Driving to Keswick on Saturday was pure pleasure. Queen Anne's Lace and hawthorn blossom spilled over the verges and hedges. There were clumps of cowslips growing on the limestone strip that runs in a semi-circle north of Skiddaw. On the lower slopes of Binsey a walled enclosure was covered in a mass of bluebells growing so thickly that my passenger could see them at least a quarter of a mile away. The field was a rich azure blue as if it was reflecting the colour of the sky.
My destination was a meeting of the Cumbria Literary Group where we discussed W G Sebald's Austerlitz. What a rich, complex and moving book this is, and what a remarkable literary tour de force. The way Sebald builds layer upon layer of allusions and his use of repeated images can only be admired and envied by writers of prose and poetry alike.
Sebald has some beautiful lyrical descriptions in the book, for example the time when Austerlitz, Adela, Gerald and Toby the dog sit on the railway viaduct over the Mawddach estuary:
"And in the evening light the tide came in, gleaming like a dense shoal of mackerel, flowing under
the bridge and up the river, so swift and strong that you might have thought you were going the
other way, out to the open sea in a boat."
Austerlitz himself (like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner), needs a listener. The unnamed narrator who initially approaches Austerlitz in the Salles des pas perdus in Antwerp Station becomes the person to whom Austerlitz must tell the story of his life. Surprisingly, in a book which is full of inter-textuality, I have only been able to track down one overt poetic reference. The narrator is remembering his childhood in the Alps:
"the opening lines of one of my favourite poems came into my mind ... And so I long for snow to
sweep across the low heights of London".
It is a line from "Fragment" by Stephen Watts.
W G Sebald wrote poetry as well as prose. There are several overlaps between the prose of Austerlitz and the poetry of Across the Land and the Water - the same themes of journeys, landscapes, time, memory and history. There is the same elusiveness too. The short poem "Somewhere" describes a winter landscape:
"a spruce nursery
a pond in the
moor on which
the March ice
is slowly melting"
but the opening words "behind Turkenfeld" give a context to these simple lines. The significance of Turkenfeld is never revealed in the poem but the plaee has a dark history. It was the location of one of the sub-camps of Dachau and it had a station on the notorious "blutbahn" railway line (the blood track).
Looking through Sebald's poetry again I found echoes of Austerlitz in places (Brussels, Marienbad), people (Napoleon, Schumann) and inevitably railways ("Day Return"). The first "poemtree" in Across the Land and the Water captures the experience of Austerlitz in a few lines:
"For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there and mutely it
watches you vanish."