I thought I saw Dante in Gonzagagasse

Jenny Diski

Above all else we are concerned, in whatever form we let it take us, with memory. The idea of memory enables us to believe we can grasp the vanished past, historical or personal, and restructure its moments into a pattern that will give us in our continuing present, and them in the future, a coherent narrative of the time we have spent here. What else have we to console us for the blank extinction of all things before the beginning and after the end? Memory as order and record is all we’ve got to stand against the monstrous fact of non-existence. Portraits, snapshots, journals, itineraries, biography, historical records, databanks and time capsules are no more than symptoms of our desire not to get lost in eternity, to hang onto the brief fact of life. Attempting to prolong our stay on the planet through physical survival and reproduction (and their refinements) may be the main priority, but recording our time here is pretty much what we do with our considerable spare brain capacity. Well, we have to do something with it, and it passes the time that would have passed anyway, but there are those, like Beckett and, it would seem, W.G. Sebald, who, in addition to being compelled like the rest of us, are condemned to meditate on their compulsion. It makes for a melancholy disposition, if not for occasional attacks of madness, but somebody’s got to do it.

Memory has been the circling motif of Sebald’s work to date, but it is the compulsion to recall, the desperate need to negate the damage, that leads to the heart of his enterprise, which is the almost intolerable awareness of loss itself. After all, memory – our peculiar solace – is volatile, unreliable, dangerous. The very source of our comfort is part of the loss. We cannot trust ourselves even with our own narrative. Sebald’s vertigo is caused by the centrifugal force of uncertainty that pervades everything, including our consolations. At the beginning of Vertigo (Sebald’s third publication in the UK, though the first chronologically, we are told), Marie Henri Beyle (aka Stendhal) is said to suffer severe disappointment on discovering that his vivid youthful memory of sunset over the town of Ivrea, where he was once billeted, is in fact a copy of an engraving of the scene he came across later. ‘This being so,’ Sebald writes, ‘Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them.’ The polite formality of the prose belies the terror that is implied. How is one to make a journey, or have any experience at all, and hope to retain the reality of it? If memory is what we need most, what we fear most is mis-seeing or forgetting. We make notes, mental, written, recorded, take photos, video, buy postcards, read guides and the works of previous travellers in the hope of getting what we see straight and retaining it. Yet those very tests and aides-mémoire will distort and decay the experience. Sebald’s narrator has doubts even deeper than Beyle’s. ‘The more images I gathered from the past ... the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling.’ Our urgent need to apprehend the personal or historic past requires each of us to journey backwards, but the past of the past, and the future of the past and present get in the way with every direct cognition. Not just memory, but experience itself is treacherous.

So it is hardly surprising that Sebald refuses to categorise his books as non-fiction, even though the category by definition casts some doubt on its own veracity. Not fact, but non-fiction. The hesitancy is not enough for Sebald. The front flap catalogues Vertigo and his previous book The Rings of Saturn as ‘Fiction/Travel/History’, and his first publication, The Emigrants, as a novel. Apart from causing booksellers a few headaches (the happy solution for Sebald would be for them to buy three times as many copies and shelve them in all the relevant sections), readers are thereby warned to tread carefully amid the recounting of literary and historical ‘facts’ and even to be wary of the narrator himself. Sebald flags this warning from time to time in the text. The narrator (who in a reproduced photo has a passport in the name of Sebald, signs himself into one hotel as Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer, historian, of Landeck, Tyrol and at another claims to be a foreign correspondent from England) buys a copy of Grillparzer’s Italian Diary in Venice ‘because when I am travelling I often feel as Grillparzer did on his journeys. Nothing pleases me, any more than it did him; the sights I find infinitely disappointing, one and all; and I sometimes think that I would have done far better to stay at home with my maps and timetables.’ So the narrator of Vertigo, a book recounting several journeys through Europe shadowing the route of earlier travellers, isn’t much of a traveller himself and certainly not a travel writer as we like to think of them: been there, seen that, this is what it’s like. Like the reader of travel books, he might just as well stay home and rely on others who have done it for him. Maybe he did. The story of Beyle/Stendhal as youthful adventurer and lover of the mysterious Mme Gherardi is taken from an account written seven years later, says Sebald, ‘of a journey that may have been wholly imaginary, made with a companion who may likewise have been a mere figment of his own mind’. And now that the possibility of a fictional narrator on a fictional journey has arisen, who is to say that a storyteller such as the author of Vertigo would not make up or at least adjust even his armchair sources?

All this uncertainty is not comfortable. You don’t settle down to a volume by Sebald as Calvino suggests (and thereby prevents his own readers from doing), with your feet up on a cushion, a cigarette within reach, the pleasure of expectation in the pit of your stomach as you turn off the world. You read Sebald alert, watchful, ready to doubt everything, connect everything and draw the threads together to see the pattern he is making out of enigma. You’d better know about Stendhal, Kafka, Casanova and the frescoes of Pisanello, or so you are cued in the publisher’s blurb. This is another kind of comfort; once you’ve got your eye in, you adjust quite cosily to the expected ambiguity, flattered to have been invited to the intellectual party, to be allowed in to observe the author’s melancholy, scholarly and devious meditations on the human condition. If that’s a criticism, it is, of course, a criticism of us, and part perhaps of the whole problematic of Sebald’s enterprise.

Sebald’s method is to tuck stories into stories, and juggle journeys of now and then into a confusion of dates and moods. The stories tumble one from another, this character calling up another with a tale of his or her own, or reminding the author of an incident that is to be told immediately, while the thought is there to be grasped. The prose is stately, even stilted sometimes, slowing the reading, until suddenly there is a rush of character and storytelling and the reader is caught in a whirlwind of incident that carries her away from the main narrative, only to be returned again, breathless and unprepared, to the measured, detailed account. The oddness and formality of the writing make it feel like a translation, but Michael Hulse works very closely with Sebald in transforming the original German into English. I suspect that the translation from the German is remarkably good. It is as if the reader, too, is in exile, not permitted to wallow in easy, casual prose. Exile looms large in Sebald, a German born in 1944, who has lived in England for the past thirty years. But it is more than an exile of place, even though Vertigo ends with a long account of his return to the village of his childhood and a teeming narrative of the people, stories and myths he grew up with. Sebald, or his protagonist, loses his mind as easily as his place. His narratives are thick with suggestions of past madness: in Vertigo he begins his journey ‘hoping that a change of place would help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life’; in The Rings of Saturn ‘a year to the day after I began my tour’ (a walking tour of Suffolk), ‘I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility.’ His journeys are studded with hallucinations and symptoms of mental disarray, which intensifies his and our doubts about the possibility of any truthful account of events in the past or present.

On one occasion, in Gonzagagasse, I even thought I recognised the poet Dante, banished from his home town on pain of being burned at the stake. For some considerable time he walked a short distance ahead of me, with the familiar cowl on his head, distinctly taller than the people in the street, yet he passed by them unnoticed. When I walked faster in order to catch him up he went down Heinrichsgasse, but when I reached the corner he was nowhere to be seen.

Later, in Venice, he spots King Ludwig of Bavaria, and on a bus from Desenzano to Riva, he sees identical twins who are identical also to Kafka, who made the same journey in 1913. When he asks the parents to send him a photograph of the boys, they take him for an English pederast and are on the verge of calling the police. Repeatedly he takes solitary walks, sometimes for days, before collapsing into a fevered paralysis on his hotel bed, unable to move, feeling ‘that one could well end one’s life simply through thinking and retreating into one’s mind.’ Life seems to collude in his madness, unless the madness, or the fiction, is colluding with itself. His passport is lost in some improbable mix-up, he is mugged in Milan although ‘none of the passers-by had taken any notice of the incident.’ And he is forever eating bad meals and drinking lousy coffee in dreadful places (‘I took a seat in a restaurant which for sheer dreariness far surpassed every other station bar I had ever been in’), eyed suspiciously by morose waitresses and receptionists, and what is more, it seems to rain wherever he goes: ‘At Innsbruck, as always when I arrive there, no matter what the time of year, the weather was quite atrocious ... the clouds were hanging so low that the tops of the houses disappeared in them and the dawn could not break through. Moreover, it rained incessantly.’

After a while this super-sensitised melancholy becomes comic. One’s patience is tried as it is with those tormented heroes of Dostoevsky, if you read them after adolescence. For God’s sake, Raskolnikov, get a hold on yourself, pull yourself together. Sebald’s narrator is for all the world a middle-aged existential wanderer, out of place, out of time, and wallowing in every miserable moment, sizing himself up against other grim, unhappy wanderers: Casanova in prison, Stendhal hopelessly besotted, Kafka tormented about his longings and terror of love in a clinic in Riva. There is comedy in the grim solemnity and it may well not be accidental, because, after all, if life is not appalling, it is absurd. Misery about life is perhaps an evasion, a way of not confronting the most terrible of terrors, and in a sense Vertigo is essentially about evasion, with its narrative circling and wheeling about the real matter at hand, but never quite alighting on the final horror. The fractured past, the narrator’s attempts to pull his own memories together, or to make sense of his life with reference to writers and the consolations of writing, all point to the utterly unfractured future that lies in wait. Sebald’s connections and disconnections can be tenuous or deceitful, as perhaps the whole Post-Modern project is, as if a child were telling itself horror stories to avoid thinking about what would most frighten it. For all the power of what is written by Sebald, what is not stated looms the largest. His silences are remarkable.