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W G Sebald: Schwindel. Gefühle (Vertigo)

I don’t know whether anyone has coined the term literature of musing. If they have, I thank them. If not, I am coining it. I am using it to describe the sort of book written by W G Sebald, where the author nominally writes a novel but mixes in musings on history, literature and life, the whole told through a narrator who may or may not be the author himself. Leonid Tsypkin and Roberto Calasso are two other obvious examples. Of course, Sebald is somewhat different from these two. Much of his work seems to involve a vague drifting around a Central European landscape, which gives a sort of dreamy feel to his work. Death and a sense of detachment from the world around him are the hallmarks of Sebald.

There are four stories in this book, though stories is definitely not the right word. The first is nominally about Henri Beyle, better known to the world as Stendhal but is also about one of Sebald’s favorite themes, memory or, rather, distortion of memory. As a young man, Beyle was a second lieutenant in Napoleon’s army. His recollections, written when he was Stendhal, are, according to Sebald, clearly wrong. But Sebald goes off on a tangent and adds musings about Sebald’s rich love life and all sorts of other things. The second story recounts the story of how he travelled from England (where he lived) to Vienna and then onto Venice and Verona. His reasoning is never clear – he has to visit a man in a mental institution and see a painting by Pisanello but, most of all, he has to wander. A journey by Kafka and a return to his childhood home make up the final two episodes.

But all of these stories merely serve as a peg to hang his musings on history and literature and life. They serve to show a man not quite in tune with his environment – his panic attack on the bus or his sudden fear in Verona, which causes him to hurriedly leave, are only the more obvious examples. All of this sounds somewhat ridiculous, except for the fact that it really works, as we get drawn into his musings and to his anguish. Handke without the plot might be a simplistic way of describing his work but it is much more than that and the only way to find out is to read him.

Publishing history

First published 1990 by Eichborn
First published in English in 1999 by New Directions/Harvill