cover image Vertigo


Winfried Georg Sebald. New Directions Publishing Corporation, $23.95 (263pp) ISBN 978-0-8112-1430-8

Sebald's third novel to be translated into English is in fact the German author's first novel, written before the acclaimed travel meditation, The Rings of Saturn, and The Emigrants. This exquisitely composed work also undertakes a disorienting, if less somber, journey through historical and personal memory. The first-person narrator travels through Europe during the 1980s, spurred on by history's ghosts and his own melancholic yearning for adventure. Having left his base in England to explore Vienna, Venice and Verona, he concludes with a bittersweet pilgrimage to his hometown in southwestern Germany. In four nonlinear chapters, the narrator sustains himself along his journey by establishing parallels with places and personages throughout history-e.g., the romantic novelist Stendhal, who led a peripatetic life as a Napoleonic soldier (""Beyle, or Love Is a Madness Most Discreet""), and the ailing and sexually repressed Franz Kafka, who made mournful trips to Italy (""Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva""). Black-and-white illustrations (a detail from a Pisanello fresco, a postcard of the smoking peak of Vesuvius) provide the ironic relief. ""What relation was there,"" the narrator asks himself in a typical moment of self-befuddlement, ""between the so-called monuments of the past"" and our own ""vague longing"" to try to connect to the future? Sebald writes elliptically, refusing to explain the intersection of seemingly irrelevant events: the narrator is fond of combing old newspapers for bits ""that might well be worth retelling some time,"" but he is unable to resolve the purpose of his aimless quest, and allows his serenely seductive prose to lead where it will. In the last chapter, ""Il ritorno in patria"" (readers had better know some Italian and German, because phrases are not translated), Sebald attains a particularly fluid synthesis of intellect and sensation as the writer revisits the stunning scenery and complicated memories of his youth. In the Alpine village of W., where he has not returned for three decades, he realizes that places ""which had meant so much to me in my memory... meant nothing to me now."" Back in London, he has a vision of the ""vertiginous depths"" of the past, and hears ""an echo that had almost faded away."" Again translator Hulse successfully conveys Sebald's shimmering prose. (May)