Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald, translated by Anthea Bell

It takes decades for the man called Austerlitz to decide to uncover what he has been avoiding all this time: at the age of four, he was sent away from his home in Prague on the Kindertransport and given a new identity in “the little country town of Bala in Wales.”

Clearly, this is a very special book. It made me think and will make me continue to think. The introduction by James Wood (which I read at the end; otherwise it would have spoilt the novel for me) clarified some of its features for me. I can see reasons for the intentional randomness, the continuous prose, the perpetual distance of the main character, the anonymity of the narrator. I can discern parallels I didn’t notice at first. It’s quite possible this book deserves to be read a second time.

So it ticks a lot of boxes, but I found the format made it difficult to read and I’m not sure that it’s justified. The lack of chapters and for the most part even paragraphs meant that I didn’t know where to stop. I ended up making a rule for myself: I stopped at the first full stop after turning a page. This gave me too many possible stopping places. It also confused me, as I didn’t remember what came just before my starting place.

I’ve never read a book in one sitting, but I think that’s what this one needs.

Karen wrote this recently:

Too often we think we CAN’T do something. What we really mean is we can’t do it by OUR rules.

I can understand that. On our recent trip to Prague, for instance, we spent one day out of the city, visiting Karlstejn Castle. Following our tour of the castle (given by a young woman who sounded as if she was bored sick of guiding tourists) we decided to follow a path marked by a signpost pointing to Beroun, the next station along the line. 13.5 kilometres, it said. Fine, we said. Not having purchased a map, we didn’t know what to expect. The path went up and down all the time – mostly up, it seemed, although we expected to go slightly down overall. Maybe because we began the walk at 1 in the afternoon, or because we only had an apple each and didn’t find a restaurant until near the end of the walk, we found the walk a bit tough. But still, it was doable.

What if you’d asked me to do the whole thing running without stopping? I’d have said no, I can’t. Possibly, if I spent a long time practicing running, I’d be able to do it. That’s just not something I want to do. That’s what Karen means when she talks about doing it by our rules: I’d only be prepared to run those 13.5 kilometres if I could do it without working at it. However, I’m sure there are people who wouldn’t be able to do that run, however hard they worked at it. There are people who wouldn’t be able to do the walk I did. I don’t mean those who are too lazy to do it or just don’t enjoy walking enough to try. I mean those who aren’t physically able to do it. What’s wrong with saying CAN’T in such a case?

Once, I worked with someone who was brilliant at telling stories of things that had happened to him. When he told a story, people would gather round to listen because they knew they’d enjoy it, me included. And I thought, I want to be like that. I enjoy giving presentations, being the centre of attention, and I want that to happen more often.

One time, he talked about his youth, about wild parties that he and his brother held every evening at their house. I thought about my youth, which was so different from his and I realised I could never be like him. I missed out on the experiences that could have made it possible.

There are enough things I struggle to do without trying to do the impossible. I feel better for saying, not that – I CAN’T do it and I’ll never be able to do it.

Women? No.

Writers? No.

British? No.

Nice people? I think so.

There’s only one thing I can say about all my readers. You can all read English. You can probably also write it and speak it. And that makes you very lucky.

This fact was brought home to me on my recent short trip to Prague (which was fascinating).

On two occasions I witnessed the problem of being Japanese. In our hotel, we waited patiently while the hotel staff tried to explain to a Japanese couple that they had nothing to pay because their stay had been paid for. I felt like clapping when the penny finally dropped.

In an art shop, where I waited patiently for my artist husband to choose a painting, I decided to help the conversation along:

Japanese Man: Can I pay yen?
Shopkeeper: Can you pay what?
Me: Yens. He wants to pay in yens.
SK: Japanese money?
JM: Japan money.
SK: Oh, I don’t even know … err….
M: The exchange rate?
SK: I don’t even know exchange rate.
JM: Ah. I pay yen?
SK: No. No yen.
JM: Ah. What pay?
SK: Krone or Euro.
JM: Ah.

Aren’t you glad you know English?

Of course, there’s at least one country where it’s hard to get around knowing just English. It’s called Japan.