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Vertigo Paperback – October, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Series: New Directions Paperbook
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: New Directions; First Edition edition (October 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0811214850
  • ISBN-13: 978-0811214858
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #42,529 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Grady Harp HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 30, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
WG Sebald is proving to be one of the most consistly unique, interesting writers today. This his third translated book (though his actual first novel) will undoubtedly sear his stamp of genius on the minds of serious readers around the world.

Simply stated, Sebald writes about the way the mind works - whether retracing synaptical strands that are memories, observing the world thru the windows of trams and trains as though watching an art film, or meandering through the visual stimuli that force us to confront fugitive connections with history or past lives or real but buried tragedies. Reading Sebald is like wandering through early morning or gloaming mists: what we see or hear or think is relative to how our minds process this information.

Sebald is obsessed with travel and with any obsession he delivers the fear of strange places as they bear witness to personal history related to actual history. He populates his travels with people so real they almost extend a touching hand while at the same time he places legends such as Stendhal, Kafka, Tiepelo in such vivid form that they seem of our time.

The rest of what Sebald does so wondrously is the magic that happens between writer and reader, and to give that away in description would be robbing the new reader of the pleasures of an intensely gratifying affair. This is writing at its best and I think the title "Vertigo" also describes the feeling of closing the final page of this pregnant journey.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 25, 2001
Format: Paperback
"Vertigo," the third of W. G. Sebald's works to appear in English translation, is a disorienting narrative that conflates history, memory, dream, and imagination. The result is another literary tour de force from the author of "The Emigrants" and "The Rings of Saturn," a remarkable work that is difficult to classify, but reinforces Sebald's deserved reputation as one of Europe's most original and preeminent contemporary writers.
"Vertigo" begins with an historical figure, in this case Marie Henri Beyle, better known to literary history as Stendhal. In the opening section ("Beyle, or Love is a Madness Most Discreet"), our third person narrator relates certain of the amorous adventures of Beyle during his travels in Italy, beginning with his first arrival in that country at the age of seventeen as a soldier in Napoleon's army. The year is 1800 and the historical record is drawn from Beyle's own notes of his experience, written more than three decades later at the age of 53. As if foreshadowing the vertiginous unreliability of the narrative to follow, the narrator (Sebald?) relates as follows: "The notes in which the 53-year-old Beyle, writing during a sojourn at Civitavecchia, attempted to relive the tribulations of those days afford eloquent proof of the various difficulties entailed in the act of recollection."
The third person narrative shifts, in the second section, to a first person relation of travels in Austria and Italy by our narrator beginning in the year 1980. It is an unreliable narrative, confounding dream and reality, past and present, in a text that seems to have a mysterious, underlying hermeticism. Thus, while aimlessly wandering the dark streets of Vienna, the narrator often thought he saw someone he knew walking ahead of me.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 14, 2002
Format: Paperback
The late W.G. Sebald wrote books of uncommon beauty, but, much to his credit, they are books that are extremely difficult to classify. Are they fiction, biography, memoir? Yes, they are all these and much, much more. When reading a book written by W.G. Sebald, one has to remember that what he doesn't write is just as important as what he does; his is truly a "sound of silence" in which the seemingly endless repetitions and comparisons conjure up more variations on theme than anyone could possible catalogue.
"Vertigo" is a book that consists of four sections that are not completely related to one another and would have made just as much sense (or so it seems) if told in a different order. These various sections tell of journies made to Vienna, Venice, Verona, Riva, and finally to Sebald's childhood home in the mountains of southern Germany. The journies fold and refold themselves into one another, becoming a part of one another until we're not quite sure which is which. The travels of Sebald echo the travels of Kafka, while the travels of Kafka echo those of Stendhal. Sebald, himself, encounters Dante in the Duomo, King Ludwig II on a vaporetto and the daughter of James I at Heidelberg Station. What is real? What is not? Sebald never gives us any clear-cut answers, for that was never the purpose of his journey, nor of this book.
The first section of "Vertigo" is a third-person biographical sketch of a nineteenth-century Napoleonic soldier named Beyle and it begins with Napoleon's crossing of the Alps into Austrian Italy. Sebald has, himself, perused Beyle's own journals for the material that make up this sketch. It is to Sebald's credit, at least in my estimation, that he never mentions the fact that Beyle is the birth name of the French novelist, Stendhal.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Brian A. Oard on August 23, 2006
Format: Paperback
Having never read a book by W.G. Sebald before, I bought this novel on a trip to London and began reading it on the long flight back to the States. The airline seated me next to a friendly, intelligent and beautiful woman, so I don't think I read more than eight pages or so during the flight. When I finished the book a few days later, I was stunned to discover that the route the narrator walks across central London near the end is EXACTLY the route I walked through that same area just a few hours before buying this book.

I mention this coincidence not solely because of narcissism, but because such coindences, such unexpected correspondences, such synchronicities, are the raw materials from which Sebald's books are made.

"Vertigo" is the first and most difficult of Sebald's four novels, and it may also be the most profound. The first example of his trademark form, the travel narrative as psychological and philosophical exploration, the book moves from London to Venice to the German alps and covers a range of subjects from the paintings of Pisanello to the loves of Stendhal, working in meditations on the treachery of memory, the fragility of identity, the struggle to find meaning in history (both personal and national)... Sebald's works are so intellectually rich that summary descriptions of them can only sound banal. Read the book and see for yourself.
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