To begin with a brief and somewhat Sebaldian tale:
In the summer of 2002 I found myself in Waterstone's Piccadilly ("Europe's largest bookshop" boasted the sign outside) at the end of a day spent walking slowly across central London, from the Tate Britain to Tower Hill. I was examining a shelf of books by W.G. Sebald, whom I had not yet read, and trying to decide which novel I wanted to buy for the next day's flight home. For reasons I no longer recall, I chose Vertigo, and it rode across the Atlantic in my gesticulating left hand while I animatedly conversed with the friendly, pretty young woman in the seat beside me. Only after I arrived home and actually read Vertigo did I discover that the route Sebald's narrator takes from the National Gallery to Liverpool Street (in the book's closing pages) is exactly the path I walked a few hours before buying the book.
I've embarked on a systematic re-reading of Sebald's four long fictions--Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz--and I find Sebald's first novel, on this reading, to be a complex meditation on the prison house of representation and our use of visual and linguistic representations to shield us from unbearable realities. Vertigo is, as much as anything else, a novel about the impossibility of authentic experience in a world of representations. It is the Real--or more precisely, an insufficiently mediated image of the Real--coming unexpectedly upon us, that causes vertigo. Sebald's first novel is also his most difficult because it radically questions everything about itself--including its own status as a work of representation.
The book begins not with a word but an image: a reproduction of a 19th-century print (the 'original' of this image is thus also a 'reproduction') of Napoleon's army ascending the St. Bernard Pass. We tend to think of visual images as a more direct form of communication than words, but Sebald immediately problematizes this assumption by opening his book with an image that is as distant from historical 'reality' as any of the succeeding words. The opening page of Vertigo demonstrates how we have hermetically sealed ourselves off from reality. We have imprisoned ourselves within representations, be they images or words, that differ from, and defer contact with, any reality beyond them. In this novel, as in our daily lives, reality can only be approached obliquely, through madness and dream, and 'reality' might indeed be defined as that which is too terrifying for words (or images). "...[F]or in reality, as we know, everything is always quite different" (7).
Stendhal's vision of the vast human and animal boneyard on the Marengo battlefield in the book's first section induces a feeling of vertigo vis a vis popular representations of the battle that had effaced its reality, sanitized and aestheticized it. That's one side of the dialectic of reality and representation. The other extreme, the opposite pole, is exemplified by Beyle's fetishization of a cast of Methilde's hand. The synecdochic representation here becomes the whole object and incites emotions even more powerful than those Beyle felt for the real woman. (This should not be surprising. With the cast, after all, complete possession is possible.) Immediately after this passage, Sebald remarks upon Stendhal's creation of fictional characters from ostensibly 'real' models who may never have existed. These lines set up a textual mirror that reflects Sebald's own processes of composition, thus implicating Vertigo in the very process it indicts.
In the book's second section, the narrator's descent into madness in Vienna (and it is madness; Sebald exercises such magisterial control over his prose that it may be difficult to appreciate just how crazy his narrator becomes) culminates in a vision of the Real mediated through a Paul Celan-like pair of images: "Heaps of shoes and snow piled high..." The first is so familiar an image of the Nazi death camps as to require no explication; the second might remind us of the Jews forced to shovel snow on the streets of Nazi-occupied cities. At the bottom of his Viennese excursion, the narrator is vouchsafed a whiff of genocide, Vienna's great unspoken--and the horror that haunts, in some way, virtually every page of Sebald.
When the narrator flees Vienna, the protective process of retreat into representation quickly reasserts itself. The Venice train passes through a region recently ravaged by natural disaster, and the narrator retreats from this reality into the safely aestheticized horrors of a Tiepolo plague scene. The episode ends with an ironically recited prayer.
"Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva," explicitly presented as a speculative narrative constructed by the narrator of sections 2 and 4 (this is also, by implication, the status of the "Beyle" section), highlights through its artifice the fictional, constructed nature of the novel's other sections. Parts I, II and IV are no more 'real' than the Kafka section. In fact, their realism might draw them away from reality, since the Real appears in them only where the web of words is broken, the texture torn: in dreams, visions, images of destruction.
Halfway through Vertigo I formed the hypothesis that over the course of Sebald's truncated oeuvre the function of the image shifts from screen to evocation, from a shield against horror to an effort at authentically communicating the unspeakable Real. Upon finishing the book, I detect this shift within Vertigo itself. Consider, as a kind of transitional case, the section of "Il Ritorno In Patria" that describes the work of Hengge, a provincial painter of 1930s kitsch murals and woodland scenes whose popularity peaked, unsurprisingly, during the kitsch-loving Nazi era. Aside from giving Sebald an opportunity for one of the novel's most exquisite understatements ("...after the war...for a variety of reasons his monumental works were no longer much in demand"), Hengge's work also functions dialectically to evoke (in Sebald's text) the very horrors it struggled to conceal (in historical reality). If the book's earlier images tend toward opacity, Hengge's work is a translucent screen. The black light of Nazism comes through.
The 'grey chasseur' scene, the aesthetic highpoint of part 4, continues this movement toward evocation. The cloth that turns to dust at the narrator's touch is a potent symbol of the quantum-like uncertainty of the past: we can never know the past exactly, and we cannot come into contact with it (i.e. attempt to narrate it) without altering or even destroying it. (I'm reminded of the great scene in Fellini's Roma where a team of archaeologists stumble upon a buried room decorated with ancient frescoes. They watch helplessly as the paintings quickly vanish before their eyes, erased by the polluted air of the modern city. Sebald surely knew this image; he cites Fellini's Amarcord in Vertigo.) It's important also that the chasseur is one of history's victims. He is in fact one of those corpses turned to bleached bones on the Marengo battlefield Beyle visits in section one. (This is but one example of the intricate, Joycean system of cross-references that sews the various cloths of Vertigo into a firm fabric.) The impossibility of contact implies an equal impossibility of any form of reparation with the victims of the past. At this moment, the narrator shifts into an explicitly fictional mode and fantasizes a dream chasseur. But he finds contact equally difficult here. The dusty, ashen residue left on the dreamer's hand after touching the chasseur is a Shoah-inflected symbol of the historical horrors that preclude reparation. But it is also more than this. It can be read alternatively as an image of a productive contact that stains and changes the living, a type of contact possible only in imagination (that is, art). Either way, the dream chasseur is an image that deepens rather than tames the terrifying reality that calls it forth.
This imagistic shift from screen to evocation culminates in exactly the right place: the novel's last two pages. The ending of Vertigo has haunted me for years now. That terrifying dream of the ultimate abyss, a lifeless, bottomless Alpine void, is a vision of nothingness as the reality beyond representation, a confirmation of Ahab's suspicion that there might be nothing on the other side of our pasteboard masks. The Pepysian passage that ends the book seems at first to arrive as yet another textual screen shielding us from an unbearable reality, an impression confirmed by the passage's multiple mediation. (How mediated is it? Let me count the ways. It is (1) a memory of (2) a text recording (3) another man's (4) memory. It is all remembered inside (5) a dream contained in (6) a narrative enunciated by (7) an imaginary character created by (8) Max Sebald of East Anglia. And that's surely a simplification.) But this image of the Great Fire of London is so extreme and apocalyptic that it overflows its screening function, bursts the bonds of reason, and becomes as irrationally horrifying as the abyss it was intended to overcome. The screen image fails utterly, becomes transparent, and instead of concealing "the horror, the horror," displays it in a kind of cinematic superimposition. The Alpine and London images become equally visions of the void.
I've borrowed the Lacanian 'Real' in this post, but we don't need a Lacanian interpretation of Sebald. (That would likely amount to little more than facile allegorization, Slavoj Zizek at his glib worst.) We might, however, profit from a Sebaldian reading of Lacan, one that historicizes and concretizes the Sorbonne Shrink's Slip'n'Slide vocabulary of undefined Reals and Imaginaries and Objets Petits a and Things. In Sebald, the Real is history, and history is what hurts.