(Gare) Austerlitz

Stories of Cinema (I, II) Histories of the Future

“This station,” said Austerlitz, “has always been the most mysterious of all Parisian stations.”

W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Sebald’s prose has a precise, cartographic character. It feeds on the detail, the topographic detail, allowing us to follow in the footsteps of his heroes, adding one more dimension to their journey: the one that we share. Both Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz invite you to take an unhurried journey, a stroll whose purpose remains at least partially hidden and in which the traversal of space always takes place on many levels. Sebastian’s topography, like his prose, deceives us by creating tangled, complex images – true “lines of movement, lines of life”, elements of ghostly psychogeography – overlapping each other like in a palimpsest. This psychogeographic context takes us to Paris, a city where the final, very important fragments of Austerlitz take place, a city somewhat “hidden” in the title of this book (Gare Austerlitz, Austerlitz Railway Station) – of course, this is just one of several meanings of this elliptical title … Let us, however, stick to this one, “Parisian” meaning (with full awareness of the limitations associated with such a choice) – the story, the text of which is inseparably connected with a hiking trip (oh, as always in Sebald, the rhizomatic, complicated character ) just around this oldest Parisian railway station. Circulating around, a series of seemingly chaotic movements, displacements, with a narrative whose meaning is born somewhere between the Seine, the new Library, the Natural History Museum, and the Salpêtrière hospital … Right in the middle: at the Austerlitz train station.

Austerlitz arrives in the City of Light in search of traces of his missing father (“A strange thing,” Austerlitz said, “a few hours after our last meeting, when he was driving from the Bibliothèque Nationale, he changed to Gare d’Austerlitz, he felt that he was approaching his father”) and of course also in search of oneself, the greatest of riddles. The journey, in which different temporalities also overlap, ends precisely at Gare Austerlitz, and begins at another Parisian railway station, Gare du Nord. It is marked by wandering, a kind of drift – which, after all, is also a shift of sense – around the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris: one of its least known and least touristic parts, usually considered the least interesting (or rightly so?). Meanwhile, it is in that area that the Manufacture des Gobelins, a tapestry factory established by Louis XIV, a weaving mill famous all over Europe, one of the first managers of which was Charles Le Brun, is located; there is the Parisian Chinatown – a vast area of ​​sad and dehumanized architecture from the 1970s, a city within a city, a city of emigrants, those who have left; it is there – in the thirteenth century – that for centuries there has been a city within the city, occupying many hectares (this time, because it is surrounded by a wall) – the Salpêtrière clinic with its streets, squares, squares, churches, the world of the sick, dying and unhappy, the negative of the City of Lights (in Le Nouveau Paris Emile de Labédollière and Gustave Doré we can read that “Salpêtrière itself is a kind of city”; in turn, Ténon, a professor of pathology, wrote in 1786, that it is “the largest hospital in Paris and probably in Europe”) – it was in this former gunpowder factory in 1656 (again thanks to Louis XIV) a shelter for the poor was established, which later became a place of exile for all excluded from society: the mentally ill , epileptics, disabled people, prostitutes, criminals; it is also worth mentioning that it was in the 13th district that until recently, a wasteland unprecedented in densely built-up Paris stretched – wild terrain between the Seine and the railroad tracks, a kind of breach, holes in the coherent, extremely intense tissue of the city; it is here that for at least two decades a modern district of glass office buildings ( Seine Rive Gauche , officially renamed Paris Rive Gauche in 1996), empty after dark – a strange place / non-place, the symbolic center of which is the new Bibliothèque Nationale, the presidential monument-tomb (memorial tomb, “all memory of the world”), a building to which Sebald dedicated in Austerlitz an important and large fragment, which is a kind of lamentation about oblivion and dehumanization, lamentations about the changing Paris … Finally, Austerlitz Station itself – “the most mysterious of all Paris stations”, opened in 1840 as Gare d’Orléans; the place from where transports of Jews departed during World War II and in which there were, precisely described by Sebald, warehouses of goods (“Austerlitz-Tolbiac warehouses”) robbed by the Nazis and the French collaborating police.
Almost opposite the station, on the other side of the busy and uninteresting Boulevard d’Hôpital, one of the streets diverging from the starry Place d’Italie and connecting it to the waterfront boulevard, the bridge and the Seine, is located dating back to the time of Louis XIII and having its moment of glory in the time of Buffon, author of Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière , the Natural History Museum. Created on the site of the former Jardin royal des plantes médicinales ( Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants), it still makes an extraordinary impression with its exhibits enclosed in glass cases and two main buildings, the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Palaeontology and the Great Gallery of Evolution. In its present form, it dates back to the Revolution, when it was permanently connected to the Jardin de Plantes botanical garden surrounded by Streets Buffon and Cuvier. In 1793, animals from the Versailles menagerie were moved there, making the garden a popular place for Parisian walks. In fact, as de Labédollière emphasizes, “the garden’s scientific collections form an indivisible whole: they form a kind of encyclopedia of natural history, the parts of which are linked together. Collections of live and stuffed animals, plants, minerals, fossils, bones – all this is a kind of essential lecture on geology, chemistry applied to organic and inorganic bodies, physiology and applied anatomy, zoology, anthropology, botany and plant physics… ”. The garden gate, located on the axis of the Great Gallery of Evolution, overlooks the Austerlitz Bridge; on the right there is the entrance to the station. If, however, he turns down the coastal avenue leading to the National Library – now tidy, but still extremely sad and gloomy – and walks along the railroad tracks to the southeast, you will pass the place described by Sebald, where the warehouses with the warehouses looted by the Nazis Jewish property. On the right, behind the tracks and Vincent Auriol boulevard, you can see the Salpêtrière clinic with Charcota and Esquirola streets … Passing through this strange “city within a city”, you will find yourself again closer to Austerlitz station, at the statue of Dr. Philippe Pinel, one of the fathers of French psychiatry. Pinel introduced the concept of manie sans délire (also known as folie raisonnante or folie lucide raisonnante ), “mania without delirium” – to put it simply, a specific mental disorder affecting antisocial people (can’t the features of this “rational madness” be related to the figure of Austerlitz?). Almost directly above the statue (when we look up from behind the hospital gate) there is a metro flyover – the fifth line, which oddly coincides with Place d’Italie and Gare d’Austerlitz with Bobigny near Paris, a suburb bordering on Drancy, another suburban town, in which during the war were held captive those Jews, who were assigned to the next transport to extermination camps. A place where Austerlitz guesses might have been before his father’s final disappearance. On the other side of the boulevard, looking to the left, you will find Hotel Austerlitz – one of the many modest and almost anonymous hotels that are many in this district. If we went the other way and plunged into the network of streets stretching from here all the way to the Mouffetard Quarter, we would reach the historic suburb of Saint-Marcel: it is here, at the junction of the fifth and thirteenth arrondissements, as de Labédollière and Maxime du Camp have had their own the headquarters of Parisian rags – collecting rubbish, rubbish (and thus, as Mauss would like, discovering the true picture of society). Gałganierze or “pearl seekers”: figures that are by definition anachronistic, relics of premodern life in a city of nascent modernity. Rejecting nothing – no element, scrap, no history found: it is like the reverse of the Nazi’s organizing obsession, an obsession which culminated in the events taking place in the Austerlitz-Tolbiac magazines and at d’Austerlitz galleries

Austerlitz’s drift across the 13th arrondissement – mixing time and space in its intensity and looping and leading to the inevitable finale, a finale that in fact merely suspends meaning instead of creating it – begins in the bistro Le Havane (today Havane Café), a dark dive on the boulevard Auguste Blanqui near Glacière station, to then mark with his presence / absence rue Emile Zola in the fifteenth, rue Barrault in the thirteenth (placed in Austerlitz a photograph of a partially blind wall of the house with a huge – mysterious and a little disturbing – inscription SUZE was created just at the beginning of this street; SUZE is a brand of well-known French liqueurs, aperitifs, produced before the war, today bought by the Pernod concern – SUZE liqueur advertisements painted with paints on the blind walls of buildings are a childhood memory for many Parisians; the inscription is used by Sebald in a way reminiscent of the practices of surreal photographers, such as Eli Lotar, juxtaposing in one famous photo the cut hooves from the La Villette slaughterhouse with the mysterious PICHARD inscription), Montparnasse Cemetery, the old National Library on rue Richelieu, then Jardin de Plantes (“In the following weeks and months,” Austerlitz continued, “we often walked together in (…) the Jardin de Plantes, along the esplanade between trimmed plane trees, along the facade of the Natural History Museum, then left and right, reaching the palm house and then again going out along the winding paths of the Alpine Garden or the sad zoo, where elephants, giraffes, rhinos, dromedaries and crocodiles brought from African colonies were once exhibited, and where now most of the runs with miserable remains of nature, tree stumps, artificial rocks and puddles of water , it stands clean “). Then Austerlitz goes to the suburbs (“I regularly made trips to the outskirts of the city (…) I wandered the deserted streets on Sundays and photographed the suburban views with hundreds (…) whose emptiness, which I understood later, corresponded exactly to my orphanage”), and finally goes to the Veterinary Museum in Maisons-Alfort (in this topographic game, Maisons-Alfort plays the role of the eastern flank: it marks the Austerlitz movement that extends to the east – thus it completes this peculiar circle, the opposite flank of which is rue Emile Zola in the fifteen, and in its center is the Austerlitz station. ). Somewhere in between, Austerlitz’s memory is lost (as a consequence of leaving Paris?), Which culminates in a stay in Salpêtrière (where Marie de Verneuil helps him – wasn’t that the name of one of the characters in Balzac’s Comedy of Man ? ). Paris metro again – station names involuntarily recalling various wars: Stalingrad, Campo Formio, Austerlitz … – Place des Vosges, then the wild (today we would say rather ghostly) area between Gare Austerlitz and the Seine, finally the new National Library … This is where, from one of the library’s four towers, Austerlitz looks at Paris. He watches the city from above, noticing its “various layers”: like a nineteenth-century physiognomist – Fournel, Du Camp, de Labédollière – or Nadar traveling in a balloon, he sees a whole forming a kind of dynamic palimpsest – the city shell and its organs. Does this sight bring him closer to solving the mystery of his missing father and, at the same time, the mystery of himself?

Among the many overlapping layers in the space somewhere between the Seine, the new Library, the Natural History Museum, and the Salpêtrière Hospital, he sees – it seems – also the literally deepest one, directing us towards natural history. Undermining every human work, every, even the most complex, architecture, every identity … Parisian formless is revealed here in the form of an image of wetlands: “It was almost twelve when we were saying goodbye at the Glacière station. There used to be huge swamps here (…) – Austerlitz said at the end… ”. Austerlitz is right: more or less where they are talking, a river called the Bièvre once flowed, winding past the tapestry factory, on the site of today’s Museum of Natural History and the Botanical Garden, then descending into the canals underneath Austerlitz Station and flowing into it at its height. Seine. Its irregular course – the multitude of bends – and its constant flooding have marked the life of this part of the city for centuries: in fact, the entire area around Gobelins, Jardin de Plantes and Salpêtrière was (and in a sense still is, because its remains were hidden in the canals) , swamps. Hospital, museum, train station: all of them are built on “moving land”, on the most inhuman (because formless) ground … The secret of the train station, like the secret of Austerlitz is, to some extent, a mystery of an unclear – swampy, moving, ghostly – identity this place. Perhaps, however, the very word “Austerlitz” has this meaning: in the battlefields of Slavkov (Austerlitz), it was the marshy shores of the nearby lake that claimed the most casualties, contributing to this famous victory.


When in 2012 I found myself at Gare d’Austerlitz, my attention was drawn to the emptiness and silence inside the building. Of course, as it turned out later, the station was undergoing renovation – the inevitable result of its degradation and loss of importance. The new station designed by the famous Jean Nouvel is expected to be ready in 2020, I read. I took the subway, a flyover “swallowed up by the facade.” On the platform of the subway station, located at the top of the building, a dense metal mesh separated this part of the station from the empty hall below. The hall, like in Austerlitz , “dimly lit and almost completely empty”, remained a deeply disturbing and mysterious place. I looked the other way, through the mouth of the subway flyover, to the dome of Saint Louis Church, the involuntary patron saint of the unfortunates of Salpêtrière, bathed in the autumn sun, and then plunged into the maze of train corridors. I left this place from the taxi rank and immediately headed for the Natural History Museum.