It is not often that books receive the universal critical acclaim with which W G Sebald's work in English translation has been met. The Rings of Saturn
, in particular, achieved the sort of plaudits which would enable most writers to die happy. Sebald's limpid prose is literally entrancing and has encouraged a serious, passionate and aesthetic response. His unique style was first employed in Vertigo
, published in the original German in 1990 and now available in English. As in The Emigrants
interweaves four narratives that develop an elegiac evocation of a transcendent theme--which, in this case, is that of memory. Beginning with Marie Henri Beyle (Stendhal), and his painful and unreliable recollections of the military campaign during which his rites of passage were won, the narrative elegantly traverses Sebald's own voyages through Italy. It journeys into the intersection of temporal and personal perspectives which is the stuff of all interpretations, both past and present.
As the book develops, it returns to the same locations: Milan, Verona, Venice and the Alps. In the course of this fractured meandering, the reader lives with a haunted Franz Kafka and admires the serene beauty of the stars above Lake Garda, before returning to Sebald's home in the Bavarian Alps, where the author confronts his childhood memories.
Of all Sebald's works, his narrative style is perhaps best suited to the subject-matter of this book, for it is precisely the distorted and unfathomable essence of memory that his stumbling journey seeks to unravel. Thus in Vertigo, Sebald's integration of personal, historical and fictional perspectives, combined with the nature of his physical exploration, creates a vivid and lasting impression of the imaginative confusion that is inherent in any thought, recollection or projection. This style of writing requires deep integrity and it is impossible not to develop a picture of a deeply sensitive mind, which is aware of the very nature of its conceits and deceptions. "What is it that undoes a writer?", asks Sebald, when thinking of Stendhal. The question weighs over the rest of the book and indeed over much of Sebald's work.
In The Rings of Saturn he goes some way towards producing an answer, not just to this but indeed to the motivation of Vertigo as a whole:
"The fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight."
"Nothing like Vertigo
is likely to be encountered in the course of one's regular reading. One emerges from it shaken, seduced, and deeply impressed" (Anita Brookner Spectator
"Where has one heard in English a voice of such confidence and precision, so direct in its expression of feeling, yet so respectfully devoted to "the real"?" (Susan Sontag Times Literary Supplement
"Possessed of a richness and strangeness that would put most other writers to shame. Sebald's journey into himself and his past is compelling, puzzling, unique" (The Times
"As a reader, you find his prose wrapping itself, wraith-like, round your imagination, casting a baffling and indefinable spell.it works triumphantly well. The fact that W.G. Sebald chooses to tease, dazzle and mystify should not blind us to the fact that he does the one thing that every novelist should do: he entertains, provokes, stimulates and inspires" (Robert McCrum Observer