A kind of historical metaphysic

This is a follow-up post to the preceding one on W.G. Sebald, this time looking at the experience of time in his book Austerlitz.

Like any good novel, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz is at heart a thriller. But though part of the book is set in one, this is not The Murder at the Vicarage and though Jacques Austerlitz wanders through libraries and archives, it is not The Body in the Library. The victim is not a well-to-do minister, manufacturer or widow, the victims count in the millions, Austerlitz’ parents among them. And Austerlitz, too, robbed of his mother and father, his childhood, his identity, the gradual, painful recovery of which forms the backbone of the narrative.

Memory and history are central themes in all of Sebald’s texts and so is nostalgia. Sebald didn’t use the term but his writing is suffused with it and he has given us a beautiful description when he writes about “a kind of heartache which … [is] caused by the vortex of past time” or “an overwhelming sense of the long years that had passed”. The nostalgia in Austerlitz is of three kinds. At the beginning memories catch Austerlitz unawares just as nostalgia jumps out at us when we might least expect it (think of Proust’s famous Madeleine); when Austerlitz begins to seek out these memories, they are tender and affectionate but overshadowed and suffused with unbearable pain; and, finally, Austerlitz is suffering from the transience and impermanence of life of which memory and history can save only fragments of. In an entropic view of history he regrets

how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.

In nostalgia we realise how time is ruthlessly removing us—has removed us—from everything we ever held dear. This constitutes its famously bittersweet character: the more delightful the moment we remember, the deeper the pain that we can never return to nor recover it. Nostalgia, then, is deeply bound up with the modern understanding of time as dynamic and linear that, striving towards a point in the future, kills the past behind it and has frequently been described as a rebellion against it.

Time plays a central role in Austerlitz. Austerlitz gives, the narrator tells us, a “disquisition on time” that, over the years, amount to “a kind of historical metaphysic”. The narrator first meets Austerlitz under the clock inside Antwerpen-Centraal station, “the governor of a new omnipotence“ ranging even above the state. When, years later, they wander to Greenwich observatory, Austerlitz notes how time is “by far the most artificial of all our inventions” (134). “Could we not claim, said Austerlitz,” writes Sebald, “that time itself has been nonconcurrent over the centuries and the millennia? It is not so long ago, after all, that it began spreading out over everything.“

For Austerlitz time as we experience and understand it today is not timeless, eternal but a modern invention that has a beginning—in time and place—from where it has spread out. And, indeed, before the introduction of steam trains which required a precise timing twelve o’clock in London was not twelve o’clock in Birmingham and even in two neighbouring villages the church bells didn’t ring out noon at the same moment. Time, or, more precisely, the measurement of it literally oriented itself at nature, whereas today it is artificial, underscoring the artificiality of time in a larger sense. But even modernity could not completely eradicate all deviations,

Even in a metropolis ruled by time like London, said Austerlitz, it is still possible to be outside time, a state of affairs which until recently was almost as common in backward and forgotten areas of our own country as it used to be in the undiscovered continents overseas. The dead are outside time, the dying and all the sick at home or in hospitals, and they are not the only ones, for a certain degree of personal misfortune is enough to cut us off from the past and the future.

This is what has happened to Austerlitz. His misfortune of being born at a certain moment of the twentieth century as the child of Jewish parents who did not manage to escape but managed to get him out on the Kindertransport has cut him off from his past and from any future he may ever have had. Grown up without knowledge of but a dread of the past, Austerlitz has for many years scrupulously avoided it. He doesn’t even own a clock because

A clock has always struck me as something ridiculous, a thoroughly mendacious object, perhaps because I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood, keeping myself apart from so-called current events in the hope, as I now think, said Austerlitz, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them, although that, of course, opens up the bleak prospect of everlasting misery and neverending anguish.

The idea of time as simultaneous rather than linear strikes Austerlitz as both attractive and monstrous. If “time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like”, then Austerlitz could return back home, back to the past, back to the parents he cannot remember or only glimpses of. But this would also mean that torture and murder are still ongoing, drawn out and repeated in eternity, the chains still clanking, the chimneys smoking, the pain never-ending.

Such ideas infallibly come to me in places which have more of the past about them than the present. For instance, if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion. It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time. And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?

Austerlitz himself seems to have such appointments. Without knowing why, he feels himself drawn time and again to return to Liverpool Street Station. One night, on a whim, he follows one of the cleaners only to find himself in the old Ladies’ Waiting Room— literally finds himself: the young boy he sees sitting on a bench, waiting to be picked up, is a memory of himself just arrived on the Kindertransport. Time becomes full circle, closing in on itself. Yet, this chance encounter, this sudden memory does not mark the end of the story but its beginning, triggering Austerlitz’ search for his past and his parents.

On another occasion, on one of his night walks through London, he sees “a man in a top hat, a woman wearing the costume of the 1930s”. Are they his father and mother or some other ghosts of the past? For Austerlitz, the past is not over, past and present not separate entities. As long as Austerlitz tried to ignore the past, it constantly chanced upon him, haunting him; when he seeks it out, it evaporates: he learns little more about his parents’ fate than that they most likely died in the death camps. At the end of the book, Austerlitz himself vanishes. Has he gone to the past? Has he become a ghost himself? Can we still see him today, prowling the nightly streets of London?