Aaron Peck on W.G. Sebald’s ‘Austerlitz’

I found it at my local used bookstore more than a month before its release date, only days after 9/11’

Jan Peter Tripp, L’Oeil oder die weiße Zeit (The Eye or the White Time), 2003, acrylic on canvas (detail). Courtesy: the artist

I had no idea he had a new book coming out. I was a mostly clueless undergraduate who, by chance, had already devoured his three other novels. He would die later that autumn in a car crash. I found it at my local used bookstore more than a month before its release date, only days after 9/11. Some newspaper critic had sold their advanced reader’s copy without bothering to review it. I avoided working on my graduating thesis to read Austerlitz. Somewhere near its end, I rubbed my eyes and put it down, unable to go on. Returning two days later, I flipped back one page and then another to track the sentence that undid my attention. Eight pages earlier, I found the beginning of the sentence, which turned out to be 12 pages long in total, and which detailed the atrocities at Theresienstadt. W.G. Sebald’s hypotactic sentence was accompanied by his signature photographic documents. Those pictures did not illustrate the text but, instead, provided a kind of disruption to reading, sometimes in the middle of a clause. Each image was like a testimony that opened his beautifully outmoded prose to the historical processes that define us all. 

Aaron Peck is the author of The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis (2008) and Jeff Wall: North & West (2016). His writing has appeared in The New York Review of BooksArtforum and The White Review, among others.

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019

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