Monday 22 March 2010

It's a little startling...

when the book you're reading flags the date on which you're reading it. W.G. Sebald makes me feel as though the boundary between me and what I read is as thin as gossamer (to use a pretty little cliché - haven't you noticed all these posts floating around cyberspace lately listing the most clichéd clichés popular in book reviews? I thought I'd add the gossamer one so someone will say "Aha!" and add it to the next list.)
On the evening of the 22nd of March, 1842, with the approach of spring already in the air, he fell to the pavement in rue Neuve-de-Capucines in an apoplectic fit. He was taken to his apartments in what is now rue Danielle-Casanova, and there, in the early hours of the following morning, without regaining consciousness, he died. (Vertigo, p. 30)
I've only just begun this novel, but the titular dizziness exists, of course, on both physical and metaphysical planes. As this is a novel of the early 90s, I would have been shocked if this double registering of the term weren't used. You may feel as though you are detecting perhaps a small drop of the snark here; I can't really argue against that perception. Sebald was widely becoming accepted as a genius when he died at the relatively young age of 57; after reading The Emigrants, I would have agreed.

Now that I'm 45 pages into Vertigo, I'm not quite so sure. For one thing, Vertigo, both structurally and thematically, is very similar to The Emigrants - memory and the isolated individual, memory and the larger society that either excludes or only partially admits the individual. Also, the writing is not as good. I keep thinking: if Kundera and Pamuk were to co-author a book, this is what it would look like; and I don't imagine this collaboration as positively as when I suggested that Mahfouz's The Harafish was like an amazing novel done by Dickens and Rumi together. But then, one of these things is not like the others - Kundera is clever, but Dickens, Pamuk, and Rumi were/are brilliant and the difference between the two terms is too often glossed over (another cliché for your list!)

In spite of my concern about the quality of Vertigo, it's still the sort of things that's just right for a beige, rainy day in late March; and so I return to it now, and will say more about it anon.


Heidenkind said...

That has never happened to me before. I think it might be a sign.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Vertigo is Sebald's first novel. He's working out his style and ideas.

Maybe it's worth mentioning that the German title is not Vertigo. But I may be missing something - what characterizes novels of the early 90s?

Bookphilia said...

heidenkind: Me either. What's even crazier is that the exact same thing happens to the narrator of the second part of the novel, with a book he's reading!!! I think this may be irrefutable proof that chaos theory is correct.

Amateur Reader: I take it back. After a slow beginning, I've become entirely enamored of Vertigo, or whatever it should be called.

As for the 90s comment. I don't think I can answer that in a satisfactory way. For several years, I read only books published in the 90s. This novel's beginning "felt" like the early 90s to me and the masthead confirmed my suspicion. That is all. Told you it wouldn't satisfy!

Stefanie said...

I'm about 2/3 of the way through and really enjoying it. The beginning was a bit of a bumpy start. How funny that you stared reading it on the month and day you did!