Punch the Hourglass

Passport to the past: W.G. Sebald's travel papers, from Vertigo

To hear critics and writers gush about W.G. "Max" Sebald you might think the author of Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn created theme-park rides rather than novels. The title of his latest book, Vertigo, certainly contributes to the impression. Anita Brookner emerged from the read "shaken, seduced, and deeply impressed." A British reviewer claimed it catapulted him into "Sebaldland."

Though prone to overstatement, reviewers have good reason to be flummoxed by Sebald. His tales are meditations rather than narratives, combining elements of travelogue, art history, diary, and fantasy. As a result, they do not so much address a subject as they evoke and interrogate it. Emigrants spliced photographs and junk-shop ephemera into a narrative about four unrelated Holocaust survivors. The Rings of Saturn used similar graphic devices in a story about the author's walking of England's East Anglican coastline, where he has taught and made his home for more than 20 years.

Vertigo, Sebald's latest book to be translated into English, was in fact his first. It comes to us then as something of a relic, like the ten-year-old train schedules and bar bills that have been reproduced on its pages. Like Emigrants the book is made up of four sections. The first three juxtapose the narrator's travels in Italy with those of Stendahl, Casanova, and Kafka. The last section recounts a trip that Sebald made to his childhood home in a town he calls W. in southern Germany.

Other than Sebald himself, the only "characters" in the book are concierges, bartenders, and weary Italian travelers, whom Sebald encounters on his journeys. The plot is equally unconventional: The book's four narratives don't connect so much as run into one another, seemingly overlapping at random. In the book's second section, Sebald visits Vienna; in the third Dr. K (Kafka) makes a similar trip. Later in the book, Sebald happens upon a friend reading the book 1912 Plus 1--a reference to 1913, the year Dr. K. was in Vienna. In the last section, Sebald finds a "1913" edition of Samuel Pepys's diary. And so on.

There is more to this connectivity than cutesy game playing. Sebald is writing about the disorientation created by living in time and memory. In Sebald's universe, time is like a moth that devours memory's thread. Sebald--and his literary characters--are forever trying to recapture these strands of hours and years. In the absence of memory, they feel the vertigo of life's rush toward death. Thus, in the book's first section, Marie Henri Beyle (later known as the novelist Stendahl) tries and fails to recapture his recollections of a battle he'd heard about as a young soldier. Sebald finds he, too, fails to remember correctly. "Over the years," he writes, "I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but...far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever."

Sebald--or his fictional alter ego, it's never quite clear--does two things to keep the past from disintegrating. First, he is continually moving. Reading Vertigo we feel hurried along, then soothed and lulled, the way a traveler does, forever rushing to catch a train only to fall asleep still perspiring. Second, Sebald anxiously tries to hold events together by recording them. Thus, the detritus of travel--passport mishaps, photos of people, napkin-drawn sketches--litter these pages, as do re-creations of Renaissance painting. In Sebald's world they occupy the same continuum.

There's a rationale behind this urge to record. Sebald is trying to document his existence before it flutters and winks out. If Proust was the poet of lost time, a believer in time regained, Sebald is its anxious embalmer. In Vertigo he prepares it for future viewers in prose that is eloquent, urgent, and beautiful.

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