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.

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.? 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 Fürgut. 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 Düsseldorf 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.

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.