I kept wondering, as I read this, why I was enjoying it so much. Nothing happens. A man goes on a trip to Verona, and gets nervous in a train station. Then he goes to a sinister pizzeria and is so disturbed by the demeanor of the owner that he is compelled to leave… I can’t summarize. You either get the whole shaggy non-narrative in all its miscellaneous glory, or you don’t bother to open the book. Every fact is as important as every other fact: all are enumerated dispassionately and reduced to mere detail. A death, a birth, the presence of a fly on the ceiling are equally significant.
What Sebald knows, it seems, he shares with you. Describing his parents’ living room, he mentions “the bone china tea service which, as far as I can remember, was never brought out on a single occasion.” That seems definitive, doesn’t it?
But — “The more images I gathered from the past,… the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling.”
Well, Germans have trouble with the issue of memory, don’t they? Sebald has made this particularly his territory and though the back cover tells me this was his first novel, his preoccupations don’t change much through his other novels. Vertigo is structured in four sections, each bearing on a voyage: Stendhal’s through the Alps, Casanova’s escape from prison, Kafka’s visit to the Italian lakes and the narrator’s return to his native Bavarian village. The last is the strongest, the weirdest, the most authoritative. In the end, I think what I enjoy most about Sebald is that reading him is oddly restful. Yes, I could be paying more attention, tracing the thematic doubling (sinister twins, for instance) or the persistence of storm imagery. But there is so much pleasure to be had simply drifting along this river of prose.