Tuesday, February 26, 2013

German Book 2

WG Sebald is another of the seemingly countless writers I've always intended to read but with a good chance that I never actually would.  His books have been described as using an idiosyncratic almost-collage approach complete with cryptic photographs that may or may not have anything to do with the text.  Then again his work is also described something to do with memory (the almost laughable blurb on the cover calls him "memory’s Einstein") and that sounds quite unappealing.

As it happens Vertigo (1990, English 1999) fits both descriptions though fortunately not in such a bland way as that might sound.  It’s so effective that I’ll likely read all his other books as long as they’re somewhat similar to this one.

Might as well look at the not-quite-collage technique.  The book opens with a biographical (or is it fictional?) account of a soldier during Napoleon’s march through the Alps who then embarks on a series of romantic adventures.  Turns out his name is Beyle and nowhere (at least that I remember) does Sebald remind readers that this was Stendhal's real name.  As far as I know this story is true - at least it sounds like the little I remember from Stendhal's life. 

It turns out that this section is related by the novel’s narrator who then tells us about his uneventful visit to Vienna and his unmotivated travels afterwards.  Throughout the book we get a distanced account from the narrator (little direct dialogue, not much in the usual detailed description of actions) and then more disconnected hstorical or literary pieces (there’s a “Dr. K” for instance).  Most collages rely on the disjunction created by the elements rubbing against each other but Sebald works more towards an integrated flow - actually "collage" may not be the right term.

The narrator is eventually heading to his hometown but it’s unclear exactly why.  None of his memories build to a great revelation (unless of course I completely misunderstood some subtle aspect of the book) and he doesn’t meet many people from his past.  It’s not a dramatic homecoming. 

I didn’t get a sense of vertigo from the book but Sebald does create a hazy, unsettled mood, almost as if this is a very long prose poem.  The bits from other people’s pasts and the famous photographs work into or against the main narrative don’t fit together like the near mathematical formulas many how-to-write-a-plot (or worse screenwriting) instructors would tell you.  Vertigo is actually a book I wanted to read again after finishing it and that’s pretty uncommon.