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 angle

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Things don’t always look like what they are… this picture could be an undersea growth, an abstract splatter painting, the shadows of some grasses, or a bare tree and blue sky. It all depends on how you present it, the angle at which you perceive it…

I try to keep this in mind when writing. There are many ways to describe each event or object or emotion. And I try to keep in mind the over all goal of what I’m writing when deciding how to describe something.

It’s a tree, btw, rotated. 🙂

Admitting defeat

Well… I must embarrassingly resign myself as uncultured, and impatient. Swan’s Way by Marcel Proust is just too boring for me to continue.

I think I am missing something, because I don’t understand the draw. It’s not that I can’t handle writing without a narrative, since I loved The Peregrine… but, the lack of narrative in Swan’s Way is not made up with exceedingly beautiful writing… or, not beautiful enough for me anyway. There is just nothing to bring me back to it, or hold my attention once I grudgingly start again.

I think, it is likely something that needs to have attention given to it. But I don’t want to have to give attention. I want my attention taken, and held hostage!

Maybe I’ll try it again when I’m older…

I miss Thinking

In my late teens I used to go sit in all night cafe’s by myself and think for hours on end. I imagined ways in which the world could work, other universes, strange consciousness, other creatures, alien landscapes–all without a smartphone or even a book. Just free refills of coffee and my imagination.

I miss that kind of driven mind-wandering. It wasn’t idle thoughts while waiting for time to pass–I went there specifically to sit and do some hard thinking. That was often my plan for the evening…

I only wish I’d written some of those thoughts down. At the time they seemed unimportant, or things that anyone could be thinking.

But I don’t believe many people think very hard about anything anymore.

I hope thinking isn’t a lost art. Perhaps I just need to meet more thinkers…

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….

The world goes on

People you haven’t seen for a dozen years are doing interesting, exciting, boring, frustrating, amazing, awful things. They are making friends, having epiphanies, worrying over tough decisions, and maybe you pop into their head now and then, maybe more or less than they pop into your head.

The strange and huge world of other people’s lives is an endless thing that we can never know or comprehend except the edges, like how you can just barely grasp how huge the universe is if you tilt your mind at just the right angle.

We live in tiny bubbles of experience floating in a sea of other such bubbles, all connected and overlapping, but also isolated. Your world of people is different than mine or anyone’s. Your ecosystem of memories functions differently. You could step two feet and enter another persons world that is completely different from yours–different thoughts, different opinions, different jokes, different interpretations of events, different memories…

All it takes to cross bubbles, is a hello and a conversation…

Infinities

The idea of dying, and being gone forever, never existing again, is scary. But the idea of always existing, forever, with no end no matter what you do, is pretty horrible too.

Maybe humans fear/are repelled by ideas of the infinite because everything we know is finite. Would experiencing something infinite relieve that fear? Maybe, but how to do that…