chapter  11
18 Pages

Forgiveness, History, Narrative: W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz


This chapter starts with the premise that constituent elements of the process of forgiveness can be identifi ed and discussed in narratives which present and negotiate historical events involving particularly serious crimes. One illustrative example is that of the Holocaust: Although, in the case of this historical event, human beings’ and especially survivors’ readiness and ability to forgive are severely tested, this kind of test does not in itself reduce the need to forgive. Inevitably, however, it informs and complicates the circumstances under which forgiveness can occur. Thus, in the extreme case of the Holocaust, it may be helpful to think of forgiveness as a long, drawn-out, and multi-stage process. If we do so, the narrative dimension of forgiveness is highlighted, and it becomes potentially very interesting to study narratives which attempt to come to terms with this vexed issue not directly (e.g. in the form of a witness account) but more obliquely by employing techniques of fi ction. The German-British author W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2002) is an original example of such a fi ctional narrative. The main character of this strange novel has grown up ignorant of his past, and many years after the Second World War he is forced to explore what happened to him and his parents, both of whom were Jews and in all probability victims of the Holocaust. I will explore how Sebald’s novel gradually and painstakingly prepares the ground for and moves towards a state of possible forgiveness. It does so by presenting Austerlitz’s delayed search for his parents via a frame narrator who not only performs an important mediating function but also has a signifi cant thematic role. By ‘frame narrator’ I mean the narrator who introduces the reader to Austerlitz, and who in his ‘frame narrative’ also comments on Austerlitz’s story by linking it to aspects of his own. While Austerlitz tells his story to the frame narrator as listener, the latter passes Austerlitz’s story on to the reader. Giving a narrative analysis which incorporates observations on the historical author Sebald’s biographical background and on the historical event of the Holocaust around which the fi ction revolves, the discussion

following will be informed and aided by narrative theory and also by philosophical explorations of the concept of forgiveness.