Vertigo, by W.G. Sebald
There are some quirks about W.G. Sebald as a writer that are well worth taking in mind when one reads a novel like this. For one, Sebald definitely likes to dwell in the seedier parts of history. This time, unlike the usual, it does not dwell too much on World War II, although that is certainly in the background of what is going on in the novel. For another, though, and perhaps more interesting for some readers, is the way that Sebald gives his fictional narratives a great plausibility, especially through the use of drawings and images that make it seems as if the novel is in fact a bizarre sort of history or memoir. The unreliability of memory that fills so much of this novel is something that the author conveys in a skillful way, not by hitting the reader over the head with it, but making the novel itself so psychologically realistic that the reader wonders if this fiction is in fact some sort of disguised nonfiction. And that is an achievement of the highest order.
This book is the seventh book by the author that I have read, but the first novel that he happened to write, and in reading this novel one can sense a great deal about his ambitions from the very start. For one, it is pretty obvious that the author’s deep interest in unpleasant matters of life and history was present from the beginning . The author’s interest in memory and his concerns about sanity are also present from the beginning, and this novel gives the unsettling feeling of being both deeply pleasant and unpleasant at the same time. The pleasure in reading a novel like this comes from a recognition of the author’s obvious skill and his insights in connecting history and memory and the way that neither of them is entirely trustworthy, and the unpleasant nature of this book comes from the book’s material, dealing with a French officer who dies of syphilis and whines about his romantic problems, a look at the corruption of the Italian inquisition that tries to make Casanova (!) a sympathetic figure, a discussion of seedy contemporary Italian politics including the horror of a German tourist with vertigo being accused of being a pederast, and a look at an insane German with some serious intimacy issues. Altogether this book ends up being four parts and about 250 pages long.
It is hard to give a recommendation for a book like this. Some of the material in the book, as previously noted, is definitely disturbing and unpleasant, although to the author’s credit he does not vividly paint the unpleasant matters so much as note them and describe them as aspects of reality, whether it is the sexual mores of the French officer of Napoleonic times or the prurience of the lawyers of the Italian inquisition or the distresses that drive a German doctor to insanity, to give a few of the examples included here, or even the way that a decent but troubled traveler tries to avoid creating awkward scenes because of his fondness for watching the people around him. Those who like reading books by the author will likely enjoy this book as well, but there will be a great many people who simply find trouble wrapping their head around the novel’s intense complexity and its pervasive musing on the unreliability of our minds and yet our dependence on them at the same time. For some people this novel will be an exploration in the depths of a classic literary writer compelled to discuss Europe’s sordid history and its connection to the present, and for other people this novel will simply be too odd to appreciate.
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