W.G. Sebald. I’ve finally entered his pages which, since (and maybe before) his tragic early death, have become somewhat hallowed — for good reason. His books are so incredibly unique that they resist classification — fiction? nonfiction? history? mystery? travelogue? biography? autobiography? Who knows? He wrote only four books of, to go with the general term, fiction: Vertigo (Schwindel, 1990; tr. from the German by Michael Hulse, 1999), The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz. He also wrote three books of poetry and one massive essay, On the Natural History of Destruction (1997). But just as his work was gaining prominence in the English-speaking world and he was becoming accepted as a literary master, tipped by Horace Engdahl himself to be have been a deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize, he was killed in a car crash in December 2001, leaving behind these four ellusive yet intimate books.
I admit, I think 9/10s of this book went over my head. But before you jump to the conclusion that therefore I didn’t like it, I should say that that actually made the book very appealing.
Let me explain: The book contains many many historical references to an area I know little about, namely, Northern Italy and Southern Germany. I’ve never travelled the route between Vienna and Verona. Vertigo also tracks the pathway of three historical figures whom I know relatively little about: Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka. But seeking to figure out just where I was and just who I was reading about was part of the fun. For example, I read the entire first short chapter about Henri-Marie Beyle before I stumbled onto the lead that that was Stendhal’s real name and that I’d been reading about Stendhal the whole time. Vertigo is rich with historical and geographical detail that, amazingly, didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of the book but further piqued my curiosity. It helps that Sebald’s prose, translated wonderfully by Michael Hulse (who worked closely with Sebald in the process), is unassuming yet mystical, plain yet poetic. Though I knew little about the place, Sebald evoked it in my mind. The place is the prose.
The narrator is of this unusual book is Sebald himself, sort of. Perhaps suffering from Stendhal syndrome, perhaps from some other more sinister anxiety, this narrator has returned to the land between Verona and Vienna years after having left his hometown of W. in Bavaria (I have been to Bavaria), to live in England. However, the book deals particularly with two trips the narrator took to Northern Italy in 1980 and then again to the same region in 1987, ultimately leading him to revisit W. for the first time in thirty years.
Interspersed in these travelogues are details about the narrator’s own hysteria, his own inability to get out and enjoy the scenery which so powerfully evokes memory and history. We also come to know the reason he cut his 1980 trip short. Also taking up substantial room are narrated accounts from the life of, as I said above, Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka, all intertwining with the narrator’s account of his own journey which follows the footsteps of these writers. Indeed, the narrator makes a fool of himself on a bus by asking some parents for a picture of their twin boys because they look strikingly similar to the young Kafka. After the incident, Sebald tells of hiding himself in the open bus, looking forward to the shadows afforded by tunnels. The narrator’s character is an enigma because he is, in some ways, an anxious man, almost agorophobic at times (at least in this region of the world), but with a strong sensitivity to place and to people.
Besides the interest in the historical and geographical context, the book’s real intrigue is in its dealing with memory’s role in history and in our lives. This is why Sebald is now venerated. His elegiac style ties his characters together with the same strings he uses to capture us. He introduces the idea of memory on the second page when Stendhal is thinking back on his experiences during the Napoleonic war:
The notes in which the 53-year-old Beyle, writing during a sojourn at Civitavecchia, attempted to relive the tribulations of those days afford eloquent proof of the various difficulties entailed in the act of recollection. At times his view of the past consists of nothing but grey patches, then at others images appear of such extraordinary clarity he feels he can scarce credit them — such as that of General Marmont, whom he believes he saw at Martigny to the left of the track along which the column was moving clad in royal- and sky-blue robes of a Councillor of State, an image which he still beholds precisely thus, Beyle assures us, whenever he closes his eyes and pictures that scene, although he is well aware that at this time Marmont must have been wearing his general’s uniform and not the blue robes of state.
So we see from the beginning that memory, while vivid, perhaps especially when vivid, is also faulty, yet it has the power to transform our perspective of the event itself. Along those same lines, but in the other direction, Sebald also offers up a case for memory being better than a picture:
This being so, Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them.
This last statement in particular is quite ironic since Sebald has peppered his pages (in this book and in his others) with images — drawings, portraits, scenic views, ticket stubs, etc. — that, besides making the book feel more like a travelogue or history book, subvert the above statement as well as Sebald’s own prose depictions.
The design of the book and its statements about the power and faults of images, particularly reproduced images, reminded me immediately of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. Different in objective, these two massive essays of the twentieth century revolve around the phenomenon of the visual reproduction of images. Benjamin’s essay says that the visual reproduction of art emancipates the art from its aura — the mystical qualities art assumes based on its hierarchy of ownership, its limited display, its location of display, etc. — which allows it to become more fully subject to critique from even the lower rungs of society, effectively eliminating the aristrocratic hold on art up to the twentieth century. While I didn’t get a whiff of marxism in Sebald’s book, the concept of the aura is there. Baudrillard’s essay deals with the layering of images that effectively anihilates the original. This book definitely has layer upon layer and plays with that theme not just in its images but also in its narrative structure.
These fairly complex themes come together in a brilliant way when the narrator returns again to W.:
A good thirty years had gone by since I had last been in W. In the course of that time — by far the longest period of my life — many of the localities I associated with it, such has the Altachmoos, the parish woods, the tree-lined lane that led to Haslach, the pumping station, Petersthal cemetery where the plague dead lay, or the house in Schray where Dopfer the hunchback lived, had continually returned in my dreams and daydreams and had become more real to me than they had been then, yet the village itself, I reflected, as I arrived at that late hour, was more remote from me than any other place I could conceive of.
One doesn’t need an extensive understanding of twentieth-century aesthetic theory or of the historical context to enjoy Vertigo. Much of that only serves to show just how much this book holds, just how many times the reader could revisit this book and still glean more. At the same time, the book as its own discreet entity holds enough power to captivate the reader. As I said above, the prose is beautiful, and I felt myself taken away by the images Sebald creates with words. I can echo a statement made by one of the characters and apply it gratefully to Sebald’s book:
Once I am at leisure, said Salvatore, I take refuge in prose as one might in a boat. All day long I am surrounded by the clamour on the editorial floor, but in the evening I cross over to an island, and every time, the moment I read the first sentence, it is as if I were rowing far out on the water.