Sunday, 6 September 2009

austerlitz by wg sebald

Likely i do it an injustice blogging these quotes.

I understand myself better for having read Austerlitz, it is quite unlike any I have ever read. I read in its pages my own history of dislocation and future of restless academic melancholy. Simultaneously rivetting and bebaffling. Sebald paints architecture as the impression left by, the mould that formed and the metaphor which explains the twentieth century and all its horror.

The city metaphor portraying Austerlitz' collapse works because this is a common experience, being lost in the city. In parallel though, or rather in reverse, knowing language has collapsed, it is then illuminating to our understanding of the city that we can talk in these terms of comparison. This common experience of the city, is common because our cities have been abroad and have surrendered themselves to unintelligbility. "..until if I attempted to read a whole page I inevitably fell into a state of greatest confusion. If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time while others have been torn down, cleaned up and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching further and further into the surrounding country, then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl anymore, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a back yard is, or a street junction, an avenue or a bridge. The entire structure of language, the syntactical arrangement of parts of speech, punctuation, conjunctions, and finally even the nouns denoting ordinary objects were all enveloped in impenetrable fog." p124

Observing the giantistic constructions of fascism he offers this which speaks to our own whims, towers, suburbs, masterplans: "..we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins" p19

And for any of you who have visited Paris' Bibliotheque Nationale, he evokes the calculated trauma of the stepped up then conveyor belt down entrance: " struck me as an utter absurdity, something that must have been devised on purpose to instil a sense of insecurity and humiliation in the poor readers.." p278 and then of the absurd forest in the middle. Which when I visited in 2005 they had pasted bird silhouettes to the glass to try to save those which "struck the glass with a dull thud, and fell lifeless to the ground.." Giantism begets an architecture of dysfunction, instability and death, like the fortresses before them in history.

Then of sleeplessness in London. "..I would leave my house as darkness fell, walking on and on, down the Mile End Road and Bow Road to Stratford, then to Chigwell and Romford, right across Bethnal Green and Canonbury, through Holloway and Kentish Town and thus to Hampstead Heath... and once you are used to walking alone you soon begin to wonder why, apparently because of some agreement concluded long ago, Londoners of all ages lie in their beds in those countless buildings in Greenwich, Bayswater or Kensington, under a safe roof, as they suppose, while really they are only stretched out with their faces turned to the earth in fear, like travellers of the past resting on their way through the desert." And so the city performs our nomadism for us. The theme of exile runs through the book, imaged in his boarding school, in israelites through the wilderness, and dying moths "clinging to the wall, motionless.. they know they have lost their way.. they will remain in the place where they came to grief even after death, held fast by the tiny claws that stiffened in their last agony.."p93

oh and more, it is a three course meal, sumptuous in its prose.
let's get together and read a book out loud.

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