Thursday, 28 October 2010

book group panic part 2

OK, still not finished Austerlitz. About 50 pages to go. But I want to write down my impressions of last night's discussion because I'm a little puzzled by them.
One person said it was the best book they'd ever read. It really knocked them sideways. Two others loved it, one conceding that the first 100 pages or so were slow and but for the fact she was stuck on a train she might not have finished it. Another person was generally positive. Two of us really didn't get it at all.
Austerlitz is a book about memory. It's central character is relating how he has discovered his past, a past he had no memory of. It is about a man who fills his mind up with facts and details, architectural history in this case, but who lived most of his life ignorant of his personal history. The narrative is... well, the narrator is a man we never learn anything about recounting what Austerlitz has told him - during a series of meetings spaced out in time and place. Within Austerlitz's narrative, however, are other narratives: notably Vera's, the "nanny" he discovers in Prague.
And that's OK. I don't even mind the fact the book comes with no chapter breaks and only three - or was it four? - paragraph breaks. What I found startling was that the book constantly lost my attention. for short periods I could marvel at the prose, and the rambling nature of it, the way it skips time and place. It is, of course, a fair representation of how our minds work. We don't remember things in a linear or chronological fashion. However, we do tend to tell stories in a structured way and I struggled throughout the book to determine whether I was being told a story or not.
Not, I think. Messing with story structure can be brilliant. Abandoning it is seriously risky. It limits you, cuts your audience down. I doubt our book group was representative. I'd actually be surprised if more than one in 10 readers would even get past page 100. One in 20. But I might be wrong.
Perhaps more than anything it appeals to people with a strong visual sense. The novel is really a description of a series of places, and throughout its pages are grainy black and white photographs showing architectural features, shop fronts, empty streets. It's terribly bleak, but the former photography art student of the group last night was one of the book's most ardent fans. My brother and sister in law have both read and loved Austerlitz too.
Personally what surprised me was how banal the story was. The premise sounds tantalising, but the book as a whole far from lives up to the promise. A man who has forgotten his past who retraces his family history, how he was separated from his family by the Nazis and the holocaust. Brilliant. And yet, it struck me as less remarkable, less moving than many Who Do You Think You Are television programmes I've seen.
Enough already.

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