As some of you may have seen on Twitter or Facebook, one of my ongoing German Literature Month tasks involves a lengthy journey around Italy with one of G-Lit’s all-time greats, so it came as a surprise to see that another of my choices for the month treads fairly similar ground. Today the bus will be taking us around northern Italy and Austria, before heading into the far south of Germany, and with some mountainous terrain to cover, you may feel a little dizzy at times – better get the sick bags ready…
Schwindel. Gefühle. (Vertigo) is another of W.G. Sebald’s magical mystery tours in which the reader accompanies the late German writer on a journey through time and space. The four-part book begins with a brief look at the life and times of a soldier in Napoleon’s army as it crossed the Alps into Italy at the end of the eighteenth century, one which turns into a description of a journey around some rather more tranquil areas. Later, the third section describes a trip taken by a certain Dr. K as he passes time at a sanatorium in a picturesque part of Italy.
The other two sections are more personal affairs, however, as we follow Sebald himself (or his alter-ego, at least) on his travels. In the first, set in 1980, his visit to Vienna is cut short by a desire to flee to Italy, where he wanders around in a daze, sleepless and haunted by both the past and uncomfortable premonitions from the present. Then, after retracing his steps seven years later, the writer decides it’s time to extend his return to the past, crossing over the mountains back into Germany to spend time in the small isolated town where he passed much of his childhood. While this may all sound somewhat random and disjointed, it’s anything but – the four sections intersect at several points, producing a disorientating text which challenges the reader to uncover its secrets.
For much of Schwindel. Gefühle., we have a middle-aged man bumbling along on a dull tour of European cities of culture. It shouldn’t be great literature, but (of course) what transpires is another Sebaldian wonder, with his usual, carefully constructed, lengthy sentences folding in upon themselves, and around the reader. Perhaps the hardest part of reading the book is deciding (if you need to) how to classify it: is it fiction or non-fiction, a novel or short stories? I still have no idea, but it was enjoyable all the same.
The two shorter pieces run to about thirty pages each, setting the scene for the writer’s own later travels, and the first concerns a certain Henri Beyle, better known as the French writer Stendahl. Sebald takes some of Beyle’s early writing and mixes the memories of his army days with a later, possibly imaginary, Italian journey, along with his (also possibly imaginary) companion, Mme. Gheradi. As I read of his travels around northern Italy, I was struck by the parallels with Goethe’s own Italienische Reise (of which more in a couple of weeks), especially when Beyle talks about the notorious wind changes on Lake Garda 🙂
If this first part introduces us to a literary celebrity, then the third section raises the stakes somewhat because (as many of you would no doubt have surmised) the short story is a Kafka homage. Here Sebald follows the Czech writer, a man of many health issues, on a real-life trip he takes; first to Vienna on business, then to the small lakeside town of Riva to recuperate. In fact, even the style of the text appears to be an homage to Kafka:
Draußen bereits der Bahnhof von Heiligenstadt. Ominös, leer, mit leeren Zügen. Lauter letzte Stationen. Dr. K. weiß, daß er den Direktor auf den Knien hätte bitten sollen, ihn nicht mitzunehmen. Aber jetzt ist es natürlich zu spät.
p.157 (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2013)
Outside, Heiligenstadt station already. Ominous, empty, with empty trains. Nothing but the end of the line. Dr. K knows that he should have begged the Director on his knees not to bring him along. But now, of course, it is too late. *** (my translation)
On his arrival in Riva, Dr. K. becomes close to a fellow invalid and later experiences the dread of death when one of his dinner-table companions disappears one evening. Best of all, though is the shift into metafiction, with a story of a dead hunter being carried on a boat across the lake. Some quick research shows that this scene is actually from one of Kafka’s pieces of shorter fiction…
Much of the book is spent on Sebald, though, with his two sections each over a hundred pages in length. Initially, the writer appears to be in a bad way, pounding the streets of Vienna and avoiding conversations whenever possible, before returning to his hotel for another sleepless night. After deciding to take a night train to Venice, he then spends another two days holed up in a hotel room, and even when he does venture out, he feels as if people are following him through Venice’s small, echoing streets. Throughout his journey, he describes an increasing sense of the uncanny, never quite feeling at ease:
Der Bus fuhr an, die Via Cavour hinab. Die Äste der Alleebäume streiften das Dach. Mein Herz klopfte, und ein Schwindelgefühl ergriff mich wie früher in der Kindheit, wo es mir bei jeder Autofahrt schlecht geworden ist. (p.101)
The bus drove off down the Via Cavour. The branches of the trees along the road brushed against the roof. My heart pounded, and a sensation of dizziness came over me just as it did in my childhood, where I felt sick during every car trip. ***
This sensation of dizziness, of light-headedness, is a recurring theme, caused in part by sleeplessness, but also partly a manifestation of deeper concerns. Things get so bad at times that he is unable to bear his surroundings, a painting he sees at a pizza shop of a ship on the seas causing such distress that he flees the city instantly…
As much as these stories are about the writer and his immediate surroundings, through his reading and the history of the cities he visits, Sebald often finds connections between his own struggles and historical events. One example of this comes from his reading of Casanova’s diaries, especially regarding his imprisonment in Venice. As the great lover muses, preparing himself for a lengthy incarceration:
Er stellt fest, daß es zwar selten vorkomme, daß ein Mensch verrückt wird, daß aber doch die meiste Zeit nicht viel dazu fehlt. (p.65)
He realises that it seldom happens that a person loses their mind, but also that most of the time they are not too far off. ***
It rings a bell with Sebald (who is more than a little concerned about his own state of mind), but he’s startled to discover that there’s another connection. Casanova’s eventual escape from his confinement came on the same day as Sebald’s arrival in Venice…
In the final section, the writer decides to return to his home town, examining the scenes of his childhood through adult eyes for the first time. While the connections which run through the earlier parts of the book aren’t quite as evident at first, the reader just has to be patient and let everything fall into place. The key scene here is a visit the writer pays to an old neighbour, the perfect opportunity to discuss the past:
Insbesondere fand es seine Zustimmung, als ich sagte, daß sich mir im Kopf mit der Zeit vieles zusammengereimt habe, daß die Dinge aber dadurch nicht klarer, sondern rätselhafter geworden seien. Je mehr Bilder aus der Vergangenheit ich versammle, sagte ich, desto unwahrscheinlicher wird es mir, daß die Vergangenheit auf diese Weise sich abgespielt haben soll, denn nichts an ihr sei normal zu nennen, sondern es sei das allermeiste lächerlich, und wenn es nicht lächerlich sei, dann sei es zum Entsetzen. (pp.231/2)
It particularly met with his approval when I said that with time many things had come together in my head, yet that things hadn’t become clearer in the process but rather more puzzling. The more images I collected of the past, I said, the more unlikely I found it that the past should have played out in this manner, for nothing about it was what you could call normal, rather it was laughable for the most part, and if not laughable, then appalling. ***
In place of a spoken answer, the old man leads Sebald up to the attic, where a room which has remained unentered for decades is cluttered with the jetsam of time. As the two men gaze across the room, peering through the half-light and clouds of dust floating in the air, the writer suddenly spots an eerie figure in the corner – which on closer inspection provides both an explanation of a childhood threat and a link back to both Stendhal and Kafka.
While Schwindel. Gefühle. is difficult to explain adequately, it’s beautiful to read, a work where the past and present intersect, touching briefly, only to diverge once more. The book is littered with repetitions major and minor (following the paths of the long dead, coincidences with dates, people we see who resemble historical figures, people taking off hats, dead people on platforms with faces covered). It’s this constant bending of time which brings about these Schwindelgefühle; we poor involuntary travellers along our paths are less travel sick than time sick, trying to make sense of it all, afflicted by four dimensions when our minds can only handle three.
Sebald’s work is always, of course, excellent, and though I probably ‘understood’ this book less than the others I’ve read, I actually felt it more. Perhaps the best part for me was that in addition to Sebald’s own seemingly casual, but actually tightly constructed, coincidences, I had my own. Both Stendahl and Sebald are following in Goethe’s footsteps, meaning I’m seeing the places mentioned in both books through new eyes. When it comes to Sebald’s dark days in Vienna, I feel I can see over his shoulder as he spends a quiet hour in the Hotel Sacher, a certain irascible Austrian writer over in the corner mocking this German tourist and his scribbles. It’s almost as if I were meant to read these books together…
I might go for a lie down – I’m suddenly feeling a little dizzy 😦
The English-language version, Vertigo, was translated by Michael Hulse, and is available from Vintage in the UK and New Directions in the US.