Vertigo, by W.G. Sebald: A dark view on memory

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.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This fantastical little story was my first experience with Gaiman, and it wasn’t a super good one for me.

The story is about a middle aged man who, after attending a funeral, goes back to his childhood home to walk around and remember stuff. The rest of the book is him remembering some crazy things that happened when he was 7.

This post contains spoilers.

My first problem was with the writing. Reviewers consistently call this beautifully written, but I found the prose somewhat annoying. The author stubbornly refuses to use contractions, and insists on using the characters full names (Letty Hempstock did this, Letty Hempstock said that) every time they are mentioned. This may be in an effort to give the prose a childlike, fairytale feel, or maybe it’s just to inflate the word count of this already very short book.

Another problem was with the way the story is framed. When you start with an older man remembering his past, the story can’t be held up by tense action, since we know the character is remembering all this from far in the future, so everything is obviously going to be okay. I assumed the viewpoint would be going back and forth between memory and present day, and that the character’s recollection of the strange things that happened to him as a child would affect his present life and help him get over the death, or help him decide some hard choice. But the book was all just one big memory, with a little bit of an epilogue to make it not a completely pointless story.

And the story did seem to be pointless. The character (an obvious self insert) did not change or learn anything, in fact after the story is over he immediately forgot everything again (and since the story is told in first person this is a bit of fourth wall breaking confusion). There is no arc, the character doesn’t make any sacrifices or change himself or learn anything about himself in any way.

The best part of the story was when the character (who is never named, and though this is done better than most books, it is still annoying) is trying to escape his new nanny/babysitter, Ursula Monkton (never Ursula, never Miss Monkton, always Ursula Monkton) who is terrible and also a manifestation of some kind of demon or otherworldly creature. It is exciting and intense, despite us knowing that since this is a memory, everything obviously turns out okay.

But even that escape was not done by the character. He gets in a bind and is saved by the neighbor girl Letty, who just happens to be some kind of diety(?)

Maybe it’s just me, but most of these fantastical stories, I just have a real hard time caring. When anything can happen at any moment, it’s hard for any of it to have any weight or meaning. I would probably have enjoyed this story a lot more if it had been told from Letty’s point of view, since she was the one who took action and made a sacrifice and changed.

To sum up this novel, its about a guy who had some weird dreams when he was seven, remembered them for a minute when he was older, then forgot them again.

 

 

The Castle, by Franz Kafka

This is the first writing by Kafka I’ve read that I haven’t been impressed by. And unlike the Trial, when they say it is unfinished, they really mean unfinished, like it cuts off in the middle of a sentence. I don’t understand why this was published, or why people continue to read it today.

The story is about ‘K’, who arrives in a nameless town, and at the center of this town is a ‘the castle’ which may or may not be an actual castle, but contains offices and officials who may or may not have influence over people in the town. K wants to get into the castle for a reason we never learn, and makes nearly zero progress toward this goal for the entirety of the writing.

think the point of it was the paranoia and confusion of impenetrable bureaucracy, but I’m not totally sure. Similar to The Trial (which also features a character called ‘K’) K is overwhelmed at every step by incomprehensible rules, but unlike the Trial, in which he is trying to find out what he’s been accused of, or at least be done with his trial, in the Castle we have no idea what his objective is other than ‘get to the castle.’ We have no idea who he is or where he came from, what was his life before.

The only part of the book that I really liked was when the story of Frieda’s father trying to remove what he sees as a ‘black mark’ on his daughter because she did not meet an official who asked her out for a drink. After she does this, every wrong thing that happens to the family, he perceives as being because the officials have them on some kind of the list. He expends all his energy trying to contact these officials in the castle (which he, like K, cannot get into) and spends all his money trying to bribe them, all when they have not even confirmed that the family has any black mark at all.

In the end, I wouldn’t recommend it. There was too many long, seemingly meaningless conversations, and not enough of K being foiled to make it as claustrophobic as The Trial was. Mostly I was just bored.

What I want to read…

I’ve been reading Burial Rites by Hannah Kent with a book club I just started with some friends. It’s much more enjoyable to read a book when you have people to discuss it with, but how can anyone ever get their friends to read the same books… if you’re even fortunate enough to have friends who read at all!

So we each submitted some choices, and voted on those choices (can’t vote for your own submissions!) and ended up with a book that everyone at least kind of wanted to read. Success! It wasn’t my top choice, but I was interested!

The novel is based on the true story of an Icelandic woman sentenced to death for murder in 1829, and her last days living on a farm with a family, who are tasked with watching over her while she waits her execution.

This sounded appealing to me, because I always am curious about the mind states of people in extreme situations. What would it be like, knowing you are doomed to die, awaiting the inevitable end day by day… Because it is like a magnified version of all our lives, all will end, all will end definitely, but we pretend they won’t. I find myself curious of what it would be like when you can’t pretend anymore.

I’m about 40% done with it now, and while it is an intriguing read, it’s not what I’d hoped it would be. The story seems to focus more on the family’s perception of her, and her interactions with a priest, and doesn’t delve much into her internal feelings on death. Not so far anyway. It seems to be more about perceptions, and how we decide a person is one way, just because of what others say of them, or judge their entire life and being all based on a single action, a single mistake.

An interesting read so far!

 

The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien

The end saved this one a bit for me. I really was not a fan of a lot of the middle, so much of it seemed disconnected from everything and meaningless and confusing, but maybe that was the point.

The end was really surreal and creepy and dark, but the kooky humor of the rest of the book sort of undercut the effect of it I think.

I feel there was probably some meaning I was missing in this one, as nothing seemed to have any connection to anything… a strange read, but not recommended unless it’s your brand of humor.

A cool glass of sweet water

Every time I finish a particularly difficult book, be it bad, or odd, or just confusing, I take a break with a Nabokov novel. They are always so clear and crisp and enjoyable, it’s like drinking a nice glass of cool water after a tiring time in the sun.

This time I’m reading the Luzhin Defense, the story of an anti-social, obsessive chess player who goes mad. As all Nabokov novels I’ve so far read, it is just a joy, and the prose is so delicious, my brain thanks me in much the way in thanks me for a good meal. And it always makes me smile, with little bits like this for example:

Little Luzhin would go away, trailing his satchel over the carpet; Luzhin senior would lean his elbow on the desk, where he was writing one of his usual stories in blue exercise books (a whim which, perhaps, some future biographer would appreciate), and listen to the monologue in the neighboring dining room, to his wife’s voice persuading the silence to drink a cup of cocoa.

Can you not just see that so clearly… the over optimistic father, the pouty child and coddling mother… all in just a few sentences.

Something about the way he writes is just very enjoyable and smilingly good for me…

 

Out, by Christine Brooke-Rose

What did I just read? I’m not quite sure.

At the end it became slightly intelligible that the POV character was of some higher or lower form of consciousness, and had a brain procedure performed on him. So that sheds a bit of light on the bizarre and confusing way this story was told.

One way to describe it is as a stream of consciousness of someone who is mentally unstable.

Some of the descriptions and ideas are quite beautiful and thoughtful, but they take a bit of work and thinking to figure out what the heck is being described sometimes.

Definitely not a book you can read without some effort, but I found the trouble to be worth it in the end.