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.


Proust: Rambling thoughts, or more?

I’ve started listening to my first Proust, and it’s not very engaging. It is interesting though. Mainly I’m thinking “this guy is just going on about inane memories that can have no importance to anyone other than himself, and yet this is a classic.”

I think that goes to show that you really can write about anything, even thousands and thousands of words about the feeling of drinking a cup of tea, and it will be good if you fill it with passion.

I am early in the book, so maybe it pulls together and connects in some overarching way, or to tell some story. But so far it seems very self-indulgent and meandering. I’m still listening, though….

Alternate Worlds: in which reality is opinion

In this world, augmented reality technology is so advanced, that ‘real’ is up for debate. Anything you see can be altered to look like anything you want. Anything you feel can be altered to feel however you chose. Any video can be faked, any words anyone says can be altered. The majority  chooses reality, or individuals can isolate themselves into their own realities. If it is decided by the majority that the color blue does not exist, for example, then blue will be edited from everyone’s vision, removed from all language and recordings. Any individual talking about blue or claiming they see it will just be a crazy outsider, or will have their words muted. The functional reality would be one without the color blue. You would have to learn to live in this reality and accept it, or be a social outcast. The next day, blue might be back in existence and you’d have to go on as if it had always been. The day after, the world may be flat, and all contrary evidence removed…

How would fiction exist in this world when no one knows for sure what is real, and what is ‘real’ today may be false tomorrow? No one reading a fiction story would know if a dragon flying across the sky was supposed to be ordinary or odd, and might expect the rules of the fictional world to completely change from one page to the next.

Flying far away

I’m getting on a plane to Singapore this evening, to fly across the sea to see my lady’s family. And have some fun exploring too!

It will be the third time I’ve done so, and I think I’m getting pretty good at traveling. Bringing less, and having less stress each time.

I hope to keep up writing during the trip, but that is always easier said than done, so I’ve front-loaded a crap-load of posts about alternate worlds.

Perhaps a pic or two will make it in as well…

Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem

The end of this novel went in a different direction than I expected. I was drawn into it right away and was excited by the story and the ideas and the potential, but it feels like in the end it left much unexplored.

There was a lot of attention focused on the technical details, research, and visual details of the alien ocean. This did lend a lot to the realism of the world, but I think I would have preferred more about the effects on the characters. We never did get to find out who or what the other character’s ‘guests’ were.

I also wondered about the first version of Harey that was sent up in the rocket… what ever happened to her?

Over all an amazing book that left me wanting more, and one that I’m sure I’ll think about for some time.

Alternate worlds: in which I am a robot who forgot he is a robot

All memories of eating, bleeding, or other non robotic bodily functions have been inserted throughout the day by the memory chip in my positronic brain. Many times throughout the day, I shut down momentarily, freeze in place, and a recollection of drinking coffee or using the toilet is inscribed on my mind. Why? because, we are all robots, and it is a vast experiment to see how human-like machines would be if they thought they were human. Up in the clouds behind a camouflage shield, our constructors sit on a station observing, taking notes, and every so often pulling one of us up into the sky for observation.

Every so often, there is a glitch, and the memory chip fails, and one of the robots tries to eat or drink after having no memory of doing so for a long time, and finds out what they truly are. These units go wild for a time, attacking others, trying to ‘wake them up’ before they are inconspicuously decommissioned.

Your darkest secret

I’ve been listening to Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem, and it is so far amazing.

Imagine your darkest, most embarrassing, strangest thought. The thing you are most ashamed or guilty for thinking–maybe it just popped into your head, unplanned, as thoughts often do. Now imagine that thought made flesh, and following you around for all to see.

The 2002 movie version of this book is a watered down love story, that hardly scratches the surface of the weirdness in this book… and I’m only at the beginning. The 1972 version is supposed to be much better, but I haven’t seen it. I’ll probably watch it after I finish.

I definitely have missed the psychological side of sci fi, and am enjoying this a lot.