Austerlitz is a historical novel by W. G. Sebald. First published in 2001 by Penguin, the story centers around a man looking back on his childhood and his journey to find answers about his true heritage. The book was an international best-seller, and it’s Sebald’s final novel. It won the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the 2002 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Sebald was a German writer and academic who wrote mainly about the loss of memory, civilization, tradition, and physical objects. He was especially interested in exploring the effect of World War II on German people, and the trauma they experienced.
The main character is Jacques Austerlitz. Now a middle-aged architectural historian, Jacques originally arrived in England as a child refugee in 1939. He left Czechoslovakia because it wasn’t safe from Hitler’s Nazi regime. Upon his arrival in England, Jacques is sent to live with a Welsh couple, a Methodist minister and his wife. They’re an elderly couple who aren’t in great health, and Jacques tries to cause them as little trouble as possible.
Together they live in a Welsh market town, and Jacques’s new family sends him to a private school. They want him to have a comfortable upbringing, and they do what they can to make him happy. However, they never speak about his old life or his real family, because they want him to settle into his new identity. Given the outbreak of World War II, it’s safer if he forgets the past and assimilates into Welsh culture.
Jacques has a new name—Dayffyd Elias. As a teenager, he discovers that this isn’t his birth name, which was in fact Jacques. His foster mother is sickly, and his foster father is quiet and withdrawn, so he doesn’t feel he can ask them about his past or where he came from. He tries to stop thinking about his origins because he knows he’ll never learn the truth.
Later, Jacques earns a place at Oriel College, which is part of the University of Oxford. He studies architecture and becomes an academic specializing in European architecture. He also meets a woman whom he falls in love with. However, after his foster parents die and his relationship breaks down, Jacques struggles with mental health problems and suffers a nervous breakdown. He’s lost without his foster family, and he can’t help feeling like he should have asked them more questions about his birth family.
As part of his recovery, Jacques decides to travel. He knows he might be able to find answers about his past in Prague, so he journeys there. Although Jacques’s of Czech descent, Prague doesn’t feel like home to him, because it’s part of a life that he barely understands. His goal is to learn everything he can about his parents and what happened to them.
Jacques meets a woman, Vera, who was a close friend of his mother’s. He learns his mother was a talented actress and opera singer who often travelled around Europe, and this woman looked after Jacques when she was gone. As Jacques spends time with Vera, his earliest memories return to him, and he remembers some of the phrases she uses and places she mentions.
Jacques discovers that his mother was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, which was the largest concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. As a result, Jacques goes looking for any information he can find on the camp. He goes to Germany, which is very traumatic for him, given what happened to his mother at the hands of Nazis. While in Germany, he finds a propaganda film for Theresienstadt that’s designed to make the camp look humane and industrious. Worse, the Nazis made a Jewish actor film the video before gassing him.
Jacques thinks he recognizes his mother in the film, and he shows it to Vera back in Prague. Vera, however, reassures him that it’s not his mother. Instead, they look through old pictures from the Prague opera scene, and she’s able to identify his mother. This gives Jacques some sense of comfort, and it’s the closest he’s felt to his birth family. Now, with some closure about his mother’s fate, he decides to learn more about his father.
For Sebald, the story isn’t about Jacques discovering his father’s identity, it’s about Jacque’s gruelling search for information. He must trawl through many records—pictures, recollections, propaganda, and censuses—to find answers. What’s important is how Europe chooses to remember World War II and how impossible it is for us to ever know the truth, no matter how much source material we have.
Austerlitz ends without the reader ever learning Jacques’s father’s identity, though Jacques journeys to France to continue his search. This reminds us that there is so much information about history that will always remain just outside our reach, no matter how hard we search for answers.