W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz and the Great Library: History, Fiction, Memory. Part I

James L. Cowan


Researching the claim in Austerlitz that the Bibliothèque nationale de France was built on the site of an internment camp where Jewish prisoners processed goods looted by the Germans during the occupation of Paris reveals the complex problems that arise from Sebald’s practice of fictionalizing his works by deliberately seeding documentary material with distortions and errors. That the camp did exist, but not at the exact site of the library, creates a tension between historical details themselves and the resonance they achieve through the network of cross-relationships and symbolic associations within the literary structure of the work. Furthermore, the historical claims of Austerlitz must be confronted with the historical changes that have occurred since its publication: the growing knowledge about the camp, the urban development in the area surrounding the site of the camp, and its own changing role in preserving the historical memory of the camp. (JLC)

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