This book is about memory. But similar to the other Sebald novel I’ve read, Rings of Saturn, the true meaning of the book was not clear to me until the end.
The novel features an unnamed narrator who may or may not be Sebald himself, traveling about Europe and reminiscing (also similar to Rings of Saturn.) Early in the story, it becomes apparent that there is a theme to the characters memories, and I found myself searching for meaning and patterns.
The narrator describes repeated instances of how certain things–a painting, the shape of a building, the hunch of a stranger’s shoulders–make him recall other experiences from his past in great detail. This remembering is involuntary and sometimes stops him in his tracks. This aspect of how memory works is so obvious that it seems pointless to describe, but I never thought of my memory as being involuntary until I read this book. This adds another strange element to to the story: the idea of how certain things can trigger us to fall into a memory against our will.
But Sebald does more than just describe this effect, he actually tricks the reader (or me, anyway) into experiencing it. Throughout the text are many vividly described and iconic images, that are recalled again and again throughout the book. Every time such an image (for example, a hunchback) is mentioned, I couldn’t help but thinking of the previous scene that was embedded in my memory, which then triggered the scene before it, and so on, causing me to fall helplessly through my own memories. This effect did, once, in fact give me a startling sense of vertigo.
After experiencing this strange effect, I thought that must be the point of the book–to describe the strange, involuntary way we experience memory. But it turns out the real message is something darker and sadder.
Early on in the novel, in a section detailing the life of Henri Beyle (better known by his pen name, Stendhal), Beyle remarks on a certain painting of a favorite view of his. He dislikes the painting because it has supplanted his memory of the real view with itself. Now, whenever he recalls gazing over that same vista, all he can think of is the painting. His original memory, has been in effect, destroyed by the painting.
By the end of the book I realized that this is the true message of the novel: the fragility and constant degrading of our memory. Every thing we see, makes us think of other things, and attaches itself to them, adds, and removes from them, changing them in subtle ways that we are not aware of. Each time Sebald repeated references to certain iconic images, they were diluted with each other, until I was unsure what event happened at which time.
In the last pages of Vertigo, the narrator falls asleep on a train while reading some accounts of the Chicago Fire. He dreams of walking through a desolate landscape composed of gravel and rock, and looking into a great void while snippets of what he was reading come back to him as echoing words in the emptiness….
We saw the fire grow. It was not bright, it was a gruesome, evil, bloody flame, sweeping, before the wind, through all the City. Pigeons lay destroyed upon the pavements, in hundreds, their feathers singed and burned. A crowd of looters roams through Lincoln’s Inn. The churches, houses, the woodwork and the building stones, ablaze at once. The churchyard yews ignited, each one a lighted torch, a shower of sparks now tumbling to the ground. And Bishop Braybrook’s grave is opened up, his body disinterred. Is this the end of time? A muffled, fearful, thudding sound, moving, like waves, throughout the air. The powder house exploded. We flee onto the water. The glare around us everywhere, and yonder, before the darkened skies, in one great arc the jagged wall of fire. And, the day after, a silent rain of ashes, westward, as far as Windsor Park.