Most helpful positive review
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 22 November 2009
I read this book immediately upon finishing 'Rings of Saturn', and the slight doubt I might have had if 'Vertigo' would be of the same (dizzyingly high) level was immediately dispelled. As with 'Rings of Saturn', this is yet another unique book from an author with a unique voice.
'Vertigo' is subdivided into 4 chapters:
- 'Beyle, or Love is a Madness Most Discreet' traces the (inner) life, in bits and pieces, of Marie-Henri Beyle - whom we all know better as Stendhal - from 1800, when he crosses the Alps into Italy in Napoleon's army, until his death in 1842;
- 'All 'estero' (which could loosely be translated as 'going abroad' or 'being abroad') is an account of two of Sebald's own journeys: travelling in 1980 from England through Vienna to Venice and Verona, and a journey in 1987 in which he also visit the Lago di Garda-region;
- 'Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva' is a fictionalised account of Kafka's stay there in 1913 where he gets acquainted with the illusive Undine;
- in the final chapter, 'Il ritorno in patria', which is set in 1987, Sebald visits - for the first time since his childhood - the tiny village of Wertach in Germany where he was born
What makes this book so unique then? Well, somehow it's hard to say! But in random order: the prose is quite simply mesmerizing (praise is due to Michael Hulse for a brilliant translation), and Sebald has a way with words describing the most everyday events in a quite astonishing vocabulary, making you look afresh at those 'ordinary' places, people, events... What to all of us would simply be waiters at a station buffet in an Italian town treating their customers with proverbial disdain, in Sebald's account are turned into 'some strange company of higher beings sitting in judgement (...) on the endemic greed of a corrupted species'.
Which brings me to me next point: I was bowled over, literally stunned, by the incredible thoughts and associations Sebald scatters liberally throughout this book. His mind ranges across space and time as if it is mere child's play to him. From Casanova's imprisonment in Venice to King Ludwig II of Bavaria, paintings by Tiepolo and Pisanello, dreams Sebald had himself, childhood memories, meetings with real and imaginary people, it's all in there and incredible though it may seem: there's no sense whatsoever of everything being thrown together haphazardly in a great jumble, on the contrary, you cannot help but read on and on and on feeling that everything is truly interconnected. In a way I guess, what Sebald succeeds in doing is making you follow his own thoughts and make it feel as natural as if they were your own (which they are not of course).
As in 'Rings of Saturn', what Sebald writes about is not really the funny side of life (though there are passages where he demonstrates a fine sense of dark humour): loss, suffering, the impossibility of love, the slow but steady decay of all humans strive for, the shortcomings of memory. In that sense, the book's title is aptly chosen: never explicitly upfront but always there in the background is the feeling that humankind is on the edge of the abyss.
Lastly I should perhaps add that here too, as in 'Rings of Saturn', the text is interspersed with pictures of all sorts of things: details of paintings, notebook entries by Sebald, the people he talks about,... What are they there for? To prove what Sebald writes has some kind of veracity and is grounded in factual history (which it often is)? Perhaps so, but even then they contribute, in an odd way, to the dreamlike atmosphere in this book.
When I re-read it now, I'm aware that the above is really a rather chaotic review which barely does the book justice. But, if you find my judgement anything to go by, I can only summarize by saying that this is one of the very best books I've ever read, which I'm sure has layers upon layers of meaning (of which I've barely scratched the surface), and which I'll surely read again at some future time.