Freed from Innocence

Sebald’s, tale in Vertigo begins in October 1980 when the narrator travels from England to Vienna “hoping that a change of place would help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life.â€? It doesn’t take long to discover just how difficult it was:

There is something peculiarly dispiriting about the emptiness that wells up when, in a strange city, one dials the same telephone numbers in vain. If no one answers, it is a disappointment of huge significance, quite as if these few random ciphers were a matter of life or death. So what else could I do, when I had put the coins that jingled out of the box back into my pocket, but wander aimlessly around until well into the night. Often, probably because I was so very tired, I believed I saw someone I knew walking ahead of me. Those who appeared in these hallucinations, for that is what they were, were always people I had not thought of for years, or who had long since departed, such as Mathild Seelos or the one-armed village clerk FĂĽrgut. On one occasion, in Gonzagagasse, I even thought I recognised the poet Dante, banished from his home town on pain of being burned at the stake. For some considerable time he walked a short distance ahead of me, with the familiar cowl on his head, distinctly taller than the people in the street, yet he passed by them unnoticed. When I walked faster in order to catch him up he went down Heinrichsgasse, but when I reached the corner he was nowhere to be seen. After one or two turns of this kind I began to sense in me a vague apprehension, which manifested itself as a feeling of vertigo.

If I start seeing Thomas Hardy or W.B. Yeats wandering the streets, I’m going to know that it is, indeed, a tough patch. And yet, who do most of us turn to when no one is around to talk to? I know I’m apt to turn to a book on such an occasion, and I suspect if you’re a regular here you do, too. It’s clear, though, that when we are no longer able to tell the real world from the literary world we are suffering from a form of “vertigo.�

Though reading and thinking can give us a sense of connection to others, it can also lead to a sense of isolation:

On that first day of November in 1980, preoccupied as I was with my notes and the ever widening and contracting circles of my thoughts, I became enveloped by a sense of utter emptiness and never once left my room. It seemed to me then that one could well end one’s life simply through thinking and retreating into one’s mind, for, although I had closed the windows and the room was warm, my limbs were growing progressively colder and stiffer with my lack of movement, so that when at length the waiter arrived with the red wine and sandwiches I had ordered, I felt as if I had already been interred or laid out for burial, silently grateful for the proffered libation, but no longer capable of consuming it.

I can only remember one similar incident in my own life. Upon returning from Vietnam I tried to sort out my thoughts late at night while everyone else was sleeping and then I slept most of the day away, probably to avoid having to talk to others about those experiences. Luckily, I had family members who insisted that I eat meals and talk to them, so I was never totally submerged in my memories. It was three months, though, before someone finally pushed me out the door and told me to get a job.

The narrator isn’t just lost in the world of books, though. He’s equally lost in the land of paintings, one of the major reasons he seems to have come to Venice:

It is many years now since the paintings of Pisanello instilled in me the desire to forfeit everything except my sense of vision. What appealed to me was not only the highly developed realism of his art, extraordinary for the time, but also the way in which he succeeded in creating the effect of the real, without suggesting a depth dimension, upon an essentially flat surface, in which every feature, the principle and the extras alike, the birds in the sky, the green forest and every single leaf of it, are all granted an equal and undiminished right to exist.

We learn a little later that the narrator seems to have forfeited his sense of reality for the art he loves:

Inside the cathedral I sat down for a while, untied my shoe-laces, and, as I still remember with undiminished clarity, all of a sudden no longer had any knowledge of where I was. Despite a great effort to account for the last few days and how I had come to be in this place, I was unable even to determine whether I was in the land of the living or already in another place. Nor did this lapse of memory improve in the slightest after I climbed to the topmost gallery of the cathedral and from there, beset by recurring fits of vertigo, gazed out upon the dusky, hazy panorama of a city now altogether alien to me. ‘Where the word “Milan” ought to have appeared in my mind there was nothing but a painful, inane reflex. A menacing reflection of the darkness spreading within me loomed up in the west where an immense bank of cloud covered half the sky and cast its shadow on the seemingly endless sea of houses.

This incident seems to tie back to Stendhal’s warning that pictures can displace or destroy our memory.

Later the narrator starts feeling seasick because of a particular effective seascape painted on the wall in a pizza parlor:

As is commonly the case with such sea pieces, – it showed a ship, on the crest of a turquoise wave crowned with snow-white foam, about to plunge into the yawning depths that gaped beneath her bows. Plainly this was the moment immediately before a disaster. A mounting sense of unease took possession of me. I was obliged to push aside the plate, barely half of the pizza eaten, and grip the table edge, as a seasick man might grip a ship’s rail. I sensed my brow running cold with fear, but was quite unable to call the waiter over and ask for the bill. Instead, in order to focus on reality once more, I pulled the newspaper I had bought that afternoon, the Venice Gazzettino, out of my jacket pocket and unfolded it on the table as best I could. The first article that caught my attention was an editorial report to the effect that yesterday, the 4th of November, a letter in strange tunic writing had been received by the newspaper, in which a hitherto unknown group by the name of ORGANIZZAZION LUDWIG claimed responsibility for a number of murders that had been committed in Verona and other northern Italian cities since 1977.

Ironically, in order to “focus on reality� he pulls out a newspaper and reads about a particularly horrendous crime. I read the news today oh, boy. Now there’s a dose of “reality� for you.

Later, we learn from another newspaper article written after the criminals were caught that the organization wanted to:

… destroy those who had betrayed God. In February; the body of a priest, Armando Bison, was found in the Trentino. He lay bludgeoned in his own blood, and a crucifix had been driven into the back of his neck. A further, letter proclaimed that the power of Ludwig knew no bounds, In mid-May of the same year, a cinema in Milan, which showed pornographic films, went up in flames.

Later when the criminals are caught, we’re amazed to discover its two young men who have no apparent reason to have committed such awful crimes:

So much for the principal points of the story; Apart from providing irrefutable evidence, the investigation produced nothing that might have made it possible to comprehend a series of crimes extending over almost seven years. Nor did the psychiatric reports afford any real insight into the inner world of the two young men. Both were from highly respected families. Furlan’s father is a well-known specialist in burn injuries, and consultant in the plastic surgery department at the hospital here. Abel’s father is a retired lawyer, from Germany, who was head of the Verona branch of a DĂĽsseldorf insurance company for years. Both sons went to the Girolamo Fracastro grammar school. Both were highly intelligent. After the school-leaving examinations, Abel went on to study maths and Furlan chemistry. Beyond that there is little to be said. I think they were like brothers to each other and had no idea how to free themselves from their innocence.

If this is reality, and perhaps it is for a German who has lived through the holocaust, it’s no wonder the narrator has retreated into the world of ideas and art.

Hell, is it any wonder many of us go from blog to blog looking for good news and encouraging each other when the alternative is to watch what’s happening in the world around us on the news or, worse yet, watch the violence that seems to pass for entertainment? At the least the problems we find here are small enough that they seem real, and, more importantly, manageable.