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Over the course of a thirty-year conversation unfolding in train stations and travelers’ stops across England and Europe, W.G. Sebald’s unnamed narrator and Jacques Austerlitz discuss Austerlitz’s ongoing efforts to understand who he is. An orphan who came to England alone in the summer of 1939 and was raised by a Welsh Methodist minister and his wife as their own, Austerlitz grew up with no conscious memory of where he came from.

W.G. Sebald embodies in Austerlitz the universal human search for identity, the struggle to impose coherence on memory, a struggle complicated by the mind’s defenses against trauma. Along the way, this novel of many riches dwells magically on a variety of subjects–railway architecture, military fortifications; insets, plants, and animals; the constellations; works of art; the strange contents of the museum of a veterinary school; a small circus; and the three capital cities that loom over the book, London, Paris, and Prague–in the service of its astounding vision.
Random House
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“With untraceable swiftness and assurance, W. G. Sebald’s writing conjures from the details and sequences of daily life, and their circumstances and encounters, from apparent chance and its unsounded calculus, the dimension of dream and a sense of the depth of time that makes his books, one by one, indispensable. He evokes at once the minutiae and the vastness of individual existence, the inconsolable sorrow of history and the scintillating beauty of the moment and its ground of memory. Each book seems to be something that surely was impossible, and each (upon every re-reading) is unique and astonishing.”


“With W. G. Sebald’s haunting new book, Austerlitz, we are transported to a memoryscape—a twilight, fogbound world of half-remembered images and ghosts that is reminiscent at once of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Kafka’s troubled fables of guilt and apprehension, and, of course, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past .… [Austerlitz] serves as the perfect introduction to Mr. Sebald’s work for readers unfamiliar with his ouevre while standing on its own as a powerful and resonant work of the historical imagination.”


“Sebald stands with Primo Levi as the prime speaker of the Holocaust and, with him, the prime contradiction of Adorno’s dictum that after it, there can be no art.”

—The New York Times Book Review

“Sebald is the Joyce of the twenty-first century. His tale of one man’s odyssey through the dark ages of European history, which synthesizes a canon of Continental thought and literature, is one of the most moving and true fictions on the postwar world.”

—The Times (London)

“W. G. Sebald is a monster—a gorgeous and unwaveringly assured writer, a bold formal innovator, and a man always plunging into the core of identity, singular and national. In Austerlitz, he’s created his richest and most emotionally devastating story.”


“One emerges from a Sebald novel shaken, se; duced, and deeply impressed.”


“A remarkable writer—a sort of Teutonic Borges domiciled in England.”


“One of the most original new voices to have come out of Europe in recent years.”


“If you thought literary modernism was dead, guess again. The spirit of such masters as Kafka and Borges lives on in the novels of W. G. Sebald. For Mr. Sebald, not only do ‘big questions’ still exist, but so do the desire and the will to answer them.”

—The Wall Street Journal



Title Page


First Page

About the Author




In the summer of 1967, a man who remains unnamed but who resembles the author W. G. Sebald, is visiting Belgium. At the Centraal Station in Antwerp, he sees a fellow traveler, with fair, curiously wavy hair, who is wearing heavy walking boots, workman’s trousers made of blue calico, and a well-made but antiquated jacket. He is intently studying the room and taking notes. This is Jacques Austerlitz. The two men fall into conversation, have dinner at the station restaurant, and continue to talk into the night. Austerlitz is a voluble scholar—he explains, to the book’s narrator, about the slightly grotesque display of colonial confidence represented by Antwerp’s Centraal Station, and talks generally about the history of fortification. It is often our mightiest projects, he suggests, that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity.

Austerlitz and the Sebald-like narrator meet again—a few months later, in Brussels; then, later still, on the promenade at Zeebrugge. It emerges that Jacques Austerlitz is a lecturer at an institute of art history in London, and that his scholarship is unconventional. He is obsessed with monumental public buildings, like law courts and prisons, railway stations and lunatic asylums, and his investigations have swollen beyond any reasonable raison d’etre, “proliferating in his hands into endless preliminary sketches for a study, based entirely on his own views, of the family likeness between all these buildings.” For a while, the narrator visits Austerlitz regularly in London, but they fall out of touch until 1996, when he happens to meet Austerlitz again, this time at Liverpool Street Station. Austerlitz explains that only recently has he learned the story of his life, and he needs the kind of listener that the narrator had been in Belgium, thirty years before.

And so Austerlitz begins the story that will gradually occupy the rest of the book: how he was brought up in a small town in Wales, with foster parents; how he discovered, as a teenager, that his true name was not Dafydd Elias but Jacques Austerlitz; how he went to Oxford, and then into academic life. Though clearly a refugee, for many years Austerlitz was unable to discover the precise nature and contour of his exile until experiencing a visionary moment, in the late 1980s, in the Ladies’ Waiting Room of Liverpool Street Station. Standing transfixed for perhaps hours, in a room hitherto unknown to him (and about to be demolished, to enable an expansion of the Victorian station), he feels as if the space contains “all the hours of my past life, all the suppressed and extinguished fears and wishes I had ever entertained.” He suddenly sees, in his mind’s eye, his foster parents, “but also the boy they had come to meet,” and he realizes that he must have arrived at this station a half century ago.

It is not until the spring of 1993, and having suffered a nervous breakdown in the meantime, that Austerlitz has another visionary experience, this time in a Bloomsbury bookshop. The bookseller is listening to the radio, which features two women discussing the summer of 1939, when, as children, they had come on the ferry Prague to England, as part of the Kindertransport: “only then did I know beyond any doubt that these fragments of memory were part of my own life as well,” Austerlitz tells the narrator. The mere mention of the name “Prague” impels Austerlitz to the Czech capital, where he eventually discovers his old nanny, Vera Ryšanová, and uncovers the stories of his parents’ abbreviated lives. His father, Maximilian Aychenwald, escaped the Nazis in Prague by leaving for Paris; but, we learn at the end of the book, he was eventually captured and interned in late 1942, in the French camp of Gurs, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. His mother, Agáta Austerlitz, stayed on in Prague, insouciantly confident of her prospects, but was rounded up and sent to the Terezín ghetto (better known by its German name of Theresienstadt) in December 1942. Of the final destination of Maximilian and Agáta we are not told, but can easily infer the worst: Vera tells us only that Agáta was “sent east” from Terezín, in September 1944.

This short recital, poignant though its content is, represents a kind of vandalism to Sebald’s beautiful novel, and I offer it only in the spirit of orientation. It leaves out, most importantly, all the ways in which Sebald contrives not to offer an ordinary, straightforward recital. For what is so delicate is how Sebald makes Austerlitz’s story a broken, recessed enigma, whose meaning the reader must impossibly rescue. Though Austerlitz, and hence the reader too, is involved in a journey of detection, the book really represents the deliberate frustration of detection, the perpetuation of an enigma. By the end of the novel, we certainly know a great deal about Jacques Austerlitz—about the tragic turns of his life, his family background, about his obsessions and anxieties and breakdowns—but it can’t be said that we really know him. A life has been filled in for us, but not a self. He remains as unknowable at the end as he was at the beginning, and indeed seems to quit the book as randomly and as unexpectedly as he entered it.

Sebald deliberately layers and recesses his narrative, so that Austerlitz is difficult to get close to. He tells his story to the narrator, who then tells his story to us, thus producing the book’s distinctive repetitive tagging, a kind of parody of the source-attribution we encounter in a newspaper: almost every page has a “said Austerlitz” on it, and sometimes the layers of narration are thicker still, as in the following phrase, which reports a story of Maximilian’s, via Vera Ryšanová, via Austerlitz, and collapses the three names: “From time to time, so Vera recollected, said Austerlitz, Maximilian would tell the tale of how once, after a trade union meeting in Treplitz in the early summer of 1933 …” Sebald borrowed this habit of repetitive attribution from the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, who also influenced Sebald’s diction of extremism. Almost every sentence in this book is a cunning combination of the quiet and the loud: “As usual when I go down to London on my own,” the narrator tells us in a fairly typical passage, “a kind of dull despair stirred within me in that December morning.” Or, for instance, when Austerlitz describes how moths die, he says that they will stay where they are, clinging to a wall, never moving “until the last breath is out of their bodies, and indeed they will remain in the place where they came to grief even after death.” In Thomas Bernhard’s work, extremity of expression is indistinguishable from the Austrian author’s comic, ranting rage, and his tendency to circle obsessively around madness and suicide. Sebald takes some of Bernhard’s wildness and estranges it—first, by muffling it in an exquisitely courteous syntax: “Had I realized at the time that for Austerlitz certain moments had no beginning or end, while on the other hand his whole life had sometimes seemed to him a blank point without duration, I would probably have waited more patiently.” Second, Sebald makes his diction mysterious by a process of deliberate antiquarianism. Notice the slightly quaint, Romantic sound of those phrases about the moths: “until the last breath is out of their bodies … the place where they came to grief …”

In all his fiction, Sebald works this archaic strain (sometimes reminiscent of the nineteenth-century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter) into a new, strange, and seemingly impossible composite: a kind of mildly agitated, pensive contemporary Gothic. His characters and narrators are forever finding themselves, like travelers of old, in gloomy, inimical places (East London, Norfolk) where “not a living soul stirred.” Wherever they go, they are accompanied by apprehensions of uneasiness, dread, and menace. In Austerlitz, this uneasiness amounts to a Gothicism of the past; the text is constantly in communion with the ghosts of the dead. At Liverpool Street Station, Jacques Austerlitz feels dread at the thought that the station is built on the foundations of Bedlam, the famous insane asylum: “I felt at this time,” he tells the narrator, “as if the dead were returning from their exile and filling the twilight around me with their strangely slow but incessant to-ing and fro-ing.” In Wales, the young Jacques had occasionally felt the presence of the dead, and Evan the cobbler had told the boy of those dead who had been “struck down by fate untimely, who knew they had been cheated of what was due to them and tried to return to life.” These ghostly returnees, Evan said, could be seen in the street: “At first glance they seemed to be normal people, but when you looked more closely their faces would blur or flicker slightly at the edges.” In the curiously empty village of Terezín, not far from Prague, Austerlitz seems to see the old Jewish ghetto, as if the dead were still alive, “crammed into those buildings and basements and attics, as if they were incessantly going up and down the stairs, looking out of the windows, moving in vast numbers through the streets and alleys, and even, a silent assembly, filling the entire space occupied by the air, hatched with gray as if it was by the fine rain.”

This is both a dream of survival and a dread of it, a haunting. To bring back the dead, those “struck down by fate untimely”—Jacques’ parents, say, or the imprisoned victims of Theresienstadt—would be a miraculous resurrection, a reversal of history; yet, since this is impossible, the dead can “return” only as mute witnesses, judging us for our failure to save them. Those resurrected dead at Terezín, standing in “silent assembly,” sound very much like a large court, standing in judgment against us. Perhaps, then, the guilt of survival arises not just from the solitude of success (the “success” of having been lucky, of having outlived the Nazis), or the irrational horror that one’s survival involved someone else’s death (an irrationality that Primo Levi explores in his work). There is also guilt at the idea that the dead are at our mercy, that we can choose to remember or forget them. This is finely caught by Theodor Adorno, in an essay on Mahler, written in 1936: “So the memory is the only help that is left to them [the dead]. They pass away into it, and if every deceased person is like someone who was murdered by the living, so he is also like someone whose life they must save, without knowing whether the effort will succeed.”1

Saving the dead—that is the paradoxically impossible project of Austerlitz, and it is both Jacques Austerlitz’s quest, and W. G. Sebald’s too. This book is like the antiques shop seen by Jacques in Terezín; it is full of old things, many of them reproduced in the photographs in the text: buildings, an old rucksack, books and paper records, a desk, a staircase, a messy office, a porcelain statue, gravestones, the roots of trees, a stamp, the drawing of a fortification. The photographs of these old things are themselves old things—the kind of shabby, discarded picture postcards you might find at a weekend flea market, and which Sebald greatly enjoyed collecting. If the photograph is itself an old, dead thing, then what of the people caught—frozen—by the photograph? (Flickering slightly at the edges, as Evan the cobbler describes the dead.) Aren’t they also old, dead things? That is why Sebald forces together animate and inanimate objects in his books, and it is why the inanimate objects greatly overwhelm the animate ones in Austerlitz. Amidst the photographs of buildings and gravestones, it is a shock to come upon a photograph of Wittgenstein’s eyes, or a photograph of the rugby team at Jacques’ school. The human seems to have been reified—turned into a thing—by time, and Sebald knowingly reserves an entire page for his shocking photograph of skulls in mud (supposedly, skeletons found near Broad Street Station in 1984, during excavations). Toward becoming these old things, these old headstones in mud, we are all traveling. (In the north of England, a cemetery used to be called a “boneyard,” the phrase somehow conveying the sense of our bones as mere lumber or junk.)

Yet some are traveling faster than others, and with more doomed inevitability, and there is surely a distinction between, on the one hand, the photograph of Jacques’ rugby team, and on the other, the photograph of Jacques’ mother or the photograph (itself a still from a film) of the imprisoned inhabitants of Theresienstadt. As Roland Barthes rightly says in his book Camera Lucida, a book with which Austerlitz is in deep dialogue, photographs shock us because they so finally represent what has been. We look at most old photographs and we think: “that person is going to die, and is in fact now dead.” Barthes calls photographers “agents of death,” because they freeze the subject and the moment into finitude. Over photographs, he writes, we shudder as over a catastrophe that has already occurred: “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”2 This effect is surely heightened when we look at photographs of victims of the Nazis—whether being rounded up, or just walking along a street in a ghetto. In such cases, we think: “they know they are going to die, and they are certainly already dead, and there is nothing we can do about it.” As the stolid rugby players do not, these victims seem to be looking at us (even when they are not directly looking at the camera), and asking us to do something. This is what gives the photograph of young Jacques (reproduced on the cover of this book) a particular intensity. The boy in his party cape, with the wedge of unruly fair hair, looks out at the camera not imploringly but confidently, if a little skeptically. Yet understandably, Jacques Austerlitz, looking at this photograph of himself, from a time when he was still in Prague and still had parents and had not yet been put on the train to London, tells the narrator that he feels “the piercing, inquiring gaze of the page boy who had come to demand his dues, who was waiting in the gray light of dawn on the empty field for me to accept the challenge and avert the misfortune lying ahead of him.” Jacques Austerlitz was rescued by the Kindertransport, and thus did indeed avert the misfortune lying ahead of him. But he could not avert the misfortune lying ahead of his parents, and so, even in middle age, he is forever frozen in the attitude of that picture, always waiting to avert misfortune. He thus resembles the little porcelain horseman that he saw in the window of the antiques shop in Terezín, a small statue of a man rescuing a young girl, arrested in a “moment of rescue, perpetuated but forever just occurring.” Is Jacques Austerlitz the rescuer, or the one awaiting rescue? Both, surely.

There is, of course, a further dimension to Sebald’s use of photographs: they are fictional. In the very area of historical writing and historical memory most pledged to the sanctity of accuracy, of testimony and fatal fact, Sebald launches his audacious campaign: his use of photographs relies on, and plays off, the tradition of verity and reportage. On the one hand, these photographs sear us with the promise of their accuracy—as Barthes says, photographs are astonishing because they “attest that what I see has existed”: “In Photography, the presence of the thing (at a certain past moment) is never metaphoric.” We are lulled into staring at these photographs and saying to ourselves: “There is Jacques Austerlitz, dressed in his cape. And there is his mother!” We say this, in part because photographs make us want to say this, but also because Sebald mixes these photographs of people with his undeniably accurate and veridical photographs of buildings (for instance, the photograph of the Breendonk prison, in Belgium, where Jean Améry was tortured by the Nazis, and which the narrator visits, is a photograph of the actual building). On the other hand, we know, in our heart of hearts (and perhaps unwillingly?), that Jacques Austerlitz is a fictional character, and that therefore the photograph of the little boy cannot be a photograph of him.

Indeed, in this book, Sebald’s photographs of humans can be said to be fictional twice over: they are photographs of invented characters; and they are often photographs of actual people who once lived but who are now lost to history. Take the photograph of the rugby team, with Jacques Austerlitz supposedly sitting in the front row, at the far right. Who are these young men? Where did Sebald get hold of this faded group portrait? And is it likely that any of them are still alive? What is certain is that they have passed into obscurity: we don’t look at the portrait and say to ourselves, “There’s the young Winston Churchill, in the middle row.” The faces are unknown, forgotten. They are, precisely, not Wittgenstein’s famous eyes. The photograph of the little boy in his cape is even more acute in its poignancy. I have read reviews of this book that suggest it is a photograph of the young Sebald—such is our natural desire, I suppose, not to let the little boy pass into orphaned anonymity. But the photograph is not of the young Sebald; it can be found in Sebald’s literary archive at Marbach, outside Stuttgart, and there the reader finds an ordinary photographic postcard, with, on the reverse side, “Stockport: 30p” written in ink.3 The boy’s identity has disappeared (as has the woman whose photograph is shown as Agáta, the boy’s mother), and has disappeared—it might be said—even more thoroughly than Hitler’s victims, since they at least belong to blessed memory, and their murders cry out for public memorial, while the boy has vanished into the private obscurity and ordinary silence that will befall most of us. In Sebald’s work, then, and in this book especially, we experience a vertiginous relationship to a select number of photographs of humans—these pictures are explicitly part of the story that we are reading, which is about saving the dead (the story of Jacques Austerlitz), and they are also part of a larger story that is not found in the book (or only by implication), which is also about saving the dead. These people stare at us, as if imploring us to rescue them from the banal amnesia of existence. But if Jacques Austerlitz certainly cannot save his dead parents, then we certainly cannot save the little boy. To “save” him would mean saving every person who dies, would mean saving everyone who has ever died in obscurity. This, I think, is the double meaning of Sebald’s words about the boy: it is Jacques Austerlitz, but it is also the boy from Stockport (as it were), who stares out at us asking us to “avert the misfortune” of his demise, which of course we cannot do.

If the little boy is lost to us, so is Austerlitz. Like his photograph, he has also become a thing, and this is surely part of the enigma of his curious last name. He has a Jewish last name, which can indeed be found in Czech and Austrian records; as Jacques correctly tells us, Fred Astaire’s father was born with the last name of Austerlitz (“Fritz” Austerlitz was born in Austria, and had converted from Judaism to Catholicism). But Austerlitz is primarily not the name of a person but of a famous battle, and of a well-known Parisian train station. The name is unfortunate for Jacques, because its historical resonance continually pulls us away from his Jewishness (from his individuality), and towards a world-historical reference that has nothing much to do with him. Imagine a novel in which almost every page featured the phrase “Waterloo said,” or “Agincourt said.” Sebald plays with this oddity most obviously in the passage when the young Austerlitz first finds out his true surname, at school. “What does it mean?” asks Jacques, and the headmaster tells him that it is a small place in Moravia, site of a famous battle. During the next school year, the battle of Austerlitz is indeed discussed, and it turns out to be one of the set pieces of Mr. Hilary, the romantic history teacher who makes such an impression on the young Jacques. “Hilary told us, said Austerlitz, how at seven in the morning the peaks of the highest hills emerged from the mist … The Russian and Austrian troops had come down from the mountainsides like a slow avalanche.” At this moment, when we encounter the familiar “said Austerlitz,” we are briefly unsure if the character or the battle itself is speaking.

Go back, for a minute, to the headmaster’s reply, because it is one of the most quietly breathtaking moments in the novel, and can stand as an emblem of Sebald’s great powers of reticence and understatement. The headmaster, Mr. Penrith-Smith (a nice joke, because Penrith-Smith combines both an English place name and the most anonymous, least curious surname in English), has told Jacques that he is not called Dafydd Elias but Jacques Austerlitz. Jacques asks, with the enforced politeness of the English schoolboy, “Excuse me, sir, but what does it mean?” To which Mr. Penrith-Smith replies: “I think you will find it is a small place in Moravia, site of a famous battle, you know.” And that is all! And it is 1949. Jacques asks the one question that could possibly be the question of the entire novel, and the headmaster refers him only to the famous battle of 1805 between the French and the Austrians. Consider everything that is omitted, or repressed, from this reply. The headmaster might have said that Austerlitz is a Jewish name, and that Jacques is a refugee from the Nazis. He might, with the help of Mr. Hilary’s expertise, have added that Austerlitz, near Brno in what was then Czechoslovakia, once had a thriving Jewish population, and that perhaps Jacques’ name derived from that community. He might have mentioned that in 1941, the Germans established the ghetto of Theresienstadt, north of Prague (named after Queen Maria Theresa, who, in 1745, issued an edict limiting the number of Jewish families in Moravia), and that the remaining Jews of Austerlitz almost certainly perished there, or later in Auschwitz, to which place most of the inmates of Theresienstadt were eventually taken. He might have added that Jacques’ parents were unlikely to be alive.

But Mr. Penrith-Smith says none of this, and Jacques Austerlitz will spend the rest of the novel trying to find his own answer to his own question. Instead, the headmaster’s bland reply turns Jacques into the public past, into a date. What does it mean? And the answer Jacques receives is, in effect: “1805, that’s what it means.” Of all the rescues that the novel poses, the most difficult may be this one: to restore to Jacques Austerlitz the individuality of his name and experience, to rescue the living privacy of the surname “Austerlitz” from the dead, irrelevant publicity of the place name “Austerlitz.” Jacques should not be a battle, nor a railway station, nor a thing. Ultimately, we cannot perform this rescue, and the novel does not let us. The private and the public names keep on intertwining, and herein lies the power of the novel’s closing pages. We helplessly return to the Gare d’Austerlitz, from where Jacques’ father may have left Paris. In the new Bibliothèque Nationale, Jacques learns that the very building rests on the ruins of a huge wartime warehouse, where the Germans “brought all the loot they had taken from the homes of the Jews of Paris.” It was known as the Austerlitz-Tolbiac storage depot. Everything our civilization produced was brought here, says the library official, and often pilfered by German officers—ending up in, say, a “Grunewald villa” in Berlin. This knowledge is like a literalization of the well-known dictum of Walter Benjamin’s, that there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. Standing on the ruins of history, standing both in and on top of history’s depository, Jacques Austerlitz is joined by his name to these ruins: and again, at the end of the book, as at the beginning, he threatens to become simply part of the rubble of history, a thing, a depository of facts and dates, not a human being. And throughout the novel, present but never spoken, never written—it is the most beautiful act of Sebald’s withholding—is the other historical name that shadows the name Austerlitz, the name that begins and ends with the same letters, the name which we sometimes misread Austerlitz as, the place that Agáta Austerlitz was almost certainly “sent east” to in 1944, and the place that Maximilian Aychenwald was almost certainly sent to from the French camp in Gurs, in 1942: Auschwitz.

—Grunewald, Berlin, 2011

JAMES WOOD is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a visiting lecturer in English and American literature at Harvard. He is the author of two essay collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, and a novel, The Book Against God.

1. “Marginalia on Mahler,” in Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert (Berkeley, CA: 2002).

2. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: 1981).

3. Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach am Neckar. Sebald once confided to me, in an interview, that about 30 percent of the photographs in The Emigrants had an entirely fictitious relationship to their supposed subjects. Sebald, for instance, wrote the farewell note that Ambros Adelwarth writes to his family, and then took the photograph himself.

In the second half of the 1960s I traveled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks. On one of these Belgian excursions which, as it seemed to me, always took me further and further abroad, I came on a glorious early summer’s day to the city of Antwerp, known to me previously only by name. Even on my arrival, as the train rolled slowly over the viaduct with its curious pointed turrets on both sides and into the dark station concourse, I had begun to feel unwell, and this sense of indisposition persisted for the whole of my visit to Belgium on that occasion. I still remember the uncertainty of my footsteps as I walked all round the inner city, down Jeruzalemstraat, Nachtegaalstraat, Pelikaanstraat, Paradijsstraat, Immerseelstraat, and many other streets and alleyways, until at last, plagued by a headache and my uneasy thoughts, I took refuge in the zoo by the Astridplein, next to the Centraal Station, waiting for the pain to subside. I sat there on a bench in dappled shade, beside an aviary full of brightly feathered finches and siskins fluttering about. As the afternoon drew to a close I walked through the park, and finally went to see the Nocturama, which had first been opened only a few months earlier. It was some time before my eyes became used to its artificial dusk and I could make out different animals leading their sombrous lives behind the glass by the light of a pale moon. I cannot now recall exactly what creatures I saw on that visit to the Antwerp Nocturama, but there were probably bats and jerboas from Egypt and the Gobi Desert, native European hedgehogs and owls, Australian opossums, pine martens, dormice, and lemurs, leaping from branch to branch, darting back and forth over the grayish-yellow sandy ground, or disappearing into a bamboo thicket. The only animal which has remained lingering in my memory is the raccoon. I watched it for a long time as it sat beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it to escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own. Otherwise, all I remember of the denizens of the Nocturama is that several of them had strikingly large eyes, and the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking.

I believe that my mind also dwelt on the question of whether the electric light was turned on for the creatures in the Nocturama when real night fell and the zoo was closed to the public, so that as day dawned over their topsy-turvy miniature universe they could fall asleep with some degree of reassurance. Over the years, images of the interior of the Nocturama have become confused in my mind with my memories of the Salle des pas perdus, as it is called, in Antwerp Centraal Station. If I try to conjure up a picture of that waiting room today I immediately see the Nocturama, and if I think of the Nocturama the waiting room springs to my mind, probably because when I left the zoo that afternoon I went straight into the station, or rather first stood in the square outside it for some time to look up at the façade of that fantastical building, which I had taken in only vaguely when I arrived in the morning. Now, however, I saw how far the station constructed under the patronage of King Leopold II exceeded its purely utilitarian function, and I marveled at the verdigris-covered Negro boy who, for a century now, has sat upon his dromedary on an oriel turret to the left of the station façade, a monument to the world of the animals and native peoples of the African continent, alone against the Flemish sky. When I entered the great hall of the Centraal Station with its dome arching sixty meters high above it, my first thought, perhaps triggered by my visit to the zoo and the sight of the dromedary, was that this magnificent although then severely dilapidated foyer ought to have cages for lions and leopards let into its marble niches, and aquaria for sharks, octopuses, and crocodiles, just as some zoos, conversely, have little railway trains in which you can, so to speak, travel to the farthest corners of the earth. It was probably because of ideas like these, occurring to me almost of their own accord there in Antwerp, that the waiting room which, I know, has now been turned into a staff canteen struck me as another Nocturama, a curious confusion which may of course have been the result of the sun’s sinking behind the city rooftops just as I entered the room. The gleam of gold and silver on the huge, half-obscured mirrors on the wall facing the windows was not yet entirely extinguished before a subterranean twilight filled the waiting room, where a few travelers sat far apart, silent and motionless. Like the creatures in the Nocturama, which had included a strikingly large number of dwarf species—tiny fennec foxes, spring-hares, hamsters—the railway passengers seemed to me somehow miniaturized, whether by the unusual height of the ceiling or because of the gathering dusk, and it was this, I suppose, which prompted the passing thought, nonsensical in itself, that they were the last members of a diminutive race which had perished or had been expelled from its homeland, and that because they alone survived they wore the same sorrowful expression as the creatures in the zoo. One of the people waiting in the Salle des pas perdus was Austerlitz, a man who then, in 1967, appeared almost youthful, with fair, curiously wavy hair of a kind I had seen elsewhere only on the German hero Siegfried in Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen film. That day in Antwerp, as on all our later meetings, Austerlitz wore heavy walking boots and workman’s trousers made of faded blue calico, together with a tailor-made but long outdated suit jacket. Apart from these externals he also differed from the other travelers in being the only one who was not staring apathetically into space, but instead was occupied in making notes and sketches obviously relating to the room where we were both sitting—a magnificent hall more suitable, to my mind, for a state ceremony than as a place to wait for the next connection to Paris or Oostende—for when he was not actually writing something down his glance often dwelt on the row of windows, the fluted pilasters, and other structural details of the waiting room. Once Austerlitz took a camera out of his rucksack, an old Ensign with telescopic bellows, and took several pictures of the mirrors, which were now quite dark, but so far I have been unable to find them among the many hundreds of pictures, most of them unsorted, that he entrusted to me soon after we met again in the winter of 1996. When I finally went over to Austerlitz with a question about his obvious interest in the waiting room, he was not at all surprised by my direct approach but answered me at once, without the slightest hesitation, as I have variously found since that solitary travelers, who so often pass days on end in uninterrupted silence, are glad to be spoken to. Now and then they are even ready to open up to a stranger unreservedly on such occasions, although that was not the case with Austerlitz in the Salle des pas perdus, nor did he subsequently tell me very much about his origins and his own life. Our Antwerp conversations, as he sometimes called them later, turned primarily on architectural history, in accordance with his own astonishing professional expertise, and it was the subject we discussed that evening as we sat together until nearly midnight in the restaurant facing the waiting room on the other side of the great domed hall. The few guests still lingering at that late hour one by one deserted the buffet, which was constructed like a mirror image of the waiting room, until we were left alone with a solitary man drinking Fernet and the barmaid, who sat enthroned on a stool behind the counter, legs crossed, filing her nails with complete devotion and concentration. Austerlitz commented in passing of this lady, whose peroxide-blond hair was piled up into a sort of bird’s nest, that she was the goddess of time past. And on the wall behind her, under the lion crest of the kingdom of Belgium, there was indeed a mighty clock, the dominating feature of the buffet, with a hand some six feet long traveling round a dial which had once been gilded, but was now blackened by railway soot and tobacco smoke. During the pauses in our conversation we both noticed what an endless length of time went by before another minute had passed, and how alarming seemed the movement of that hand, which resembled a sword of justice, even though we were expecting it every time it jerked forward, slicing off the next one-sixtieth of an hour from the future and coming to a halt with such a menacing quiver that one’s heart almost stopped. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Austerlitz began, in reply to my questions about the history of the building of Antwerp station, when Belgium, a little patch of yellowish gray barely visible on the map of the world, spread its sphere of influence to the African continent with its colonial enterprises, when deals of huge proportions were done on the capital markets and raw-materials exchanges of Brussels, and the citizens of Belgium, full of boundless optimism, believed that their country, which had been subject so long to foreign rule and was divided and disunited in itself, was about to become a great new economic power—at that time, now so long ago although it determines our lives to this day, it was the personal wish of King Leopold, under whose auspices such apparently inexorable progress was being made, that the money suddenly and abundantly available should be used to erect public buildings which would bring international renown to his aspiring state. One of the projects thus initiated by the highest authority in the land was the central station of the Flemish metropolis, where we were sitting now, said Austerlitz; designed by Louis Delacenserie, it was inaugurated in the summer of 1905, after ten years of planning and building, in the presence of the King himself. The model Leopold had recommended to his architects was the new railway station of Lucerne, where he had been particularly struck by the concept of the dome,* so dramatically exceeding the usual modest height of railway buildings, a concept realized by Delacenserie in his own design, which was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, in such stupendous fashion that even today, said Austerlitz, exactly as the architect intended, when we step into the entrance hall we are seized by a sense of being beyond the profane, in a cathedral consecrated to international traffic and trade. Delacenserie borrowed the main elements of his monumental structure from the palaces of the Italian Renaissance, but he also struck Byzantine and Moorish notes, and perhaps when I arrived, said Austerlitz, I myself had noticed the round gray and white granite turrets, the sole purpose of which was to arouse medieval associations in the minds of railway passengers. However laughable in itself, Delacenserie’s eclecticism, uniting past and future in the Centraal Station with its marble stairway in the foyer and the steel and glass roof spanning the platforms, was in fact a logical stylistic approach to the new epoch, said Austerlitz, and it was also appropriate, he continued, that in Antwerp Station the elevated level from which the gods looked down on visitors to the Roman Pantheon should display, in hierarchical order, the deities of the nineteenth century—mining, industry, transport, trade, and capital. For halfway up the walls of the entrance hall, as I must have noticed, there were stone escutcheons bearing symbolic sheaves of corn, crossed hammers, winged wheels, and so on, with the heraldic motif of the beehive standing not, as one might at first think, for nature made serviceable to mankind, or even industrious labor as a social good, but symbolizing the principle of capital accumulation.

And Time, said Austerlitz, represented by the hands and dial of the clock, reigns supreme among these emblems. The clock is placed above the only baroque element in the entire ensemble, the cruciform stairway which leads from the foyer to the platforms, just where the image of the emperor stood in the Pantheon in a line directly prolonged from the portal; as governor of a new omnipotence it was set even above the royal coat of arms and the motto Endracht maakt macht. The movements of all travelers could be surveyed from the central position occupied by the clock in Antwerp Station, and conversely all travelers had to look up at the clock and were obliged to adjust their activities to its demands. In fact, said Austerlitz, until the railway timetables were synchronized the clocks of Lille and Liège did not keep the same time as the clocks of Ghent and Antwerp, and not until they were all standardized around the middle of the nineteenth century did time truly reign supreme. It was only by following the course time prescribed that we could hasten through the gigantic spaces separating us from each other. And indeed, said Austerlitz after a while, to this day there is something illusionistic and illusory about the relationship of time and space as we experience it in traveling, which is why whenever we come home from elsewhere we never feel quite sure if we have really been abroad. From the first I was astonished by the way Austerlitz put his ideas together as he talked, forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him, so to speak, and the way in which, in his mind, the passing on of his knowledge seemed to become a gradual approach to a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life. I shall never forget how he concluded his comments on the manufacture of the tall waiting-room mirrors by wondering, glancing up once more at their dimly shimmering surfaces as he left, combien des ouvriers périrent, lors de la manufacture de tels miroirs, de malignes et funestes affectations à la suite de l’inhalation de vapeurs de mercure et de cyanide. And just as Austerlitz had broken off with these words that first evening, so he continued his observations the following day, for which we had arranged a meeting on the promenade beside the Schelde. Pointing to the broad river sparkling in the morning sun, he spoke of a picture painted by Lucas van Valckenborch towards the end of the sixteenth century during what is now called the Little Ice Age, showing the frozen Schelde from the opposite bank, with the city of Antwerp very dark beyond it and a strip of flat countryside stretching towards the sea. A shower of snow is falling from the lowering sky above the tower of the cathedral of Our Lady, and out on the river now before us some four hundred years later, said Austerlitz, the people of Antwerp are amusing themselves on the ice, the common folk in coats of earthy brown colors, persons of greater distinction in black cloaks with white lace ruffs round their necks. In the foreground, close to the right-hand edge of the picture, a lady has just fallen. She wears a canary-yellow dress, and the cavalier bending over her in concern is clad in red breeches, very conspicuous in the pallid light. Looking at the river now, thinking of that painting and its tiny figures, said Austerlitz, I feel as if the moment depicted by Lucas van Valckenborch had never come to an end, as if the canary-yellow lady had only just fallen over or swooned, as if the black velvet hood had only this moment dropped away from her head, as if the little accident, which no doubt goes unnoticed by most viewers, were always happening over and over again, and nothing and no one could ever remedy it. On that day, after we had left our viewing point on the promenade to stroll through the inner city, Austerlitz spoke at length about the marks of pain which, as he said he well knew, trace countless fine lines through history. In his studies of railway architecture, he said when we were sitting in a bistro in the Glove Market later that afternoon, tired from our wandering through the city, he could never quite shake off thoughts of the agony of leave-taking and the fear of foreign places, although such ideas were not part of architectural history proper. Yet, he said, it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity. The construction of fortifications, for instance—and Antwerp was an outstanding example of that craft—clearly showed how we feel obliged to keep surrounding ourselves with defenses, built in successive phases as a precaution against any incursion by enemy powers, until the idea of concentric rings making their way steadily outward comes up against its natural limits. If we study the development of fortifications from Floriani, da Capri, and Sanmicheli, by way of Rusenstein, Burgsdorff, Coehoorn, and Klengel, and so to Vauban and Montalembert, it is amazing, said Austerlitz, to see the persistence with which generations of masters of the art of military architecture, for all their undoubtedly outstanding gifts, clung to what we can easily see today was a fundamentally wrong-headed idea: the notion that by designing an ideal tracé with blunt bastions and ravelins projecting well beyond it, allowing the cannon of the fortress to cover the entire operational area outside the walls, you could make a city as secure as anything in the world can ever be. No one today, said Austerlitz, has the faintest idea of the boundless amount of theoretical writings on the building of fortifications, of the fantastic nature of the geometric, trigonometric, and logistical calculations they record, of the inflated excesses of the professional vocabulary of fortification and siegecraft, no one now understands its simplest terms, escarpe and courtine, faussebraie, réduit, and glacis, yet even from our present standpoint we can see that towards the end of the seventeenth century the star-shaped dodecagon behind trenches had finally crystallized, out of the various available systems, as the preferred ground plan: a kind of ideal typical pattern derived from the Golden Section, which indeed, as study of the intricately sketched plans of such fortified complexes as those of Coevorden, Neuf-Brisach, and Saarlouis will show, immediately strikes the layman as an emblem both of absolute power and of the ingenuity the engineers put to the service of that power.

In the practice of warfare, however, the star-shaped fortresses which were being built and improved everywhere during the eighteenth century did not answer their purpose, for intent as everyone was on that pattern, it had been forgotten that the largest fortifications will naturally attract the largest enemy forces, and that the more you entrench yourself the more you must remain on the defensive, so that in the end you might find yourself in a place fortified in every possible way, watching helplessly while the enemy troops, moving on to their own choice of terrain elsewhere, simply ignored their adversaries’ fortresses, which had become positive arsenals of weaponry, bristling with cannon and overcrowded with men. The frequent result, said Austerlitz, of resorting to measures of fortification marked in general by a tendency towards paranoid elaboration was that you drew attention to your weakest point, practically inviting the enemy to attack it, not to mention the fact that as architectural plans for fortifications became increasingly complex, the time it took to build them increased as well, and with it the probability that as soon as they were finished, if not before, they would have been overtaken by further developments, both in artillery and in strategic planning, which took account of the growing realization that everything was decided in movement, not in a state of rest. And if the defensive power of a fortress really was put to the test, then as a rule, and after the squandering of enormous quantities of war material, the outcome remained more or less undecided. There could not be a clearer illustration of this anywhere, said Austerlitz, than here in Antwerp, where in 1832, as haggling over parts of Belgian territory went on even after the new kingdom had been founded, the citadel, built by Pacciolo and further fortified with a ring of outworks by the Duke of Wellington, was besieged for three weeks by a French army of fifty thousand men. In mid-December, from their base in the fort of Montebello, which they had already taken, the French succeeded in storming the half-ruined outwork of the St. Laurent lunette and advancing to a position immediately beneath the walls with their breaching batteries. The siege of Antwerp, which was unsurpassed in the history of warfare, at least for some years, both in terms of expenditure and vehemence, said Austerlitz, reached its memorable culmination when some seventy thousand thousand-pound shells were fired at the citadel from the huge mortars invented by Colonel Pairhans, destroying everything without trace except for a couple of casemates. The old Dutch general Baron de Chassé, commander of the pile of rubble which was all that remained of the fortress, had already had the mines laid to blow himself up, along with that monument to his loyalty and heroic courage, when word from his king with permission to surrender reached him just in time. Although the whole insanity of fortification and siegecraft was clearly revealed in the taking of Antwerp, said Austerlitz, the only conclusion anyone drew from it, incredibly, was that the defenses surrounding the city must be rebuilt even more strongly than before, and moved further out. In 1859, accordingly, the old citadel and most of the outer forts were leveled and work began on the construction of a new enceinte ten miles long, with eight forts situated over half an hour’s march away from it, a project which proved inadequate after less than twenty years because of the longer range of modern guns and the increasingly destructive power of explosives, so that, in obedience to the same old logic, construction now began on yet another ring of fifteen heavily fortified outworks six to nine miles away from the enceinte. During the thirty years or more it took to build this complex the question arose, as was only to be expected, said Austerlitz, of whether the expansion of Antwerp beyond the old city boundaries through its rapid industrial and commercial development did not mean that the line of forts ought to be moved yet another three miles further out, which would actually have made it over thirty miles long, bringing it within sight of the outskirts of Mechelen, with the result that the entire Belgian army would have been insufficient to garrison the fortifications. So, said Austerlitz, they just went on working to complete the system already under construction, although they knew it was now far from being able to meet the actual requirements. The last link in the chain was the fortress of Breendonk, said Austerlitz, a fort completed just before the outbreak of the First World War in which, within a few months, it proved completely useless for the defense of the city and the country. Such complexes of fortifications, said Austerlitz, concluding his remarks that day in the Antwerp Glove Market as he rose from the table and slung his rucksack over his shoulder, show us how, unlike birds, for instance, who keep building the same nest over thousands of years, we tend to forge ahead with our projects far beyond any reasonable bounds. Someone, he added, ought to draw up a catalogue of types of buildings listed in order of size, and it would be immediately obvious that domestic buildings of less than normal size—the little cottage in the fields, the hermitage, the lockkeeper’s lodge, the pavilion for viewing the landscape, the children’s bothy in the garden—are those that offer us at least a semblance of peace, whereas no one in his right mind could truthfully say that he liked a vast edifice such as the Palace of Justice on the old Gallows Hill in Brussels. At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow 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. These remarks, made by Austerlitz as he was leaving, were still in my mind next morning when I was sitting over a coffee in the Glove Market which he had left so abruptly the day before, and was hoping that he might reappear. And as I was glancing through the newspapers while I waited I came upon an article—I don’t remember now if it was in the Gazet van Antwerpen or La libre Belgique—about the fortress of Breendonk, from which it emerged that in 1940, when for the second time in its history the fort had to be surrendered to the Germans, it was made into a reception and penal camp which remained in existence until August 1944, and that since 1947, preserved unchanged as far as possible, it had been a national memorial and a museum of the Belgian Resistance. If the name of Breendonk had not come up in my conversation with Austerlitz the previous evening, this mention of it in the paper, even supposing I had noticed it at all, would hardly have made me go to see the fort that very day. The passenger train I boarded later that morning took a good half-hour to travel the short distance to Mechelen, where a bus runs from outside the station to the small town of Willebroek; it is on the outskirts of this town that the fort stands in its grounds of some ten hectares, set among the fields rather like an island in the sea and surrounded by an embankment, a barbed-wire fence, and a wide moat. It was unusually hot for the time of year, and large cumulus clouds were piling up on the southwest horizon as I crossed the bridge over the dark water. After the previous day’s conversation, I still had an image in my head of a star-shaped bastion with walls towering above a precise geometrical ground plan, but what I now saw before me was a low-built concrete mass, rounded at all its outer edges and giving the gruesome impression of something hunched and misshapen: the broad back of a monster, I thought, risen from this Flemish soil like a whale from the deep. I felt reluctant to pass through the black gateway into the fortress itself, and instead began by walking round it on the outside, through the unnaturally deep green, almost blue-tinged grass growing on the island. From whatever viewpoint I tried to form a picture of the complex I could make out no architectural plan, for its projections and indentations kept shifting, so far exceeding my comprehension that in the end I found myself unable to connect it with anything shaped by human civilization, or even with the silent relics of our prehistory and early history. And the longer I looked at it, the more often it forced me, as I felt, to lower my eyes, the less comprehensible it seemed to become.

Covered in places by open ulcers with the raw crushed stone erupting from them, encrusted by guano-like droppings and calcareous streaks, the fort was a monolithic, monstrous incarnation of ugliness and blind violence.

Even later, when I studied the symmetrical ground plan with its outgrowths of limbs and claws, with the semicircular bastions standing out from the front of the main building like eyes, and the stumpy projection at the back of its body, I could not, despite its now evident rational structure, recognize anything designed by the human mind but saw it, rather as the anatomical blueprint of some alien and crab-like creature.

The path round the fort led past the tarred black posts of the execution ground, and the labor site where the prisoners had to clear away the earthworks around the walls, moving over a quarter of a million tons of soil and rubble with only shovels and wheelbarrows to help them. These wheelbarrows, one of which can still be seen in the anteroom of the fort, must have seemed terrifyingly primitive even then. They consisted of a kind of stretcher with two crude handles at one end and an iron-shod wooden wheel at the other. A container with sloping sides, roughly cobbled together from unplaned planks, stood on the crossbars of the stretcher, the whole clumsy contraption resembling the handcarts used by farmers where I lived as a child for clearing muck out of the stables, except that the wheelbarrows in Breendonk were twice as large, and even when they were empty must have weighed around a hundredweight. I could not imagine how the prisoners, very few of whom had probably ever done hard physical labor before their arrest and internment, could have pushed these barrows full of heavy detritus over the sun-baked clay of the ground, furrowed by ruts as hard as stone, or through the mire that was churned up after a single day’s rain; it was impossible to picture them bracing themselves against the weight until their hearts nearly burst, or think of the overseer beating them about the head with the handle of a shovel when they could not move forward. However, if I could not envisage the drudgery performed day after day, year after year, at Breendonk and all the other main and branch camps, when I finally entered the fort itself and glanced through the glass panes of a door on the right into the so-called mess of the SS guards with its scrubbed tables and benches, its bulging stove and the various adages neatly painted on its wall in Gothic lettering, I could well imagine the sight of the good fathers and dutiful sons from Vilsbiburg and Fuhlsbüttel, from the Black Forest and the Bavarian Alps, sitting here when they came off duty to play cards or write letters to their loved ones at home. After all, I had lived among them until my twentieth year. My memory of the fourteen stations which the visitor to Breendonk passes between the entrance and the exit has clouded over in the course of time, or perhaps I could say it was clouding over even on the day when I was in the fort, whether because I did not really want to see what it had to show or because all the outlines seemed to merge in a world illuminated only by a few dim electric bulbs, and cut off for ever from the light of nature.

Even now, when I try to remember them, when I look back at the crab-like plan of Breendonk and read the words of the captions—Former Office, Printing Works, Huts, Jacques Ochs Hall, Solitary Confinement Cell, Mortuary, Relics Store, and Museum—the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on. Histories, for instance, like those of the straw mattresses which lay, shadow-like, on the stacked plank beds and which had become thinner and shorter because the chaff in them disintegrated over the years, shrunken—and now, in writing this, I do remember that such an idea occurred to me at the time—as if they were the mortal frames of those who lay there in that darkness. I also recollect now that as I went on down the tunnel which could be said to form the backbone of the fort, I had to resist the feeling taking root in my heart, one which to this day often comes over me in macabre places, a sense that with every forward step the air was growing thinner and the weight above me heavier.

At the time, anyway, in that silent noonday hour in the early summer of 1967 which I spent inside the fort of Breendonk, encountering no other visitors, I hardly dared to go on to the point where, at the end of a second long tunnel, a corridor not much more than the height of a man, and (as I think I remember) somewhat sloping, leads down to one of the casemates. This casemate, in which you sense immediately that there is a layer of concrete several meters thick overhead, is a narrow room with walls converging at a sharp angle on one side, rounded on the other, and with its floor at least a foot lower than the passage giving access to it, so that it is less like an oubliette than a pit. As I stared at the smooth, gray floor of this pit, which seemed to me to be sinking further and further, the grating over the drain in the middle of it and the metal pail standing beside the drain, a picture of our laundry room at home in W. rose from the abyss and with it, suggested perhaps by the iron hook hanging on a cord from the ceiling, the image of the butcher’s shop I always had to pass on my way to school, where at noon Benedikt was often to be seen in a rubber apron washing down the tiles with a thick hose. No one can explain exactly what happens within us when the doors behind which our childhood terrors lurk are flung open. But I do remember that there in the casemate at Breendonk a nauseating smell of soft soap rose to my nostrils, and that this smell, in some strange place in my head, was linked to the bizarre German word for scrubbing brush, Wurzelbürste, which was a favorite of my father’s and which I had always disliked. Black striations began to quiver before my eyes, and I had to rest my forehead against the wall, which was gritty, covered with bluish spots, and seemed to me to be perspiring with cold beads of sweat. It was not that as the nausea rose in me I guessed at the kind of third-degree interrogations which were being conducted here around the time I was born, since it was only a few years later that I read Jean Améry’s description of the dreadful physical closeness between torturers and their victims, and of the tortures he himself suffered in Breendonk when he was hoisted aloft by his hands, tied behind his back, so that with a crack and a splintering sound which, as he says, he had not yet forgotten when he came to write his account, his arms dislocated from the sockets in his shoulder joints, and he was left dangling as they were wrenched up behind him and twisted together above his head: la pendaison par les mains liées dans le dos jusqu’à évanouissement—this is how it is described in the book Le Jardin des Plantes, in which Claude Simon descends once more into the storehouse of his memories, and on page 235 begins to tell the fragmentary tale of a certain Gastone Novelli who, like Améry, was subjected to this particular form of torture. The passage opens with an entry of 26 October 1943 from General Rommel’s diary, in which Rommel comments that in view of the total powerlessness of the police in Italy one must now take charge oneself. As a result of the measures thereupon introduced by the Germans, says Simon, Novelli was arrested and taken to Dachau. Novelli, Simon continues, never mentioned what happened to him there except on one occasion, when he said that after his liberation from the camp he found the sight of a German, or indeed any so-called civilized being, male or female, so intolerable that, hardly recovered, he embarked on the first ship he could find, to make his living prospecting for diamonds and gold in South America. For some time Novelli lived in the green jungle with a tribe of small people who had gleaming, coppery skins and had emerged beside him as if out of nowhere one day, without moving so much as a leaf. He adopted their customs, and to the best of his ability compiled a dictionary of their language, consisting almost entirely of vowels, particularly the sound A in countless variations of intonation and emphasis, not a word of which, Simon writes, had yet been recorded by the Linguistic Institute in São Paulo. Later Novelli returned to his native land and began to paint pictures. His main subject, depicted again and again in different forms and compositions—filiforme, gras, soudain plus épais ou plus grand, puis de nouveau mince, boiteux—was the letter A, which he traced on the colored ground he had applied sometimes with the point of a pencil, sometimes with the stem of his brush or an even blunter instrument, in ranks of scarcely legible ciphers crowding closely together and above one another, always the same and yet never repeating themselves, rising and falling in waves like a long-drawn-out scream.


Although Austerlitz did not reappear in the Glove Market in Antwerp that June day in 1967 on which, in the end, I went out to Breendonk, our paths kept crossing, in a way that I still find hard to understand, on all my Belgian excursions of that time, none of them planned in advance. A few days after our first encounter in the Salle des pas perdus of the Centraal Station, I met him again in an industrial quarter on the southwestern outskirts of the city of Liège, which I had reached towards evening, coming on foot from St. Georges–sur–Meuse and Flémalle. The sun was just breaking once again through the inky blue wall of cloud heralding a storm, and the factory buildings and yards, the long rows of terraced housing for the laborers, the brick walls, the slate roofs, and the windowpanes shone as if a fire were glowing within them. When the rain began lashing down on the streets I took refuge in a tiny bar called, as I remember, the Café des Espérances, where to my considerable surprise I found Austerlitz bent over his notes at one of the Formica tables. On this second meeting, as on all subsequent occasions, we simply went on with our conversation, wasting no time in commenting on the improbability of our meeting again in a place like this, which no sensible person would have sought out. From where we sat until late that evening in the Café des Espérances, you could look through a back window down into a valley, perhaps a place of water meadows in the past, where now the reflected light from the blast furnaces of a gigantic iron foundry glared against the dark sky, and I remember clearly how, as we both gazed intently at this spectacle, Austerlitz launched into a discourse of over two hours on the way in which, during the nineteenth century, the vision of model towns for workers entertained by philanthropic entrepreneurs had inadvertently changed into the practice of accommodating them in barracks—just as our best-laid plans, said Austerlitz, as I still remember, always turn into the exact opposite when they are put into practice. It was several months after this meeting in Liège that I came upon Austerlitz, again entirely by chance, on the old Gallows Hill in Brussels, on the steps of the Palace of Justice which, as he immediately told me, is the largest accumulation of stone blocks anywhere in Europe.

The building of this singular architectural monstrosity, on which Austerlitz was planning to write a study at the time, began in the 1880s at the urging of the bourgeoisie of Brussels, over-hastily and before the details of the grandiose scheme submitted by a certain Joseph Poelaert had been properly worked out, as a result of which, said Austerlitz, this huge pile of over seven hundred thousand cubic meters contains corridors and stairways leading nowhere, and doorless rooms and halls where no one would ever set foot, empty spaces surrounded by walls and representing the innermost secret of all sanctioned authority. Austerlitz went on to tell me that he himself, looking for a labyrinth used in the initiation ceremonies of the Freemasons, which he had heard was in either the basement or the attic story of the palace, had wandered for hours through this mountain range of stone, through forests of columns, past colossal statues, upstairs and downstairs, and no one ever asked him what he wanted. During these wanderings, feeling tired or wishing to get his bearings from the sky, he had stopped at one of the windows set deep in the walls to look out over the leaden gray roofs of the palace, crammed together like pack ice, and down into ravines and shaft-like interior courtyards never penetrated by any ray of light. He had gone on and on down the corridors, said Austerlitz, sometimes turning left and then right again, then walking straight ahead and passing through many tall doorways, and once or twice he had climbed flights of creaking wooden stairs which gave the impression of being temporary structures, branching off from the main corridors here and there and leading half a story up or down, only to end in dark cul-de-sacs with roll-top cupboards, lecterns, writing desks, office chairs, and other items of furniture stacked up at the end of them, as if someone had been obliged to hold out there in a state of siege. He had even heard, said Austerlitz, of people who, over the years, had managed to start up a small business in one or other of the empty rooms and remote corridors of that great warren: a tobacconist’s, a bookie’s, a bar, and it was rumored, Austerlitz added, that a man called Achterbos had once turned a gentlemen’s lavatory down in the basement into a public convenience for, among others, passersby in the street, installing himself at the entrance with a small table and a plate to take the money, and that later, when he engaged an assistant who was handy with a comb and a pair of scissors, it was a barber’s shop for a while. I heard several such apocryphal stories from Austerlitz, anecdotes in curious contrast to his usual rigorous objectivity, not only that day but on our later encounters, for instance one quiet November afternoon when we spent some time sitting in a café with a billiards room in Terneuzen—I still remember the proprietress, a woman with thick-lensed spectacles who was knitting a grass-green sock, the glowing nuggets of coke in the hearth, the damp sawdust on the floor, the bitter smell of chicory—and looked out through the panoramic window, which was framed by the tentacles of an ancient rubber plant, at the vast expanse of the misty gray mouth of the Schelde. Then, not long before Christmas, I saw Austerlitz coming towards me on the promenade at Zeebrugge when evening was falling and there was not another living soul in sight. It turned out that we had both booked on the same ferry, so we slowly walked back to the harbor together, with the emptiness of the North Sea on our right, and the tall façades of the apartment blocks set among the dunes, with the bluish light of television screens flickering behind their windows, curiously unsteady and ghostly. It was night by the time the ferry sailed. We stood together on the stern deck. The white wake vanished into the darkness, and I remember that we once thought we saw a few snowflakes swirling in the lamplight. Only on this night crossing of the Channel, in fact, did I discover from a chance remark dropped by Austerlitz that he was a lecturer at a London institute of art history. As it was almost impossible to talk to him about anything personal, and as neither of us knew where the other came from, we had always spoken in French since our first conversation in Antwerp, I with lamentable awkwardness, but Austerlitz with such natural perfection that for a long time I thought he had been brought up in France. When we switched to English, in which I was better versed, I was strangely touched to notice in him an insecurity which had been entirely concealed from me before, expressing itself in a slight speech impediment and occasional fits of stammering, during which he clutched the worn spectacle case he always held in his left hand so tightly that you could see the white of his knuckles beneath the skin.


Almost every time I went to London in the years that followed I visited Austerlitz where he worked in Bloomsbury, not far from the British Museum. I would usually spend an hour or so sitting with him in his crowded study, which was like a stockroom of books and papers with hardly any space left for himself, let alone his students, among the stacks piled high on the floor and the overloaded shelves.

When I began my own studies in Germany I had learnt almost nothing from the scholars then lecturing in the humanities there, most of them academics who had built their careers in the 1930s and 1940s and still nurtured delusions of power, and I found Austerlitz the first teacher I could listen to since my time in primary school. I remember to this day how easily I could grasp what he called his tentative ideas when he talked about the architectural style of the capitalist era, a subject which he said had fascinated him since his own student days, speaking in particular of the compulsive sense of order and the tendency towards monumentalism evident in law courts and penal institutions, railway stations and stock exchanges, opera houses and lunatic asylums, and the dwellings built to rectangular grid patterns for the labor force. His investigations, so Austerlitz once told me, had long outstripped their original purpose as a project for a dissertation, proliferating in his hands into endless preliminary sketches for a study, based entirely on his own views, of the family likeness between all these buildings. Why he had embarked on such a wide field, said Austerlitz, he did not know; very likely he had been poorly advised when he first began his research work. But then again, it was also true that he was still obeying an impulse which he himself, to this day, did not really understand, but which was somehow linked to his early fascination with the idea of a network such as that of the entire railway system. At the very beginning of his studies, said Austerlitz, and later, when he was first living in Paris, he used to visit one of the main railway stations almost daily, usually the Gare du Nord or the Gare de l’Est and especially in the morning or evening, to see the steam locomotives moving into the soot-blackened, glass-roofed halls, or to watch the brightly illuminated, mysterious Pullman trains slide gently out into the night like ships on the endless expanse of the sea. He had quite often found himself in the grip of dangerous and entirely incomprehensible currents of emotion in the Parisian railway stations, which, he said, he regarded as places marked by both blissful happiness and profound misfortune. I can still see Austerlitz one afternoon in the London institute making this comment on what he once later described as his obsession with railway stations, speaking not so much to me as to himself, and it was the only hint of his personal life he allowed himself to give me before I returned to Germany at the end of 1975, intending to settle permanently in my native country, to which I felt I had become a stranger after nine years of absence. As far as I remember I wrote to Austerlitz from Munich a couple of times, but I never had any reply to my letters, either because, as I thought at the time, Austerlitz was away somewhere, or as I now think because he did not like writing to Germany. Whatever the reason for his silence, the link between us was broken, and I did not renew it when, scarcely a year later, I decided to return to the United Kingdom. It would now of course have been up to me to let Austerlitz know of the unforeseen change in my plans, and my failure to do so may have resulted from the fact that soon after my return I went through a difficult period which dulled my sense of other people’s existence, and from which I only very gradually emerged by turning back to the writing I had long neglected. At any rate, I did not often think of Austerlitz in all those years, and when the thought of him did cross my mind I always forgot him again the next moment, so that we did not in fact resume our old relationship, which had been both a close and a distant one, until two decades later, in December 1996, and through a curious chain of circumstances. I was in some anxiety at the time because I had noticed, looking up an address in the telephone book, that the sight in my right eye had almost entirely disappeared overnight, so to speak. Even when I glanced up from the page open in front of me and turned my gaze on the framed photographs on the wall, all my right eye could see was a row of dark shapes curiously distorted above and below—the figures and landscapes familiar to me in every detail having resolved indiscriminately into a black and menacing cross-hatching. At the same time I kept feeling as if I could see as clearly as ever on the edge of my field of vision, and had only to look sideways to rid myself of what I took at first for a merely hysterical weakness in my eyesight. Although I tried several times, I did not succeed. Instead, the gray areas seemed to be spreading, and now and then, opening and closing my eyes alternately to compare their degrees of clarity, I thought that I had suffered some impairment on the left as well. Considerably alarmed by what I feared was the progressive decline of my eyesight, I remembered reading once that until well into the nineteenth century a few drops of liquid distilled from belladonna, a plant of the nightshade family, used to be applied to the pupils of operatic divas before they went on stage, and those of young women about to be introduced to a suitor, with the result that their eyes shone with a rapt and almost supernatural radiance, but they themselves could see almost nothing. I no longer know how I connected this memory with my own condition that dark December morning, except that in my mind it had something to do with the deceptiveness of that star-like, beautiful gleam and the danger of its premature extinction, an idea which filled me with concern for my ability to continue working and at the same time, if I may so put it, with a vision of release in which I saw myself, free of the constant compulsion to read and write, sitting in a wicker chair in a garden, surrounded by a world of indistinct shapes recognizable only by their faint colors. Since there was no improvement in my condition over the next few days, I went to London just before Christmas to see a Czech ophthalmologist who had been recommended to me. As usual when I go down to London on my own, a kind of dull despair stirred within me on that December morning. I looked out at the flat, almost treeless landscape, the vast brown expanse of the plowed fields, the railway stations where I would never get out, the flock of gulls which makes a habit of gathering on the football pitch on the outskirts of Ipswich, the allotments, the crippled bushes overgrown with dead traveler’s joy on the embankments, the quicksilver mudflats and channels at Manningtree, the boats capsized on their sides, the Colchester water tower, the Marconi factory in Chelmsford, the empty greyhound track at Romford, the ugly backs of the terraced houses past which the railway line runs in the suburbs of the metropolis, the Manor Park cemetery and the tower blocks of flats in Hackney, sights which are always the same and flit past me whenever I go to London, yet remain alien and incomprehensible in spite of all the years that have passed since my arrival in England. I always feel particularly apprehensive on the last stretch of the journey, where just before turning into Liverpool Street Station the train must wind its way over several sets of points through a narrow defile, and where the brick walls rising above both sides of the track with their round arches, columns, and niches, blackened with soot and diesel oil, put me in mind once again that morning of an underground columbarium. It was around three in the afternoon by the time I reached Harley Street and one of its mauve brick buildings, almost all of them occupied by dermatologists, urologists, gynecologists, neurologists, psychiatrists, ear, nose, and throat specialists, and eye surgeons, and was standing by the window in the soft lamplight of Zdeněk Gregor’s slightly overheated waiting room. From the gray sky that lowered over the city outside a few isolated snowflakes were floating down, and disappeared into the dark chasms of the yards behind the buildings. I thought of the onset of winter in the mountains, the complete absence of sound, and my childhood wish for everything to be snowed over, the whole village and the valley all the way to the mountain peaks, and how I used to imagine what it would be like when we thawed out again and emerged from the ice in spring. And as I stood in the waiting room remembering the snow of the Alps, the whitened panes of the bedroom window, the curved drifts around the porch, the softly capped insulators of the telegraph poles, and the trough of the well which was sometimes frozen over for months, the opening lines of one of my favorite poems came into my mind.… And so I long for snow to sweep across the low heights of London .… I imagined that out there in the gathering dusk I could see the districts of the city of London crisscrossed by innumerable streets and railway lines, crowding ever more closely together as they marched east and north, one reef of buildings above the next and then the next, and so on, far beyond Holloway and Highbury, and I saw the snow falling on this huge outcropping of stone slowly, steadily, until everything was covered up and buried.… London a lichen mapped on mild clays and its rough circle without purpose … It was a circle of this kind with an indistinct outline that Zdeněk Gregor drew on a piece of paper to illustrate the extent of the gray area in my right eye when he had examined it. Usually, he said, this was only a temporary disability, in which a bubble suffused by clear liquid formed on the macula, rather like a blister under wallpaper. There was considerable uncertainty, said Zdeněk Gregor, about the causes of the disorder, described by the literature on the subject as central serous chorioretinopathy. All that was really known was that it occurred almost exclusively in middle-aged men who spent too much time reading and writing. After the consultation I must have a procedure called a fluorescing angiography carried out to determine the affected area of the retina more precisely—it would mean taking a series of photographs of my eyes, or rather, if I understood him correctly, of the back of the eye through the iris, the pupil, and the vitreous humor. The technician already waiting for me in a small room specially equipped for such purposes was a man of extraordinarily distinguished appearance who wore a white turban and looked, I foolishly thought, rather like the Prophet Muhammad. He carefully rolled up my shirt sleeve, and inserted the tip of the needle into the prominent vein below the crook of my elbow without my feeling anything at all. While he was introducing the contrast medium into my bloodstream he said I might feel slightly unwell in a little while, and in any case my skin would be discolored yellow for a few hours. After we had sat in silence for a moment or two, both in our respective places in the little room which, like a sleeping car, was illuminated only by a dim bulb, he asked me to move closer to him and place my head in the framework fixed in a kind of stand on the table, with my chin in a shallow depression and my forehead against the iron band above it. As I write this I once again see the little points of light that shot into my widely opened eyes each time he pressed the shutter release. Half an hour later I was sitting in the saloon bar of the Great Eastern Hotel at Liverpool Street, waiting for the next train home. I had sought out a dark corner, since by now I did indeed feel rather qualmish inside my yellow skin. On the way to the station in the taxi we had seemed to be driving in a wide, looping trajectory through some kind of Luna Park, so strangely did the city lights turn beyond the windscreen, and now the dim globes of the sconces, the mirrors behind the bar, and the colorful batteries of bottles of spirits were circling before my eyes as if I were on a roundabout. Leaning my head against the wall, and breathing deeply and slowly from time to time when I felt nausea rising, I had for a good while been watching the toilers in the City gold mines as they came to meet at their usual watering hole early in the evening, all of them identical in their dark blue suits, striped shirts, and gaudy ties, and as I tried to grasp the mysterious habits of the members of this species, which is not to be found in any bestiary—their preference for crowding close together, their semi-gregarious, semi-aggressive demeanor, the way they put their throats back in emptying their glasses, the increasingly excitable babble of their voices, the sudden hasty departure of one or another of them—as I was watching all of this I suddenly noticed a solitary figure on the edge of the agitated crowd, a figure who could only be Austerlitz, whom I realized at that moment I had not seen for nearly twenty years. He had not changed at all in either his carriage or his clothing, and even had the rucksack still slung over his shoulder. Only his fair, wavy hair was paler, although it still stuck out oddly from his head as it used to. Nonetheless, while I had always thought he was about ten years older than I, he now seemed ten years younger, whether because of my own poor state of health or because he was one of those bachelors who retain something boyish about them all their days. As far as I remember, I was overcome for a considerable time by my amazement at the unexpected return of Austerlitz. In any case, I recollect that before approaching him I had been thinking at some length about his personal similarity to Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the horror-stricken expressions on both their faces. I believe it was mainly the rucksack, which Austerlitz told me later he had bought for ten shillings from Swedish stock in an army surplus store in the Charing Cross Road just before he began his studies, describing it as the only truly reliable thing in his life, which put into my head what on the surface was the rather outlandish idea of a certain physical likeness between him and the philosopher who died of the disease of cancer in Cambridge in 1951.

Wittgenstein always carried a rucksack too, in Puchberg and in Otterthal, when he went to Norway, Ireland, or Kazakhstan, or home to his sisters to spend Christmas with them in the Alleegasse. That rucksack, which his sister Margarete once told him in a letter was almost as dear to her as himself, went everywhere with him, even, I believe, across the Atlantic on the liner Queen Mary, and then on from New York to Ithaca. And now, whenever I see a photograph of Wittgenstein somewhere or other, I feel more and more as if Austerlitz were gazing at me out of it, and when I look at Austerlitz it is as if I see in him the disconsolate philosopher, a man locked into the glaring clarity of his logical thinking as inextricably as into his confused emotions, so striking is the likeness between the two of them: in stature, in the way they study one as if across an invisible barrier, in the makeshift organization of their lives, in a wish to manage with as few possessions as possible, and in the inability, typical of Austerlitz as it was of Wittgenstein, to linger over any kind of preliminaries. Accordingly, and without wasting any words on the coincidence of our meeting again after all this time, Austerlitz took up the conversation that evening in the bar of the Great Eastern Hotel more or less where it had last been broken off. He had spent the afternoon, he told me, looking round the Great Eastern, which was soon to be thoroughly renovated, concentrating mainly on the Freemasons’ temple incorporated into the hotel by the directors of the railway company at the turn of the century, when the building had only just been completed and furnished with the utmost luxury. Though I really gave up my architectural studies long ago, he said, I sometimes relapse into my old habits, even if I don’t make notes and sketches anymore, but simply marvel at the strange edifices we construct. That had been the case today, when his way led him past the Great Eastern and, obeying a sudden impulse, he had gone into the foyer where, as it turned out, he had been very courteously received by the business manager, a Portuguese called Pereira, despite my request, said Austerlitz, which can’t be one he hears every day, and despite my odd appearance. Pereira, Austerlitz went on, took me up a broad staircase to the first floor, produced a large key, and unlocked the portal of the temple, a hall with walls paneled in sand-colored marble and red Moroccan onyx, a black and white checkered floor, and a vaulted ceiling with a single golden star at the center emitting its rays into the dark clouds all around it. Then Pereira and I went all over the hotel, most of it taken out of use already, through the great dining hall which could accommodate more than three hundred guests under its high glass dome, through the smoking rooms and the billiards saloons, through suites and up staircases to the fourth floor where the kitchens used to be, and then down to the basement and the floor below the basement, once upon a time a cool labyrinth for the storage of Rhine wines, claret, and champagne, for the making of thousands of items of pâtisserie and the preparation of vegetables, red meat, and pale poultry.

As for the fish section, where perch, pike, plaice, sole, and eels lay heaped on black slate slabs with fresh water constantly running over them, Pereira described it as a whole underworld in itself, said Austerlitz, and if it hadn’t been too late he, Austerlitz, would go round the place again with me. He added that he would particularly like to show me the temple, with its ornamental gold-painted picture of a three-story ark floating beneath a rainbow, and the dove just returning to it carrying the olive branch in her beak. Oddly enough, said Austerlitz, as he stood in front of this attractive motif with Pereira that afternoon he had been thinking of our encounters in Belgium, so long ago now, and telling himself he must find someone to whom he could relate his own story, a story which he had learned only in the last few years and for which he needed the kind of listener I had once been in Antwerp, Liège, and Zeebrugge.

Contrary to all statistical probability, then, there was an astonishing, positively imperative internal logic to his meeting me here in the bar of the Great Eastern Hotel, a place he had never before entered in his life. Having said this, Austerlitz fell silent, and for a while, it seemed to me, he gazed into the farthest distance. Since my childhood and youth, he finally began, looking at me again, I have never known who I really was. From where I stand now, of course, I can see that my name alone, and the fact that it was kept from me until my fifteenth year, ought to have put me on the track of my origins, but it has also become clear to me of late why an agency greater than or superior to my own capacity for thought, which circumspectly directs operations somewhere in my brain, has always preserved me from my own secret, systematically preventing me from drawing the obvious conclusions and embarking on the inquiries they would have suggested to me. It hasn’t been easy to make my way out of my own inhibitions, and it will not be easy now to put the story into anything like proper order. I grew up, began Austerlitz that evening in the bar of the Great Eastern Hotel, in the little country town of Bala in Wales, in the home of a Calvinist preacher and former missionary called Emyr Elias who was married to a timid-natured Englishwoman. 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. Several of the rooms that were not locked were unused too. Furnished sparsely with a bed or a chest of drawers, curtains drawn even during the day, they drowsed in a twilight that soon extinguished every sense of self-awareness in me. So I can recall almost nothing of my early days in Bala except how it hurt to be suddenly called by a new name, and how dreadful it was, once my own clothes had disappeared, to have to go around dressed in the English fashion in shorts, knee-length socks which were always slipping down, a string vest like a fishnet and a mouse-gray shirt, much too thin. I know that I often lay awake for hours in my narrow bed in the manse, trying to conjure up the faces of those whom I had left, I feared through my own fault, but not until I was numb with weariness and my eyelids sank in the darkness did I see my mother bending down to me just for a fleeting moment, or my father smiling as he put on his hat. Such comfort made it all the worse to wake up early in the morning and have to face the knowledge, new every day, that I was not at home now but very far away, in some kind of captivity. Only recently have I recalled how oppressed I felt, in all the time I spent with the Eliases, by the fact that they never opened a window, and perhaps that is why when I was out and about somewhere on a summer’s day years later, and passed a house with all its windows thrown open, I felt an extraordinary sense of being carried away and out of myself. It was only a few days ago that, thinking over that experience of liberation, I remembered how one of the two windows of my bedroom was walled up on the inside while it remained unchanged on the outside, a circumstance which, as one is never both outside and inside a house at the same time, I did not register until I was thirteen or fourteen, although it must have been troubling me throughout my childhood in Bala. The manse was always freezing, Austerlitz continued, not just in winter, when the only fire was often in the kitchen stove and the stone floor in the hallway was frequently covered with hoarfrost, but in autumn too, and well into spring and the infallibly wet summers. And just as cold reigned in the house in Bala, so did silence. The minister’s wife was always busy with her housework, dusting, mopping the tiled floor, doing the laundry, polishing the brass door fittings and preparing the meager meals which we usually ate without a word. Sometimes she merely walked round the house making sure that everything was in its proper place, from which she would never allow it to be moved. I once found her sitting on a chair in one of the half-empty rooms upstairs, with tears in her eyes and a crumpled wet handkerchief in her hand. When she saw me standing in the doorway she rose and said it was nothing, she had only caught a cold, and as she went out she ran her fingers through my hair, the one time, as far as I remember, she ever did such a thing. Meanwhile it was the minister’s unalterable custom to sit in his study, which had a view of a dark corner of the garden, thinking about next Sunday’s sermon. He never wrote any of these sermons down, but worked them out in his head, toiling over them for at least four days. He would always emerge from his study in the evening in a state of deep despondency, only to disappear into it again next morning. But on Sunday, when he stood up in chapel in front of his congregation and often addressed them for a full hour, he was a changed man; he spoke with a moving eloquence which I still feel I can hear, conjuring up before the eyes of his flock the Last Judgment awaiting them all, the lurid fires of purgatory, the torments of damnation and then, with the most wonderful stellar and celestial imagery, the entry of the righteous into eternal bliss. With apparent ease, as if he were making up the most appalling horrors as he went along, he always succeeded in filling the hearts of his congregation with such sentiments of remorse that at the end of the service quite a number of them went home looking white as a sheet. The minister himself, on the other hand, was in a comparatively jovial mood for the rest of Sunday. At midday dinner, which always began with tapioca soup, he would make a few informative and semi-jocular remarks to his wife, who was exhausted from cooking the meal, inquired after my welfare, generally by asking, “And how is the boy?,” and tried to draw me out a little. The meal always finished with the minister’s favorite dish of rice pudding, and he usually fell silent as he enjoyed it. Once dinner was over he lay down on the sofa to rest for an hour, or in fine weather he would sit out under the apple tree in the front garden looking down the valley, as well satisfied with his week’s work as the Lord God of Sabaoth after the creation of the world. Before evening prayers he went to his rolltop desk and took out the tin box in which he kept the calendar published by the Calvinist Methodists of Wales, a gray little book already worn rather threadbare and listing the Sundays and church festivals for the years 1928 to 1946, in which he had made regular entries against every date week by week, removing the thin solid ink pencil from the back of the book, moistening its tip with his tongue, and very slowly and neatly, like a schoolboy under supervision, noting down the name of the chapel where he had preached that day and the biblical passage he had taken as his text, for instance, under 20 July 1939: The Tabernacle, Llandrillo—Psalms CXLVII, 4, ‘He telleth the number of the stars: he calleth them all by their names’; under 3 August 1941: Chapel Uchaf, Gilboa—Zephaniah III, 6, ‘I have cut off the nations: their towers are desolate; I made their streets waste, that none passeth by’; and under 21 May 1944: Chapel Bethesda, Corwen—Isaiah XLVIII, 18, ‘O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy peace been as a river and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea!’ The last entry in this little book, which is among those few of the minister’s possessions to have passed into my hands after his death and through which I have often glanced recently, said Austerlitz, was made on one of the additional leaves inserted at the end and is dated 7 March 1952. It runs: Bala Chapel—Psalms CII, 6, ‘I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.’ For the most part, of course, these Sunday sermons, and I must have heard over five hundred of them, went over my head when I was a child, but even if the meaning of the various words and phrases was a mystery to me for a long time, and whether Elias delivered them in English or Welsh, I did understand that his subject was the sinfulness and punishment of mankind, fire and ashes and the approaching end of the world. However, said Austerlitz, in my memory Calvinist eschatology is linked not so much to these biblical images of destruction as to what I saw with my own eyes when I was out with Elias. Many of his younger colleagues in the ministry had been called up into the army soon after the beginning of the war, and consequently at least every other Sunday he had to go and preach to another congregation, often quite a long way off. At first we drove across country in a little two-seater trap drawn by an almost snow-white pony, and in accordance with Elias’s usual custom he would sit hunched up in the blackest of moods on the outward journey. On the way back, however, his spirits rose, just as they did at home on Sunday afternoons; he sometimes even hummed to himself, and cracked the whip around the pony’s ears now and then. And these light and dark sides of the minister Elias were reflected in the mountainous landscape around us. I remember, said Austerlitz, how we were once driving through the endless Tanat valley, with nothing on the hillsides to right and left of us but crooked bushes, ferns, and rusty-hued vegetation, and then, for the last part of the way up to the col, only gray rock and drifting mist, so that I was afraid we were coming to the very ends of the earth. But on another day, when we had just reached the Pennant pass I saw a gap open up in the banked clouds towering high in the west, and the rays of the sun cast a narrow beam of light down to the valley floor lying at a dizzying depth below us. Where there had been nothing a moment ago but fathomless gloom, there now shone a little village with a few orchards, meadows, and fields, surrounded by black shadows but sparkling green like the Islands of the Blest, and as we walked down the road from the pass beside the pony and trap everything grew lighter and lighter, the mountainsides emerged from the darkness shining brightly, the fine grasses bending in the wind shimmered with light, the silvery willows gleamed down on the banks of the stream; before long we had descended from the barren heights and found ourselves among trees and bushes again, beneath the softly rustling oaks and maples, and rowans already laden with red berries. Once, I think when I was nine, I went away with Elias to a place in South Wales where the flanks of the mountains had been ripped open on both sides of the road, and the woods mauled and cut down. I don’t remember the name of the village we reached at nightfall. It was surrounded by pithead stocks of coal spilling down into the alleys here and there. We had been given a room in the house of one of the church elders, from which there was a view of a winding tower with a gigantic wheel turning now this way and now that in the gathering dusk, and further down the valley tall flames and show