In the closing pages of Cervantes’s masterpiece, at last disabused and disillusioned, a decrepit Don Quixote finds that there is nothing for him beyond folly but death. When giants are only windmills and Dulcinea a stout peasant lass who has no time for a knight errant, life, alas, is unlivable. “Truly he is dying,” says the priest who takes his confession, “and truly he is sane.” Sancho Panza breaks down in tears: “Oh don’t die, dear master!… Take my advice and live many years. For the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die just like that, without anybody killing him, but just finished off by his own melancholy.”
Centuries later, observing the loss of all illusion that he felt characterized the modern world, the melancholic Giacomo Leopardi wrote: “Everything is folly but folly itself.” And again a hundred and more years later, the arch pessimist Emil Cioran rephrased the reflection thus: “The true vertigo is the absence of folly.” What makes Don Quixote so much luckier than Leopardi and Cioran, and doubtless Cervantes himself, is that, as the epitaph on his tombstone puts it, “he had the luck…to live a fool and yet die wise.” What on earth would have become of such a sentimental idealist had he returned to his senses, as it were, a decade or two earlier?
Both in Vertigo and in his later novels The Emigrants and Rings of Saturn,1 W.G. Sebald, the German writer who lives in England, tells the stories of those who reach disillusionment long before the flesh is ready to succumb. The men in his book—they are always men—are engaged in a virtuoso struggle to conjure within themselves the minimum of folly, or we could call it love of life or even engagement, that will prevent them from dying “just like that,” “finished off by [their] own melancholy.”
But perhaps I have got that wrong. For it could also be said that Sebald’s characters are men who ruthlessly suppress folly the moment it raises its irrepressible head. So wary are they of engagement in life that they are morbidly and masochistically in complicity with melancholy and all too ready to be overwhelmed by it. There is a back and forth in Sebald’s work between the wildest whimsy and the bleakest realism. One extreme calls to the other: the illusions of passion, in the past; a quiet suicide, all too often, in the future. Mediating between the two, images both of his art and of what fragile nostalgic equilibrium may be available to his heroes, are the grainy black-and-white photographs Sebald scatters throughout his books. Undeniably images of something, something real that is, they give documentary evidence of experiences that, as we will discover in the text, sparked off in the narrator or hero a moment of mental excitement, of mystery, or folly, or alarm. They are the wherewithal of an enchantment, at once feared and desired, and above all necessary for staying alive. Not even in the grainiest of these photos, however, will it be possible to mistake a windmill for a giant.
There are four pieces in Vertigo. All of them involve a back and forth across the Alps between northern Europe and Italy. The first is entitled “Beyle, or Love is a Madness Most Discreet,” and it is the only one to offer something like the whole trajectory of a life through passion and engagement to disillusionment and depression. By using Stendhal’s baptismal name, Marie-Henri Beyle, Sebald alerts us at once, and far more effectively than if he had used the writer’s pseudonym, to the extent to which identity is invented as well as given and thus involves continuous effort. Beyle created Stendhal, as Señor Quesada dreamed up Don Quixote. Taking on the identity was one with the folly, its most positive achievement perhaps. But that is not to say that Beyle, whoever he was, did not live on, as even Quesada reemerged for extreme unction.
In his opening sentence Sebald likes to give us a strong cocktail of date, place, and purposeful action. Thus the Beyle piece begins: “In mid-May of the year 1800 Napoleon and a force of 36,000 men crossed the Great St Bernhard pass….” The second piece starts: “In October 1980 I travelled from England…to Vienna, hoping that a change of place would help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life.” And the third: “On Saturday the 6th of September, 1913, Dr K., the Deputy Secretary of the Prague Workers’ Insurance Company, is on his way to Vienna to attend a congress on rescue services and hygiene.”
It is so concrete, so promising! All too soon, however, and this is one of the most effective elements of comedy in Sebald’s work, the concrete will become elusive; the narrative momentum is dispersed in a delta as impenetrable as it is fertile. Thus Beyle, who at age seventeen was with Napoleon on that “memorable” crossing, finds it impossible, at age fifty-three, to arrive at a satisfactory recollection of events. “At times his view of the past consists of nothing but grey patches, then at others images appear of such extraordinary clarity he feels he can scarce credit them.” He is right not to. His vivid memory of General Marmont beside the mountain track wearing the sky-blue robes of a councillor must surely be wrong, since Marmont was a general at the time and would thus have been wearing his general’s uniform.
Italo Calvino reports making a similar error when looking back on a battle fought with the partigiani against the Fascists:
I concentrate on the faces I know best: Gino is in the piazza: a thickset boy commanding our brigade, he looks into the square and crouches shooting from a balustrade, black tufts of beard round his tense jaw, small eyes shining under the peak of his Mexican hat. I know that Gino had taken to wearing a different hat at the time but…I keep seeing him with that big straw hat that belongs to a memory of the previous summer.2
If crossing the St. Bernard with an army was, as Sebald concludes his opening sentence, “an undertaking that had been regarded until that time as next to impossible,” remembering that undertaking, even for a man with a mind as formidable as Stendhal’s, turns out to be not only “next to” but truly impossible.
This is hardly news. That the difficulty of every act of memory has a way of drawing our attention to the perversity of the mind and the complicity between its creative and corrosive powers is a commonplace. “And the last remnants memory destroys,” we read beneath the title of one of the pieces in The Emigrants. No, it is Sebald’s sense of the role of this act of fickle memory in the overall trajectory of his characters’ lives that makes the pieces in Vertigo so engaging and convincing.
Beyle/Stendhal’s life as described by Sebald is as follows. Crossing the Alps the adolescent dragoon is appalled by the dead horses along the wayside, but later cannot remember why: “His impressions had been erased by the very violence of their impact.” Arriving in Italy he sees a performance of Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto, falls wildly in love with a plain if not ugly prima donna, overspends on fashionable clothes, and finally “disburdens” himself of his virginity with a prostitute. “Afterwards” we are told, “he could no longer recall the name or face of the donna cattiva who had assisted him in this task.” The word “task” appears frequently and comically in Vertigo, most often in Thomas Bernhard’s sense of an action that one is simply and irrationally compelled to do, not a social duty or act of gainful employment.
Despite contracting syphilis in the city’s brothels, Beyle cultivates “a passion of a more abstract nature” for the mistress of a fellow soldier. She ignores him, but eleven years later, deploying an “insane loquacity,” he convinces her to yield on the condition that he will then leave Milan at once. Exhilarated by his conquest, Beyle is overcome by melancholy. He sees Il matrimonio segreto again and is entirely unimpressed by a most beautiful and brilliant prima donna. Visiting the battlefield at Marengo, the discrepancy between his frequent imaginings of the heroic battle and the actual presence of the bleached bones of thousands of corpses produces a frightening vertigo, after which the shabby monument to the fallen can only make a mean impression. Again he embarks on a romantic passion, this time for the wife of a Polish officer. His mad indiscretion leads her to reject him, but he retains a plaster cast of her hand (we see a photograph) that was to mean “as much to him as Métilde herself could ever have done.”
Sebald now concentrates on Beyle’s account of his romantic attachment to one Madame Gherardi, a “mysterious, not to say unearthly figure,” who may in fact have been only (only!) a figment of his imagination. Usually skeptical of his romantic vision of love, one day this “phantom” lady does at last speak “of a divine happiness beyond comparison with anything else in life.” Overcome by “dread” Beyle backs off. The long last paragraph of the piece begins: “Beyle wrote his great novels between 1829 and 1842, plagued constantly by the symptoms of syphilis.”
The trajectory is clear enough. The effort of memory and of writing begins, it seems, where the intensities of romance and military glory end. It is the “task” of the disillusioned, at once a consolation and a penance. In 1829 Beyle turned forty-seven. Sebald turned forty-seven in 1990, the year in which Vertigo, his first “novel,” was published. Coincidences are important in this writer’s work. Why?
The Beyle piece is followed by an account of two journeys Sebald himself made in 1980 and 1987 to Venice, Verona, and Lake Garda (all places visited by Stendhal). The third piece describes a similar journey apparently made by Kafka in the fall of 1913, exactly a hundred years after the French writer reports having visited the lake with the mysterious Madame Gherardi. As Stendhal was referred to only by his baptismal name and not the name he invented, so Kafka, in what is the most fantastical and “poetic” piece in the book, is referred to only as K., the name used for the protagonists of The Trial and The Castle. Or not quite. In fact Sebald refers to him as “Dr K., Deputy Secretary of the Prague Workers’ Insurance Company,” thus bringing together Kafka’s “professional” existence as an insurance broker and his fictitious creation, begging the question of the “identity” of the man who lies between the two.
Beginning in Verona, the last piece, “Il ritorno in patria,” shows the author interrupting “my various tasks” to undertake a journey that will take him back to the village of his childhood in Alpine Bavaria, where most of the piece is set, and finally on to England, where Sebald has his “professional” existence as a university lecturer. In all three of these pieces the romantic and military adventures of the young Henri Beyle are very much behind our now decidedly melancholic characters, and yet they are ever present too. As if between Scylla and Charybdis, when Dr. K sits down to eat at the sanitarium on Lake Garda, it is to find an aging general on one side and an attractive young lady on the other.
Similarly, on returning to the building where he grew up, Sebald remembers his boyhood longing for the company of the pretty waitress in the bar on the ground floor and the fact that he was forbidden to visit the top floor because of the mysterious presence of a “grey chasseur,” presumably a ghost, in the attic. Satisfying his curiosity forty years later, the narrator climbs to the attic to discover a tailor’s dummy dressed in the military uniform of the Austrian chasseurs. It is hard to steer a course across the wild waters generated by these two somehow complicitous follies. Was it not after all a combination of distressed damsels and military grandeur that overwhelmed Don Quixote’s sanity? Vertigo offers a number of images of ships heading for shipwrecks.
But the question of coincidences keeps turning up. In the second piece, entitled “All’estero” (“Abroad”), we are introduced to a character who could not be further from Sebald’s usually melancholic type, Giovanni Casanova. So far we have heard how the writer, in deep depression, travels from England to Vienna, falls into a state of mental paralysis, and is on the brink of becoming down-and-out when in desperation he sets out for Venice, a city so labyrinthine that “you cannot tell what you will see next or indeed who will see you the very next moment.” One of the things he sees of course in Venice is the Doge’s Palace, which causes him to think of Casanova.
With admirable reticence, Sebald has given us no reason for the cause of his depression. But if only because we have just read the Beyle piece, and there are various tiny hints scattered here and there, we suspect that romance is at least part of the problem, or, as Dr. K. will think of it in the following piece: the impossibility of leading “the only possible life, to live together with a woman, each one free and independent.” Just to see the name Casanova, then, to think of that great seducer and endlessly resourceful schemer, produces a fierce contrast. Yet even Casanova experienced a period of depression and mental paralysis. When? When, like some hero of Kafka’s, he was imprisoned without explanation in the Doge’s Palace. And how did he escape? With the help of a coincidence.
In order to decide on what day he would attempt to break out of his cell, Casanova used a complicated random system to consult Orlando Furioso, thus, incredibly, happening on the words: “Between the end of October and the beginning of November.” The escape was successful. Casanova fled to France, where he later invented for himself the identity Chevalier de Seingalt. But just as remarkable as this propitious consultation of Orlando Furioso is the fact that October 31 turns out to be the very day upon which our author finds himself in Venice. Sebald is amazed, alarmed, fascinated.
Again and again it is coincidence, or uncanny repetition, those most evident outcroppings of the underlying mysteriousness of existence, that jerks the melancholic out of his paralysis. It is as if, disillusioned to the point where certain follies have become unthinkable (and contemporary Europe, as Sebald showed in The Emigrants, has good reason for being thus disillusioned), we can only be set in motion by a fascination with life’s mysteries, which are simply forced upon us in all sorts of ways. Between, or perhaps after, passion and glory lie the uncertain resource of curiosity, the recurring emotions of amazement and alarm. Any act of remembering will offer a feast.
Toward that midnight between October and November, Sebald rows out on the Venetian lagoon with an acquaintance who points out the city incinerator, the fires of which burn in perpetuity, and explains that he has been thinking a great deal about death and resurrection. “He had no answers,” Sebald writes, “but believed the questions were quite sufficient to him.” It is an echo, conscious or otherwise, of Rilke’s advice to his “young poet” to “have patience with everything unresolved and try to love the questions themselves.” Rilke was another German writer who had considerable problems both with military academies and with love.
But it would be a mistake to imagine that Sebald presents coincidence in a positive light. Extraordinary parallels may, briefly, release the paralyzed mind from its cell, get it sorting through old diaries, or tracking down books in libraries, or comically attempting on a bus, as in Sebald’s case, to take photographs of twin boys who exactly resemble the adolescent Kafka, but they do this in the way that an alarm or a siren might. There is a destructive side to coincidence. It has a smell of death about it. What is the night “between the end of October and the beginning of November,” if not the night before All Saints’ Day, I morti, the Day of the Dead?
Why is this? To “coincide” is “to occupy the same place or time,” says Chambers’s dictionary, “to correspond, to be identical.” The coincidence that Stendhal, Kafka, and Sebald all take similar trips at similar times of year, the first two exactly a century apart, may set curiosity in motion, but it also removes uniqueness from these events; the recurrence diminishes the original, replaces it, falsifies it, the way Beyle reports finding his memories of landscapes destroyed by their painterly representations, the way even an old photograph may be considered as stealing something of its original.
Here we are approaching the core of Sebald’s vision, the spring at once of his pessimism, comedy, and lyricism. Engagement in the present inevitably involves devouring the past. Waking up in his Venice hotel on November 1, remarking on the silence, Sebald contrasts it to the ceaseless surging of traffic he hears in the hotels of other cities, the endless oceanic roar of cars and trucks released wave upon wave from traffic lights. He concludes his description: “For some time now I have been convinced that it is out of this din that the life is being born which will come after us and will spell our gradual destruction, just as we have been gradually destroying what was there long before us.” To be set, with Casanova, in motion, is to be returned to the business of destruction. The chasseur, or hunter, he who consumes his own sport (and what was Casanova if not a hunter?), is a recurring figure in this book. Occasionally Sebald hears his arrow whistle past an ear.
It is uncanny, on reading a work that makes so much of coincidences, to find it coinciding in an unsettling way with one’s own life. Enviably adept at finding images and anecdotes that will deliver his vision, Sebald now tells us of his experiences in Verona, the town where I have lived for almost twenty years. Eating in a gloomy pizzeria, he is unsettled by the painting of a ship in peril on stormy seas. Trying to distract himself he reads an article in the paper about the so-called “caso Ludwig.” For some years a string of local murders were accompanied by the claims of a group calling itself Ludwig. Some of the victims were prostitutes, and there were incendiary attacks on discothèques which the murderers felt to be dens of sin. Again the sexual and the military seem to have combined in the most disturbing fashion. How could Sebald not be appalled by the macabre German connection? And when the waiter brings his bill, he reads in the small print (again we have a reproduction) that the restaurant owner is one “Carlo Cadavero.” This is too much and the author flees on the night train to Innsbruck.
Aside from the fact that I was able to look up Carlo Cadavero’s name in the Verona phone book, what struck me as uncanny was a comment from later in this piece where, returning to Verona seven years later, Sebald hears how the two adolescents, Wolfgang Abel and Marco Furlan, who created this terrible identity Ludwig, a sort of negative two-man Don Quixote, were tried and imprisoned. He remarks that although the evidence against them was “irrefutable,” “the investigation produced nothing that might have made it possible to comprehend a series of crimes extending over almost seven years.”
Irrefutable? It would have been about the same time as Sebald’s second trip that, while carrying out English oral exams at the University of Verona, I found myself looking at the ID of a young woman whose surname was Furlan. Seeing my eyebrows rise, she said, “Yes, I am his sister. And he is innocent.” She then went on to pass her exam, a conversation test, in exemplary fashion explaining to me with the utmost conviction that the whole thing was absurd and her brother the sweetest, most normal person on earth. Despite the irrefutable evidence, she believed this, as no doubt the sisters of those who later commit war crimes believe in all honesty that they are growing up in the most normal of families. They are. Not for nothing is Sebald’s writing frequently set alight with images of terrible conflagrations that inexplicably consume everything, leaving the world to start again from under a veil of ash. Never mentioned, Shiva presides.
The time has come to say something about this writer’s extraordinary prose, without which his rambling plots and ruminations would be merely clever and unsettling. Like the coincidences he speaks of, it is a style that recovers, devours, and displaces the past. He has Bernhard’s love of the alarming superlative, the tendency to describe states of the most devastating confusion with great precision and control. But the touch is much lighter than Bernhard’s, the instrument more flexible. Kafka is present here too, perhaps from time to time Robert Walser, and no doubt others as well. But all these predecessors have been completely digested, destroyed, and remade in Sebald and above all in his magnificent descriptions, which mediate so effectively between casual incident and grand reflection. One suspects too that Michael Hulse’s translation, which possesses a rare internal coherence of register and rhythm, is itself the product of a long process of digestion and recasting, a wonderful, as it were, coincidence. Some of the English is breathtaking. All the same, the most effective moments are often the more modest stylistically. Here is the author in a railway carriage with two beautiful women; knowing what we know of him, any approach to them is impossible, yet how attractive they are in their mystery!
Outside, in the slanting sunlight of late afternoon, the poplars and fields of Lombardy went by. Opposite me sat a Franciscan nun of about thirty or thirty-five and a young girl with a colourful patchwork jacket over her shoulders. The girl had got on at Brescia, while the nun had already been on the train at Desenzano. The nun was reading her breviary, and the girl, no less immersed, was reading a photo story. Both were consummately beautiful, both very much present and yet altogether elsewhere. I admired the profound seriousness with which each of them turned the pages. Now the Franciscan nun would turn a page over, now the girl in the colourful jacket, then the girl again and then the Franciscan nun once more. Thus the time passed without my ever being able to exchange a glance with either the one or the other. I therefore tried to practise a like modesty, and took out Der Beredte Italiener, a handbook published in 1878 in Berne, for all who wish to make speedy and assured progress in colloquial Italian.
Only Sebald, one suspects, would study an out-of-date phrase book while missing the chance to speak to two attractive ladies. The determinedly old-fashioned aura that hangs about all his prose is part and parcel of his decidedly modern version of non-engagement. Yet from the “insane loquacity” of the romantic Beyle to the charming picture in the book’s last piece of the schoolboy Sebald enamored of his teacher and “filling my exercise books with a web of lines and numbers in which I hoped to entangle Fraulein Rauch forever,” few writers make us more aware of the seductive powers of language. Sebald’s literary enticements seek to achieve an intimacy that will not be so destructive as other follies: the direct encounter, the hunter’s knife. This truly is a “madness most discreet.”
All of which leads us to the only possible objection that I can imagine being raised against this remarkable writer. That to succumb to his seduction is to resign oneself to more of the same: the broken lives, the coincidences, these unhappy men and enigmatic women. Is it a problem? With his accustomed blend of slyness and grim comedy, Sebald tackles the issue himself in a section from the last piece of Vertigo. Sitting in the hotel in the Bavarian village of his childhood, he observes a gloomy painting depicting woodcutters at work and recalls that the artist, Hengge, was famous for his pictures of woodcutters. “His murals, always in dark shades of brown, were to be seen on the walls of buildings all around W. and the surrounding area, and were always of his favoured motifs.” The author sets out to tramp around the surrounding woods and villages to rediscover all these paintings, finding them “most unsettling,” which is to say, for Sebald, good, since only what is unsettling attracts his attention, heightens sensibility, warns of life’s dangers, recuperates its horrors in pathos. He then gives us the following comment on Hengge’s tendency always to paint the same subject, ending with a moment of alarming but also amusing vertigo, that dizzying empty space that Sebald finds at the core of every intensity:
Hengge the painter was perfectly capable of extending his repertoire. But whenever he was able to follow his own artistic inclination, he would paint only pictures of woodcutters. Even after the war, when for a variety of reasons his monumental works were no longer much in demand, he continued in the same vein. In the end, his house was said to have been so crammed with pictures of woodcutters that there was scarcely room for Hengge himself and death, so the obituary said, caught him in the midst of a work showing a woodcutter on a sledge hurtling down into the valley below.
As long as Sebald shows this kind of resourcefulness, my only regret, when his task obliges him to repeat himself, will be the tendency of the new book to eclipse the old.
June 15, 2000