Memories and Mementos essay

The Palais Hotel of Marienbad, was almost devoid of people. The reception clerk that emerges from his desk is wearied from the years, age, or some inner agony. The bellhop that helps carry the luggage winds his way through stairs like Sisyphus toiling to roll a huge stone uphill, only for it to roll down again. It is as if there is something empty dwelling within its halls, or phantoms that dwell here where men used to live. This is an apt description of Sebald’s Austerlitz towards the second part of the novel.

This odd sort of a man, whom the narrator first meets in Antwerp, was a tragic figure, orphaned at an early age and sent of to live in an alien country at the edge of the world. The country he dwelt in, whether the idyllic Welsh valleys, or the bustling metropolis of London, could not contain the spirit which wrestled within Jacques Austerlitz. He could not hold it back even as he showed to the reader the landmarks, buildings, and exotic sights of times long past—shorn of memories, he built his own in the imagery of these places, and the people in them.

And at the end of the first part of the novel, I, as the reader, found Austerlitz on the train station leaving Prague, a city that for the larger part of his life, and the larger part of my readings, would have been as much an alien city as the Welsh lands had been. I was compelled to read on, as one soul finding sympathy and elation for a fellow soul that had long been incomplete, and finding answers towards the end. There is something hollow ringing in the pages of the second part.

Austerlitz finds himself in memories of Paris, travels across the German countryside, and wandering back to images of Terezin and his mother. He found himself facing dementia, a subconscious willingness to face the world, and repeatedly ended up staring listlessly across the hospital window in the countryside. I pored through the pages, skimmed some parts, and ended up going back and rereading the pages I had neglected. Why was there no answer here? , I thought myself asking.

I imagined Austerlitz reuniting with his mother, perhaps even in a sad cemetery in Czechoslovakia, or with his father, entombed in a quiet grave or in a nursing home, his thought wandering to the family he left behind in Prague. I, instead, found myself wandering aimlessly like Austerlitz, grasping at any remnant or relic of the past he could find. The years have passed too long. But for the few people who might still haunt these lost places, there was nothing left but the cold, dead walls and furniture, photos of faces, names.

The second part, relatedly divides between two images—his continuing search for identity in France, and happier times with a Marie de Verneuil. As I read through their first encounter, and the years of their companionship, it dawns on me that Austerlitz makes no mention of a Marie (except in passing) in the first part of the novel; she had not been there towards the end. She represented the choice to life that he had shunned those many years ago. For we soon learn that towards the end of this journey, we, like Austerlitz, would not be able to piece through everything that was in our past.

There is nothing to be gained in dwelling on the things lost; only in the living life ahead. We see Marie, as Austerlitz continues—and as the narrator pens—more and more, and we even hear less of answers he might have found of his father. And at the closing of the novel, we join the narrator in wishing farewell and luck to Jacques Austerlitz, as he resolves to find the pieces of his past, answers to his lost father, and perhaps to see Marie Verneuil again.

We cannot go further; we have peeked to a man’s life far enough, and we have no right to live it for him. Yet there was the answer, after all: it was not in the emptiness of the Palais Hotel, or the village/labor camp of Theresiendstadt, or in all the books in the Bibliotheque Nationale. It was in Marie, and the choice to live on. We must live on, like Austerlitz, and instead of piecing out imagined memories, we should make new ones, and make them as best and happy as we could.