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Good Luck, Memory

Late last summer, I read Nicholson Baker’s U & I, which, though I can’t recall the reasons, I can’t recommend enough. Published in 1991, U & I chronicles Baker’s obsessive fascination with that most pale of prose geniuses, John Updike, even while admitting he is by no means a completist and hasn’t read all of Updike’s books. I was visiting my then-girlfriend in New York while reading U & I, and from the first sentence I was so devoted that one day I carried it onto the subway between Manhattan and Brooklyn, where I was meeting an old friend to watch football and drink beer. I could barely endure the torturously hot subway station, though, and as I waited for my train in the heat I felt like I had hot coals tucked into my armpits. The subway car, by contrast, was so cool and Baker’s self-deprecations so engrossing that I remember this brief period (probably something like a half hour) as one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of my entire life. The problem now is my absent memory of Baker’s book. I can conjure up an image of its cover, which isn’t, frankly, all that memorable, but my mental storage unit is empty when I go looking for eloquent Bakerisms. Second, even the “plot,” such as it is with Nicholson Baker, escapes me. I vaguely remember Baker explaining how his mother had a conniption fit laughing at some humorous essay of Updike’s, a piece where he described a divot in a golf course being “big as a t-shirt.” I also have a foggy memory of Baker meeting Updike at some Harvard gathering, where he allows Updike to believe that he—Baker—also attended that august institution. It goes further. I can’t remember Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, either, although I read it last summer, too. His most recent novel, The Anthologist, which I devoured after A Box of Matches, another Baker book, also remains mostly sunk, like an iceberg, in the warming waters of my brain. All that is solid melts into air, as Marx (or whoever) said. I supposedly read these four Nicholson Baker books less than twelve months ago, and now my dominant memory is a section in The Mezzanine that describes the various sounds adult men make while defecating in corporate bathrooms. I recall that the word “spatterings” appears in all its horrifying, onomatopoeic glory, but remember the poop joke is not my most cherished literary principle. There isn’t any inherent reason to worry about forgetfulness, of course. Reading is reading; what you remember can seem a gift and what you forget just one of many things that, slipping away, never did you any harm. But—as a reader, as a teacher, and as a PhD student in the thick of preparations for my comprehensive exams—a large part of the pleasure (and struggle) I experience with books relates directly to my capacity to remember the words that appear in them. And despite the fine arguments of writers like Joshua Foer in his recent Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, I’m not looking for brute memorization, i.e. Xeroxing Shakespeare's complete works with my brain. I keep notes when it counts, after all. Perhaps it’s from reading too much (lately, it’s felt like too much, as I burn through a booklist that is supposed to represent the foundation for my future academic career), but the best tactic is to rely on the accidental art of memory, which patterns information organically, without much pre-set strategy. When I recently read an essay on ruins by Geoff Dyer, for example, his comment that the remains of ancient buildings suggest the triumph of space over time reminded me immediately of a passage from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz that I thought I had forgotten: “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.” Now, I hope, I’ll remember both these poetic conclusions. This kind of recall depends, actually, on the same digressive energy that both Dyer and Sebald lean on in their writing. And anyway, the great virtue of underlining sentences in the books you read is the opposite of what it seems to be: you’re giving yourself permission to forget all the non-underlined bits. As I become more comfortable with the forgetting, I realize the shape of the remembering. The situation actually seems both grimmer and more hopeful when I glance at the list of books I’ve already read thus far in 2011. There are 31 books there, and I can remember, on average, a single line or phrase from probably 11 of them. For others—particularly for books which make a sustained argument—I can remember the logic of the thinking, but would have to go back to my notes to recall the specific turns of vocabulary that make the arguments stick. On the one hand, it seems like terrific luck to have retained particular lines at all. On the other, I can’t help but feel sad in the face Harold Bloom’s prodigious memory. In a recent video interview with The New York Times, Bloom reeled off some lines of Hart Crane’s poetry with such perfect rhythm and confidence I felt equal parts charmed and inspired to jealous rage, which is not the point of (most) Modernist poetry. But if the issue is my happiness as a reader, I take comfort in a quotation provided by critic Eric Santner in his 2006 book, On Creaturely Life, a study of, among other writers, W.G. Sebald. Santner mentions, as an aside, a comment from philosopher Jonathan Lear, who writes that “…we need to go back to an older English usage of happiness in terms of happenstance: the experience of chance things working out well rather than badly.” Happiness as good luck makes perfect sense, particularly if you think of the word hapless, which roughly means luckless, without hap. So, by contrast, to be lucky, is—by substitution—to be happy. In other languages, like German and Dutch, lucky and happy already go by the same word. That I or anyone else is fortunate enough to remember whatever books we’ve read therefore appears to be a textbook case of happiness. Even so glorious a wet blanket as Friedrich Nietzsche already had some sense of happiness as this game of chance. In Beyond Good and Evil, he comments, “a thought comes when ‘it’ wants, not when ‘I’ want.” Thought, like memory, has its own life; we are just its devotees. If a German philosopher who proclaimed the death of God can find the exit door here, then I’ll take the accidental hap of memory, if nothing else. This is all such a stupid luxury, of course, hand-wringing over the proper way to read and remember. And the picture of the reading life and its haunted memory that I prefer now is from the book I have just finished: Geoff Dyer’s novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. In the second half of the novel, the unnamed narrator observes two fellow travelers and friends and comments, “Earlier that day, as I was coming back from Manikarnika in a boat, I’d glanced up at the terrace of the Lotus Lounge and seen them there, arms round each other. As the boat skulked upstream, I looked up from time to time like some sad fuck in a Henry James novel, relieved that they’d not seen me seeing them.” Even if he can’t remember which sad fuck, the narrator’s memory tells him that he’s part of a grand tradition. How lucky. (Image by C. Max Magee)

The Millions Top Ten: April 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Corrections 6 months 3. 3. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 5 months 3. 2. Reality Hunger 3 months 4. 4. Let the Great World Spin 5 months 5. 10. The Mystery Guest 5 months 6. 9. Stoner 4 months 7. 6. Wolf Hall 4 months 8. 5. The Big Short 2 months 9. 7. The Interrogative Mood 5 months 10. - War and Peace 1 month Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, which appeared on both our panel's list and our readers list in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. Our panel's winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, stays in the top spot. We've been looking forward to Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is a classic. Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace landed on lots of reading lists after we published Kevin's thoughtful meditation on the book and what it means to be affected by great art. Near Misses: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, Asterios Polyp, The Known World, Tinkers, Solar, Twilight of the Superheroes See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: March 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Corrections 5 months 2. 5. Reality Hunger 2 months 3. 10. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 4 months 4. 6. Let the Great World Spin 4 months 5. - The Big Short 1 month 6. 9. Wolf Hall 3 months 7. 3. The Interrogative Mood 4 months 8. 4. Austerlitz 6 months 9. 7. Stoner 3 months 10. 8. The Mystery Guest 4 months Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which was the readers' favorite in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. That allows our panel's winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, to take over the top spot. Of late, readers have begun looking forward to Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is Michael Lewis' look at the financial crisis of the last two years, The Big Short. Of the hundreds of books on the topic, Lewis' was one of the most widely anticipated, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis. Near Misses: Asterios Polyp, The Known World, War and Peace, Then We Came to the End, Union Atlantic See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: February 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Cloud Atlas 6 months 2. 2. The Corrections 4 months 3. 4. The Interrogative Mood 3 month 4. 3. Austerlitz 5 months 5. - Reality Hunger 1 month 6. 6. Let the Great World Spin 3 months 7. 8. Stoner 2 months 8. 5. The Mystery Guest 3 months 9. 10. Wolf Hall 2 month 10. 7. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 2 months   New to the Top Ten list this month is Reality Hunger, a book by David Shields.. We had an early look at the book, a two-part interview with Shields, and Shields' shared his Year in Reading in December. Dropping from the list is Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. Meanwhile, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections stayed atop the list, but that top spot will open up next month as Cloud Atlas is poised to join the Hall of Fame. See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: January 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Cloud Atlas 5 months 2. 4. The Corrections 3 months 3. 3. Austerlitz 4 months 4. 2. The Interrogative Mood 2 months 5. 9. (tie) The Mystery Guest 2 months 6. 5. Let the Great World Spin 2 months 7. 8. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 2 months 8. - Stoner 1 month 9. 9. (tie) Asterios Polyp 5 months 10. - Wolf Hall 1 month January saw two more books graduate to The Millions Hall of Fame, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Larsson's books have been the beneficiary of a surge of interest in the late Swedish writer's series of thrillers. Eggers' Zeitoun has won much praise for its nuanced look at one immigrant New Orleanian's Katrina story. New to the Top Ten list this month is Stoner, a book by John Williams from NYRB Classics. The novel was singled out for praise as part of our Year in Reading series by Millions contributors Patrick and Edan as well as by Conversational Reading's Scott Esposito. Also debuting is Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The book was also named a finalist recently for a National Book Crtics Circle Award. See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: December 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. Cloud Atlas 4 months 2. - The Interrogative Mood 1 month 3. 7. Austerlitz 3 months 4. 5. (tie) The Corrections 2 months 5. - Let the Great World Spin 1 month 6. 4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 6 months 7. 1. Zeitoun 6 months 8. - The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 1 month 9. (tie) 7. (tie) Asterios Polyp 4 months 9. (tie) - The Mystery Guest 1 month December saw a flurry of activity as four books made their first appearances on the list. Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood, endorsed by both Jonathan Lethem and Rick Moody, caught readers' interest. Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin has been building momentum since its National Book Award win. I also reviewed it here and last month, Reif Larsen wrote glowingly of the book. Our recent interview with superstar translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky clearly got readers interested in their latest effort, a Tolstoy collection. And David Shields' Year in Reading contribution, while eclectic, nonetheless drew readers' focus to Gregoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest. Powered by continued interest in The Millions' Best of the Millennium series, where the book had a strong showing on both out panel list and our readers' list, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas took over the top spot in the Top Ten. And finally, dropping from the list were Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, and The Wild Things by Dave Eggers. See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: November 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. Zeitoun 5 months 2. 1. Inherent Vice 4 months 3. 3. Cloud Atlas 3 months 4. 4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 5 months 5. (tie) - The Corrections 1 month 5. (tie) 7. The Skating Rink 4 months 7. (tie) 5. Asterios Polyp 3 months 7. (tie) 10. Austerlitz 2 months 9. - The Year of the Flood 2 months 10. 6. The Wild Things 2 months Dave Eggers bookends our list as Zeitoun moves into the top spot and The Wild Things lands at number 10. Jonathan Franzen's 2001 novel The Corrections hits our list two months after a panel of writers, editors and critics assembled by The Millions named it the Best of the Millennium (So Far). The book joins Cloud Atlas and Austerlitz, which both figured prominently in the series as well. Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood has re-entered the list after falling off last month. And dropping from the list are Felonious Jazz by Bryan Gilmer and Imperial by William T. Vollmann. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Inherent Vice 3 months 2. 2. Zeitoun 4 months 3. 7. Cloud Atlas 2 months 4. 3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 4 months 5. 5. (tie) Asterios Polyp 2 months 6. - The Wild Things 1 month 7. 4. The Skating Rink 3 months 8. 10. (tie) Imperial 2 months 9. 5. (tie) Felonious Jazz 6 months 10. - Austerlitz 1 month Dave Eggers lands a second book on our Top Ten with his novelization of the Spike Jonze movie The Wild Things. (Eggers is having similar success on some other distinguished lists.) Here at The Millions, Wild Things was a Most Anticipated book and Emily recent revisited the beloved children's book that started it all. Also debuting is Austerlitz, the 2001 novel by W.G. Sebald. The book recently landed at #7 in our "Best of the Millennium" series. We didn't have any new Hall of Fame inductees this month, and falling off the Top Ten were The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Future Missionaries of America by Matthew Vollmer, and Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. And, finally, Inherent Vice and Zeitoun hold on to their top positions. See Also: Last month’s list.

Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers

One thing I know after working on The Millions for all these years is that the site has some incredibly knowledgeable and avid readers, the sort of book people I loved working with back in my bookstore days and who are the lifeblood of literary culture. And so, even as we were polling our distinguished panel of writers, editors, and critics, we wondered, what do Millions readers think? We polled The Millions Facebook group to find out. The list our readers came up with was very interesting, and deviated in noticeable ways from that of the Pros. Before I get into the details. Have a look at the two lists below (Links in our panel list go to the writeups we published throughout the week.  Links in our reader list go to Amazon): Panel Readers 1 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen 1 The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz 2 The Known World by Edward P. Jones 2 2666 by Roberto Bolaño 3 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 3 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 4 2666 by Roberto Bolaño 4 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 5 Pastoralia by George Saunders 5 The Road by Cormac McCarthy 6 The Road by Cormac McCarthy 6 Atonement by Ian McEwan 7 Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald 7 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon 8 Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson 8 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen 9 Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro 9 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 10 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 10 White Teeth by Zadie Smith 11 The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz 11 Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami 12 Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg 12 The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini 13 Mortals by Norman Rush 13 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 14 Atonement by Ian McEwan 14 Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald 15 Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis 15 Empire Falls by Richard Russo 16 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 16 Runaway by Alice Munro 17 The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem 17 The Master by Colm Tóibín 18 Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link 18 Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 19 American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman 19 Unaccustomed Earth ** by Jhumpa Lahiri 20 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 20 Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke      While everyone seems to agree that The Corrections is a great book (it was the panel winner by a landslide), Millions readers put seven books ahead of it, and anointed Oscar Wao the top book of the decade.  Our readers have always loved Oscar, so that wasn't a huge surprise, but it was also interesting to see that the readers had a high opinion of  Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, rectifying probably the biggest snub on our panel list, (along with White Teeth).  But then, the readers snubbed The Known World, so who knows. With a massive field of potential books, snubs were inevitable. Left off both lists were both of Jonathan Safran Foer's novels, David Foster Wallace's Oblivion (his only fiction of the decade), and Denis Johnson's much praised Tree of Smoke. Voters were also dying to include Bolaño's The Savage Detectives. It was ineligible because it was published in Spanish in 1998, but it makes one wonder, what books will seem like shoo-ins for this type of exercise 10 or 11 years from now but are completely under the radar (or still untranslated) today? Moving back to the books that did make the list, I also loved that the readers included Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a book that I've been hearing about from our readers for years, and Half of a Yellow Sun, a book that's always had a lot of support in the online literary community.  Also intriguing is the appearance of mega-best seller The Kite Runner. Finally, if we try to look for a consensus among the two lists, several titles appear on both, but the two with the most support across the entire spectrum of respondents are 2666 and Cloud Atlas, which, if you had to pick just two books to define the literary decade now coming to an end, would make for very interesting selections indeed. We'll be publishing follow-up pieces in our Millennium series over the coming weeks, so look for those. I also wanted to thank our panel and Millions readers for taking the time to participate in the series. If you enjoyed the series and value the coverage that The Millions provides, please consider supporting the site.

#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

When I discovered W.G. Sebald, I read Vertigo first, and then The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn. Minutes after I read the final page of The Rings of Saturn, I flipped it over and began again. I read that book six times, maybe seven, and taught it once. Still I avoided Austerlitz. Maybe I was saving the finest chocolate for last or maybe it was fear: fear of the subject matter, fear that the book would fail my expectations, fear that it would be so good that I would never write again. When finally I read it (nearly straight through, though its complicating visual interruptions give less relief than its scanty paragraph breaks), I understood it to be Sebald’s greatest work of art. My description implies that the novel is breathless but in fact it is calm and wise, its terror subtle, creeping, accumulative. In its layered explorations of the limitations and possibilities of the narrative I and the narrative eye, Austerlitz changed how I read and how I think. The novel offers evidence that silence not the only decent response to atrocity, that art can carry a fiery, gentle intelligence to our hardest questions, that the human heart can be reached—broken—through the intellect. Read an excerpt from Austerlitz. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers

More on the Best Current Writer Question

After some email discussion, it appears that the consensus is that Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is the lone book by a young writer from the past few years that will have the staying power to last generations. [Embarrassing author's note: due to an unhealthy aversion to hype and a disproportionate dislike of Franzen because of his self-involved non-fiction, I have until now held out against reading this book. Now chastened, I will begin reading it by Monday] Meanwhile a couple of folks followed my lead to add some names to the slightly older than 50 category. Garth suggests Salman Rushdie (age 56), who is undoubtedly a highly skilled writer, but one who I think may be better remembered for his role as a pawn in the Ayatollah's dalliance with contemporary literature, and less for any of the particular novels he has written. He does have an incredibly attractive wife though. Brian meanwhile suggested that the late W. G. Sebald (dead at age 57) is sure to be considered an indispensible, classic author one day. As is often the case, his already stellar reputation as a writer jumped up a notch as eulogizers strained to deliver Sebald the praise that he surely would have recieved, parcelled out over the remainder of his years, had he not died. As so often happens, Sebald's untimely death may boost him towards immortality in the eyes of readers. His reputation aside, he is undoubtedly worth reading: both Austerlitz and The Emigrants are highly recommended.
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