At the Source of the Maelstrom

In the last section of Vertigo, the narrator returns home to search for the roots of his vertigo. The search for answers may well cause the same confusion in the reader that it has in the narrator. There turns out to be many causes, as there probably are for all of us, and, as one might expect, few are clear.

The most obvious is that we discover that the narrator's father had finally gained middle class status through his rank in the Third Reich:

... after two or three years of continuous upturn in the country's fortunes, it seemed assured that my father, who at the calamitous close of the Weimar era had enlisted in the so-called army of the One Hundred Thousand and was now about to be promoted to quartermaster, could not only look forward to a secure future in the new Reich but could even be said to have attained a certain social position. For my parents, both of whom came from provincial backwaters, my mother from W and my father from the Bavarian Forest, the acquisition of living room furniture befitting their station, which, as the unwritten rule required, had to conform in every detail with the tastes of the average couple representative of the emerging classless society, probably marked the moment when, in the wake of their in some respects rather difficult early lives, it must have seemed to them as if there were, after all, something like a higher justice.

Ah, yes, Higher Justice. The mindless conformity of those who joined the Third Reich must have haunted many young Germans after realizing the full extent of the Holocaust and the implicit guilt of those who went along with the Nazis.

But the narrator’s vertigo is not the simple result of guilt feelings over his father’s role in the war. No, there is much more than that haunting him, the kind of things likely to haunt anyone unwilling to conform to society’s expectations. Those events seem to haunt him as much as his father’s role in the war:

For the first week of my sojourn in W. I did not leave the Engelwirt inn. Troubled by dreams at night and getting no peace till the first light of dawn, I slept through the 19 entire morning. I spent the afternoons sitting in the empty bar room, turning over my recollections and writing up my notes, and in the evenings when the regulars came in, whom I recognized, almost to a man, from my schooldays and who all appeared to have grown older at a stroke, I listened to their talk while pretending to read the newspaper, never tiring of it and ordering one glass of Kalterer after the other.

We discover that the narrator is not the only one trying to make sense out of his past:

Lukas wanted to know what had brought me back to W. after so many years, and in November of all times. To my surprise, he understood my rather complicated and sometimes contradictory explanations right away. He particularly agreed when I said that over the years I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but in spite of that, far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever. The more images I gathered from the past, I said, 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.

Considering the number of people seeking psychological help , many people find meaningingless, cannot understand why their life has turned out the way it has.

One important discovery comes when the narrator discovers a huge collection of scholarly books in Mathild’s attic. She had befriended him as a child by showing him an atlas he remembers many years later, but was apparently treated as an outcast by most of the villagers:

He himself, Lukas said, had of course not been born by then, but he well remembered his mother making a remark about how Mathild had been quite unhinged when she came back to W. from the convent and from Communist Munich. Occasionally, when his mother was in a bad mood, she even called Mathild a bigoted Bolshevik. Mathild for her part, however, once she had regained something of her equilibrium, did not allow herself to be put out in the slightest by such remarks. To the contrary, said Lukas, she evidently came to feel quite comfortable in her detachment, and indeed the way in which, year after year, she went about among the villagers whom she despised, forever dressed in a black frock or a black coat, and always in a hat and never, even in the finest weather, without an umbrella, had, as I might remember from my own childhood days, something blissful about it.

Did the narrator identify with her because of who she was and her blissful attitude, or because, he, too, felt alienated and rejected by those around him? We’re told little more about Mathild and her effect on him, but since she’s one of only four or five people he seems to remember, we can assume that he must have been affected by her.

Another memory is one of a school teacher who he seemed particularly fond of:

At school Fräulein Rauch, who meant no less to me than Romana, wrote up on the blackboard in her even handwriting the chronicle of the calamities which had befallen W. over the ages and underneath it drew a burning house in coloured chalk. The children in the class sat bent over their exercise books, looking up every so often to decipher the faint, faraway letters with screwed-up eyes as they copied, line by line, the long list of terrible events which, when recorded in this way, had something reassuring and comforting about them.

Thank God that’s not the memory I have of school. No, I have pleasant memories of being told to duck under my desk in preparation for The Big One. Having survived Seattle’s largest earthquake in the last hundred years, I was not happy to be told that getting ready for a Russian attack was the same as getting ready for another earthquake. Still, preparing for a calamity sounds much preferable to being forced to memorize all the calamities that were already part of your local history. There’s never been a calamity in American history, has there? Not unless you count the present Bush administration.

If this were a traditional novel, the reader might expect that all these discoveries would result in new insights for the narrator and a resolution of the vertigo. If you believe that, you probably come back to this site expecting one day to find I have become truly Enlightened. Instead, you're more likely to find that I've merely moved on to a discussion of Philip Larkin's poetry.

5 thoughts on “At the Source of the Maelstrom

  1. Reading your recent posts about Sebald’s novels has been something like reading SORROW OF WAR by Bao Ninh or reading the play “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” I am grateful for writers who convey their experiences via novels, plays, poetry, biography, essays at that depth of vulnerability. Thank you for these posts.

  2. I have a copy of The Sorrow of War that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. I bought it from one of the booksellers who doggedly pursue foreigners attempting the stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake in downtown Hanoi. I was there four years ago. Each bookseller has a smattering of English and a half dozen or so books and some postcards tucked under each arm. They give you a book, then beg for a donation that amounts to a purchase while trying to engage you in dialog. The Sorrow of War is their bestseller. I was there for about a week. They seem to have a quota system of some kind. If they don’t move enough books by the end of each day, their suppliers will sometimes bash them up, so their desperation is not feigned, it’s manufactured.

  3. I would consider the treatment of the native population before, during and for sometime after the founding of the United States of America a calamity worth mentioning. Slavery and the civil war comes to mind as well.

  4. I think I basically said that in my review of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Heidi.

    None of these blog entries are really meant to be exhaustive commentary. They’re really just casual comments on books as I read them.

What do you think?