Sebald’s Vertigo

In a novel that quite often lives up to the title Vertigo, the first section seems remarkably clear, though the purpose is to clearly show just how confusing memories and recollection can be.

The chapter describes Marie Henri Beyle’s attempts to accurately retell his life and the historical period he lived in, and how difficult that turned out to be. Of course, part of what makes Sebald’s use of Beyle, also known as Stendhal, interesting is that the two writers’ styles seem to have some important similarities if Michael Woods evaluation of Stendhal’s novel De l’Amour is accurate:

…in effect, De l’Amour is a notebook, a collection of thoughts, memories, anecdotes, epigrams, patches of analysis. It is almost always delicate, often brilliant, a book to keep quoting from…. He knew that truth is often fragmentary, that De l’Amour…may ultimately say more for being less composed, less like a well-rounded essay, for being drastically unfaithful to its stiff intentions. Stendhal at his best always wrote this way…

I would be hard pressed to come up with a more accurate description of Sebald’s writing style.

Here Sebald points out how even the memory of a writer varies from moment to moment:

The notes in which the 53-year-Old Beyle, writing during a sojourn at Civitavecchia, attempted to relive the tribulations of those days afford eloquent proof of the various difficulties entailed in the act of recollection. At times his view of the past consists of nothing but grey patches, then at others images appear of such extraordinary clarity he feels he can scarce credit them – such as that of General Marmont, whom he believes he saw at Martigny to the left of the track along which the column was moving, clad in the royal- and sky-blue robes of a Councillor of State, an image which he still beholds precisely thus, Beyle assures us, whenever he closes his eyes and pictures that scene, although he is well aware that at that time Marmont must have been wearing his general’s uniform and not the blue robes of state.

When I think back to my own experiences in Vietnam, that’s remarkably similar to how I remember the war. Four or five moments stand out vividly, but most of the rest is little more than a blur. No doubt my vision of the war was so limited that many who stayed home and watched it on television could put it into better historical perspective.

Sebald points out that photographs taken by others often drive our memories:

It was a severe disappointment, Beyle writes, when some years ago, looking through old papers, he came across an engraving entitled Prospetto d’Ivrea and was obliged to concede that his recollected picture of the town in the evening sun was nothing but a copy of that very engraving. This being so, 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. For instance, he could no longer recall the wonderful Sistine Madonna he had seen in Dresden, try as he might, because Muller’s engraving after it had become superimposed in his mind; the wretched pastels by Mengs in the same gallery, on the other hand, of which he had never set eyes on a copy, remained before him as clear as when he first saw them.

I know that when talking about the Vietnam war images that appeared in the media come to mind long before images from my own experience. It’s hard to get the image of Buddhist priests lighting themselves on fire, an image of the police chief shooting a suspect Vietcong in the head or an image of a naked girl running away from her napalmed village. My own experiences were all, thankfully, much less dramatic.

No wonder that those who come home from a war often seem to be disoriented when others begin talking about the war:

The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place occasioned in him a vertiginous sense of confusion such as he had never previously experienced. It may have been for that reason that the memorial column that had been erected on the battlefield made on him what he describes as an extremely mean impression. In its shabbiness, it fitted neither with his conception of the turbulence of the Battle of Marengo nor with the vast field of the dead on which he was now standing, alone with himself, like one meeting his doom.

I seldom watch war movies, particularly Vietnam war movies, but when I do I’m often shocked by how different my view of the war is from the movie’s view. Fighting in Vietnam generally seemed much more boring, and much less heroic, than movies portray it. Not to mention that officers seemed an awfully lot smarter than they’re generally portrayed.

Sebald points out that a change in attitude may change our view of past events:

The leave he took in upper Italy after recovering was marked by a sensation of debility and quietude, which caused him to view the natural world around him, and the longing for love which he continued to feel, in a wholly new way. A curious lightness such as he had never known took hold of him, and it is the recollection of that lightness which informs the account he wrote seven years later 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.

It’s only natural to fill in voids in our memory, and how we paint those voids is probably determined by how we feel when we’re filling them in. I can remember being totally amazed, not to mention outraged, when a fellow teacher and Vietnam vet told a student that his boots were stained with “gook blood.? When I came home my mother complained that despite multiple washings she couldn’t get the red out of my underwear. I suppose I could have said that you could never wash the blood out of them, but the boring reality was that Vietnam’s red clay seemed to permeate everything.

Of course, Beyle was probably never aware of the greatest irony of all about his writing, as Sebald reveals at the end of the chapter:

Beyle wrote his great novels between 1829 and 1842, plagued constantly by the symptoms of syphilis. Difficulties in swallowing, swellings in his armpits, and pains in his atrophying testicles troubled him especially. Having now become a meticulous observer, he kept a minute record of the fluctuating state of his health and in due course noted that his sleeplessness, his giddiness, the roaring in his ears, his palpitating pulse, and the shaking that was at times so bad that he could not use a knife and fork, were related not so much to the disease itself as to the extremely toxic substances with which he had dosed himself for years.

How ironic that a novelist primarily known for his book De l’Amour should be dying from a “love? disease. Nothing like a pair of atrophying testicles to give you a romantic view of love and sex.