The Solitary Notetaker
by W.G. Sebald, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Random House, 221 pp., $24.95
by W.G. Sebald, translated from the German by Michael Hamburger, with lithographs by Jan Peter Tripp
New Directions, 109 pp., $22.95
When W.G. Sebald died in a car accident in December 2001, he was eulogized in Great Britain and America as one of the great writers of our time. And yet, before his first book, The Emigrants, was translated into English in 1996, very few had ever heard of him outside Germany. The reception of that first book and the others that soon followed in quick order was simply astonishing. He was called one of the most original voices to have come out of Europe in recent years, a Teutonic Borges, strange, sublime, and haunting. “Is literary greatness still possible?” Susan Sontag asked in the TLS and then replied: “One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W.G. Sebald.” Since his death, however, there have been differing views. What at first appeared to be a seamless prose style turned out to be on closer examination a patchwork of literary borrowings. His books, it seemed, were as much the product of his vast erudition as they were of his own imagination and experience. This raises the question whether a writer who draws many of his ideas from other writers can still be called an original. If anyone can, Sebald may be the one.I suppose most everyone who read The Emigrants in Michael Hulse’s translation, when it came out, shared Sontag’s high opinion. It was a book unlike any other one had read. At times it sounded like a novel, at other times like a memoir or a work of non-fiction. There were even documents and photographs to complicate the question of how it should be understood. The narrative tells about the lives of four emigrants: an old Lithuanian Jewish doctor who accidentally emigrated to London in his youth, having embarked on a ship he thought was going to United States; a German schoolteacher who was forced to leave his job in 1935 and move to France because he had a Jewish grandfather and was thus only three-quarters Aryan, but who then returned home and served in the Wehrmacht; a great-uncle of Sebald’s who emigrated to America and ended in a mental hospital in Ithaca, New York; and finally a Jewish painter who lost his parents in the camps and whom the narrator encounters in Manchester.
These are people like my own parents who could never forget that war, or stop being puzzled by how strange their lives turned out to be. What makes The Emigrants such a powerful book is the laconic way in which tragedies are recounted. That sounds right to me. Those who have lived through horrors tend to acquire a detachment about what happened to them. “It makes one’s head heavy and giddy,” one of them says, “as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.”
As for the author and the presumed narrator of the book, little was known about him at the time except that he was a German living and teaching in England. Sebald, we subsequently learned, was born in 1944 in Wertach im Allgäu, a small village in the Bavarian Alps, to a working-class family. His father fought in the army and was a POW. Their lives were made even more isolated by the general poverty of the postwar years and the difficulty of travel. As he explains, they never went to the cities because the cities were piles of rubble. Neither at home nor in school was there much talk about the war. Like many of his generation in Germany, he grew up feeling that many things were being hidden from him.Sebald eventually went to study German and comparative literature in Freiburg in Switzerland and at the University of Manchester, and after a few attempts to return home settled in England permanently in 1970. He taught European literature for thirty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, publishing several books on nineteenth- and twentieth-century German and Austrian literature. After years of being a literary scholar, at the age of forty-four, he turned to a different kind of writing. A book of prose poems, Nach der Natur (After Nature), came out 1988, followed by a novel, Schwindel, Gefühle (Vertigo), in 1990. It was not, however, until the publication of Die Ausgewanderten: Vier lange Erzählungen (The Emigrants) in 1993 and its huge success in Germany, where he received a major literary prize, that Sebald’s name became known abroad.
Following the critical success of The Emigrants, other works by Sebald were translated, though not always in order of their composition. The Rings of Saturn, which came next, was published in 1995 in Germany. Again, the book belongs to no recognizable literary genre. It tells of a walking tour Sebald undertook on the eastern coast of England. Often, the reader has no idea of the author’s intentions and he is in no hurry to inform us. He roams the empty countryside with its equally deserted towns, stays in cheap hotels where he seems to be the only guest, dines alone, visits local museums and places of interest such as the Persian-style house of a nineteenth-century millionaire and a Sailor’s Reading Room in the town of Southwold, and describes what he saw. All in all, not much happens. His solitude draws him to other loners. There are chance meetings with strangers who have interesting stories to tell. For long stretches of time he just sits in his room:
Night had fallen and I sat in the darkness of my room on the top floor of the Vondel Park Hotel and listened to the stormy gusts buffeting the crowns of the trees. From afar came the rumble of thunder. Pallid sheet lightning streaked the horizon. At about one o’clock, when I heard the first drops rattling on the metal roof, I leant out of the window into the warm, storm-filled air. Soon the rain was pouring down into the shadowy depths of the park, which flared from time to time as if lit up by Bengal fire. The water in the gutter gurgled like a mountain stream. Once, when lightning again flashed across the sky, I looked down into the hotel garden far below me, and there, in the broad ditch that runs between the garden and the park, in the shelter of an overhanging willow, I saw a solitary mallard, motionless on the garish green surface of the water. This image emerged from the darkness, for a fraction of a second, with such perfect clarity that I can still see every individual willow leaf, the myriad green scales of duckweed, the subtlest nuances in the fowl’s plumage, and even the pores in the lid closed over its eye.Everywhere he goes, the narrator, who evidently has read much about the region, reflects on its history. It’s the eccentricity of what he chooses to relate to us that makes the book so much fun to read. The Rings of Saturn is a literary equivalent of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a collection of the unbelievable, the inexplicable, the one-of-a-kind. Thomas Browne’s skull is in it, and so are Belgian atrocities in the Congo, World War II bombings of Germany, Joseph Conrad’s early years, the Battle of Waterloo, the natural history of the herring, the Taiping rebellion, the matchstick model of the Jerusalem Temple, and Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson. All of these have a connection with the ports of East Anglia where Conrad started his career as an officer on British ships.
Sebald is an entertaining guide and yet his vision is bleak. Human history for him is mainly a tale about how violence is committed against the innocent and then soon forgotten. “On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation,” he writes, paraphrasing Sir Thomas Browne.
For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.Sebald is a writer for out-and-out pessimists. There are no light moments and no humor in his books to speak of. His towns and cities have been swept of nearly all life. They are like stage sets for one of Samuel Beckett’s minimalist plays.
Vertigo, the first prose book he wrote, was published next. It’s been called a novel, but it’s another magic realist travel book. It describes Sebald’s journey across Europe in the footsteps of Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka, ending in the narrator’s native Bavarian village. Once again, the book is full of fascinating anecdotes, but there are some problems too. Sebald’s pet idea seems to be that our lives are interlinked, that everything is connected, that there’s no such thing as coincidence, that we are mere chess pieces in a game played by an invisible hand; this undermines the believability of the narrative. For instance, he discovers that he is reading the description of Casanova’s escape from a Venetian prison on the same date (October 31) as Casanova’s escape; or he is perplexed to meet identical twin boys on a bus who have an uncanny resemblance to the adolescent Kafka. There’s too much of that for my taste.
All of his books report such experiences and the reader may find them either exhilarating or trying. What is still intriguing in Vertigo is Sebald’s attempt to retrieve the tone and manner of nineteenth-century lyrical prose for contemporary purposes. It’s as if someone decided to use the technique of daguerreotype to convey the appearance of today’s cities and their inhabitants. The effect would be a feeling of estrangement from our familiar surroundings, and that is precisely what Sebald has sought to do in all his books.
Austerlitz, which came out the year of his death, was his one authentic novel. (This time the translator was Anthea Bell, who would go on to translate all his remaining works.) The plot of Austerlitz is similar to the story a character in The Emigrants tells about being brought to England in one of the groups of children sent from Germany in the summer of 1939. Again, the nameless narrator, who encounters the hero, Jacques Austerlitz, in the Antwerp train station, acts as our guide. Austerlitz is an architectural historian who was raised in Wales by a Methodist minister and his wife and told nothing about his German background. Much older, haunted by blurred images of his past, he sets out to find out about the death of his Jewish parents and his early childhood years in Prague. Sebald’s subject is memory. He writes,
I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.Everything in life conspires to make us forget, the novel is saying, and yet only by remembering do we have a possibility of learning who we are. The stakes are even higher when it comes to historical memory, since those who recall the past risk bringing down upon themselves the wrath of those who can only live from day to day by forgetting.
Austerlitz is an ambitious, intellectually complex, and often harrowing novel with many stretches of fine writing. Particularly harrowing is the account of Austerlitz’s mother being taken off to a camp. Nevertheless, the story doesn’t seem entirely credible. There are too many ideas floating around, too many scenes that remind one of Sebald’s other books, too many coincidences and conspicuous symbols such as waiting rooms. Some of the subject matter is familiar from literature about the Holocaust, and so are many of the references to the events of World War II. But even with these serious reservations, Austerlitz is not a book one easily forgets. Sebald may not be the most skillful novelist, but much of the historical material he draws on is so powerful in its own right that one tends to pass over his weaknesses.
Campo Santo, the final posthumous collection of Sebald’s writings, consists of sixteen pieces, most of them fairly short. By far the most interesting are the four chapters from an abandoned book about a walking tour of the island of Corsica. There are appreciative, finely written essays on Peter Handke, Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka, Bruce Chatwin, and the contemporary German painter Jan Peter Tripp, and a piece on Sebald’s own musical education. The two longish pieces, “Between History and Natural History” and “Constructs of Mourning,” are an early version of Sebald’s nonfiction book On the Natural History of Destruction that was published after his death. The subject was the carpet bombing of German cities by the Allies and the strange silence in German literature after the war about that experience.In surveying the works of several major fiction writers of the period in Campo Santo, he makes the interesting point that the most effective descriptions of total destruction of cities, an experience that surpasses all imagination, is to be found in the most matter-of-fact reports, such as letters. He is tough on his German compatriots, both the leading writers and the ordinary citizens, for keeping quiet about everything from bombing to the mountains of corpses in concentration camps, the murder of millions of Jews, Poles, and Russians, as well as Germans who risked their lives to oppose Hitler.
It’s not making excuses for Germans, however, to recall here that after the war neither the English nor the Americans were eager to dwell on the horrors of their bombing campaigns. As censors during the occupation, they surely would not have welcomed graphic descriptions of the carnage they created. Sebald is not being entirely fair to the postwar generation of writers. One might have expected him to try to remedy in his own fiction the failings he points to, but the destruction of German cities was never for him a major theme.
His analysis of other writers in the essays in Campo Santo often reads like a description of one of his own books. For instance, in his account of Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s novel Tynset, the protagonist, like many of Sebald’s own narrators, lives in deep distress, speaking to us from the melancholic landscape which he roams by night, entangled in the inescapable associations of a terrifying past. The characterization of the writer Bruce Chatwin reads like another self-portrait:
Just as Chatwin himself ultimately remains an enigma, one never knows how to classify his books. All that is obvious is that their structure and intentions place them in no known genre. Inspired by a kind of avidity for the undiscovered, they move along a line where the points of demarcation are those strange manifestations and objects of which one cannot say whether they are real, or whether they are among the phantasms generated in our minds from time immemorial. Anthropological and mythological studies in the tradition of Tristes Tropiques, adventure stories looking back to our early childhood reading, collections of facts, dream books, regional novels, examples of lush exoticism, puritanical penance, sweeping baroque vision, self-denial, and personal confession—they are all these things together. It probably does them most justice to see their promiscuity, which breaks the mold of the modernist concept, as a late flowering of those early traveler’s tales, going back to Marco Polo, where reality is constantly entering the realm of the metaphysical and miraculous, and the way through the world is taken from the first with an eye fixed on the writer’s own end.All of Sebald’s books are about journeys. In Campo Santo, he describes his early passion for geography as a schoolboy. He confesses that he has devoted endless hours of his life bent over atlases and brochures of every kind. In his actual travels, he didn’t range far. Except for a short visit to the United States to do research on the life of his great-uncles, he restricted himself mostly to England and Western Europe. He also traveled in books he was reading. “How happily,” Austerlitz says, “have I sat over a book in the deepening twilight until I could no longer make out the words and my mind began to wander.” As the critics have shown, Sebald not only alludes to or quotes from other writers, he even occasionally lifts their words verbatim. Kafka was an influence on him and so were Thomas Bernhardt, Robert Walser, Nabokov, Peter Weiss, Borges, and André Breton, from whose Surrealist novel Nadja he got the idea to include photographs in his own books. There were, of course, others. In Austerlitz, the main character roams the city of London at night, as Dickens once did, to escape and cure his insomnia and the memories of his tragic life, which increasingly torment him.
Writing of Nabokov, Sebald says that he knew better than most of his fellow writers that the desire to suspend time can prove its worth only in the most precise reevocation of things long overtaken by oblivion. This was true of him too. Walking around Ajaccio, the birthplace of Napoleon, in one of the chapters about Corsica, he comes upon a museum which contains a surprisingly fine collection of paintings and Napoleonic mementos. Among the pictures, he is especially struck by one painted by the seventeenth-century Italian painter Pietro Paolini. It shows a woman with large, melancholy eyes in a dark dress against a deep black background. Her right arm protectively embraces her small daughter, who stands in front of her with her grave face turning sideways upon which tears have just dried. The little girl holds out the doll of a soldier hardly three inches high, perhaps in memory of her father who has gone to war. “I stood in front of this double portrait for a long time, seeing in it, as I thought at the time, an annulment of all the unfathomable misfortune of life.” This is a powerful image that goes to the heart of what Sebald tried to do as a writer. When we think of history, we tend to see an official government film running in our heads, while the truth always lies elsewhere, away from it all, with some mother holding a child in her arms.Unrecounted is a book of thirty-three tiny poems by Sebald and thirty-three lithographs by the painter Jan Peter Tripp. Each lithograph portrays a pair of eyes with photographic accuracy. That’s all there is. Proust, Rembrandt, Beckett, Borges, Francis Bacon, Truman Capote, and Sebald himself are among the subjects. The apparent premise here is that the mouth is good for lying but not the eyes. Whatever the eyes are doing, daydreaming or thinking, they are hinting at some kind of truth. Under each pair of eyes, there’s a small poem. For example, below the eyes of Sebald’s dog Maurice we read the following:
Please send methe brown overcoat
from the Rhine valley
in which at one time
I used to ramble by night
I can’t say that this has a strong effect. There are better examples, but most of these little “poems” may look more interesting as journal entries than verse. In his introduction, the translator Michael Hamburger, who knew Sebald, has many perceptive things to say about the short poems, describing them as “reductive epiphanies,” “jumbled snapshots of the most diverse occasions and impressions, flashes of remembered moments.” In his postscript, the critic Andrea Köhler has an even better description of the poems. “These are neither aphorisms nor poems,” he says, “but rather flashes of thought and remembrance, moments of illumination on the verges of perception.” Here is an amusing one:
They saythat Napoleon
& blood for him
as green as
The declared aim of the book, Andrea Köhler writes, is that the image and text should not explain or illustrate each other. That has always been Sebald’s way. The captionless, frequently blurred black-and-white photographs in his books have only a peripheral connection to the narrative and usually none at all. His writing, too, is most memorable for me when it is like a snapshot or a home movie. As much as he lived in his head and in books, what I find most authentic in Sebald is the times when he’s simply reporting what he experienced.
In another chapter of his unfinished book on Corsica included in Campo Santo, he describes taking his first walk in the town of Piana on a road that soon begins to fall steeply in terrifying curves, sharp bends and zigzags, past almost vertical rocks down to the sea several hundred meters below. He watches the few tourists on the beach, the martins circling the flame-colored cliffs in huge numbers, soaring from the bright side of the rocks into the shadows and darting out into the light again, and finally decides to take a swim in the sea. He goes far out, feeling he could simply let himself drift away into the evening and later on into the night, but decides otherwise:
I turned back after all and made for the land which, from this distance, resembled a foreign continent, swimming became more and more difficult with every stroke, and not as if I were laboring against the current that had been carrying me on before; no, I was inclined to think that I was swimming steadily uphill, if one can say so of a stretch of water. The view before my eyes seemed to have tipped out of its frame, was leaning toward me, swaying and flickering of its own accord, with the upper rim of the picture skewed several degrees in my direction and the lower rim skewed away from me to the same extent. And sometimes I felt as if the prospect towering so menacingly in front of me was not a part of the real world but the reproduction of a now insuperable inner faintness, turned inside out and shot through with blue-black markings. Even harder than reaching the bank was the climb later up the winding road and the barely trodden paths which here and there link one curve in the road to the next in a direct line. Although I placed one foot in front of the other only slowly and very steadily, the afternoon heat building up between the rock walls very soon brought sweat running down my forehead, and the blood pulsed in my neck as it did in the throats of the lizards sitting everywhere in my path, frozen in mid-movement with fear. It took me a good hour and a half to climb to Piana again, but once there I could walk as if weightlessly, like a man who has mastered the art of levitation, past the first houses and gardens and along the wall of the plot of land where the local people bury their dead.In the essay called “An Attempt at Restitution” in Campo Santo, Sebald describes a visit to the studio of the painter Jan Peter Tripp in 1976, an occasion that had great consequences. While admiring the painter’s work, it occurred to Sebald that he, too, could do something creative like that one day. Tripp gave Sebald one of his engravings, showing a mentally ill judge with a spider in his skull. “What can there be more terrible than the ideas always scurrying around our minds?” Sebald asks himself and then goes on to say:
Much of what I have written later derives from this engraving, even in my method of procedure: in adhering to an exact historical perspective, in patiently engraving and linking together apparently disparate things in the manner of a still life.This is an odd way of thinking about one’s writing and seems true in some way. Sebald always wanted to step outside time, to locate some imperishable stillness at the heart of things. However, as hard as he tried to attain serenity, he could not make that spider stop crawling inside his head. The spider was his conscience. He was like someone who suffers remorse for crimes he never committed. What gives his books their drama is their inner turmoil and the unexplained origins of his grief. Sebald was torn between mysticism and history. He was a Romantic who kept being haunted by the reality of the world. I expect there will be a protracted, probably never-ending debate over whether the seeming arbitrariness and mysteriousness of some of his work can be justified. Meanwhile his books, starting with The Emigrants, are very much worth reading.
Susan Sontag đọc Sebald
Loạt bài này, nằm trong toan tính tưởng niệm TTT, như Susan Sontag, khi viết về AZ, trong bài viết "The Wisdom's Project"- that memories are recovered - that is, that the truths do reemerge - is the basis of whatever hope can have for justice and a modicum of sanity in the ongoing life of communities; hay về Sebald, "the mysterious survival of the written word".
A Mind in Mourning
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 W.G. Sebald.
“Vertigo”, the third of Sebald's books to be translated into English, is how he began. It appeared in German in 1990, when its author was forty-six; three years later came "The Emigrants"; and two years after that, “The Rings of Saturn”. When “The Emigrants” appeared in English in 1996, the acclaim bordered on awe. Here was a masterly writer, mature, autumnal even, in his persona and themes, who had delivered a book as exotic as it was irrefutable. The language was a wonder-delicate, dense, steeped in thinghood; but there were ample precedents for that in English. What seemed foreign as well as most persuasive was the preternatural authority of Sebald's voice: its gravity, its sinuosity, its precision, its freedom from all-undermining or undignified self-consciousness or irony.
In W. G. Sebald's books, a narrator who, we are reminded occasionally, bears the name W. G. Sebald, travels about registering evidence of the mortality or nature, recoiling from the ravages of modernity, musing over the secrets of obscure lives. On some mission of investigation, triggered by a memory or news from a world irretrievably lost, he remembers, evokes, hallucinates, grieves.
Is the narrator Sebald? Or a fictional character to whom the author has lent his name, and selected elements of his biography? Born in 1944, in a village in Germany he calls "W." in his books (and the dust jacket identifies for us as “Wertach im Allgau”) , settled in England in his early twenties, and a career academic currently teaching modern German literature at the University of East Anglia, the author includes a scattering of allusions to these bare facts and a few others, as well as, among other self-referring documents reproduced in his books, a grainy picture of himself posed in front of a massive Lebanese cedar in “The Rings of Saturn” and the photo on his new passport in “Vertigo”.
And yet these books ask, rightly, to be considered fiction. Fiction they are, not least because there is good reason to believe that much is invented or altered, just as, surely, some of what he relates really did happen-names, places, dates, and all. Fiction and factuality are, of course, not opposed. One of the founding claims for the novel in English is that it is a true history. What makes a work fiction is not that the story is untrue-it may well be true, in part or in whole-but its use, or extension, of a variety of devices (including false or forged documents) which produce what literary theorists call "the effect of the real." Sebald's fictions-and their accompanying visual illustration- carry the effect of the real to a plangent extreme.
This "real" narrator is an exemplary fictional construction: the “promeneur solitaire” of many generations of romantic literature. A solitary, even when a companion is mentioned (the Clara of the opening paragraph of The Emigrants), the narrator is ready to undertake journeys at whim, to follow some flare-up of curiosity about a life that has ended (as, in “The Emigrants”, in the story of Paul, a beloved primary-school teacher, which brings the narrator back for the first time to "the new Germany," and of his Uncle Adelwarth, which brings the narrator to America). Another motive for traveling is proposed in “Vertigo” and “The Rings of Saturn”, where it is clearer that the narrator is also a writer, with a writer's restlessness and a writer's taste for isolation. Often the narrator begins to travel in the wake of some crisis. And usually the journey is a quest, even if the nature of that quest is not immediately apparent.
Here is the beginning of the second of the four narratives in “Vertigo”:
In October 1980 I traveled from England, where I had then been living for nearly twenty-five years in a county which was almost always under grey skies, to Vienna, hoping that a change of place would help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life. In Vienna, however, I found that the days proved inordinately long, now they were not taken up by my customary routine of writing and gardening tasks, and I literally did not know where to turn. Every morning I would set out and walk without aim or purpose through the streets of the inner city.
This long section, entitled "All' estero" (Abroad), which takes the narrator from Vienna to various places in northern Italy, follows the opening chapter, a brilliant exercise in Brief-Life writing which recounts the biography of the much-traveled Stendhal, and is followed by a brief third chapter relating the Italian journey of another writer, "Dr. K," to some of the sites of Sebald's travels in Italy. The fourth, and last, chapter, as long as the second and complementary to it, is entitled "Il ritorno in patria" (The Return Home). The four narratives of “Vertigo” adumbrate all Sebald's major themes: journeys; the lives of writers, who are also travelers; being haunted and being light. And always, there are visions of destruction. In the first narrative, Stendhal dreams, while recovering from an illness, of the great fire of Moscow; and the last narrative ends with Sebald falling asleep over his Pepys and dreaming of London destroyed by the Great Fire.
“The Emigrants” uses this same four-part musical structure, in which the fourth narrative is longest and most powerful. Journeys of one kind or another are at the heart of all Sebald's narratives: the narrator's own peregrinations, and the lives, all in some way displaced, that the narrator evokes.
Compare the first sentence of “The Rings of Saturn”:
In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.
The whole of “The Rings of Saturn” is the account of this walking trip undertaken to dispel emptiness. For whereas the traditional tour brought one close to nature, here it measures degrees of devastation, and the opening of the book tells us that the narrator was so overcome by "the traces of destruction" he encountered that, a year to the day after beginning his tour, he was taken to a hospital in Norwich "in a state of almost total immobility."
Travels under the sign of Saturn, emblem of melancholy, are the subject of all three books Sebald wrote in the first half of the 1990s. Destruction is his master theme: of nature (the lament for the trees destroyed by Dutch elm disease and those destroyed in the hurricane of 1987 in the next-to-last section of “The Rings of Saturn”; of cities; of ways of life. “The Emigrants” tells of a trip to Deauville in 1991, in search perhaps of "some remnant of the past," which confirms that "the once legendary resort, like everywhere else that one visits now, regardless of the country or continent, was hopelessly run down and ruined by traffic, shops and boutiques, and the insatiable urge for destruction." And the return home, in the fourth narrative of Vertigo, to W., which the narrator says he had not revisited since his childhood, is an extended “recherche du temps perdu”.
The climax of “The Emigrants”, four stories about people who have left their native lands, is the heartrending evocation-purportedly a memoir in manuscript-of an idyllic German-Jewish childhood. The narrator goes on to describe his decision to visit the town, Kissingen, where this life had been lived, to see what traces of it remained. Because it was “The Emigrants” that launched Sebald in English, and because the subject of the last narrative, a famous painter given the name Max Ferber, is a German Jew sent out of Nazi Germany as a child to safety in England-his mother, who perished in the camps with his father, being the author of the memoir – the book was routinely labelled by the most reviewers (especially but not only, in America) as an example of Holocaust literature. Ending a book of lament with the ultimate subject of lament, “The Emigrants” may have set up some of Sebald's admirers for a disappointment with the work that followed it in translation, “The Rings of Saturn”. This book is not divided into distinct narratives but consists of a chain or progress of stories: one story leads to another. In “The Rings of Saturn”, the well-stocked mind speculates whether Sir Thomas Browne, visiting Holland, was present at an anatomy lesson depicted by Rembrandt; remembers a romantic interlude, during his English exile, in the life of Chateaubriand; recalls Roger Casement's noble efforts to publicize the infamies of Leopold's rule in the Congo; and retells the childhood in exile and early adventures at sea of Joseph Conrad-these stories, and many others. With its cavalcade of erudite and curious anecdotes, and its tender encounters with bookish people (two lecturers on French literature, one of them a Flaubert scholar; the translator and poet Michael Hamburger), “The Rings of Saturn” could seem-after the high excruciation of “The Emigrants”-merely "literary."
It would be a pity if the expectations about Sebald's work created by “The Emigrants” also influenced the reception of “Vertigo”, which makes still clearer the nature of his morally accelerated travel narratives-history-minded in their obsessions; fictional in their reach. Travel frees the mind for the play of associations; for the afflictions (and erosions) of memory; for the savoring of solitude. The awareness of the solitary narrator is the true protagonist of Sebald's books, even when it is doing one of the things it does best: recounting, summing up, the lives of others.
“Vertigo” is the book in which the narrator's English life is least in evidence. And, even more than the two succeeding books, this is a self-portrait of a mind: a restless, chronically dissatisfied mind; a harrowed mind; a mind prone to hallucinations. Walking in Vienna, he thinks he recognizes the poet Dante, banished from his hometown on pain of being burned at the stake. Sitting on the rear bench of a vaporetto in Venice, he sees Ludwig II of Bavaria; riding on a bus along the shore of Lake Garda toward Riva, he sees an adolescent boy who looks exactly like Kafka. This narrator, who defines himself as a foreigner-over-hearing the babble of some German tourists in a hotel, he wishes he did not understand them; “that is, that he were the citizen of a better country, or of no country at all" -is also a mind in mourning. At one moment, the narrator says he does not know whether he is still in the land of the living or already somewhere else.
In fact, he is both: both alive and, if his imagination is the guide, posthumous. A journey is often a revisiting. It is the return to a place for some unfinished business, to retrace a memory, to repeat (or complete) an experience; to offer oneself up-as in the fourth narrative of “The Emigrants”-to the final, most devastating revelations. These heroic acts of remembering and retracing bring with them a price. Part of the power of “Vertigo” is that it dwells more on the cost of this effort. "Vertigo," the word used to translate the playful German title, “Schwindel”. “Gefuble” (roughly: Giddiness. Feeling), hardly suggests all the kinds of panic and torpor and disorientation described in the book. In “Vertigo”, he relates how, after arriving in Vienna, he walked so far that, he discovered returning to the hotel, his shoes had fallen apart. In “The Rings of Saturn” and, above all, in “The Emigrants”, the mind is less focused on itself; the narrator is more elusive. More than the later books, “Vertigo” is about the narrator's own afflicted consciousness. But the laconically evoked mental distress that edges the narrator's calm, knowledgeable awareness is never solipsistic, as in the literature of lesser concerns.
What anchors the unstable consciousness of the narrator is the spaciousness and acuity of the details. As travel is the generative principle of mental activity in Sebald's books, moving through space gives a kinetic rush to his marvelous descriptions, especially of landscapes. This is a “propelled” narrator.
Where has one heard in English a voice of such confidence and precision, so direct in its expression of feeling, yet so respectfully devoted to recording "the real"? D. H. Lawrence may come to mind, and the Naipaul of “The Enigma of Arrival”. But they have little of the passionate bleakness of Sebald's voice. For this one must look to a German genealogy. Jean Paul, Franz Grillparzer, Adalbert Stifter, Robert Walser, the Hofmannsthal of "The Lord Chandos Letter," Thomas Bernhard are a few of the affiliations of this contemporary master of the literature of lament and mental restlessness. The consensus about English literature for most of the past century has decreed the relentlessly elegiac and lyrical to be inappropriate for fiction, over blown, pretentious. (Even so great a novel, and exception, as Virginia Woolf's “The Waves” has not escaped these strictures.) Postwar German literature, mindful of how congenial the grandiosity of past art and literature, particularly that of German Romanticism, proved to the work of totalitarian mythmaking, has been suspicious of anything like romantic or nostalgic relation to the past. But then perhaps only a German writer permanently domiciled abroad, in the precincts of a literature with a modern predilection for the anti-sublime, could indulge so convincing a noble tone.
Besides the narrator's moral fervency and gifts of compassion (here he parts company with Bernhard), what keeps this writing always fresh, never merely rhetorical, is the saturated naming and visualizing in words; that, and the ever-surprising device of pictorial illustration. Pictures of train tickets or a torn-out leaf from a pocket diary, drawings, a calling card, newspaper clippings, a detail from a painting, and, of course, photographs have the charm and, in many instances the imperfections of relics. Thus, in “Vertigo”, at one moment the narrator loses his passport; or rather, his hotel loses it for him. And here the document made out by the police in Riva, with-a touch of mystery- the G. in W. G. Sebald inked out. And the new passport, with the photograph issued by the German consulate in Milan. (Yes, this professional foreigner travels on a German passport-at least he did in 1987.) In “The Immigrants” these visual documents seem talismanic. It seems likely that all of them are genuine. In “The Rings of Saturn” they seem, less interestingly, merely illustrative. If the narrator speaks of Swinburne, there is a small portrait of Swinburne set in the middle of the page; if relating a visit to a cemetery in Suffolk, where his attention is captured by a funerary monument to a woman who died in 1799, which he described in detail, from fulsome epitaph to the holes bored in the stone on the upper edges of the four sides, we are given a blurry little photograph of the tomb, again in tê middle of the page.
In “Vertigo” the documents have a more poignant message. They say, it’s true what I’ve been telling you – which is hardly what a reader of fiction normally demands. To offer evidence at all is to endow what has been described by words with a mysterious surplus of pathos. The photographs and other relics reproduced on the page become an exquisite index of the pastness of the past.
Sometimes they seem like the squiggles in “Tristram Shandy”; the author is being intimate with us. At other moments, these insistently proffered visual relics seem an insolent challenge to the sufficiency of the verbal. And yet, as Sebald writes in “The Rings of Saturn”, describing a favorite haunt, the Sailors' Reading Room in Southwold, where he pored over entries from the log of a patrol ship anchored off the pier during the autumn of 1914, "Every time I decipher one of these entries I am astounded that a trail that has long since vanished from the air or the water remains visible here on the paper." And, he continues, closing the marbled cover of the logbook, he pondered "the mysterious survival of the written word."
Susan Sontag: "Where the Stress Falls", essays