Vertigo (W G Sebald)

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Read 15/08/2016 to 18/08/2016

Rating: 5 stars

Read for The Reader’s Room Olympic Challenge

I’ve been meaning to read some Sebald for a while. I know next to nothing about him, save that other writers whose work I admire speak warmly of him. I read his bio at the start of Vertigo, of course, and learnt that he studied in Manchester and taught at the University in the 1960s. I can be very partisan at times, and learning that someone made Manchester their home, however briefly, makes me warm to them.

Vertigo starts with a veteran of an alpine march led by Napoleon in 1800 reminiscing thirty-six years later about his experiences in the armed services. He recalls a particular scene, looking down onto an Alpine Italian village as the troops descended from the mountain, and realises that what he thought was a true memory was nothing more than the imprinting of an image in an engraving into his memory. This fascinates me, because I have what I think of as a vivid memory that similarly is nothing but a photograph that my mind has embellished into memory. I know that it’s a photograph (although the print no longer exists as Mum, in her early stages of dementia, destroyed most of the family photographs of me and my siblings as children because she didn’t know she was married and didn’t recognise the people in the images) but I am still convinced that I can remember the day Mum filled my old baby bath for me to use as a paddling pool, and how outraged I was when my brother insisted on squeezing in with me. I must have been 3 or 4 years old, so it’s unlikely that I do remember, and the filmshow that plays in my mind is definitely based on the photograph.

Beyle, the character Sebald presents us with, has the following advice as a result of his experience:

… not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them.

I feel the same way about people at gigs who spend all their time filming the performers rather than experiencing the performance. How can a poor quality video recorded on a phone possibly do justice to the actual performance? Surely all it does is prove you were in the room at the same time as the artist, not that you were absorbed in what they were doing.

Beyle is a comic figure, full of unrequited love and frustrated passion. He seeks a female companion who will share his love and his intellectual life, but is constantly thwarted. The women he travels with are immune to his intellectual ruminations and callous towards him in his expressions of romance. There’s a suggestion that he might have been so frustrated in his passion that he imagined most of the women who make an appearance in his diaries.

Beyle’s experiences set the scene for Sebald’s own travelogue, which describes a trip he took in 1980. He starts out in Vienna, seeking solitude. He walks the city, but always within the same crescent-shaped area. When he has worked off his need for solitude, he tries to call up some friends, but nobody answers the phone. In the current era, he would probably Tweet someone or message them on Facebook. I felt his frustration with the lack of response from his friends. We are so connected these days, and yet not connected at all. His lack of diversion leads him to visit a friend, recently discharged from a mental institution, and then take the train to Venice. Sebald’s descriptions from the journey made me want to go myself.

The imaginary conundrum of Beyle’s memoirs are somewhat mirrored in Sebald’s. He imagines he sees Dante walking the streets of Vienna, then believes he is sharing a vaporetto with King Ludwig II of Bavaria and a dwarf while in Venice. For Sebald, these visions are as vivid as reality. He knows they are visions, but he embraces them, follows them, hopes they might turn out to be real, or lead him on an adventure.

Sebald’s travelogue is like a quirky guidebook. He recalls colourful characters from history connected to places he visits, as well as memories from his own past. I am envious of his curiosity and openness. He talks to strangers and learns new things, he goes on solitary adventures, he sits quietly reflecting or busily writing in public spaces, and when he has had enough of a place, he packs up and makes off for a new location. I want to be that person, but I have too big a sense of responsibility to allow myself to live so freely. He allows craziness to happen, like when he decides twin boys on a bus near Verona look like Franz Kafka as a boy and tries to engage them in conversation, to the consternation of their parents. Undaunted by their suspicion, he asks them to send him a photograph of the boys, before realising this makes him seem like a pederast.

All of his senses are open, as well. He looks and absorbs, but he also listens and imagines. My favourite passage is one where he likens the noise of traffic to the threatening sea.

How often, I thought to myself, had I lain thus in a hotel room, in Vienna or Frankfurt or Brussels, with my hands clasped under my head, listening not to the stillness, as in Venice, but to the roar of the traffic, with a mounting sense of panic. That, then, I thought on such occasions, is the new ocean. Ceaselessly, in great surges, the waves roll in over the length and breadth of our cities, rising higher and higher, breaking in a kind of frenzy when the road reaches its peak and then discharging across the stones and the asphalt even as the next onrush is being released from where it was held by the traffic lights.

I am a little in love with him.

There is an interlude where Sebald imagines Kafka’s time in Verona and a possible romance he had with a young woman, also a visitor, which is grounded in its fleetingness and a desire never to speak the other’s name, to be solely in the moment and then, afterwards, to behave as though nothing happened. This appeals to me. I would love to be that free, but I know that I would be like the woman in the tale. I would cry and stand at the rail of the boat, waving with a finality I would always regret.

A maze appears on the back of a map of Milan, one of the many uncaptioned images that punctuate the book. The final section deals with Sebald’s return to his home town. In it, the unmasking of a mystery in an attic that has haunted him since childhood, and the link back to the first chapter made me think of the labyrinthine nature of Borges’ writing. It is subtle, but a link exists between Sebald and Borges.

I’m so glad I read this. It was a real tonic after the last few books I’ve read. I found Sebald’s writing very comfortable and will definitely read more of his books.

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