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.