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Vertigo by WG Sebald

Vertigo is that nauseous feeling induced by losing balance or from being at a height. Everything appears to be unsettled and to whirl around. It is hard to keep the scene in front of you coherent as it moves and eludes perception.

The book’s title is perfect; it is a work that teeters at the edge of uncertainty … Sebald’s journey into himself and his past is compelling, puzzling, unique. [Erica Wagner in the Times, quoted by Stephen Moss, see below.]

226 Vertigo

Structure and other features

The question of genre is frequently raised about Sebald’s work. Vertigo is a novel and a memoir and a travel book and a disquisition on European culture. It is organised into four parts, describing the travels of Beyle (better known to us by his pen name: Stendhal), WG Sebald, Dr K (aka Kafka) and WG Sebald again. They travel through Europe, mostly on railways, occasionally by foot. Connections between the four sections are not obvious.

Beyle, Sebald and Dr K share hypersensitivity. The effect of this is that their journeys and the narration of their travels can turn in a moment, and take the reader down a side track, a digression. The digression quickly becomes the topic of the next few pages. And the original narrative line is left behind. Much like a railway journey really. Impossible to read for some, but I get seduced, like looking out of a railway carriage at the scenery.

As with his other novels, the text contains many grainy pictures. Some of them appear to have no connection with the text, others appear to illustrate it. Some might have given Sebald ideas about what to include: for example the grusome Drs Ringger and Pesavento on pages 118 and 119. There is a sense that some may be frauds, stand-ins, and some real, like memory, or the randomness of life from which we try to make sense. Nothing is clear.

Themes

Memories and truth seem to be the big themes, especially in the last section where Max revisits his birthplace W., not visited for decades. The critical scene perhaps is when he is in the attic with Lukas he touches an old grey chasseur uniform from the 19th century it crumbles to nothing. You touch and it’s gone.

At last he explains, or does not, what he has been about in the place of his birth:

… Lukas wanted to know what had brought me back to W. after so many years, and in November of all times. To my surprise he understood my rather complicated and sometimes contradictory explanations right away. He particularly agreed when I said that 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 had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling. (212)

30 WG Sebald2

Writing

The writing gives the impression that the narrator is detached from the events described. There is an evenness of tone, an absence of dialogue, little reported speech. The narrative is like the railway lines, stretching behind, and onwards, with branches off which he may or may not take.

The restlessness manages to be the opposite of dull, and perhaps this is due to Sebald’s extensive middle European cultural knowledge, especially of art and literature and his skill in descriptions of landscapes. Obfuscation is what happens all the time. There are no explanations, no emotional responses to events. In Milan, two young men set upon the narrator, and I had to read the passage twice before I could understand that they had taken nothing from him.

Not until I turned on my heel and swung the bag off my shoulder into the pair of them did I manage to disengage myself and retreat to one of the pillars in the archway. LA PROSSIMA COINCIDENZA. None of the passers-by had taken any notice of the incident. I, however, watched my two assailants, jerking curiously as if they were out of an early motion picture, vanish in the half-light under the colonnades. In the taxi, I clutched my bag with both hands. To my remark that Milan was dangerous territory, ventured in as casual a tone as I could muster, the driver responded with a gesture of helplessness. (109)

And we are into a description of the fortified taxi cab, and then of the hotel. The mugging is already behind him.

We don’t know whether the people referred to really existed or not. How do the four sections relate? Why are Stendhal and Kafka referred to as Marie Henri Beyle and Dr K respectively? Is this memoir or fiction? Is it a new form of travel writing? I think it defies labelling and we need not be detained trying to fit the labels to this book.

I’ve recently been reading Virginia Woolf and it strikes me that she was trying to reproduce how humans experience the world, and that may also be Sebald’s purpose. The world is not delivered to us in neat packages, but in an ever-turning series of events, which change and become less secure as we examine them. The experience of the world is not unlike the experience of vertigo.

It has been suggested that his four novels should be seen as a quartet: The Emigrants, Austerlitz, The Moons of Saturn and Vertigo. I don’t think it matters too much whether they are seen as separate or a quartet. They all have virtues, and together they remind us what was lost when Sebald died in a road accident in December 2001.

Vertigo by WG Sebald was first published in English in 1999 and published by Vintage in 2002. 263pp

Translated from the German by Michael Hulse.

226 Emmig

Related posts

Why you should read WG Sebald by Mark O’Connell in the New Yorker to mark the 10th anniversary of Sebald’s death, December 2011, is a useful introduction.

Written in January 2000, before Max Sebald died, this post by Stephen Moss in the Guardian made most sense and was very helpful to me. Falling for Vertigo

Returning to The Emigrants by WG Sebald from January 2016

The original post The Emigrants by WG Sebald; one of those enduring blogposts that receives constant readership, from May 2013

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Returning to The Emigrants by WG Sebald

I regard the writings of WG Sebald as amongst the most original, creative and intelligent of the last 25 years. I wrote about The Emigrants on the blog in May 2013. The original post still attracts readers, so I thought I would revisit and revise the original for any new readers. What follows is a slightly revised version.

226 Emmig

The Emigrants by WG Sebald

Is it a novel? Is it a memoir? Is it a collection of biographies? No, it’s The Emigrants by WG Sebald whose writing seems to generate such questions. One of the most frequent is – in what category does his writing fit? Is it fiction or not? I’m not going to get diverted into addressing that question. It’s a novel that explores themes of loss, displacement, memory and especially of what remains of people, of their lives, of their words. With his own premature death in a car accident in 2001, we can ask such questions also about WG Sebald.

Structure

The Emigrants has four sections of unequal length. Each section carries the name of one emigrant: Dr Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth and Max Ferber. There is a fifth story, contained within the final section. Max Ferber’s mother wrote a memoir of her childhood, which makes her the fifth emigrant. The narrator is himself an emigrant (in reality as well as in the fiction). In these accounts the narrator tells us of his connections with the five emigrants and what he has been told about them: his neighbour Dr Selwyn, Paul Bereyter was his primary school teacher in the village of S, Ambros Adelwarth a member of his family who went to the States, and Max Ferber a painter met during a lonely period in Manchester.

Style

His manner of writing generates another set of questions. Why does he write in very long sentences and paragraphs, and make extensive use of reported speech and reported text? My friend Rose, who recommended Sebald’s writing to me a couple of years ago (thank you so much Rose) spoke of the tension this creates as she reads. And it is carefully crafted so that the reader trusts the author to carry them to the end of the paragraph, or the section, or even the book. Somehow Sebald balances this tension with an apparent ‘take it or leave it’ manner, and by very little differentiation of tone or pace. The reader has the sense that every detail has been carefully chosen.

Illustrations and Playfulness

30 WG Sebald2Then there are those fuzzy black and white photographs, usually relating to the topic on the page, but they might not. What are they for? The Emigrants, for example, opens with a photo of a tree in a churchyard, on the same page that he refers to house he (or a man he refers to as himself) was looking for in the village of Hingham.

Sebald constantly presents us with information that may or may not be accurate. For example, there is a market town called Hingham in Norfolk, but picture does not quite match the description in the text. I love this playfulness. One sentence jumped out at me

Clara had bought a house one afternoon on the spur of the moment.

I was especially piqued by this achievement of Clara’s as I was in the middle of house buying while I was reading The Emigrants. The aside about Clara is an example that Sebald knows that his reader will experience house buying as a very involving experience, but he is writing about something else.

Sebald’s reputation

Another question is why is he so highly regarded? Susan Sontag had an answer even before Austerlitz had been published in 2001.

Is literary greatness still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of WG Sebald. (A Mind in Mourning, reprinted in Where the Stress Falls, first published in TLS, February 2000).

Not tepid, glib, or the senselessly cruel then. But what are his qualities? Why should you read this author, who in any case was writing in German, even if he was living in England. She points out that his books are all about travel, journeys, provoked by a curiosity about a life, or in the wake of some crisis, and as a quest. She reminds us that a journey is often a revisiting, as in the last of the four stories in The Emigrants.

Sebald described his work as ‘documentary fiction’, according to Mark O’Connell in the New Yorker.

Reading him is a wonderfully disorienting experience, not least because of the odd, invigorating uncertainty as to what it is, precisely, we are reading.

An extract

Apart from the reference to Clara, I have not yet quoted from The Emigrants. In part, this is because it is hard to pick out a section, so relentlessly do the sentences and paragraphs move along. Here’s the end of the first section, which refers to a friend of Dr Selwyn, an alpine guide who had disappeared in 1914. Enjoy the flow of the first sentence!

Three quarters of an hour later, not wanting to miss the landscape around Lake Geneva, which never fails to astound me as it opens out, I was just laying aside a Lausanne paper I’d bought in Zurich when my eye was caught by a report that said the remains of the Bernese alpine guide Johannes Naegli, missing since summer 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later. And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots. [A clipping of a relevant newspaper illustrates the previous page]. (p23)

Why do I think everyone should read Sebald?

Here are my five reasons.

  1. He treats the reader as intelligent and as someone who can do some work.
  2. He writes about Europe, the Europe with which I am familiar, its history, beliefs, monuments, and how these things affected people’s lives.
  3. He is innovative, playful and interesting (especially in the details, the objects he presents to the reader).
  4. He says something important about what we used to call the ‘human condition’, about memory, loss, displacement and how we have lived.
  5. He writes beautifully, with rhythm, tension and movement.

More Sebald for me

226 Vertigo

I still have Vertigo to read. He wrote poems that have also been published: Across the Land and the Water, published in 2011.

His essays about influences upon his ideas were published by Penguin in May 2013 called A Place in the Country.

I am planning to take Austerlitz to re-read on my desert island.

226 AusterlitzHis influence continues through his students. For example, Richard Skinner’s blog has a post that records Sebald’s writing tips: a great collection. Here’s a selection of three:

There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pocket.

Every sentence taken by itself should mean something.

Lots of things resolve themselves just by being in the drawer for a while.

I’d like to try to capture that libidinous delight in my writing!

We should acknowledge the skill of the translator of The Emigrants, in this case it is Michael Hulse.

 

The Emigrants by WG Sebald, first published in English in 1996, available in Vintage Classic series since 2002. 257pp. Translated by Michael Hulse.

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