Formally, the novel is notable because of its lack of paragraphing, a digressive style, the blending of fact and fiction and very long and complex sentences. One such sentence runs to seven and a half pages and combines the history and description of Theresienstadt. It is prompted by Austerlitz's having read the major 1995 study of the ghetto, Theresienstadt 1941-1945: Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft by H. G. Adler, and recounting it to the narrator as they are walking around London, from St Clement's Hospital where Austerlitz had been admitted in 1993 after his arrival at Liverpool Street on his return from Prague.
A set of mysterious and evocative photographs are also scattered throughout the book, which enhance the melancholy message of the text. Many of these features characterize Sebald's other works of fiction, including The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo.
Austerlitz tells his story to the narrator between 1967 and 1997. They first meet in Antwerp, and then in a few other places in Belgium (they take a ferry together back to England from Terneuzen, in the Netherlands). Between 1967 and 1975, they meet regularly in Bloomsbury, London, where Austerlitz works as an art historian and teacher; the narrator studies in England and travels to London by train. They lose touch after the narrator returns to Germany: he surmises that perhaps Austerlitz does not like to write letters to Germany. They meet again in December 1996, in the Great Eastern Hotel, London; the narrator has returned to England and has traveled to London to visit an eye doctor, running into Austerlitz by chance. They talk until late, then meet the next day in Greenwich.