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.