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W. G. Sebald speaks in a dense pastiche of memoir, fiction, biography, travelogue, and image, a complex, original vernacular formed by decades of the almost geologic pressure of inherited identity that thinking post-war Germans must bear. His is a language of silence, in which meaning surfaces in the negative space between juxtapositions, repetitions, variations, and ruptures. His unique opus provides post-war German literature’s most compelling argument for learning that impossible language. Take, for instance, the title that got flattened into Vertigo:whereas the German word is Schwindelgefühl, or dizzy-feeling, Sebald breaks and pluralizes it to Schwindel. Gefühle.–something like "Verti. gos.," but also, "feelings of swindle"–creating an experience of vertigo within the word itself.
The book’s structure, too, keeps the reader off balance. It consists of four discrete sections not overtly related to one another: like pieces in a kaleidoscope, one has the sense that Sebald could have rearranged his thematically patterned fragments in an almost infinite variation. The first is a biographical sketch culled from the nineteenth-century journals of a Napoleonic soldier named Beyle that recounts his perambulations through Lombardy, his service as a soldier, his battle with syphilis, and his failed loves. Yet Sebald never signals that the wandering soldier is Stendhal–the French novelist who took as his penname the name of a German village–nor does he articulate the connections between Stendhal’s personal dislocations and his own. Instead, the second section simply narrates, in almost autistically episodic detail, a trip over the same terrain by an amnesiac narrator who both is, and is not, Sebald. (The sum total of personal information we glean about him is conveyed in an enigmatic comment that notes that he undertook his trip to escape a particularly difficult period in his life.) The third section consists of an imaginative reconstruction of what Kafka may have seen, felt, and experienced during his 1913 trip to the region. In the final section, Sebald revisits his German hometown.
The book begins with an account of Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps into Austrian Italy during his first campaign. Beyle writes that for years he lived in the conviction that he could remember every detail of that ride, in particular the town of Ivrea. Yet when he revisits it years later, he realizes that the mental picture he’s carried represents not his actual experience, but rather, a popular etching of the place. At first, then, like Bach’s initial statement of the Goldberg Variations theme, the "swindle" contained in the resonance of the book’s German title appears as a simple statement about the unreliability of memory. But, like Bach, Sebald deepens his motif nearly as soon as he sets it down. Are the images supplied by memory true to one’s experience, as Beyle writes, even when they may not be reliable as fact?
In subsequent journals Beyle records his decision to visit the sites where the great Napoleonic victories of recent years had been fought, including the field of the Battle of Marengo, where the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte unexpectedly decimated the Austrians. The disjunction between the ocean of bleached bones Beyle sees and the column erected in honor of the myriad dead produces a vertiginous feeling, the shabby monument reflecting neither his conception of the battle’s violence nor the "vast field of the dead on which he was now standing … alone with himself, like one meeting his doom." Though this passage was reformatted in the English text for layout reasons, Sebald’s collage in the German edition–seeright–neatly depicts the wordless anomie that results from watching a swindle-in-progress, as the unbearable, atrocious violence of one’s own culture is rewritten into a palatable, official history.
Multiple images of failed escape permeate the first-person sections of the book: where Stendhal wanders, Sebald actively flees. In a Verona garden, he is pursued by two men who reappear in Milan to mug him; he evokes Kafka’s hunter, Graccus, who is condemned to wander as a living-dead corpse that can never really die. Upon hearing obnoxious German kids outside his hotel room, Sebald wishes that he was any other nationality but German, or indeed, that he had no nationality at all–and then discovers that he cannot leave the country because his hotelier has given away his passport. Back in Milan, he climbs the vertiginous height of Milan’s Duomo, where "a menacing reflection of the darkness" spreads within him. Where to go, the text seems to be asking, when to be what you are is unbearable?
Sebald seems to have taken the final sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, "About that which one cannot speak, one must remain silent," as an aesthetic manifesto for writing about his culture’s unspeakable legacy. Instead of speaking directly, he investigates history peripherally, the way Virginia Woolf investigated consciousness, recording things "so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibrational; emotional appeal." In Clarissa Dalloway’s 1922 London, this collective post-war ripple of recall is triggered by the appearance of a large black car that apparently contains royalty: "for in all the … shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of a flag; of Empire." But substitute "Reich" for "Empire," and the passage could caption the effect of nearly every object in Sebald’s opus.
Except that the exiled "I" seems to be the only one feeling the effect. For Sebald, who emigrated to England, being German means carrying a cultural infection of living-deadness akin to Stendhal’s syphilis. Even the German countryside, he writes, "has always been alien to me … tidied up as it is to the last square inch and corner. Everything appeared to be appeased and numbed in some sinister way, and this sense of numbness soon came over me also." As he grapples with the impossibility of escaping his German-ness, the real vertigo of the book comes from reawakening, again and again, to the massive swindle of his generation–the swindle of their innocence–that history has perpetrated upon them.
If Vertigo is more abstruse and less tight than Sebald’s masterful quartet, The Emigrants, the two books depict the same the ominous cloud building inside the narrator, compelling the same inevitable confrontation with the soil his forbears salted. In the book’s final section, Il Ritorno in Patria, Sebald revisits his German hometown, and begins digging himself out of his own grave of living-deadness, the amnesia that German post-war denial has produced even in him. In his mother’s photo album he finds a photo of a gypsy, smiling behind barbed wire. Here the weight of unspoken hindsight becomes nearly unbearable as we come to understand that this is one of the many postcards his father sent while serving in the "campaign in Poland."
But unlike Ulysses, Sebald has no patria to come home to: the return to his homeland reiterates, yet again, why he must leave. ("Everything appeared to be appeased and numbed….") Back in London, a warning voice at the tube station surrealistically repeats, "Mind the gap." To the end, Sebald speaks in silence, allowing the phrase to steep in the reader as a closing mantra: to be mindful of the gap between image and fact, between visceral truth and historical packaging, between our dreams of forgetting and the inevitable way our legacies hunt us down.
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