BOOKS: The loneliness of the emigrant

William Sutcliffe grapples with the nature of truth Vertigo by W G Sebald Harvill pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
If Book of the Year citings corresponded to book sales, W G Sebald would be a rich man. On the strength of his first two books to be published in English, The Emigrants in 1996 and Rings of Saturn in 1998, W G Sebald has become to the British intelligentsia what Louis de Bernieres is to everyone else.

The appeal of both books is that they seem to be both undefinable and unprecedented, hovering in a place of the author's own making, somewhere between history, memoir, travelogue and the ramblings of a senile depressive. As if to plant a flag in this uniquely staked-out territory, Sebald has one particular trick that most obviously sets him apart, namely his use of photographs scattered throughout the text. Unlike the bundle of pictures bound in the centre of most non-fiction, Sebald places his images within the text, seemingly to emphasise the role of his pictures as evidence for the truth of what he is saying. In interview, however, he has admitted that he persists with this technique in the fictional sections of his work, falsifying the necessary images. This is not deceit, however. The very mysteriousness of the status of his text is central to his point. The nature of truth is his central subject, and he uses an impressive arsenal of tricks to tease his way through the subject. No wonder the intellectuals love him.

Vertigo focuses (if anything by Sebald can be said to focus) on one aspect of his great theme. Here he is puzzling away at the elusive, mysterious and capricious nature of human memory. Although this is his third book to be published in English, it was the first he wrote, nine years ago, before the subsequent The Emigrants won him international attention. In it he uses all the techniques he later refined, and it is no less diffuse and strange than anything he has subsequently written.

The book consists of four mid-length pieces, none of which is quite an essay or a story. The first is an account of a strange, lugubrious and lonely period in the life of a young Frenchman named Marie Henri Beyle, one paragraph of which mentions the "great novels" he subsequently wrote. It is necessary to refer to the blurb, or to a reference book, to discover that Beyle is the real name behind the nom de plume Stendhal.

The third story tells of a similarly odd period in the life of "Dr K". He appears to be a doppelganger for Kafka, but a few biographical mismatches seem to undermine the claim in the blurb that it actually is Kafka, though this fictional non-Kafka could perhaps be said to correspond more closely to the real Kafka than any biographer's "real Kafka" by virtue of Sebald's imaginative insight. All of which assumes that there is any real Kafka to be found. And so on. Without ever explicitly saying so, Sebald is writing about the nature of truth - about the fictionality of biography, and the biographical nature of fiction. He confuses and confounds his readers into asking of themselves and of the text the kind of questions that you suddenly realise you ought to be asking of everything you ever read - most importantly, what kind of truth is this pretending to be?

Sebald is a writer of ideas and yet he never says what his ideas are. It is in what is missing, what is unsaid, that the meat of Sebald's writing lies. His writing is somehow akin to a sweet chilli pepper, in that it has a seemingly bland flavour which conceals a sharp and disorientating aftertaste. As such, his books are somehow more interesting to reflect upon than they are to read. Only when you have got to the end of each piece, and have thought it through, does the real subject of what you have read begin to emerge. And that's if you're lucky. In my experience, one's reflections sometimes run aground before discerning any particular meaning. Nonetheless, it is always worth the attempt.

The two longest pieces in Vertigo deal with journeys made by the author (or, at least, by a first-person narrator whose life seems to match the known biographical details of Sebald's) through Austria and Italy, one in 1980, the other in 1987. On both these journeys, Sebald is alone and depressed, the earlier journey taken specifically "hoping that a change of place would help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life".

Unlike any conventional memoirist, Sebald never informs as as the nature or the cause of this difficult period. Whether it is the result of illness, divorce or any other specific mishap, we never find out. Rather, Sebald dwells on the currents of mood that dominate the days on his journeys, at the same time allowing his narrative to be swamped by the memories and historical anecdotes sparked off in his mind by what he sees. The narrative has no linearity whatsoever, the geography of his trip providing the only chronology or logic in the course taken by the text.

Any accusation of incoherence is, however, invalid, since Sebald is making no attempt to be coherent. Hitherto in his work, the uncompromising strangeness that results from this refusal has always seemed like a form of bravery verging on heroism. In Vertigo, however, certain traits in the behaviour he describes of himself point to another possible explanation. Every social situation he enters seems to end catastrophically. For example, he tells us that "It ... did not surprise me in the slightest when things took an even worse turn, and the waitress, to whom I had made a joking remark about the corrosive properties of the Tyrolean chicory coffee, gave me the benefit of her sharp tongue in the most ill- tempered manner imaginable."

This kind of thing seems to happen to Sebald rather a lot. Basic social interaction seems to be rather an uphill struggle for the man. Most strangely of all, in the final story, Sebald revisits the village of his birth for the first time in 30 years. He spends the evenings in the bar of the local inn, and tells us that "when the regulars came in, whom I recognised, almost to a man, from my schooldays and who all appeared to have grown older at a stroke, I listened to their talk while pretending to read the newspaper, never tiring of it and ordering one glass of Kalterer after the other". He makes no attempt to talk to these men, however, and tells us nothing of what they discuss. Rather, he goes on to describe in detail the woodcut under which the men are sitting.

Sebald's formal radicalism may indeed be the result of visionary genius; on the other hand, it seems equally possible that he is simply insane.

'These are just bits and pieces from nowhere in particular. The hope is they add up to something more than the sum of their randomly scavenged parts,' says Jonathan Miller - doctor, director and critic - of his photographs. Uncaptioned, and taken all around the world with a cheap automatic camera, they are collected here with musings from his notebooks on equally random subjects such as 'Glow', 'Bernie's baby' and 'Being looked at'. The result is a strangely satisfying insight into the mind of a man highly sensitised to his environment. 'Nowhere in Particular', Mitchell Beazley pounds 16.99