W. G. Sebald Essay - Critical Essays

W. G. Sebald Long Fiction Analysis

Anyone picking up one of W. G. Sebald’s novels for the first time might be initially perplexed. Are these really novels, or are they documentaries? Multiple shifts of point of view, the use of photographs that depict everything from family reunions to historical events, the lack of specific plot, the use of real people as characters (Stendhal, Michael Hamburger), and the mixture of fact and fiction create a surrealistic world where expectations and events change from moment to moment. Like Kafka, Walser, and Thomas Mann before him, Sebald records the lives of individuals who wander though their lives searching the past for some clues about their identities. These characters often drift through broken landscapes littered with the debris of shattered families, madness, and the shards of history as they try to remember how they came to their particular historical moment and discern ways to live within that moment. More than any other contemporary German novelist, Sebald explores the ways that individuals manage to carry—or cannot manage to bear—the unbearable weight of history in their lives. Much like the spiritual wanderers of Hermann Hesse’s novels and the pilgrim in Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), Sebald’s characters find themselves ever restless, always on a quest—either through their consciousness or through journeys through cities such as Dresden—to reach that ever-receding horizon that promises revelation and knowledge.

All four of Sebald’s novels are extended meditations on the function of memory. In his first novel, Vertigo, for example, the narrator engages in a long process of reconstructing his identity through writing down—literally, since the novel itself functions as the preservation of his writing, and figuratively, as he writes a journal or a novel as the central part of the novel’s action—the events of his life, the political affairs through which he has lived, and the women he has loved. As the narrator of this particular novel discovers, memory can be both unreliable and accurate. By the end of the novel, has he learned any more about himself than he knew at the beginning? Has the reader learned any more about him? All of Sebald’s other novels involve similar exercises in which the narrators set out to recall, in whatever fashion they have at hand, the events that have led them to their present state, as well as to use those events to reveal to themselves something of the character of their lives. As Sebald’s characters discover, memory often unsettles them, forcing them to uncomfortable recognitions about themselves and others, or it lulls them momentarily into thinking that indeed they have found the keys to their identities.

Exile and homelessness are also two major themes of Sebald’s novels. Every one of his novels features a narrator who is wandering throughout Germany, England, or Europe, trying to find some semblance of the home he has left behind. The German title of his second novel, Die Ausgewanderten (which comes from a word whose root is “to wander”), literally expresses these themes. The novel features stories of four such wanderers who must endure the loneliness and pathos of their attempts to construct for themselves a new home in a foreign land. Given that Sebald himself was an emigrant—a German writer living in England—and that many of his narrators are thinly veiled doubles for himself, it is perhaps not surprising that homelessness, exile, and wandering dominate his novels.


Although Vertigo was Sebald’s first novel, it did not appear in English translation until after two of his other novels—The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn—had been published. By the time it was published, critical acclaim for Sebald had been building. The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn had established Sebald as a brilliantly original thinker whom critics called a rare and elusive species and the epitome of literary greatness. Vertigo merely confirmed critical opinion of Sebald and reinforced opinions regarding his genius.

Much as its title indicates, Vertigo is a dizzying journey through European history and through the minds of several different narrators trying to find their identities within those Wordsworthian “spots of time” in which they find themselves ensconced. The book consists of four sections, each narrated by a different narrator (although the narrators of the second and fourth parts of the book may be the same individual). The point of view shifts from the third person in the first and third sections to the first person in the second and fourth sections. All of the narrators are wanderers, traveling through various settings in Europe and involved in particular events in those settings. The settings here range from Italy and France, Austria and Italy, to England and Germany.

Each section of the novel also takes place roughly during a certain period of time. The first section occurs in 1813, the year in which Napoleon I is finally defeated. The third section takes place in 1913, the year prior to World War I and its history-altering consequences. The second section takes place in Italy and Austria around 1980, and the fourth section occurs in Italy around 1987. As in other Sebald novels, the narrators of the sections move from historical individuals (Stendhal in the first section and Kafka in the third) to fictional characters (a writer in the second and fourth sections—although the narrator in each of these sections resembles Sebald himself).

With its line drawings and its observations about the nature of the writing life and the nature of love, the first section of Vertigo resembles Stendhal’s own “autobiography,” Vie de Henry Brulard (1890; The Life of Henry Brulard, 1925). In the aftermath of his reluctantly undertaken military service, Marie Henri Beyle (Stendhal) resolves to become the greatest writer of all time. In addition, he falls in love with a married woman, pursues her surreptitiously, loses her through his incautious manner, and mourns this loss (she never loved him in the first place, but his love for her is eternal) in his little book On Love....

(The entire section is 2571 words.)