I thought I saw Dante in Gonzagagasse
- Vertigo by W.G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse
Harvill, 263 pp, £16.99, December 1999, ISBN 1 86046 623 0
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.