The beguiling first novel by W. G. Sebald, one of the most enormously acclaimed European writers of our time.Vertigo, W. G. Sebald's first novel, never before translated into English, is perhaps his most amazing and certainly his most alarming. Sebald—the acknowledged master of memory's uncanniness—takes the painful pleasures of unknowability to new intensities in Vertigo. Here in their first flowering are the signature elements of Sebald's hugely acclaimed novels The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn. An unnamed narrator, beset by nervous ailments, is again our guide on a hair-raising journey through the past and across Europe, amid restless literary ghosts—Kafka, Stendhal, Casanova. In four dizzying sections, the narrator plunges the reader into vertigo, into that "swimming of the head," as Webster's defines it: in other words, into that state so unsettling, so fascinating, and so "stunning and strange," as The New York Times Book Review declared about The Emigrants, that it is "like a dream you want to last forever."
Sebald begins with Marie Henri Beyle (better known as Stendhal), cruising through the French author's painful and unreliable recollections of his military career. Then he splices in his own voyage through Italy, allowing these historical and personal perspectives to intersect when we least expect them to. As the book develops, it returns to the same locations: Milan, Verona, Venice, and the Alps. And in the course of this fractured meandering, the reader cohabits with a haunted Franz Kafka, admires the serene beauty of the stars above Lake Garda, and ultimately returns to Sebald's home in Bavaria, where the author confronts his childhood memories.
For Sebald, a straight line is never the shortest distance between two points: he more often travels in concentric circles, or cuts wild capers from past to present. Yet the stumbling journey in Vertigo seeks to replicate the distorted and unfathomable workings of memory itself. And it succeeds to an astonishing extent, so that the acts of traveling, recalling, and writing are impossible to tell apart:
On this occasion in the midst of the holiday season, the night train from Vienna to Venice, on which in the late October of 1980 I had seen nobody except a pale-faced schoolmistress from New Zealand, was so overcrowded that I had to stand in the corridor all the way or crouch uncomfortably among suitcases and rucksacks, so that instead of drifting into sleep I slid into my memories. Or rather, the memories (at least so it seemed to me) rose higher and higher in some space outside of myself, until, having reached a certain level, they overflowed from that space into me, like water over the top of a weir.Thus is the writer inundated. And so, happily, are his readers--those lucky enough to take the plunge. --Toby Green