I find the wonderful German writer W.G. Sebald so difficult to review that my treatment of his second novel, The Rings of Saturn, was no more than a long story about a trip I once made with my then partner to her home in Cornwall, during which, mostly on account of her parents, I lost my mind and my girlfriend. I’m not, of course, going to go over all that again, and I couldn’t even if I wanted to, for I have forgotten much of what took place; yet the disquieting thing is that what I can recall or bring back I now doubt the veracity of. For example, my girlfriend’s parents were very rich, but I am sure that it is not the case that their admittedly large home was backed by an even larger field, in which wild horses ran; yet that – the field, the horses, the house – is my strongest memory of the week I spent in Cornwall.
Some years ago I was at college and my philosophy teacher told me a story about how he moved to the Czech Republic, on a whim so to speak, in order to be with a Czech girl he had met whilst she was on vacation in England. When he arrived at her house she showed him in and explained that he ought to say hello to her father. My friend agreed and so she directed him to climb the stairs, where her father could be found in the first room on the right. My teacher may have found this odd, but in any case he climbed the stairs and entered the room and there he saw the old man, sitting in a chair, listening to Wagner, with tears streaming down his face. Now, this did not happen to me. I know that well enough, so why is it that this memory now seems as though it belongs to me? Why is it that I am able to put myself in that situation, in place of my teacher, and see, not what he saw, but my own version of it, with as much assurance as anything that has actually happened to me in my life?
As I sit here and think about those two trips, one to Cornwall and one to the Czech Republic, both of which are a strange mixture of fantasy and fact, the proportions of each unknowable to me, I feel extremely disorientated. This disorientation is, I believe, what Sebald called vertigo, a state that is characterised by the difficulty, or a belief in the difficulty, of putting one’s feet on the ground, of being sure of yourself, and of the world around you. It is this mental, and physical, state that Sebald writes about in this book, the first of his four great novels. In it he tells a series of anecdotes and stories, involving both fictional characters and real people, including himself.
Sebald’s first vertigo-sufferer is Marie-Henri Beyle, who we are told was a soldier in Napoleon’s army; he was also a writer, and is better known as Stendhal. Throughout his life Beyle’s memories and perceptions, according to Sebald, consistently played tricks on him. For example, he was convinced that the town of Ivrea, through which he once passed, would be indelibly fixed in his mind, only to find, some years later, that what he actually remembered was nothing but a copy of an engraving called Prospetto d’Ivrea.
“Beyle writes that even when the images supplied by memory are true to life one can place little confidence in them.”
For Beyle, the distinction between truth and fiction, reality and imagination, was tenuous at best. Probably the most wonderful, the most moving anecdote Sebald shares with us in this regard involves Beyle’s relationship with a possibly imaginary woman, La Ghita. Beyle, writes Sebald, claimed to have been travelling with La Ghita, to have had involved conversations with her, and to have eventually broken from her, and yet there is no definitive proof that she ever existed; in fact, the likelihood is that she was a composite of numerous women the Frenchman had known.
As with all of Sebald’s work, in Vertigo he is concerned with melancholy outsiders, or eccentrics. Most people do not have a troubled relationship with reality, like Beyle does, but the few that do tend to not be particularly happy [or mentally stable]. This appears to be borne out when, at the beginning of the second section of the novel, Sebald, or the narrator who so closely resembles Sebald, discusses his own mental breakdown, which occurs when travelling through Vienna, Milan, Verona, Venice and Innsbruck. The narrator’s vertigo manifests itself as a kind of dread or neurotic fear, and by a sense of the uncanny. For example, at one point he tells the story of Casanova’s imprisonment and notices that the day the Italian had set for his escape is the day that he [Sebald] had visited that same prison, Doge’s Palace. When he leaves each town or city he does so as though trying to outstrip his anxiety, as though he is on the run from himself [and possibly the two shadowy figures he believes may be following him]. In the second half of this long second section, Sebald returns, seven years later, to make the same trip and visit some of the same places. This trip is a tour of his memories of those places as much as it is an actual tour of them.
Like Beyle, Sebald is hyper-sensitive; the things that he reads and the art that he engages with often break into reality, the everyday world is often transformed by his imagination [or madness]. At one point in the book he thinks that he is following Dante, at another he mentions that he was once convinced that a black limousine driver was Melchior, one of the three magi [or wise men]. Throughout, there hangs over the book the question, What is reality? Are Sebald’s strange experiences reality? Instinctively one would want to say no, because Dante was dead at the time the narrator claims to have seen him, and yet, for me, the issue is far from clear-cut; what someone experiences, regardless of how impossible it may may seem, is their reality, is as real as anything we would accept without raising an eyebrow. The truth of the world, I once wrote, is like a cloud of blue smoke on a windy day.
“Over the years I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but in spite of that, far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever. The more images I gathered from the past, i said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past actually happened in this or that way.”
According to many of the reviews and articles I have read, Vertigo is the weakest of Sebald’s four novels, but that is not an opinion I share; for me The Emigrants is the least engaging of the bunch. However, what does distinguish this novel from the others, and perhaps accounts for some of the indifference towards it, is that it wears its influences more brazenly. Sebald’s other work all tastes subtly of Marcel Proust and Jorge Luis Borges, but here the flavour is very, very strong. The prose style, involving long complex sentences, with multiple clauses, is recognisably Proustian; and some of the ideas contained within Vertigo are not only similar to some of those found in In Search of Lost Time, but actually appear in it. Furthermore, the structure of this book, in comparison with Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn in particular, is far from sophisticated. For example, while the opening Beyle section is thematically connected to the rest of the work, it still essentially stands alone. Later in his career Sebald would work his anecdotes and stories into his overall narrative and that gave them a satisfying flow that Vertigo does not have.
Yet there are also positive aspects of the book that one will not find in Sebald’s more sophisticated work. First of all, it is at times pretty funny. There is a refreshing lightness of touch, or lightheartedness, in certain passages. Two incidents stand out or me in this regard, there is Sebald getting hit on in a bar in Italy and a scene on a bus when he spies two kids who he thinks are dead-ringers for Franz Kafka. Here, our intrepid narrator approaches the boys and their parents, but receives a frosty reception; he asks for a photograph of the children but is turned down. They probably thought I was a pederast, Sebald notes. Ha! Martin Amis once said that all great writers are also comic writers, and I believe there is some truth in that. A comic writer does not have to mean someone like P.G. Wodehouse, but, for me, and Amis too, includes the likes of Tolstoy and Kafka. The idea is that if you understand the world, and the human condition, you cannot help but be, on occasions, funny, because life is funny; so it pleases me that Sebald showed that he, too, could be humorous. The story of the Kafka kids also highlights another pleasing aspect of Vertigo, which is that it is more obviously fictional than the novels that came after it. One may in fact see that as a negative, but it was nice, in my opinion, to encounter a more relaxed Sebald, one trying stuff out, even some goofy stuff.