Almost any review of Vertigo (including this one) will start by saying how difficult it is to categorize the fiction of W. G. Sebald. He mixes his genres, ignores writerly conventions, and strews his books, not always very helpfully, with photographs and documents. Vertigo consists of two apparently factual meditations on writers and two apparently factual accounts of trips the narrator took, one in 1980 and the other in 1987. All factual, all apparently true, yet undoubtedly fiction. If it is harder to call this book a novel, that is only, perhaps, because readers have not learned how to read Sebald.
The critical consensus is that Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten, 1993, translated 1996), the last book Sebald wrote and the first translated, is the author’s most successful, but he accomplishes something remarkable in Vertigo, which is as ambitious as any work of fiction can ever be. This book is so full of ideas and detail that it induces a kind of vertigo just to contemplate them: love, war, disasters, art, identity, memory, time, place, dislocation, and geography. Instead of an exhaustive, Proustian immersion in these things, Sebald opts for something more associative, as in poetry or dreams, using a deceptively simple technique. The book contains four self-contained, apparently freestanding stories, and in a book that delights in doubles and doubling, Sebald sets them in pairs that work with each other and all together like a loom, the warp and woof creating a design of such intricacy it almost cannot be unraveled. Then Sebald contrives to show the back of the rug as well.
The first section, “Beyle, or Love is a Madness Most Discreet,” follows the seventeen-year-old Beyle, a young officer in Napoleon I’s army of invasion. Almost immediately, Sebald says that Beyle’s experiences, not written down till many years later, provide “eloquent proof of the various difficulties entailed in the act of recollection.” This is one of the main themes of the book, but it is matched by another, which is the imperative to remember despite (or because) of the impossibility of remembering accurately.
In German, schwindel refers to the dizzy disorientation of vertigo and amnesia, but an English speaker can easily identify its other meaning. Obviously Sebald, who has been teaching German literature and translation in East Anglia, England, for thirty years and knows English better than most of his readers, does not mean to suggest that his book, or any art, swindles its audience. Rather, he is suggesting that in all art there is an element of fraud, a trace (or more!) of the bogus, which in no way tarnishes the luster of art. To the contrary: Art is impossible without it. It is like the plaster cast of his love-object’s hand which Beyle cherishes the more because of the imperfection of one pinkie.
Beyle, whom Sebald nowhere identifies by his more famous penname, Stendhal (1783-1842), is a notorious failure at love (and at war) not because he is ugly, but because he confuses his inner feelings for facts in the world. He does not just see with his eyes, he creates what he sees. The two-word German title, Schwindel. Gefühle, is translated into the single word, Vertigo, yet it is significant that gefühle means emotion, which reinforces the interior source of the swoon. Beyle fails at love for the same reason he succeeds at writing—because his intense self-absorption allows him to be enraptured only in such a way that he can look, never possess. This seems to be a necessary condition for the artist, who cannot make the world conform to his desires and so replaces the world with his art.
The second section, “All’estero,” translated as “abroad,” is also a kind of swoon, a dreamlike account of two trips that the narrator (Sebald in everything but name) took to northern Italy (the cradle of modern culture) and to the Tyrol (cradle of modern butchery).
Here the narrator seems to be stumbling along in the footprints of Franz...
(The entire section is 2,094 words.)