W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo

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.

If you are interested, come check out the discussion here.

11 Comments

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11 responses to “W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo

  1. Just dropping in here before I check out the discussion. As you know I read the wrong book (doh) so I must go back and see your thoughts on The Rings of Saturn as well.

    I wanted to ask you if you’ve read any books by Gunter Grass which also deal with the problems of memory? While reading ‘Rings’ I kept thinking of the similarities between the ideas he wants to express and Sebald’s (I kept catching a theme of the attempts of the losing countries of WWII to erase, or silence the past which is what made me connect the two authors). He’s also a roundabout author who never quite goes in a straight line, with wonderful results.

    If Vertigo is written with a lot more emotional distance than ‘Rings’ I wonder if it’s because Sebald is the person everything happens to in ‘Rings’ but uses other personalities in ‘Vertigo’?

  2. I really do want to read Sebald, though maybe it would be better to try Rings of Saturn first. I think you’re right about the emotional disconnect and maybe that was intentional, but I tend (at least lately) to like having some sort of emotional connection so Vertigo wasn’t quite working for me. I also felt a little lost and like you didn’t figure out the first section was about Stendal until after I read the back of the book more closely. I know I’d be going about it a little backwards, but maybe after listening to the discussion and reading everyone’s posts I might be better able to tackle the story.

  3. That emotional distance is actually part of the argument of the book – that refusal to say “Stendhal” is one little example. Whether that argument is correct, fruitful, etc. is another matter.

    You have to – have to – try The Emigrants. It is biography-based, character-based, and addresses exactly the concerns about emotional investment you found (as did I) in Vertigo.

  4. “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.”

    That’s why I write fiction, though there are non-fiction writers (notably Annie Dillard) who do that admirably.

  5. Matt

    I agree, you must read The Emigrants. It is an amazing book, no matter how you look at it. I’ve also heard great things about Austerlitz.

  6. Despite the mixed reviews this book is getting from the Slaves, I am so intrigued by its structure and preoccupation with unreliable memory that I might have to give it a shot. Will remember not to try it when I’m in the mood for something that will reach out to me emotionally, however. Thanks for the thoughtful post, as usual.

  7. I was surprised by all the pictures in the book. I actually liked that part because I thought that was so unusual but unfortunately I was just so disoriented with the narrative and couldn’t get into it at all.

  8. Good: a book I think I can pass on.

  9. I like the theme of “confronting the difference between reality and memory,” but if the book isn’t compelling emotionally, I will pass too.

  10. Jodie — I have read Grass’s novel The Tin Drum, but I had a hard time with it. It’s a very smart book, clearly, but I grew impatient with it. I’m sure you’ve made a good connection between the two authors, though! The WWII stuff in Rings of Saturn was fascinating. There are long sections in Vertigo that have Sebald or someone very like him as the narrator, and the sections with other characters are much shorter, but you may be right — the mix of narrators/characters does make the whole book more abstract and detached.

    Danielle — I think Rings of Saturn might be a better book to start with. I’ll admit the Stendhal bit annoyed me. Why not tell us?? I’m sure he did have reasons — related to vertigo, perhaps — but still, I wasn’t in much of a mood to be surprised in that way. I agree with you about the emotional connection.

    Amateur Reader — well, then, I will read The Emigrants, although maybe not soon. I do have it on my shelves. I’m not through with Sebald yet, and that’s fine with me.

    Lilian — I agree that fiction is a great place to find an emotionally rich treatment of ideas. I love nonfiction that does the same, when I can find it. I haven’t read much Dillard, but my favorite personal essayists bring the two together wonderfully.

    Matt — thanks for the suggestion — clearly I do need to read the book!

    Emily — I would really love to know what you think of the book. I think it would interest you a lot, even if you have a mixed response like I did. But yes, it’s good to know what you’re in for!

    Iliana — the pictures are a really interesting feature. Some of them are so odd, and some are haunting. They provide a little documentary evidence, I suppose.

    Emily Barton — I’m always glad to help! (Except that I’m not, really, since I’ve sent you a couple books in the mail recently!)

    Debby — yes, there’s a lot to value here, but you do have to want some abstract and detached ideas to enjoy the book. If that doesn’t appeal, I wouldn’t recommend it.

  11. Interesting. I have loved the Sebald I have read [Austerlitz] and have always wondered which one to read next.
    Perhaps this one, I will relegate to the end. Of his others.

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