Traces of lives on geographies

I’ve been skirting around W.G. Sebald for years. I read The Rings of Saturn, as I suspect many people have in my part of the country, because it is a travelogue through territory with which I am familiar, and then re-read it in some detail as part of my research into the ‘library function’ as a facet of literature for my masters dissertation. I have also read On The Natural History of Destruction because I found it cheap in a second-hand bookshop (yes, my mate Dave’s bookshop, which has become a recurring character in my journal). But as I’ve developed my own ideas of literature, and gradually steered my own literary project towards some form of partial fruition, Sebald has come to assume an increasing significance, and I’ve felt the need to read his work in earnest.

It seems to me that Sebald’s interest in the frailties of memory, and their relationship with place, delineates precisely the avenues that must be explored by anyone aspiring, as I do, to construct a secondary world with a more than superficial sense of reality. In fact, amazingly enough, the book I kept thinking of as I read Vertigo was The Lord Of The Rings. It would be hard to think of two more contrasting writers than Sebald and Tolkien, or two more contrasting narratives, but both are shot through with the melancholy of fading recollection, and of the faint traces left by lives on geographies. Both writers, the former deliberately and the latter naively, explore the ways that places and subjectivities are mutually constitutive.

Vertigo is not a conventional fictional narrative.  It contains sections which outline partial biographies of historical literary figures, and others in which the narrator is so closely identified with Sebald as to make the text seem more like memoir than fiction.  The sections are of unequal length, and do not correspond to any episodic structure. There is no dramatic structure or plot, in the sense of characters attempting to achieve certain goals and encountering certain obstacles; and there is no characterisation in the manner of the realist novel, with its birds-eye view on the inner lives and development of its dramatis personae.

Instead we follow the narrator (for the most part), as he wanders Europe at various points in his life, reflecting on the histories of the places he passes through, and reminisces on his own earlier peregrinations. He is usually miserable, and often seems on the verge of some kind of dissociative crisis. He fails to connect in meaningful ways with the people he encounters, and fails to find satisfaction or fulfilment in his journeys. Something resembling closure or meaning seems only to emerge in the final loss of memory, when recollection is reduced to a single survivor in the narrator’s home town.

For all that, this is not a depressing book to read. There is humour in the writing, and the prose is exquisitely crafted, with a simplicity that belies its sophistication. The aesthetic effect of Sebald’s narrative is not dark at all: the text glows with a pale, astringent beauty, which has every bit as much to do with the content as with its carefully refined style. For me it was so easy to read that I had to slow myself down, going back over some passages repeatedly until I felt I had actually read what was there, rather than gliding over it. To produce that sense of ease and pleasure, in a book whose subject matter is so ostensibly uninviting, and which eschews so much of what we might conventionally expect to find in a novel, is a pretty extraordinary achievement.

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