Magazine article The Spectator

Pursued across Europe by Ghosts and Unease

Magazine article The Spectator

Pursued across Europe by Ghosts and Unease

Article excerpt


by W. G. Sebald,

translated by Michael Hulse

Harvill, L12, pp. 262

A fine array of symptoms is on offer in Vertigo, the first volume of what would become a celebrated trilogy. In The Emigrants Professor Sebald traced the lives of four exiles; in The Rings of Saturn he took a protracted walk around and across East Anglia, which is now his home. In Vertigo he is on the move again, not on foot, but in a series of displacements no less extreme and rather more disturbing, although he offers no comment on his particular form of experience. In Vienna he was unable to proceed beyond the boundaries of three streets, where he spent his days and part of his nights until his shoes wore out. He also reports, with similar lack of affect, clouded vision and a sensation of weightlessness. In this state he was able to take an excursion with a friend who had suffered lifelong mental illness, in the course of which neither of them appeared to have exchanged a word. Before they parted the friend, Ernst Herbeck. scribbled a note, in irregular unravelling handwriting, in Sebald's diary, and dated it 30 November 1980.

From time to time in this mysterious narrative an objective correlative is sought for these wanderings, these dream states. such as might have been experienced by a mediaeval pilgrim or an early 19th-century German mystic. Thus there are chapters devoted to Stendhal in Italy, to Casanova in Venice, and to Kafka in Riva. These are not very reassuring, overshadowed as they are by the author's own uneasy journeyings. Stendhal, crossing the Alps with Napoleon's army at the age of 17, experiences the first of many enthusiasms: gorgeously uniformed, and with the courage that was to characterise his entire life, he embarked on his own manoeuvres and fell in love with Angela Pietragrua, the first of a succession of women with whom he was largely unsuccessful. Professor Sebald takes him back to Italy in later civilian life. on a journey he may or may not have made in the company of a certain Mine. Gherardi, who may or may not have existed. There are no certainties here, either in Stendhal's life (or at least as Sebald reads it) or in his own. This descent into unverifiability, presented within a framework that implies a rigid purpose, is responsible for that strange mixture of biography and autobiography with which Sebald's name will always be associated. Small, gnomic illustrations add to the unease.

Anxiety pursues him to Venice, where he ties in his hotel room for three days before taking up the story of Casanova who was imprisoned there. Thinking that he is being observed, the narrator takes the train to Verona, where he decides to 'forfeit everything except my sense of vision' and devote himself to a study of Pisanello. But he does not appear to be an acutely visual person: those illustrations are hardly more explanatory than the schematic scribbles with which Stendhal enlivened his own texts. In Verona he has the sensation of being surrounded by water, another symptom of displacement. It is clear that his sympathy with untethered lives and objectless perambulation is intimately connected with states of mind too all-pervading to be ignored.

Professor Sebald's own journeys - in Italy, in Austria - turn imperceptibly into fugues in which passing reality plays an insistent part. …

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