Friday, 29 November 2013


Vertigo - W.G.Sebald

"Yes, said Lukas, there was something strange about remembering. When he lay on the sofa and thought back, it all became blurred as if he was out in a fog."

I have been meaning to reread Sebald for some time now and GermanLitMonth seemed like the perfect time to do so. I read  Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz in the year or so preceding his death, which came so shockingly soon after finding his work. The books all formed what was clearly a cohesive body of work, distinctive and original. In memory, I have found it difficult to separate them. My plan is to reread all four in order, with perhaps a year between each one.

Vertigo was just as I remembered it, an intimate voice, speculative, knowledgeable and humorous but revealing, beneath the knowledge and cosmopolitan gloss, a deep chasm floating beneath the cultural and personal history of the narrator. It is this chasm which gives rise to the feeling of vertigo which haunts the book.

It is also a book haunted by its own composition. Writers appear in the narrator's mind with regularity. He describes Stendhal's attempts to remember and recapture in words his own youthful experiences of war, he thinks he sees Dante walking before him and tries to catch him resulting in a "feeling of vertigo", he follows Kafka's footsteps, looking back at the local newspapers from the day when Kafka was in particular places. He thinks of the playwright Grillparzer, Casanova and more besides. It is tempting to see his journey between Venice, Verona and Vienna as a sly nod to Pynchon's V. He ends up in his childhood home W (Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgäu) which reminded me of George Perec's W, or a Memory of Childhood. Are these deliberate? I'm not sure but I am constantly aware that Sebald is a very allusive writer, and am more sure that I am not equipped to catch but a small percentage of these allusions.

Parts of the book recount the process of writing of the book: "Often she would stand beside me for a while, making a little conversation, her eyes wandering over the written pages. On one occasion she asked if I was a journalist or a writer. When I said that neither the one nor the other was quite right, she asked what it was that I was working on, to which I replied that I did not know for certain myself, but had a growing suspicion that it might turn into a crime story, set in upper Italy, in Venice, Verona and Riva." There is a kind of faux-naif posturing here, I feel, as if the book is what it is by accident.

The book is also filled with photos and other illustrations, rather badly reproduced, as in a cheap schoolbook.  They are often unacknowledged and uncaptioned. Sometimes they present a scene or item described in the book, others seemed mysterious and disconnected to me. They almost seem like mementoes stuck into a diary. Indeed the whole book is shaped as such, although many entries are made after the event, and are subject to the half-life of events in memory and its distorting power.

The book is divided into four sections and the first section; Beyle, or Love is a Madness Most Discreet, centres around Marie Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal. The book opens with Napoleon and his army crossing the Great St Bernard Pass, a manoevre in which Beyle was a participant. Beyle's thoughts on the unreliability of memory in the face of evidence presented by his return to the sites of these memories are recounted. "The notes in which the 53-year-old Beyle, writing during a sojourn in Civitavecchia, attempted to relive the tribulations of those days afford eloquent proof of the various difficulties entailed in the act of recollection." He suspects that traumatic experiences might be subject to a greater distortion that others: "It seemed to him that his impressions had been erased by the violence of their impact."

This distortion of the remembered landscape and of the past creates a confusion which leads to the first experience of vertigo in the novel. "The difference between the image of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place occasioned in him a vertiginous sense of confusion such as he had never previously experienced." This is a very familiar feeling I have had when revisiting places I have spent some time, without travelling, through the medium of Google Maps. Buildings seemed to have been shuffled and orientation reversed by some mysterious electric surge.

The idea of the fragility of memory introduced in this section is artfully reprised later in the book when Sebald finds an old tailor's dummy wearing a uniform supposedly from the campaign Stendhal fought in. It is in an attic and is tied in with his childhood memories. However, "when I stepped closer, not entirely trusting my eyes, and touched one of the uniform sleeves that hung down empty, to my utter horror it crumbled into dust."

I could spend days chasing down connections and looking up the minutiae of the many references in this section alone, perhaps reading Stendhal's autobiography as I did so but I would never finish this post. However, wandering through many posts on Sebald I came across the 'fact' that he never used his full first name (Winfried) because he thought it sounded too feminine (like Winifred) and couldn't help wondering if this was a connection he felt with Stendhal - Marie Henri Beyle. (One of the photos reproduced is of a document issued in place of a passport that has gone missing. In it the inifried of Winifried is blacked out)

The next two sections of the book circle around Franz Kafka. In the second section, All'estro (abroad) the fictional? Sebald follows the itinerary of a journey Kafka took and in the third section a fictional? Kafka moves more central stage - Dr K. Takes the Waters at Riva.

Sebald's world seems similar in many ways to Kafka's. It is as everything he sees and everyone he meets is part of some great riddle and that he must try to puzzle it out, despite the knowledge that there is no answer to the riddle and that it simply grows in complexity the more you look at it. ''Over the years I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but . . . far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever. The more images I gathered from the past . . . the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way. . . . Most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling.''

Scenes and people are created with great clarity but simply slip past like tableaux viewed through the window of a train, taking on after a while the strange moonlit clarity of a dream. There is little sense of any emotional connection with others, or of any emotional journey on their part. They all seem like meditation stones, helping the narrator to reach some self-knowledge, albeit at a distance.

Indeed, every decision made by the narrator feels provisional, half-hearted. There is little pleasure or connection. In Venice he thinks of Grillparzer who was disparaging of Venice and sights such as the Doge's Palace and his disappointment - "I sometimes think that I would have done far better to stay at home with my maps and timetables."

This disappointment is also entwined with a sense of a legal nightmare, first expressed in the references to Grillparzer calling the Doge's Palace "an enigma in stone" that "reminded him of a crocodile". And then we move on to Casanova, who spent time in the mouth of the crocodile where he discovered that "while it might be rare for a man to be driven insane, little was required to tip the balance."

These are all melancholy companions, but the book steps lightly through this melancholy world. The fact that he moves on quickly, through space and time, means that we are never bogged down. Yet, when he mentions that he has "no alternatives but to take the night express across the Brenner, a train with unpleasant associations for me..." I was immediately reminded of the holocaust, the true vertiginous depths beneath the narrator's melancholy.

This line comes from the opening of the final segment Il ritorno in patria, with it's echoes of Monteverdi's Il Ritorne di Ulisse in Patria, first performed at the Carnival in Venice in 1639. This places another, even more ancient journey deep under the narrator's. And it appears that W, despite changes does hold true to some of his memories, indeed he is able to project his memories onto the changed landscape although even his childhood memories have blurred.

Vertigo is as good as I remembered and although difficult to pin down it has led me on an interesting journey trying to express some of what I have felt about it. Like another writer who referenced Homer this work will become filigreed over time with myriad glosses and scholarly commentaries but the key thing is that it can be enjoyed without all that and then will open up further the closer you look at it, like a simple equation that, when mapped, draws a fractal of staggering complexity.


Click to enlarge
A mention in the book led me to search out this extraordinary fresco by Pisanello - "What appealed to me was not only the highly developed realism of his art, extraordinary for the time, but also the way in which he succeeded in creating the effect of the real, without suggesting a depth dimension, upon an essentially flat surface, in which every feature, the principals and the extras alike, the birds in the sky, the green forest and every single leaf of it, are all granted an equal and undiminished right to exist."

Some of the Links I have read while writing this. None are to blame for any of the misguided thinking or inaccuracies in my post.







  1. I have 'Rings of Saturn' on my bedside table in Corsica. The first chapter is well thumbed but I've never got beyond it. Why is that?

    1. Driving narrative tension is not an element in Sebald's books. Perhaps you haven't got far enough to fall under his spell, perhaps you never will. I found that after reading one I had to read them all.

    2. Trevor, did you know that Sebald wrote a few texts on Corsica? There's A Little Excursion to Ajaccio, Campo Santo, The Alps in the Sea and La Cour de l’ancienne école, all collected in Campo Santo, ed. by Sven Mayer and translated by Anthea Bell. They might lure you in!

    3. Thanks Helen. Another book for my own wish list too.

    4. Thanks Helen, I have read Sebald's pieces on Corsica; it was those chapters in 'Campo Santo' that led me to 'Rings of Saturn'. I'm familiar with Norfolk/Suffolk too but just wasn't grabbed. Maybe it's because I wasn't steeped in the area at the time... I must readdress 'Rings...'

  2. Great speculations on many literary references. 'Vertigo' seems to be designed for a second look. Every Sebald book seems to be. You captured well the sense of rereading Sebald.

    1. Thanks Rise. I enjoyed going through your Vertigo posts which undoubtedly fed into this.

  3. This sounds great :) I don't have it at the moment, but I'm sure I'll be buying this at some point. My next Sebald will be 'The Emigrants', and I'm looking forward to it!

    1. The Emigrants will be my next one too, as I'm going to read them in order. Perhaps we could do a readalong?

    2. The Emigrants is in the Corsican pile, nestling beneath 'Campo Santo' and 'Rings...' So many books, so little time.

  4. Odd. I just wrote a similar post about Krasznahorkai.

    I could spend days chasing down connections and looking up the minutiae of the many references

    I actually did this with The Emigrants long ago, pre-Wiki, so using a university library. I even visited a couple of the locations mentioned. I should do it with another of his books sometime. It would be easier now - for example, to see the paintings he mentions.

    Some of the connections you point put here are very promising and tempting. The Monteverdi, for example, hmm.

    Stendhal's memoir is excellent, my favorite Stendhal book - but I am not a good Stendhal reader.

    1. One day I'll do something comprehensive rather than constantly chasing my tail.
      I think breaking my Krasznahorkai duck has to be on my list of resolutions for 2014.
      & perhaps I should add Stendhal to that list & Bernhard.
      It's getting out of control already...

  5. I agree that Sebald is distinctive and original, yet he just doesn't grab me like he seems to do for almost everybody else above (Trevor notwithstanding). Having said that, I'll prob. read this one or The Rings of Saturn in another year or two. Was more impressed by Austerlitz, which I read earlier this year, than The Emigrants, but I think maybe I'm just more kindly disposed to all the crazy Austrians than Sebald's brand of phantasmal Teutonic melancholy. Anyway, will revisit your post for guidance if/whenever I get around to the novel.

    1. I know that the first time that I read the books there was one that seemed a lot less impressive than the others. Perhaps The Emigrants, but I can't remember.