"Vertigo" by W.G. Sebald

The tale of a strange quest, haunted by the ghost of Kafka, from one of the oddest great writers around.

Published June 26, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

W. G. Sebald is the oddest great writer I've ever encountered. Bear with me, because it's going to be difficult to convince you how luminous and ultimately satisfying are his strange ways of composing a book. The narrator of "Vertigo," a German who has lived for 30 years in east-central England, shares his biography with one Winfried Georg Sebald, but he remains somewhat out of focus; he is a haunted, keening, ghostly wanderer. Likewise, the photos of people, documents and places studding each chapter are even grainier and fuzzier than in Sebald's previous books. They're covered with the dust of unreliable memory, one of the themes of this novel-as-meditation.

"Vertigo" is Sebald's third novel to be translated into English, but it is his first book, published in 1990. Like its successors, the exquisitely composed elegy "The Emigrants" and the serpentine historical meditation "The Rings of Saturn," it is written under the sign of Saturn. Sebald's melancholy doppelgdnger wanders the streets of Vienna, Venice, Milan, Verona and Innsbruck, and finally, rucksack slung over his shoulder, hikes across the Austrian border into Bavaria and the village of W. (very like Sebald's birthplace, Wertach). Giving ourselves up to Sebald's hypnotic prose, his musings and digressions, we accompany the narrator on a spiritual pilgrimage whose purpose is to raise the dead so that the living might interrogate them on the meaning of a life. Only long after one has closed the book and puzzled over it does a complex pattern appear.

The first section of "Vertigo," "Beyle, or a Madness Most Discreet," is a biography of French novelist Stendhal (Henri Beyle) and a commentary on his philosophical essay on love, "De l'Amour." Stendhal, on a visit to a salt mine, is given a twig encrusted with salt that glitters like myriad diamonds in the sun. The miraculous transformation becomes an allegory "for the growth of love in the salt mines of the soul." Like his fictional protagonists, however, he is unlucky in love and finally dies of syphilis.

The narrator, too, is searching for an allegorical crystallization as he moves from city to city and tries to find connections between the past and the present. He is fleeing an unspecified personal disaster and looking for a way out of his misery and depression. In one of his insomniac ramblings, he sees the poet Dante disappear around a corner and has his first attack of vertigo. "The outlines on which I tried to focus dissolved," he tells us, "and my thoughts disintegrated before I could fully grasp them." In the second chapter, "All'estero," he has more moments of confusion. He sees Ludwig of Bavaria float by in a vaporetto in Venice, and in the Milan Cathedral "all of a sudden no longer had any knowledge of where I was ... was unable even to determine whether I was in the land of the living or already in another place." He sees an uncanny resemblance to Franz Kafka in twin boys he meets on a bus.

Next he's in a Verona library researching newspapers from September 1913. Why? The third chapter, "Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva," is a vignette of Kafka in Italy that month. Like the narrator, he lies on his bed, arms crossed under his head, unable to sleep and seeing strange forms in the play of streetlights on the ceiling. He is writing letters to Felice (with whom he had a sweet, complicated, probably chaste relationship) but seems to be fighting homosexual impulses.

The chapter ends with the death of Kafka's friend, who is transformed into the mythical figure of Gracchus the huntsman. The huntsman returns in new and mysterious forms in the final section, "Il Ritorno in Patria." Nothing makes sense. The narrator puts pieces next to each other and can't find any coherence, only odd coincidences and unexplainable doublings and repetitions of people and events.

Early in "Vertigo," he remarks that however one recalls events or tries to reconstruct them, "in reality, as we know, everything is always quite different." Near the end, his voice is more desperate. "The more images I gathered from the past ... the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling."

Sebald has created the bitter counterpart to the German Romantic ideal of the poet as wanderer, communing with nature and the gentle souls he meets as he ambles through sublime landscapes. Sebald's narrator looks at the landscape from a train and finds it to be "that slightly greyish shade of white which has become the color of the nation." And yet, as he hikes wearily into W. he remembers the road in "former times ... Like a luminous ribbon, it had stretched out before one even on a starless night."

This is a quest novel, but in a wary, suspicious mode. Despite its spiky, convoluted and unhappy journeys, it won't depress you. There is something marvelous and bracing about wandering through a maze of unanswerable questions with an eccentrically brilliant guide. Sebald writes as if he'd never heard of the novel form, so he's inventing it, again.

By Brigitte Frase

Brigitte Frase is critic at large for the Hungry Mind Review and an editor at Milkweed Editions. She is working on a family history-memoir about immigration and culture clash.

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