December 14, 2022

Thoughts on the Fine Art of Vertigo with W.G. Sebald and Franz Kafka

By Stuart Mitchner

Twenty-one years ago today, W.G. Sebald was driving to Norwich, the city explored in his internationally acclaimed novel The Rings of Saturn. He had just pulled on to the A-146 when his car “failed to follow the curve and drove straight into the opposite lane.” According to the account in Carole Angier’s biography Speak, Silence (Bloomsbury 2021), the horoscope for December 14 “warned that an eclipse of the sun was taking place visible only in North America, but ‘challenging for everyone.’”

Angier’s account has the makings of a passage from Sebald’s first book, Vertigo (New Directions 1999, translated by Michael Hulse) — his failure to follow the curve, his drive straight into the opposite lane, the challenge of the eclipse. Alive and at work, Sebald would drive the moment straight into a prose continuum, another road, or an invisible trajectory, and before you know it you’re staring through a train window with him as he takes you directly into the Arena Chapel in Padua, and suddenly you find yourself in the presence of Giotto’s frescoes, “overwhelmed by the silent lament of the angels, who kept their station above our endless calamities.”

In the distance far below you see Sebald’s car, crushed on the driver’s side, turned “facing the other way” after  crashing head-on into the cab of a 38-ton truck. Not to worry, by now he’s safe in All’estero, the second chapter, flying on the wings of prose through “the roaring traffic to take the very next train to Verona” while meditating on the hint of vertigo in the “disconcerting” afternoon Franz Kafka spent on his way from Venice to Lake Garda in September 1913. Instead of getting off at Verona, he continues to the railway station at Desenzano, knowing his Czech soulmate had stopped there more than 60 years before, and after finding the WC, he stares into the mirror above the  heavy stoneware basin in a room “where scarcely a thing had been altered since the turn of the century,” wondering as he washed his hands if Kafka had gazed into the same mirror. He puts the possibility in play by pointing out nearby graffiti, Il Cacciatore, Italian for “the hunter,” which he reads as a reference to Kafka’s posthumously published story, “The Hunter Gracchus.” After drying his hands, he makes an anonymous contribution, adding the words nella selva nera (“in the snow forest”), his secret sharing of Kafka’s story of a hunter fated to wander all the lands of the earth forever.

Vertigo as Art

Born in Germany in May 1944, the year before the war ended, Sebald would spend the heart of his career, almost 30 years, teaching and writing in England. As he traveled to Manchester to take a junior lectureship teaching German, he was, according to his biographer, “anxious and uncertain.” Refusing to go to England “with a Nazi name like Winfried,” he chose “Max” instead: “M as a reversed W, a for a vowel, and x for the big unknown.” Although it’s not among the reasons Angier offers for the change, when considered in the context of “the big unknown” and Kafka’s role in Vertigo, “Max” also connects Sebald with Max Brod, Franz’s best friend, frequent traveling companion, and the savior of his work.

Sebald’s definition of vertigo as a compound of “dizziness” and “feelings” (the German title was Schwindel. Gefühle.) relates to his way of swirling invisibly through transitions, leaving the reader happily disoriented, unlike the notion of vertigo popularized by the Hitchcock film of the same name that begins with Jimmy Stewart hanging from a rooftop, gazing in horror down at the street below. In the third chapter, “Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva,” Sebald pays tribute to Kafka’s mastery of the art of vertigo famously envisioned in Shakespeare’s King Lear, when the blind Duke of Glouchester falls without falling from the “dread summit (“How fearful / And dizzy ‘tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!”).

The Kafka Twins

One of the most distinctive facets of the Sebald experience is his way of inserting photos and clippings and ephemera, often without attribution or permission, for instance the amusement park photo showing Kafka amid a group of friends aboard a plane that appears to be suspended above the giant Ferris wheel in Vienna’s Prater. As Sebald points out, “Dr. K is bemused to find that he is the only one who can manage some kind of a smile at such dizzy heights.” The implication is that vertigo is Kafka’s element.

One photograph that Sebald imagined inserting in the All’estero chapter was denied him. On the bus from Desenzano to Riva, he noticed two twin brothers of about 15 bearing “the most uncanny resemblance imaginable to pictures of Franz Kafka as an adolescent schoolboy.” The twin Kafkas were seated with their parents, a vision that induced a kind of vertigo (“a vertiginous feeling came over me”). After trying to get into a conversation with the boys (all they do is “grin witlessly at each other”), he explains to the parents the reason for his interest, telling them about the “scrittore ebreo from the city of Praga” and asking if they would mind sending him a photograph of their sons to his English address. The suspicious parents find his request “improper” and tell him to “return to his seat right away.” Frustrated and upset to have “no evidence whatsoever to document this most improbable coincidence,” he gets out at the next stop. You have to wonder how often Sebald was rebuffed in his quest for visual material, a process that in itself could make him feel vertiginous.

Vertigo Everywhere

Sebald is along for the ride when Dr. K. is “seized by a creeping paralysis” en route to Trieste, “ensconced in a compartment” on Southern Railways “as the countryside slips by.” Thanks to the swirl of vertigo swaying the movement of Sebald’s prose, Dr. K. is suddenly, “incomprehensibly, really in Trieste” that evening seemingly without moving a muscle. Crossing the Adriatic next morning in “somewhat stormy weather,” he was “afflicted with a slight seasickness,” and when he arrives in Venice, “the waves were still breaking within him.” It was as if vertigo had consumed a city “on the brink of disintegration.” 

At the hydropathic establishment in Riva, Dr. K. falls in love with a girl from Genoa he pictures as a mermaid with “water-green eyes,” but they agree to exchange no pictures, not even a single written word, and “to simply let each other go,” and too soon she’s beckoning to him from the railing of a steamer, “a sign in the air which betokened the end.” A day later Gracchus the huntsman arrives, telling his tale of “a fall to his death from the face of a mountain,” a story Kafka “conjured up” to suggest that “the huntsman’s ceaseless journey lies in a penitence for a longing for love, such as invariably besets Dr. K.”

Homeward Bound

In the fourth and final chapter (the first is a short biography of Stendhal, titled “Beyle, or Love is a Madness Most Discreet”), Sebald returns to his German hometown “W.” The book ends with him reading Samuel Pepy’s diary and dreaming he was walking through a mountainous terrain, … a range of mountains “which I feared I would not be able to cross. To my left there was a drop into vertiginous depths. I walked to the edge of the road and knew that I had never gazed down into such chasms before…there was nothing but ice-grey shale.” Then “words returned to me as an echo that had almost faded away — fragments from the account of the Great Fire of London.” And now, where the chasms of ice-grey shale had been, he sees the fire spreading over London, “a gruesome, evil, bloody flame, sweeping, before the wind, through all the City.” He wonders “Is this the end of time?” Now he’s fleeing onto the water, the glare is everywhere, “and yonder, before the darkened skies, in one great arc the jagged wall of fire.”

Driven by the Wind

According to Carole Angier’s biography, the accident that killed Sebald was only the last of a sequence: the first in 1967, “the ones … in the 1970s, two lucky escapes in the early eighties, two in the year 2000 alone. Fatal accidents and near misses haunt his work …. Everyone knew what a distracted driver he was. So when it happened many friends thought, He’s done it again — lost concentration, drifted into the wrong lane.” Others assumed he’d committed suicide, in spite of the fact that his daughter was in the passenger seat (she was not seriously injured). After a five-month wait, an inquest was held and the results of the post-mortem revealed no trace of drugs or alcohol, no aneurysm. But his heart disease had been serious. One artery “was 80 percent occluded. It was a heart attack waiting to happen.”

At Sebald’s funeral a song from Schubert’s Winterreise was sung — “about a traveller who comes to an inn that is really a graveyard but, like Gracchus, is not let in.” At the end of Kafka’s story, the hunter says, with a smile, “I am here, more than that I do not know, further than that I cannot go. My ship has no rudder, and it is driven by the wind that blows in the undermost regions of death.”