It is not often that books receive the universal critical acclaim with which W.G. Sebald's work in English translation has been met. Both The Emigrants
and The Rings of Saturn
won the sort of plaudits that would enable most writers to die happy. Sebald first employed his limpid, literally entrancing style in Vertigo
, which appeared in German in 1990 and then waited a decade for its English-language debut. Like The Emigrants
, this earlier novel interweaves four different narratives, which cumulatively sound a single, transcendent note--in this case, that of memory.
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
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From Publishers Weekly
Sebald's third novel to be translated into English is in fact the German author's first novel, written before the acclaimed travel meditation, The Rings of Saturn, and The Emigrants. This exquisitely composed work also undertakes a disorienting, if less somber, journey through historical and personal memory. The first-person narrator travels through Europe during the 1980s, spurred on by history's ghosts and his own melancholic yearning for adventure. Having left his base in England to explore Vienna, Venice and Verona, he concludes with a bittersweet pilgrimage to his hometown in southwestern Germany. In four nonlinear chapters, the narrator sustains himself along his journey by establishing parallels with places and personages throughout history-e.g., the romantic novelist Stendhal, who led a peripatetic life as a Napoleonic soldier ("Beyle, or Love Is a Madness Most Discreet"), and the ailing and sexually repressed Franz Kafka, who made mournful trips to Italy ("Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva"). Black-and-white illustrations (a detail from a Pisanello fresco, a postcard of the smoking peak of Vesuvius) provide the ironic relief. "What relation was there," the narrator asks himself in a typical moment of self-befuddlement, "between the so-called monuments of the past" and our own "vague longing" to try to connect to the future? Sebald writes elliptically, refusing to explain the intersection of seemingly irrelevant events: the narrator is fond of combing old newspapers for bits "that might well be worth retelling some time," but he is unable to resolve the purpose of his aimless quest, and allows his serenely seductive prose to lead where it will. In the last chapter, "Il ritorno in patria" (readers had better know some Italian and German, because phrases are not translated), Sebald attains a particularly fluid synthesis of intellect and sensation as the writer revisits the stunning scenery and complicated memories of his youth. In the Alpine village of W., where he has not returned for three decades, he realizes that places "which had meant so much to me in my memory... meant nothing to me now." Back in London, he has a vision of the "vertiginous depths" of the past, and hears "an echo that had almost faded away." Again translator Hulse successfully conveys Sebald's shimmering prose. (May)
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