Vertigo by W.G. Sebald is a curious book made up of four parts that fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. The book is filled with literary, musical, and art references, so many in fact that I didn’t have time to look them all up.
Part one on Vertigo sets up everything else for the rest of the book. It is a biography of sorts of Marie Henri Beyle, also known as Stendhal. But I did have time to look up Stendhal’s biography and Sebald takes some liberties with it but in the scheme of things it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that from the start of the Beyle section we are plunged into thinking about the vagaries of memory, how they cannot be trusted, how “in reality, as we know, everything is always quite different,” how memories can be displaced by things like photographs.
Memory is dodgy throughout as when the narrator that is Sebald but not Sebald eventually returns to the town in which he grew up only to find what he thought he remembered and knew about it and the people is not necessarily true. He also sees people who aren’t really there during the course of his travels like Dante and King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
We also have, beginning in the Beyle section, the introduction of Stendhal’s theory that love is a “protracted crystallization process.” Sebald carries the argument about love throughout the book as we get the story of Cassanova’s incarceration and escape from prison and later Kafka’s idea of love which is almost counter to Stendhal’s:
Dr. K evolves a fragmentary theory of disembodied love, in which there is no difference between intimacy and disengagement. If only we were to open our eyes, he says, we would see that our happiness lies in our natural surroundings and not in our poor bodies which have long since become separated from the natural order of things.
But these ideas about love, far from pertaining only to love, are expanded by Sebald to encompass meditations on memory and identity. Our wandering Sebald narrator who is trying to get over an unexplained difficult period in his life, seems to be trying to crystalize his memories. With crystalized memories things can become fixed including himself and the people he knows or knew, the past and the present as well become stable. But crystallization is impossible when it comes to memory because of memory’s instability. Our narrator, and by extension the reader, is in a constant state of vertigo.
Kafka’s exhortation to open our eyes also means eyes are everywhere in the book. There are several pictures of people but only of their eyes. The narrator visits an optometrist. He is also an art aficionado who, when studying Pisanello, the paintings “instilled in me the desire to forfeit everything except my sense of vision.” But our narrator’s eyes looking out a train window see only a gray landscape where there is disengagement but no intimacy and the natural surroundings certainly don’t make him happy.
Vertigo is a heady book and even though it is written in very simple and unadorned language, it must be read slowly and carefully. So many pieces are interconnected and recur in unexpected places I am sure I missed quite a lot of them. The whole book is like a giant jigsaw puzzle for which you don’t have a picture of what it looks like when it is done. The reader is left to sort through the pieces looking for patterns to ultimately find there is no way to fit all the pieces together, no way to come to any conclusion and bring an end to the vertigo. In spite of this I found the book satisfying. I read a library copy but I think I’d like my own copy someday so I can reread it and mark it up making annotations and cross references and taking my time to look up everything. It won’t stop the vertigo, but it might produce an even more lovely whirling kaleidoscope.
This book was a Slaves of Golconda group read. I know quite a few Slaves couldn’t make it through for various reasons. If you have read the book or just want to see what we’re saying about the book, visit the Slaves blog and our discussion forum.