Wednesday, March 31, 2010

W.G. Sebald's Vertigo

Crossposted at Of Books and Bicycles

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this book. Vertigo is my second book by W.G. Sebald; I wrote about The Rings of Saturn here, and I liked that book quite a lot, even though it left me feeling a little bewildered. Now that I have read Vertigo, which is written in a style similar to The Rings of Saturn, I'm less sure what I think of Sebald. Both books are very smart and very thought-provoking, but in both books there's an emotional distance that leaves me a little cold. This seems less true in The Rings of Saturn, but in Vertigo I found it hard to remember what was going on and to keep track of my place in the various stories; this has a lot to do with the fact that Sebald moves quickly and seamlessly from narrative to narrative in a way that is disorienting at times, but I think it also has to do with the emotional distance of the narrator(s). There wasn't enough drawing me into the stories and making me care about what was going on.

Now, I love idea-driven books, whether fiction or nonfiction, so I feel like Sebald should be a favorite writer of mine. But Vertigo makes me realize that an idea-driven book needs to be emotionally compelling as well, because it's when my emotions are involved that I'm most inspired to take time to consider the ideas the writer is working with.

But to back up a bit, Vertigo has four sections, each one telling a different story, or, more accurately, a different series of interconnected stories. Each section is different, but they all deal with memory, sadness, and feelings of disorientation and uncertainty -- the kind of vertigo created by feeling all the sudden alienated from oneself and the surrounding world. The first section describes Stendhal's life, touching on his experiences in war and in love (Sebald never uses the name "Stendhal," though, calling him by his real name, Marie Henri Beyle, and it wasn't until I had finished the section and finally got around to reading the book's back cover that I realized who I had just read about). As a young boy, Beyle marched with Napolean and his army, and as an older man, he tried to remember details of that march. Sebald describes the difficulties Beyle encountered reconciling his memory with the landscape he sees as an older man, thus setting up his theme of the unreliability of memory.

From there the book moves to the story of an unnamed narrator (most likely Sebald himself) who travels around Italy, exploring history (we learn about Casanova, among others) and trying to manage his feelings of uneasiness and uncertainty. Then in the third section we follow Franz Kafka for a while (also suffering emotionally), and finally we return to Sebald as narrator as he describes a journey back to his hometown in Germany. Again, as in the Stendhal section, the narrator describes what it's like to return to formative places as an older person and to confront the difference between reality and memory.

Many of these sections describe powerful emotional experiences -- panic, disorientation, sadness, despair -- and yet it is all described in a flat, emotionless tone. Perhaps what this does is call upon the reader to do more imaginative work to fill in the blanks and to realize for him or herself just what it is the narrator is going through. Certainly the book asks for the reader's participation in figuring out how the four sections connect and what the various vignettes within each section contribute to the overall meaning. And yet I didn't feel inspired to do the work the book seemed to be asking me to do. Perhaps this is my fault, perhaps not, I'm not sure.

At any rate, Sebald is certainly doing interesting things in his writing. I haven't yet touched on the pictures that he includes -- black and white photos that relate to the surrounding text but are without captions, so the reader gets to think about the relationship of narrative and picture. Again, Sebald gives us material and then asks us to do the work of fitting it all together. The project is an interesting and admirable one, and I only wish I had fallen in love with the results.


Vertigo by W.G. Sebald is a curious book made up of four parts that fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. The book is filled with literary, musical, and art references, so many in fact that I didn't have time to look them all up.

Part one on Vertigo sets up everything else for the rest of the book. It is a biography of sorts of Marie Henri Beyle, also known as Stendhal. But I did have time to look up Stendhal's biography and Sebald takes some liberties with it but in the scheme of things it doesn't matter. What does matter is that from the start of the Beyle section we are plunged into thinking about the vagaries of memory, how they cannot be trusted, how "in reality, as we know, everything is always quite different," how memories can be displaced by things like photographs.

Memory is dodgy throughout as when the narrator that is Sebald but not Sebald eventually returns to the town in which he grew up only to find what he thought he remembered and knew about it and the people is not necessarily true. He also sees people who aren't really there during the course of his travels like Dante and King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

We also have, beginning in the Beyle section, the introduction of Stendhal's theory that love is a "protracted crystallization process." Sebald carries the argument about love throughout the book as we get the story of Cassanova's incarceration and escape from prison and later Kafka's idea of love which is almost counter to Stendhal's:

Dr. K evolves a fragmentary theory of disembodied love, in which there is no difference between intimacy and disengagement. If only we were to open our eyes, he says, we would see that our happiness lies in our natural surroundings and not in our poor bodies which have long since become separated from the natural order of things.

But these ideas about love, far from pertaining only to love, are expanded by Sebald to encompass meditations on memory and identity. Our wandering Sebald narrator who is trying to get over an unexplained difficult period in his life, seems to be trying to crystalize his memories. With crystalized memories things can become fixed including himself and the people he knows or knew, the past and the present as well become stable. But crystallization is impossible when it comes to memory because of memory's instability. Our narrator, and by extension the reader, is in a constant state of vertigo.

Kafka's exhortation to open our eyes also means eyes are everywhere in the book. There are several pictures of people but only of their eyes. The narrator visits an optometrist. He is also an art aficionado who, when studying Pisanello, the paintings "instilled in me the desire to forfeit everything except my sense of vision." But our narrator's eyes looking out a train window see only a gray landscape where there is disengagement but no intimacy and the natural surroundings certainly don't make him happy.

Vertigo is a heady book and even though it is written in very simple and unadorned language, it must be read slowly and carefully. So many pieces are interconnected and recur in unexpected places I am sure I missed quite a lot of them. The whole book is like a giant jigsaw puzzle for which you don't have a picture of what it looks like when it is done. The reader is left to sort through the pieces looking for patterns to ultimately find there is no way to fit all the pieces together, no way to come to any conclusion and bring an end to the vertigo. In spite of this I found the book satisfying. I read a library copy but I think I'd like my own copy someday so I can reread it and mark it up making annotations and cross references and taking my time to look up everything. It won't stop the vertigo, but it might produce an even more lovely whirling kaleidoscope.

This book was a Slaves of Golconda group read. I know quite a few Slaves couldn't make it through for various reasons. If you have read the book or just want to see what we're saying about the book, visit the Slaves blog and our discussion forum.

Oh, and I found a couple of good reviews of the book. One from Salon and one from The New York Times (requires free registration to view).

Cross-posted at So Many Books