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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2094

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.

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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 Kafka, Stendhal, and others, having lost his way and identity after a fit of vertigo in Vienna where he sees Dante (1265-1321) walking along the street. This is not the last historical person to pop up and vanish like the White Rabbit. Ludwig II (1845-1886), the Mad King of Bavaria (Sebald’s homeland), not only makes several personal appearances, but also shows up in the name of the mad terrorist group Organizzazione Ludwig, whose members (two young men) may or may not (most likely not) have been the two men the narrator keeps encountering all around northern Italy. Then there are the twins who look like the young Kafka, photo supplied.

Sebald is not open or clear about anything, and yet he will not allow the accusation of obscurity or obfuscation. That is one purpose of the documents and photographs, which Sebald plunks down with the same urgency as a three-card-monte dealer: it’s here, here, here, right here. Only it is never there.

The documentation seems by and large to be authentic, but he never makes any claim except that of juxtaposition. There is a jocular element to some of this; talking about the Altenburg castle, for instance, he provides a photo of what is obviously a garden ornament. When he says a person has done something repeatedly, he may repeat an illustration. He is also prone to using pieces of photos, usually the eyes. The reader may also sometimes find “clues” in the illustrations that are not referred to in the text, like the word written on a calendar page, “Waterloo”—one of the most famous tropes in literature being Stendhal’s use of that battle to stand for the impossibility of understanding, much less reconstructing, experience.

The third section, “Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva,” is about Dr. K.’s attempt to escape his past and his trouble with love by taking the cure at Riva on Lake Garda, where Beyle had already been, one hundred years before, trailing along behind another unreachable love-object. Dr. K. is not identified as Kafka (1883-1924) though the “K” would be a dead giveaway were it not for the slight incongruity of the “doctor” (of law). Sebald is not just playing a game with readers since Kafka himself insisted on the distance implied in that title. Unlike Beyle, Kafka’s trouble was not finding love, but keeping it away. Sebald suggests that this, too, is necessary for writers—he has no interest in resolving the contradiction; that can only be done in a tortured, unsatisfactory way by the author’s life and work. What is important, then, is the way Kafka’s experience at Riva is reconfigured three years later as “The Hunter Gracchus.” This is one of Kafka’s fables, a story of a great huntsman whose body wanders the lake for countless years because of the careless touch of the oarsman. His “ceaseless journey” is a “penitence for a longing for love,” though Sebald wonders “what love could have been sufficient to spare the child [Kafka] the terrors of love?”

The final section, “Il ritorno in patria” is the return home, the inevitable contraction after the effort to escape. This is the ebb and tide of life against the tug of art. So it is fitting that this final section does not explain Sebald the man, but Sebald the artist, and for a long stretch, Sebald the child, father to the artist. Everything that comes before is “explained” here; readers see the back of the rug, and because readers have been prepared, it has an unexpected impact.

Though it starts off much like the second section, with the narrator going back to his hometown W. for an unspecified reason and wandering around much like the “tourist” he is everywhere else, things change when he approaches Seelos Lukas. Their talks about the past, which the narrator terms “unlikely,” “absurd,” and “appalling,” and the past for Lukas, which “became blurred as if he was out in a fog,” provide nonetheless a gateway into the most lucid and compelling part of the whole book. The reader is transported to the narrator’s childhood with an immediacy of experience as nowhere else in the novel. Central to the boy’s development is his crush on Romana, the lovely bartender, who is seduced by Hans Schlag the huntsman. The narrator has watched them making love and notices the dull look in her eye as she submits. It is the same look that the child sees in the eye of suicide—the same look that Beyle sees in the dead horses at the one battle that he participated in.

The narrator cannot escape the bestiality of his townsmen—with World War II and the Holocaust little more than another disaster in W.’s long history, one item in a list the narrator’s beautiful teacher makes the class write down. It is as if they had no responsibility for it, the final and irredeemable proof of man’s brutishness.

To the child narrator only the hunter Schlag stands apart, and when he dies (probably a murder victim), the child becomes deathly ill after seeing his body borne along on its bier, the fourth such apparition in the book. Instead of dying, the child escapes through art. All around the area the paintings and murals of Hengge, the local artist, have a vitality and life that none of the people do. An awareness of the greater world is provided by Mathild, Lukas’s aunt and a good friend of the narrator’s grandfather. She gave the narrator a glimpse of an outside world in various ways, including an atlas, which may explain his lifelong obsession with geography and maps. She was an oversized figure in his memory. Now, he goes back to her old house with Lukas to investigate the attic he was always forbidden to enter as a child, threatened with a bogey man called “the grey (sic) chasseur.”

Now, in the decaying remains of her life, he finds that she was a woman both religious and politically radical—an outcast in the town, an inner exile, not unlike the narrator himself. He finds the gray chasseur, the gray uniform of an Austrian cavalry officer, who would have led a company of men across the Alps and over into Italy to be killed at Marengo fighting against Napoleon I. The book comes full circle, then, from Beyle marching with Napoleon I down to Marengo.

What a novel! What authority of voice! Sebald belongs to a literary tradition where the interior voice dominates—an interior voice that is an extreme version of the self. Kafka belonged to this tradition, obviously, as does Sebald’s near contemporary Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), whom one is almost tempted to call his fellow countryman. Both share a disgust for their native lands, and both authors detest the absurdity of their times. Both show, also, a certain lack of interest in accommodating the reader. Bernhard is notorious for his refusal to paragraph, and Sebald’s paragraphing is unusual, too, but it is the least difficult part of his compelling, if confounding work.

At first glance it might seem arbitrary—the way he mixes narrative and dialogue all together without quotation marks—but it is not confusing once one realizes it is Sebald’s interior voice that accounts for the odd mix of genres and styles and the apparent indifference to proper paragraph breaks and quotations. What he hears resonates the same way that what he thinks does. Everything that he experiences is filtered through that interior voice so that it takes on some of its qualities. The tone is so seductive and so authoritative that sometimes readers will have to step back from the writing to realize just how bizarre Sebald’s world is.

It is a world where nothing is so real as the inanimate. The reader cannot help but feel that Sebald’s real friends are the paintings he visits like relatives and old friends, especially those of Antonio Pisanello (c. 1395-1455) and the angels of Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337); these were artists whose realism did not depend upon the swindle of perspective. This is a writer whose postmodernism has very deep, very old roots.

Sources for Further Study

Newsweek 135 (April 25, 2000): 99.

The New York Review of Books 47 (June 15, 2000): 52.

The New York Times, May 22, 2000, p. B8.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (June 11, 2000): 20.

The New Yorker 76 (May 29, 2000): 128.

Publishers Weekly 247 (April 24, 2000): 62.

The Spectator 283 (December 25, 1999): 65.

The Times Literary Supplement, February 25, 2000, p. 3.

The Village Voice 45 (June 6, 2000): 125.

The Wall Street Journal 236 (July 14, 2000): W6.

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