Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.
New International Version, Genesis 1:2-4
In writing Austerlitz, Sebald endeavours to tell a story that, in its scope and controversy, is harrowing to tell. Faced with the barbarism of the Holocaust and the impossible challenge of bringing its victims’ histories back from the dead, he manipulates both language and image to create the time and space in which the character of Austerlitz exists—a character whose journey simulates exactly what Sebald is attempting to do. Austerlitz’s elegiac, almost confessional digressions on his past, as written by Sebald, strive to redeem the language that the work of the Nazis corrupted; the images he presents to the narrator serve to recreate the time and space in which the “subjects” of the photos once “existed”. Using this interposition, Sebald weaves together Austerlitz’s memory—the subjective experiences from which he once hid, but later chose to recollect. His journey from hiding to recognition reflects the collective memory of the Holocaust’s victims—a memory once forcibly and efficiently destroyed by their persecutors and buried with themselves, but eventually recovered and exhumed from the deep by their descendants. The novel, in both narrative and form, ultimately takes as its objective “to penetrate the darkness which surrounds” the Nocturama of the Holocaust stories (Sebald 5), bringing them into the light of understanding through Austerlitz’s penetrating eyes. By imbuing him with a voice and a soul, Sebald creates a work of poetry that battles the barbarism of unintelligibility and gives the atrocities of the Holocaust a thoughtful and appropriate interpretation. Sebald infuses the fictional character of Austerlitz with an authentic and personal voice, conveying his story through an interweaving of words and images that, in their use of various literary devices, is highly poetic in form. In doing so, he rebukes Adorno’s pronouncement, using this poetry to revive the victims of Auschwitz from the unintelligibility and destruction brought on by both time and the Nazi oppressors that attempted to bury them.
In order to artistically achieve his objective, Sebald endows the narration—of the narrator and of Austerlitz—with qualities characteristic of poetry. As the narrator describes the process through which he meets and develops in relationship with Austerlitz, and as Austerlitz begins to tell his story, the narrative voice is personal, individual, and authentic, filled with painstaking, well-lived detail. Take, for example, the description of his thoughts and feelings as he recounts his childhood:
I have never liked looking back at the time I spent in that unhappy house, which stood in isolation on a hill just outside the town and was much too large for two people and an only child. Several rooms on the top floor were kept shut up year in, year out. Even today I still sometimes dream that one of those locked doors opens and I step through it, into a friendlier, more familiar world. (Sebald 44)
Not only does Austerlitz describe the physical and locational aspects of the home; he also expounds upon the sensations that arise within him as a result of being situated in his surroundings. His detailing is not only physical, but emotional, as if he was dotting the landscape of his mind. This level of authentic vulnerability reflects the idea of “poet as genius” as found in English and German Romantic traditions, which the Nazis’ “heterogeneous German compounds” (Sebald 236) attempt to directly repudiate. As well, the other stories recounted in the novel are filtered through his mouthpiece and told in his voice; as the sole source of information, he even possesses the power to be the creator of these other stories, the same way his creator Sebald has “fabricated” his story. Stories are by nature subjective, and represent the perspective of the one who retells them, much as a work of poetry bears the mark of its poet regardless of the in-text speaker. Indeed, being the mechanism through which much of the novel’s content is conveyed, Austerlitz represents the voice and artistic aspirations of Sebald himself. His story, born of Sebald’s reinterpretation of historical materials, each with their own stories, stands against the “barbarism” of the Nazis and their quest to stamp out the qualities of creativity, authenticity, and individuality from all “concerned in the transaction[s]” they processed (Sebald 176). Where the Nazis attempted to obfuscate and to destroy, Austerlitz’s voice endeavours to reveal and to revive.
Austerlitz’s primary battlefield, for both the person and the text, lies in its language, as author and character attempt to combat the horror and incomprehensibility of the past by recounting and explaining it. Again, Sebald makes use of the parameters provided by the text as well as the character within it; the elegiac, yet ambiguous quality of his language and the confusion it creates in the reader throughout the text reflect Sebald’s difficulty in discussing his intended content, as much as it does Austerlitz’s “sense of indisposition” (Sebald 3) at discovering the successive layers of his heritage. This dichotomy is reflected in Austerlitz’s attempts to decipher the ruthless euphemisms employed by the Nazis, contrasted with his personal “effort to fit the presumptive sense of [his] reconstructions into the sentences and the wider context” (Sebald 236). As he enumerates the various processes at work in Terezin to the narrator, and indirectly to the reader, in the subsequent passage, the personal commentary and inflection with which he relays the information stands in opposition to the efficiency of what he is describing, creating in the reader the same sense of uneasiness he feels. As much as their efforts to uncover the past are valiant, the challenge is by nature overwhelming as well as painful; this is the reason for Austerlitz’s “constant process of obliteration, a turning away from [himself] and the world” (Sebald 123), and his subsequent nervous breakdown. The character’s torment, “the almost total destruction of [his] linguistic faculties” (Sebald 140) as a result of his realization, models the sensitivity and awareness with which the author Sebald must approach and does approach his subject matter. Indeed, Austerlitz “could not even understand what [he] himself had written in the past” (Sebald 124)—almost suggesting that no matter what is said, it all amounts to incomprehensibility in the face of so devastating a subject. He recognizes that to give voice to such great suffering is to subsume millions of unheard personal stories—lives—under the will of his authorship and fictionalization. Though a difficult burden to carry, and one deserving of Austerlitz’s mental distress, without it, none of their stories might ever see the light. Thus, in writing winding, lyrical paragraphs through the voice of Austerlitz, and making them hard to follow and highly confessional, Sebald conveys the similarly unfathomable nature of the victims’ experiences. He distills the experiences of the Holocaust in such a personal and yet ambiguous form because no single story could fully encapsulate such an experience, but nothing objective could even begin to encapsulate that experience; in this, he attempts to pay them respect and do them justice.
Sebald also situates the story in space through his use of images, using them to contextualize the characters’ lives and lend greater believability to his poetic work. Notably, the pictures of architectural spaces—the dome at the Antwerp station (Sebald 11) or the doors of the Terezin buildings (Sebald 190)—confine the characters to specific locations and imaginations of those locations. This localization, keeping the character in a specific place at a specific point on the page, could provide a formal parallel to the characters’ various degrees of physical and emotional entrapment—in Austerlitz boxing himself in to escape his past, unable to move forward from his state of avoidance (or backward into his past), or in the collective imprisonment of the ghettoized at Terezin. Either the narrator or Austerlitz spends time in these spaces, oftentimes providing commentary rooted in architectural history and identifying motifs that recur later in the novel, such as that of the salle des pas perdus (Sebald 5) foreshadowing the “waiting room” function of Terezinstadt later on. The characters also “recur” in the same places at the end of the novel as at the beginning, the narrator once again visiting Antwerp, the gare d’Austerlitz, Breendonk (Sebald 290). This suggests that the link to architecture, to constructed or imposed space, is more than a diegetic one. The bookending of the novel formally “walls” the narrative in, “betraying the degree of [its] insecurity” (Sebald 14) and protecting the fragility and difficulty of navigation of its contents. It also alludes to the literary device of the chiasmus, wherein similar ideas occur at the beginning and at the end of a text, with subsequent similar ideas sandwiching the central or turning point of the work in the middle—in this case, Austerlitz’s breakdown and his decision to look into his past. As the interaction of these literary elements makes the work richer and more nuanced, the characters’ situation in the literal space mandated by the images provides greater dimensionality, through which the work becomes deeper in poetic meaning.
The uncanny coherence of the motifs at the beginning and at the end, as well as the highly appropriate insertion of the pictures, additionally situate the story in time. They signal the likelihood of it being a retrospective rumination embarked upon by the narrator and by Austerlitz —almost like a scrapbook of memory. This is further supported by the fact that Austerlitz takes some of the pictures as he “[makes his] first experiments with photography” (Sebald 76), later discovering some of them, like that of himself as a child (Sebald 183). The narrator only comes into contact with at least some of the pictures when Austerlitz “[sends him] a postcard copy” (Sebald 75). Together, this could insinuate that the pictures provide a visual validation of the characters’ experiences, or even that the pictures are chosen and inserted in their respective locations by the characters themselves for this end. They serve as checkpoints, “time stamps” that emphasize sights, memories, and spaces of note to both narrative and character, the dark hall Austerlitz enters in his wandering (Sebald 128) and the still of the woman who could have been Agata (Sebald 253) being particularly memorable in this sense, conveying exactly what the character perceives or imagines (this effect being further amplified by the description of the characters’ thoughts and experiences in-text). Once again, as with the meandering quality of the language, the authorial prerogative is shared between Sebald and Austerlitz, adding greater confessional quality and poetic nuance to the work.
The words that recount Austerlitz’s story and the photographs that authenticate it ultimately come together to create memory —Austerlitz’s memories as he explains and visualizes them, and the collective memory of the Holocaust victims as he gives them voice. The narrative style and the images in the story come together to create the complete shape and form of the novel, of all that constitutes it. In the same way, the language Austerlitz uses, as reclaimed from the Nazis, unifies with the time and space in which he exists, as defined by the images, to depict the essence and appearance of the memory—giving it a face, a soul, a voice. The nature of this memory parallels the nature of the book as a whole—ambiguous, nostalgic, as if blindly reaching for something in the darkness but not knowing exactly where to look or what one will happen upon. This nature is seen in the Nocturama, where the animal pierces through the darkness and attempts to ascertain its surroundings with “strikingly large eyes” and a “fixed, inquiring gaze” (Sebald 4). It is also evident in the ambiguity with which Austerlitz discusses the year of his nervous breakdown; he “cannot say exactly how [he] spent the rest of that year” and how he came to begin his quest into his past (Sebald 140). Yet it is this very nature, this distraction of memory, this refusal and yet necessity to explore it, that Sebald—and Austerlitz—attempts to capture: the destruction of the past of many people, their plunging into an incredible darkness, and their amnesiac climb back into the folds of recollection, heritage, history. The relevance of Austerlitz’s journey as Sebald’s allegory for the revival of the Holocaust’s forgotten past, as well as for the experiences of those trying to search for it even now, is validated for the reader, who comes closer to understanding this work as an attempt to redeem one of the darkest chapters of humanity. In attempting to shed light on the subject, but doing so in such a sensitive, well-considered, and heartfelt way—in telling the story through the imaginary, piercingly exploring eyes of the “small boy… Jacquot Austerlitz” (Sebald 183)—he defies both the barbarism of the Nazis’ deeds and the barbarism of being forgotten by time, presenting it with as much intended authenticity and humanity as he possibly can muster.
In the end, the very existence of a work such as Austerlitz signals redemption, a first step towards reclamation of a past that is untraceable, that can no longer be discovered, but is so integral to the identity of the world that such a discovery must be attempted. Sebald, regardless of his position or his right to tell such a story, attempts nonetheless to do so; so long as voices like his are there to cast light into the darkness, atrocities of humanity such as the Holocaust will never be forgotten, and the spirit of humanity to bring about a better world, never extinguished.
 “Story” refers not only to the words in the text, but also the pictures as used to punctuate what the text is discussing. In most instances, the subject of the pictures is mentioned two or three lines prior to the picture appearing; this level of integration reflects the essential nature of the pictures to the “story”.
 Even though it is necessary to localize characters in a specific place and time in a narrative, the photographs do so in a slightly different way by providing the exact rendition of the mentioned time, place, item, etc. that Sebald desires. It memorializes the details of the subject, thus preventing it from being imagined by the reader in any other way; it also makes fixed the perspective from which the subject is surveyed, so that the reader cannot imagine the narrating character surveying the subject from any angle or location other than what the photographer has chosen. In these ways, the photographs entrap and limit the movement of the characters.
 At Jewish wedding ceremonies, the bride and groom both break wine glasses to signify the brokenness of the world they live in, and to recognize God’s mandate for them to repair it together.
Sebald, W. G. Austerlitz. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.
The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1995. Print.