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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.
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on 3 July 2013
W.G. Sebald's weirdest book. Wow! It starts some time in the early 19th century and follows the exploits of a Napoleonic campaign through the alps to end up in the 1950's alpine terrain of Austria and finally in 1980's Italy searching through newspaper cuttings for obscure and eccentric advertisements. This is awonderfully playful, inventive, and strange book. Part collage and parallel universe, it takes a grip on the reader's attention and trawls you through many peculiar incidents and crams each page with a mixture of real and invented biographical details. The micro-universe described in the book is Sebald's own mischeivious tinkering with his alter ego or imagined/dreamed other self. He wants you to think it is partly a journal and a travelogue when in fact we know it is all made up - or is it?! It is a skillful work of factish fiction, perhaps peppered with funny and bizarre anecdotes and sub-stories to amaze and bewilder you. I read it whilst on vacation in Rome and found it oozed more metaphysical putty! As much of it takes places in Italy it is deeply evocative and compellingly descriptive in a way that makes you hungry for more detail and information. With all of Sebald's fictions you are immersed in a topsy turvy world of alternative realities prompted or suggested by a bus ticket, an old found photo, an overheard snippet of information. Sebald is the master of collectors, pouring his flair for the humdrum banalities of everyday life into a funnel of mystery and melancholic brooding. His dramas are small yet all of them are memorable because of their weirdness and the reader's knowledge that it is Sebald himself that he is essentially describing: warts and all. Its a deeply rewarding and magical book. He should have got the Nobel prize for literature but he didn't because he died aged 57 from a brain haemorrhage. He was one of the all time greats and he knew it, that's why he wrote just a handful of quirky books and we read them over and over again to get back into his world.
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on 31 December 2009
I have only recently discovered W G Sebald. This is a fascinating book - highly recommended. A travel book of the mind.
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on 20 December 2000
'Vertigo' is well titled. There is a constant feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty in the narrative. There is suspense, but the narrator's combination of ultrasensivity and naivety is often comic. In the main section, 'All'estero', Sebald retraces Kafka's journey to the Italian Lakes in 1913. On a local bus, he sees twin boys who look exactly like Kafka. (It should be noted that Sebald is given to imagining present-day people to be historical figures.) He tries to explain his excitement at this coincidence to the boys' parents and asks them to send him a photo of the boys to his address in England. The boys gigle and the parents frown. Belatedly, Sebald realises that the parents think he is a pederast and hurriedly gets off at the next stop. Or in Verona where he eats alone in a dreadful pizzeria and is suddenly overcome with terror when he sees from the bill that the propietor is Sr Cadavero. At this point Sebald overhears him telling someone on the phone that 'hell is at the gates'. He flees. There is something of Kafka in these incidents. But M. Hulot is not far away either. In the last section of the book, Sebald describes his return to W., his home village in the Allgau,just across the border from Tyrol. Present experiences mingle with childhood memories. People, places, and incidents are unerringly recalled and placed. The mood here is dark, the season winter, and the lonely wanderer of Schubert's 'Winterreise' also comes to mind. The richness of allusion is typical of Sebald's work. The writing is clear, readable, and totally compelling. It's impossible to sum up Sebald's work - he's too much of an original for that - but his is a voice which is worth attending to.
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on 17 December 2012
Sebald is an amazing writer whose work is best tasted in "The Rings of Saturn" (NOT science fiction) and "The Emigrants". "Vertigo" actually preceded those two, though it was translated into English later. Not quite fiction, not quite non-fiction or essay--but something uniquely Sebaldian.
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on 29 January 2012
This book, Sebald's first, was published in 1990. It was translated into English in 1999, in the wake of the critical success of works like The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn.

The four chapters in Vertigo contained respectively an overview of the life of Stendhal in 19th century Italy, a description of the introspective narrator's own 1987 travels and thoughts in Italy, his tracing of Kafka's time in Italy before World War I, and the narrator's return in 1980 to the German village where he'd come of age after World War II.

I found the chapter on Stendhal to be a sort of summary of what Sebald seemed to be doing, showing the texture of life lived between countries in the course of a journey, the search for connection with others, the love of art and travel, and so on. We search, we write, we live in our heads, we endure various degrees of anxiety and dislocation, and in the end we die. After showing this with Stendhal, he turned to his own life, taking us through his minute concerns and random encounters. There was a certain level of meandering, but also sensitive descriptions of what it felt like to walk the streets of Venice and endure enormous crowds in a buffet at a nearby station. The title of the book, and the occasional allusions in the text to vertigo, recalled the title of Sartre's Nausea.

The writer began to lose me initially in the chapter on Kafka, whose point I couldn't grasp, and utterly in the last section, where the piling up of detail and jump from thought to thought felt increasingly random, oblique and unreadable. The narrator made no concession to readers in terms of supplying hints about the points he was trying to make. Particularly in the last two chapters, the book felt like a journal--hermetic and self-indulgent if you're not the writer.

The sense of dislocation and occasional menace reminded me somehow of Borges, without that author's flawless sense of logic and structure in his best works. I found the various coincidences--two boys looking like Kafka in one chapter, another chapter with a photograph of Kafka and two men with identical mustaches--pointless. And what the author might've been trying to say about memory--that it might play tricks on us, for example--didn't seem original. Other things that struck me were the writer's inability to form meaningful connections with others in the course of his travels and the relative lack of a sense of humor.

In the end, I was able to grasp a few interesting fragments from the book. The black-and-white illustrations added immeasurably to the text.
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on 29 September 2000
W G Sebald isn't the most cheery author around. His later work, The Rings Of Saturn, was a somewhat gloomy jaunt around Suffolk (an area of England not known for its Barbados-like jollity). This collection does not disappoint. Sebald (or his alter-ego, at any rate), travels here and there, and doesn't seem to find joy in any place he goes to. Italian restaurants, his home town, nowhere is safe - he's a kind of anti-Bill Bryson. But all the time, his muses on existence are beautifully written and are genuinely thought provoking. He has a wonderful tone (helped, I'm sure, by the translation), and is genuinly unique.
He can also make you laugh - the first four pages of the final section are so utterly miserable I had to stop myself laughing. You really begin to wonder if he's playing to the crowd. But he does it so well, that you can't help but forgive him.
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on 2 March 2013
I like W G Sebald and this is one of the best novels of him; I join it with pleasure into my library; well delivered as it is, too ....Y.-P. H.
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on 23 August 2014
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on 4 February 2012
This book took me on a journey which seemed to hang between place and time by evocative descriptions of stops on a journey interspersed with stories and memories from the past.The vivid pictures remain with me.
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