonk” which Austerlitz had mentioned the night before.
The thread drawn from a word to an experience to a traumatic revelation not only reveals the interconnectedness between events and individuals, the uncanny nature of coincidence, and the ever-present potentiality of a trauma-induced experience, but this thread that links such a word-to-revelation sequence of events also inverts and subverts a familiar linguistic understanding. The novel itself is comprised of words which depict the narrative in the text; a reader derives meaning from the written word. However, in this series of events, such a relationship is inverted: it is the word “Breendonk” which inspires an experience; the word inspires the traumatic revelation that was not presupposed before the mention of the word; the word itself induces such a revelation. That it is a traumatic revelation, one wrought with horror and anguish, also subverts the Proustian association of such an event. In the famous “petit madeleine” scene, Proust details the ecstasy inspired by such an association:
“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin” (Proust 60).
The famous connection between the madeleine and memory permeates Sebald’s novel–a novel which, like Proust’s, resides in the undetermined space between fiction and nonfiction, the real and unreal–as the narrator encounters the objects in the torture chamber which inspire a universe of recollection, one scarred with horror and terror. It is the incomprehensible becoming comprehensible, the unknowable becoming unknowable, which, when it comes, inspires terror and trauma. The narrator had read the words in Jean Améry’s book, just as he had read the name “Breendonk” in the newspaper; and the end result of such a connection reveals the trauma that inherently resides within the unknown.
Jacques Austerlitz grapples with a similar relationship with words: buried in his unceasing pursuit of knowledge is the “strategic attempt to inure himself against the things that remind him of his past” (Long 152), to thwart the possibility of falling victim to one of these trauma-induced word revelations. He begins with small things: not reading the newspapers, listening to “the radio only at certain hours of the day,” but soon, he begins to grow more and more obsessed with his safeguarding tactics:
“I feared unwelcome revelations…I was always refining my defensive reactions …Yet this self-censorship of my mind, the constant suppression of the memories surfacing in me…demanded ever greater efforts and finally, and unavoidably, led to the almost total paralysis of my linguistic faculties, the destruction of all my notes and sketches, my endless nocturnal peregrinations through London, and the hallucinations which plagued me with increasing frequency up to the point of my nervous breakdown in the summer of 1992” (Sebald 140).
Austerlitz recognizes the unpredictability inherent in the nature of words, how at any moment, upon encountering a word or name, traumatic memories so long suppressed and out of mind can suddenly come flooding back, spilling into the present, and seizing his being with debilitating force. Traumatic memories and words are mysteriously connected, as if made of water: one droplet pulls another together to form a rivulet, which, as it flows downward, resembles the spiraling devolution into a “nervous breakdown” which Austerlitz experiences.
However, for Austerlitz there appears to be a fear involved in his slow trajectory into anxiety, one which arises from the attempt to reconcile memory and truth. Austerlitz throughout the novel describes the lengths of the research he conducts in a lifelong pursuit of knowledge, the depiction of which conflates autobiographical accounts with archival information. This apparent conflation, the merging of memory and knowledge, drives the hesitation and anxiety he experiences in the plausibility of encountering a word or phrase that may unearth the “suppression of memories.” Scholars Jessica Dubow and Richard Steadman reiterate and examine such a plausibility in their examination of Sebald’s work:
“Sebald refuses any normative assumption that to belong to [a] place is to be assimilated into the realm of the intelligible and communicable…While not affected by the kinds of extreme pessimism that would view language as inherently disordered, he suggests that there is nonetheless an anxiety that haunts it–one that emerges from the desire that one’s language (like one’s memory) be complete and the knowledge that it never can be” (Dubow et al. 6-7)
While the two scholars place the emphasis on the relationship between language and knowledge–an emphasis that calls to mind Derridean deconstruction, particularly in the ways in which words contain too much meaning, too many associations, and therefore fall short in the conveyance of knowledge–the connection to memory more aptly applies to Austerlitz and his past experiences. It is not only that Austerlitz wishes not to be pulled back into unsavory memories; it is that words, language itself, threaten to inspire the recognition that the knowledge he pursues, the information he seeks, will not and cannot ever be complete. And in turn, it is a recognition that his own memories, his past experiences, are also incomplete. Trauma stems from the unknowability in his research, as well as his own memories which spur the realization that truth and memory cannot be reconciled.
In a novel that spans fields of study, one that traverses a diverse range of subjects, diving deep into each one and exploring the ways in which such a subject relates to a grand scheme of learning, it is unsurprising that the explorers, the narrator and Jacques Austerlitz, experience an existential crisis unique to the realization that one cannot know everything. Any finitude of learning, knowledge, and education is enough to inspire a great sense of an unease in an erudite scholar like Austerlitz. However, that there is a similar unknowability in a man’s own memories, the gaps of which he tries to supplement with a knowledge which itself remains incomplete, further inspires an anxiety and paranoia with the propensity to drive a person mad. The clash of knowledge and memory, the intersection of knowing and unknowing, gives rise to the terror and trauma that both the narrator and Austerlitz share. It is in the attempt to reconcile what is known and what cannot ever be known that Sebald’s ambitious novel paints a brilliant exploration of life, memory, and language.
"Breendonk". USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved 26 April 2021.
Dubow, Jessica, and Richard Steadman-Jones. “Mapping Babel: Language and Exile in W. G. Sebald's ‘Austerlitz.’” New German Critique, no. 115, 2012, pp. 3–26. JSTOR, Accessed 22 Apr. 2021.
Long, J.J. “The Archival Subject: Austerlitz.” W. G. Sebald - Image, Archive, Modernity, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2007, pp. 149–167. JSTOR, Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.
Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time, Volume One: Swann’s Way, Translated by C.K Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, Modern Library, 2003
Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz. Translated by Anthea Bell, 10th Anniversary Edition, Modern Library, New York, 2001.