Austerlitz

Saturday, March 12, 2005

One of my colleagues convinced me that purchasing books was not a good use of my money. I have always bought, read, and stored books on shelves. I’ve filled overweight bookshelves in my homes (both the Castle and my mother’s house in Brooklyn) with books I’ll never read again. My colleague doesn’t have a book club as, say, Oprah has a club. Instead, she knows enough people who read that she collects and distributes good books. I’ve not given up on buying books, but I am trying to use the library and other people to cut down on the size of my library. I’ve bought enough into her scheme that I’m now donating some of my better books to her club. As part of her program, she lent me Austerlitz.

Austerlitz tells the story of Austerlitz, a Jewish boy born in Prague in the 1930s whose parents send him to England before the start of the war. His parents perish in the war, and a cold minister’s family raises him in England before he escapes to university. He has a peculiar understanding of time, seeing his entire life as a massive conglomeration of moments that are not necessarily ordered. Austerlitz tells his story to the narrator in a somewhat broken form. W. G. Sebald wrote Austerlitz, and stylistically it is difficult novel to read. Sebald doesn’t believe in chapters or paragraphs, and the words blur into one another. Throughout the novel, black and white photographs emphasize parts of the story, as Austerlitz is an avid photographer and student of architecture.

After drudging through the first three quarters of the book, I’ve arrived at a more interesting section where Austerlitz tells the story of how he realized he blocked his memories of his childhood and the war. After a nervous breakdown, he begins to trace his life back to Prague and fill in the missing parts. Sebald used wonderful symbolism in this section, which is what I wanted to share with you, and why I bothered to summarize the novel.

When Austerlitz returned to Prague, he found his nanny, Vera, who survived his parents, and they reminisce. Austerlitz walked through a park and saw a squirrel. Until he returned to Prague, he didn’t realize he understood or spoke Czech, but when he saw the squirrel, the word veverka popped into his head and he was overwhelmed. His nanny confirmed that veverka meant squirrel, and she related this story:

And then, said Austerlitz, Vera told me how in autumn we would often stand by the upper enclosure wall of the Schönborn Garden to watch the squirrels burying their treasures. Whenever we came home afterwards, I had to read aloud from your favorite book about the changing seasons, said Vera, even though you knew it by heart from the first line to the last, and she added that I never tired of the winter pictures in particular, scenes showing hares, deer, and partridges transfixed with astonishment as they stared at the ground covered with newly fallen snow, and Vera said that every time we reached the page which described the snow falling through the branches of the trees, soon to shroud the entire forest floor, I would look up at her and ask: But if it’s all white, how do the squirrels know where they’ve buried their hoard? Ale když všechno zakryje snih, jak veverky najdou to místo, kde si schovaly zásoby?

Isn’t that great? The final line reflects his memories, the nuts representing memories, and the snow representing what covered them. At least that’s how I read it when a sleepless fever gripped me during my overnight flight. I won’t be taking that flight again. After arriving in NY (actually Newark, NJ) with about an hour’s sleep, my mother drove us back to Brooklyn, where I fell asleep for another six hours. Since I destroyed most of the Saturday, it makes sense to take the Saturday morning flight, which would get me in to NY in the evening, rested (or as rested as I could ever be after a flight) with a full night’s sleep.

After waking from my nap, I took a walk with my mother to Sheepshead Bay, which is the namesake of my neighborhood. The area around the bay is barely recognizable, with new houses and stores on every corner. I forgot my camera, so I can’t share the incredibly ethnic neighborhoods that have sprung up around the bay. After the walk, I napped for another hour, and then went with my mother, uncle, and his girlfriend to KPD, an old haunt. KPD, or Kings Plaza Diner, is the “Best Diner in Brooklyn,” according to a 1995 Daily News article. Now, putting aside that the Daily News almost died a few years ago (it was resurrected by nostalgic New Yorkers), KPD is a decent diner, as far as diners go. But with the wars my stomach has been fighting against greasy foods, I wasn’t able to partake in its more interesting fare.

My brain is still not working properly. I’m hoping tomorrow will be a better day for thoughts. Eileen and her (very cute) monsters are visiting, and I’ll check in to my hotel tomorrow night. I should have more time to write over the next three days, as I sleep through my CLE classes, and visit the many coffee houses (okay, the many Starbuckses) throughout Manhattan.