On Sebald’s Vertigo

I didn’t know who Marie Henri Beyle was. Immediately, I want to ask two questions: does it matter, and does it matter? Reading the book, is it important to know who that was, or can he be regarded as just a character in a novel (whether based in history or not)? And secondly, does this question matter in writing about this book.

Let’s back up a bit. The book is Vertigo the first novel by W. G. Sebald, published in 1990.

It is divided into four parts: the second and fourth are largely about ‘himself,’ the narration is in the first person. The third section is about Franz Kafka towards the end of his life. The first section, however, is about the aforementioned Mari Henri Beyle, which is the birth name of the author otherwise known as Stendhal.

I admit there were clues. Sebald directly references a couple of his works. But my ignorance of Stendhal extends even to his works, not counting The Red and The Black, which Sebald does not mention, so I didn’t pick up on it.

(In the section on Kafka, the narrator imitates Kafka’s writing style, so it’s entirely possible that he does a similar thing in the first section, but again, not having read any Stendhal, I wouldn’t know.)

The reason I looked up the name Marie Henri Beyle when I finished the book was that I knew Sebald bases his characters on real authors, artists, scientists from the past, not only Vertigo, but in After Nature as well.

So I got back to my questions: does it matter for the text, and does it matter to my writing here? (Ok, I suppose it matters here because I’ve been talking about it for this long.) What I mean by introducing the book by referencing my ignorance of Stenhal’s life, I’m calling attention to a difference between Marie Henri Beyle and Stendhal. One is the man, the other the author. They are not strictly separate entities (on the contrary!), but they are two and not the same. The difference in name illustrates this nicely.

The whole book, in fact, is that same layering of personalities or persons. The narrator slips in and out of persons, either the man, Marie Henri Beyle, or the author Stendhal, or ‘himself,’ his childhood, people he remembers. In his own trips he is retracing the travels of Stendhal, Kafka and Casanova (the persons), and revisiting certain places where those authors had significant moments in their lives.

Or rather than describing it as different persons the narrator slips in and out, they could be the various things that come to bear on an individual conscience. The trip he takes through central Europe and Italy recalls history of the region, its art, the stories of the lives of the artists who left the art behind, the story of the artists who passed there but didn’t write or create art about it (like Kafka’s story in Riva which cannot be found in his fiction but rather in his diaries), the narrator’s own previous trip(s) (he mentions taking the same train in 1980 and 1987), the personal past of the narrator…all this comes to bear on, or comes into play when we read a description of a restaurant, or a walk-down a street. Perhaps individual consciousness is something very, very small in itself, and the only way it makes sense of a world much too big and complex is to draw on threads from personal and collective history, texts its read, art it found meaningful, trips taken to foreign places; conversely, what if all the things consciousness uses to constitute itself then weigh on it and lead it in directions the will is no longer capable of controlling.

There is one more level mixed in. Throughout these travels he refers several times to his writing. The book however, is not a travelogue, and doesn’t read like a record of travels in an unknown land. What is he writing? How much of what we are reading is what he is writing? Are we witnesses of the book being created (meaning that the writing coincides perfectly with the book); or is he writing something completely different which has nothing to do with the account we have before us? How is his act of writing related to understanding the various sources of consciousness? Those sources are mostly in text form (history, literature, even art), and now memory becomes part of that weave.

Le me go back to one of my questions. Does it matter to me here whether or not the reader of the book (in this case, my previous self) knows that Marie Henri Beyle is Stendhal? Is what I’m writing here simply a record of my reading of the novel, or does it subsequently reconstruct my understanding of the novel? Nothing but head-spinning questions…

The cover of my copy of Vertigo includes a quote from the NYT review where Sebald is likened to “memory’s Einstein.” I’m not sure what that means exactly, except that the subject of the book is going to be an intellectual investigation, an almost philosophical topic. This is the kind of writing that Cormac McCarthy deemed unworthy. I read somewhere that McCarthy does not consider Proust and the like literature because it doesn’t deal with life and death.

Indeed, I keep thinking how the writing of the two authors could not be more different. Sebald’s features no violence, there are no descriptions of desperation or overt injustice. The heros in McCarthy are strong figures (whether good or bad), while in Sebald not just the characters, but the narrator too dissipates between various levels. Where McCarthy’s narrator intensifies the cruelty of the story with his (and make no mistake it’s a he) indifferent story-telling, Sebald’s narrator would be whiney and pathetic in his weakness if it weren’t for his sense of humor and self-mocking.

Even the one thing they have in common they go about doing in opposite ways: McCarthy’s sentences are austere, dramatic, and they stand each on its own, forcing the reader to hold them together or fall between the cracks; Sebald’s sentences are casual, almost banal, giving off the feeling that there is no importance to them, to the point that the narration becomes so filigreed and threadbare it requires a reader with a very careful touch, otherwise it tears or melts in one’s hands as the snow in the Alps.
You have been warned.



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