Why does W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz escape from the laws of fictionality and factuality? How do so many of the people and place names inside of it start so improbably with the letter A? Why do so many iterations of A—as initials, as markings, or as individual letters—appear somewhat frequently and prominently? Why does the return of the repressed coincide with the completion of a crossword puzzle taking place in a used bookstore? Why is the puzzle located in the Telegraph? Why, of all people, is the owner of the bookstore named Penelope? What role do the bookstores, museums, and libraries play? Finally, what is the question that Sebald’s Austerlitz is supposed to answer? To answer these questions, a historically problematized rereading of the text is necessary. In terms of the History of Ideas, these questions recall Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Proust and his Arcades Project; in terms of cultural history, the rise of the crossword puzzle; and in terms of the sources behind Austerlitz, a book and a radio program that have been either ignored or underappreciated in the criticism.
Penelope’s Crossword: On W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz
Yahya Elsaghe is professor of modern German literature at the University of Bern, Switzerland. His publications include monographs on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Hölderlin, Thomas Mann, and Max Frisch. His book on film adaptations of Thomas Mann’s works, Thomas Mann auf Leinwand und Bildschirm (Thomas Mann on the Big and Small Screen), was published in German in 2019.Sina Rahmani earned his PhD from UCLA’s Department of Comparative Literature with a dissertation on the question of orphanhood in the nineteenth-century British novel. He was a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. His work has been published in PMLA, Iranian Studies, Radical History Review, and Public Books. He is the creator of the East Is a Podcast (Eastpodcast.com).
Yahya Elsaghe, Sina Rahmani, Yahya Elsaghe; Penelope’s Crossword: On W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. boundary 2 1 August 2020; 47 (3): 85–101. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-8524420
Download citation file: