16 July 2012

All'estero: Sebald syndrome 2


[mass noun]
a sensation of whirling and loss of balance, associated particularly with looking down from a great height, or caused by disease affecting the inner ear or the vestibular nerve; giddiness.

late Middle English: from Latin, 'whirling', from vertere 'to turn'

Oxford Dictionaries

The narrator of the second section of Max Sebald's first novel was recounting a visit to a home for the elderly with his companion Clara. The recollection came as a digression from a previous remembrance of his visit in the very same spot two years later, in 1980. As was his wont, Sebald broke off his memory-narratives in order to enter other memories, shuttling back and forth in time, weaving a tapestry of many pasts whose collisions and juxtapositions induced feelings of melancholy and dizziness in the narrator.

Through the barred, deeply recessed windows there was a view down onto the tops of the trees on the steeply sloping ground to the rear of the house. It was like looking upon a heaving sea. The mainland, it seemed to me, had already sunk below the horizon. A foghorn droned. Further and further out the ship plied its passage upon the waters. From the engine room came the steady throb of the turbines. Out in the corridor, stray passengers went past, some of them on the arm of a nurse. It took an eternity, on these slow-motion walks, for them to cross from one side of the doorway to the other. How strange it is, to be standing leaning against the current of time. The parquet floor shifted beneath my feet. A low murmuring, rustling, dragging, praying and moaning filled the room. Clara was sitting beside her grandmother, stroking her hand. The semolina was doled out. The foghorn sounded again. A little way further out in the green and hilly water landscape, another steamer passed. On the bridge, his legs astride and the ribbons on his cap flying, stood a mariner, signalling in semaphore with two colourful flags. Clara held her grandmother close as they parted, and promised to come again soon.

The narrator imagined his surroundings to be a heaving sea, a comparison brought about by "the steeply sloping ground to the rear of the house." (This novel was full of sloping surfaces and objects moving along inclined angles.) His vivid imagination transformed the home into a "water landscape" complete with foghorn, steamers, engine rooms, and mariners. The elderly became passengers walking infinitely slowly from one doorway to another. They seemed to tread slowly so as not to lose their balance. The narrator felt like "leaning against the current of time", the current seemingly like a force intent on destroying lives and memories.

Elsewhere in this section, the narrator's frequent travels abroad brought him face to face with strange events that he strongly felt were strangely connected to each other. The section's title All'estero (Abroad) alluded to the partly Italian setting of his journey, but a play on the word estero (estuary or creek) could be intended in a work full of references to water bodies (tidal waves, canal crossings, wave surges, lakes).

Interspersed with his wanderings were his ruminations on the diary entries of Grillparzer and Casanova, often reflecting about each writer's experience of injustice in the legal system and the imminence of death. He also saw several artworks, describing in detail the frescoes of Tiepolo, Pisanello, and Giotto. While seated on a cafeteria he imagined people around him as looking "like a circle of severed heads." He had a nagging feeling of being observed and, sure enough, when he glanced around he saw two men with their eyes on him. He believed that he crossed paths with them before.

He took notice of the news from the papers announcing the anniversary of the date on which an unknown group claimed responsibility for a chain of murders committed in Italy three years before. Looking at a receipt from a pizzeria dated the day after the anniversary, the word CADAVERO swam before his eyes.

Other misadventures followed the narrator in a later (1987) travel in the same territories of Vienna, Venice, and Verona. Once he was unfortunately mistaken for a pederast. At another time he lost his passport. A new one was eventually issued him, with a photograph crossed with a vertical black strip but clearly bearing the likeness and signature of a certain "Sebald". He also recalled the travels in the same waters of Riva by Dr K., and feelings of being followed by two men still assailed him.

He had conversations with a waiter about the story right before WWI from the book 1912+1 by Leonardo Sciascia. Salvatore, the waiter, said to Sebald: "Once I am at leisure, I take refuge in prose as one might in a boat. All day long I am surrounded by the clamour on the editorial floor, but in the evening I cross over to an island, and every time, the moment I read the first sentence, it is as if I were rowing far out on the water. It is thanks to my evening reading alone that I am still more or less sane."

Later, Salvatore visualized an imaginary showing of Aida in a Cairo opera house:

Christmas Eve, 1871. For the first time the strains of the Aida overture are heard. With every bar, the incline of the stalls becomes a fraction steeper. The first ship glides through the Suez Canal. On the bridge stands a motionless figure in the white uniform of an admiral, observing the desert through a telescope.

That image was to be swallowed by fire, also conjured, breaking out in the opera house. Fire was yet another persistent image that leveled off objects and memories in the book. Fire and water. The turnings of memory are for ever threatened by elements, engineered by nature or man.


  1. I feel exactly the same way: it's "thanks to my evening reading along that I'm still more or less sane."

    Interesting, your picking up on the use of slopes and angles in Sebald's novel, making for what sounds like a sort of geomancy of texture in the narrative that enhances the "vertigo" of the title. I need to read him again, and more of him.

  2. That makes two of us, Scott. More or less. :)