Some time ago I read WG Sebald's The Rings Of Saturn and found myself agreeing with the critic James Wood, who called it 'a great, strange and moving work'. So I began another book of Sebald's recently in a state of high anticipation. I was not disappointed. But how do you describe Sebald's output? His books seem to defy categorisation. Are they novels, travelogues, histories, autobiographies? The fact is — his genre-busting work is a mixture of all these things.
Like The Rings Of Saturn, Vertigo takes you on a uniquely Sebaldian journey of melancholic meanderings, unreliable memories, Kafkaesque encounters, unexpected connections and bizarre coincidences. His lucid, logical, vertiginous style of writing only serves to reinforce how odd the thought processes of human beings really are. Reading him, we realise that when we look at objects and events hyper-closely, and become conscious of the real or imaginary connections between them, the world can seem a very mysterious, and at times sinister place. Spliced in with the angst, Sebald also reveals a sly humour too.
To give a flavour of what I've been talking about, here's a passage from The Rings Of Saturn:
My way from Dunwich took me at first by the ruins of the Grey Friars' monastery, through a number of fields, and then to an overgrown scrubland where stunted pines, birches and rampant gorse grew so densely that the going was very hard. I was beginning to think of turning back when all of a sudden the heath opened out in front of me. Shading from pale lilac to deepest purple, it stretched away westward, with a white track curving gently through its midst. Lost in the thoughts that went round in my head incessantly, and numbed by this crazed flowering, I stuck to the sandy path until to my astonishment, not to say horror, I found myself back again at the same tangled thicket from which I had emerged about an hour before, or, as it now seemed to me, in some distant past. Only in retrospect did I realize that the only discernible landmark on this treeless heath, a most peculiar villa with a glass-domed observation tower which reminded me somehow of Ostend, had presented itself time and again from a quite different angle, now close to, now further off, now to my left and now to my right, and indeed at one point the lookout tower, in a sort of castling move, had got itself, in no time at all, from one side of the building to the other, so that it seemed that instead of seeing the actual villa I was seeing its mirror image. Moreover, my sense of confusion was deepened by the fact that the signposts at the forks and crossings of the tracks gave no directions to any place or its distance; there was invariably, to my mounting irritation, no more than a mute arrow facing pointlessly this way or that. If one obeyed one's instincts, the path would sooner or later diverge further and further from the goal one was aiming to reach. Simply walking straight ahead cross-country was out of the question on account of the heather, which was woody and knee-deep, so that I had no choice but to keep to the crooked sandy tracks and to make mental notes of even the least significant features, even the slightest shift in perspective. Several times I was forced to retrace long stretches in that bewildering terrain, which could perhaps be surveyed in its entirety only from the glass tower of that spectral Belgian villa. In the end I was overcome by a feeling of panic. The low, leaden sky; the sickly violet hue of the heath clouding the eye; the silence, which rushed in the ears like the sound of the sea in a shell; the flies buzzing about me — all this became oppressing and unnerving. I cannot say how long I walked about in that state of mind, or how I found a way out. But I do remember that suddenly I stood on a country lane, beneath a mighty oak, and the horizon was spinning all around as if I had jumped off a merry-go-round.
WG Sebald The Rings Of Saturn (Translated from German into English by Michael Hulse)
One added frisson for me is that I actually know this area of Dunwich Heath in Suffolk, which Sebald describes so disconcertingly.