W. G. Sebald's novel Austerlitz tells a story of inexplicable origins. In the figure of this child of the Kindertransport, Sebald addresses the traumas of the exilic subject and the impossibility of responding to an irredeemable history. But Austerlitz is also a book with profound linguistic concerns. A speaker of five languages—English, French, Welsh, Czech, German—the protagonist has the facility of the ideal twentieth-century cosmopolitan. At the same time, however, he is utterly immobilized by recurring episodes of radical aphasia. Dubow and Steadman-Jones argue that this troubled multilingualism allows Sebald to exploit the myths that constitute the identities of individual languages, setting up an assemblage of linguistic discourses that point to the extremities of a fragmented subjectivity and to the particular historical conditions of which language can give no account. Reading Austerlitz against Antoine de Rivarol's explicit entwinement of rhetoric and the early modern nation, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's exploration of the origin of language, Hugo von Hofmannsthal's fictional account of a traumatized aphasic, and Walter Benjamin's critique of the sign in modernity, the authors explore how Sebald's Austerlitz is both an exile among languages and in exile from language as such.
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Research Article| February 01 2012
Mapping Babel: Language and Exile in W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz
New German Critique (2012) 39 (1 (115)): 3–26.
Jessica Dubow, Richard Steadman-Jones; Mapping Babel: Language and Exile in W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz. New German Critique 1 February 2012; 39 (1 (115)): 3–26. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0094033X-1434488
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