Friday Book: A dizzying world of whimsical memory

Vertigo by WG Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse (Harvill, pounds 16.99 hardback; pounds 12 paperback)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHAT ARTHUR Penn said of film - that it trembles constantly on the brink of being boring - also goes for the work of W G Sebald. It is the perpetual uncertainty, the hovering on the edge of an infinitely tedious regress, that generates the peculiar sense of suspended narration that makes his writing so compelling. This was most pronounced, paradoxically, in The Rings Of Saturn, an account of a walking tour of East Anglia where the flatness of the landscape, the profound inaction, accentuated the dizzy psychological depths.

Like The Emigrants, the book that gave English-language readers their first taste of Sebald's unique montage of memoir-travelogue-fiction, it held one's interest because any clues as to what was going to make the book work always seemed likely to be hidden in the least interesting passages. The reader was forced to attend with a patience-straining diligence that proceeded in tandem with the narrator's weary tramping through the Suffolk lowlands.

Both The Rings Of Saturn and The Emigrants meandered all over the place. The idea of digression was so intrinsic to their conception that one never doubted, however unfamiliar the territory, that Sebald knew exactly where he was going. Part of the reason, it now becomes apparent, is because he was working from a template established in a book published in German in 1990, and now appearing in English as Vertigo.

Like The Emigrants, it is made of four separate sections. The first concerns a period in the life of the young Stendhal, before he had written any of his books. The third explores an interlude spent in Italy by the "Deputy Secretary of the Prague Workers' Insurance Company" in 1913. Known as Dr K, the Deputy Secretary is a Kafkaesque figure, his identity a blurred amalgam of the writer and his creations. The second and fourth sections detail journeys made by Sebald - or his narrative surrogate - through Italy and Austria. These journeys are discursive as well as topographical, encountered sights and slights all the time giving way to - or obstructing - the sites and sleights of memory.

Readers of the other books will be familiar with Sebald's habit of pasting photographs and illustrations into his text. These pictures anchor his drifting, memory-drenched investigations in a documentary reality but - since they are always uncaptioned - the surrounding prose is dissolving the very reality they appear to support. This tension is declared early in Vertigo when the young Stendhal avoids buying "engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one's travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them".

The contrary movement is seen by the way a chance detail brings distinct periods and places into uncanny adjacency. The sight of "two men in black- silver-buttoned tunics", for example, carrying "a bier on which lay, under a floral-patterned drape, what was plainly the body of a human being", works hauntingly, like the sensation of deja vu, to link the second and third sections.

Overall, though, Vertigo lacks the disparate unity of The Emigrants and Rings Of Saturn. Much seems like determined whimsy. The fact that Sebald's books lack a centre means the job of holding has to be spread throughout. In Saturn the reader was held by the melancholy mood and climate. The combination of louring cloud and the narrator's wryly non-specific depression trembled on the brink of humour. Indeed, this reader's conversion to Sebald occurred with the realisation that he was, as much as anything, a comic writer.

In this respect, his world is reminiscent of the "black idylls" of Thomas Bernhard. Sebald sedates the Austrian's relentless hysteria and lulls it into repressed almost-hilarity. That quality is much in evidence in Vertigo. Seized by an inappropriate impulse, for example, the narrator finds that the harder he tries to allay his fellow coach-passengers' suspicions, the more like a pederast he behaves. In memory, and in contrast to the other books, moments like this stand out more vividly than the achieved control of the whole.

The reviewer's collected journalism, `Anglo-English Attitudes' is published by Abacus