“We talked about how memory deals or doesn’t deal with what is intolerable”
WG Sebald’s novel Austerlitz is a simply astounding piece of writing so I knew that I would have to make time in the busy Christmas schedule to listen to Michael Butt’s adaptation for Radio 3, even if it isn’t necessarily the most festive of fare. An emotive tale of repressed memories and how the echoes of an unresolved past can ripple out throughout an entire lifetime.
The story is based around a series of meetings between the narrator and a man named Austerlitz. From the waiting room in Antwerp station to London hotels and Parisian cafés, a relationship grows between the two men as the narrator gradually teases out the long-buried story of Austerlitz’s past which, as he was born into a Czechoslovakian Jewish family in the 1930s, is intrinsically entwined with the Holocaust, an event his mother saved him from by having him transported to the UK where he was adopted by a Welsh family and given a whole new identity.
As Austerlitz explores his personal history both in physical journey and in delving into the crevices of his mind with the gentle guidance of his new friend, stories from the past come to life and are woven into the narrative to devastating effect. James Fleet has never been better than as the fragile man whose entire life has been lived in the shadow of something he never knew and he portrays the deep melancholy of this figure with exceptional skill.
And combined with Deborah Findlay’s most mellifluous of voices – she plays a former neighbour of the family – it is almost unbearably sad as he inches ever closer to the truth of his childhood and what became of his parents. But there’s also a sense of emotional progression, the journey of self-discovery – aided by Stephen Greif’s narrator and latterly Amanda Drew’s Marie – gives us the hope that there’s a way through even the most unimaginable of horrors.