02 August 2012

W. G. Sebald's aesthetics of falsification

"Dr K. Takes the Waters at Riva", from Vertigo (1990) by W. G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse (Vintage Books, 2011)

Amazon.co.uk: At the beginning of Vertigo, you follow the young Stendhal in Napoleon's army and introduce the central theme of the book: the unknowability of the past and memory's unreliability. As a writer you must draw on memory--do you feel that all the stories we tell are fictions, or do some stories have more truth than others?

Sebald: Seen from the outside, some stories have more truth than others, but the truth value of the story does not depend on its actual truth content. The truth value depends on how it is framed and phrased. If a story is aesthetically right, then it is probably also morally right. You cannot really translate one to one from reality. If you try to do that, in order to get at a truth value through writing, you have to falsify and lie. And that is one of the moral quandaries of the whole business.


[Photographs] are part of [my working] process. They act as a token of authenticity--but they can be deduced, forged or purloined. And of course that in turn throws up one of the central problems of fiction writing, which is that of legitimacy and the arrival at the truth on a crooked route. This is why "vertigo" in German has a double meaning--schwindel in German means "swindle". What right do you have to write about any of these things? Have you been there, and felt these things for yourself?

– "The Questionable Business of Writing", interview with Toby Green (undated)

The figure of Kafka finally appears, as Dr K., in the third section of W. G. Sebald's Vertigo. Dr K. journeys to Vienna in a "fretful state of mind". He notices things with the same feverish intensity as Stendhal in the first section.

So, the odd chapters (I and III) of Vertigo talk about the travels of two European novelists while the even ones (II and IV) follow the narrator in his own physically and mentally taxing adventures.The lengths of the stories are about the same for each pairing (30 pages for the odd chapters; roughly 100 for the even chapters).

The novel's four-story structure hints at a "mirroring effect". Doppelgängers and doubles frequently appear. Connections and coincidences, unintended or not, are implied. Out of well-selected facts and events, dates and places, coincidence is unifying the details. To what ends? "It's this whole business of coincidence," Sebald explained, "which is very prominent in my writing":

I hope it's not obtrusive. But, you know, it does come up in the first book, in "Vertigo," a good deal. I don't particularly hold with parapsychological explanations of one kind or another, or Jungian theories about the subject. I find those rather tedious. But it seemed to me an instance that illustrates that we somehow need to make sense of our nonsensical existence. You meet somebody who has the same birthday as you—the odds are one in three hundred and sixty-five, not actually all that amazing. But if you like the person then immediately this takes on more . . . and so we build on it, and I think all our philosophical systems, all our systems of our creed, all constructions, even the technological worlds, are built in that way, in order to make some sort of sense, when there isn't, as we all know. [from "The Meaning of Coincidence", interview with Joe Cuomo, New Yorker, 2001, emphasis added]

Sebald seems to be delineating an artistic point of view and using his K.-type characters to make sense of confounding personal and collective experiences. Memory comes to grips with the history of destruction. It learns it cannot catch up. Yet memory is what all these literary artists have in common, the main instrument of their vocation. Exercising memory brings them to uncanny associations of previous experiences, delivering to their senses extensive bouts of vertigo. Memory undoes the writers even as it consoles their troubled souls.

Dr K.'s travel was on September 1913. "The Stoker", the first chapter of Kafka's unfinished novel Amerika (The Missing Person), was published in May of the same year. "The Stoker" started with 17-year old Karl Rossmann sailing into New York and coming into view of the Statue of Liberty. ("The arm with the sword now reached aloft, and about her figure blew the free winds.") In Vertigo, Dr K. also encountered a similar figure but in a different form. While resting in a hotel room, where stray sounds from the outside drifted in "through curtains stirred by the breeze", Dr K. imagined "an iron angel who kills travellers from the north". In his hallucination he saw the ceiling of the room breaking open "in a cloud of plaster dust" to reveal "a figure [descending] on great silk-white wings, swathed in bluish-violet vestments and bound with golden cords, the upraised arm with the sword pointing forwards." It's not quite the altered version of the statue in Kafka's Amerika. The vision of the killer angel suddenly vanished and dissolved into the actual painting of a ship's figurehead on the ceiling. (This imagery was probably closer to the picture of a bushman with spear and painted shield as seen by Gracchus on his bed aboard a ship in another Kafka story, "The Hunter Gracchus".)

Paranoia, to which Dr K. was of course prone, was a manifestation of Stendhal syndrome. But Dr K. seemed to be suffering from a more mysterious tendency. Sebald approached his subject very indirectly, relying on presumed feelings and attitudes of his veritably Kafkaesque character. The fictionalization (alteration, invention, appropriation, presumption) of Kafkaesque details here followed Sebald's aesthetics of falsification. "If a story is aesthetically right, then it is probably also morally right." The sword was pointed forwards (towards Dr K., the intended victim, on the bed) instead of upwards. This vision, like any vision, was untrue, but it was at least consistent to the character's state of mind, and hence in some ways aesthetically right. Falsifications are ever justified if they carry the story along and are not derived from a tin ear.

Narratorial slips confessed that the tale we are reading was limited by lack of knowledge: "How Dr K. passed his few days in Venice in reality, we do not know. At all events, his sombre mood does not appear to have lifted. [emphasis added]" And later: "We know, as I have said, nothing of what he really saw." And again later: "However, there is nothing in Dr K.'s Desenzano notes to tell us of what he saw on that 20th of September in Verona." Ignorance, however, did not prevent the narrator from speculating about what Dr K. witnessed and felt on that fateful day. And the next day: "We have no record of how long the people of Desenzano continued their watch for the Deputy Secretary from Prague that afternoon, nor when, disappointed, they finally dispersed." And so on.

Regardless of this freely acknowledged constraint, the story proceeded to pile a lot of suggestive details. Due to the fabrication of some story elements, the Sebald aesthetic was, paradoxically, both truthful and unreliable. Within the limits of narrative design and structure, the plot seemed to amble along according to the law of entropy, chaos theory, or uncertainty. A mostly silent old general, another K.-like figure, talked to Dr K. about this.

When one thinks about it, a vast range of unfathomable contingencies come between the logic of the battleplan and that of the final despatches [...] Tiny details imperceptible to us decide everything! [...] Tiny details, but they weigh as heavy as 50,000 dead soldiers and horses at Waterloo. The fact is that ultimately it all comes down to specific gravity. [...] It is a fundamentally insane notion, he continues, that one is able to influence the course of events by a turn of the helm, by will-power alone, whereas in fact all is determined by the most complex interdependencies.

The wrong turn of the helm,"a moment of inattention on the part of the helmsman", was the reason the hunter Gracchus, in the story by Kafka paraphrased by the narrator, was not ferried by a passing barque. Gracchus now travels "the seas of the world ever since, without respite."

The third section ended with a philosophical reflection on the Gracchus's destiny in Dr K.'s short story, a stalking of a middle-aged man by Dr K. à la Gustav von Aschenbach, and a letter to his dear Felice telling her of this "illicit emotion", this "lusting" for an unattractive son of a Jewish bookshop owner. The homoerotic ending lent a mystifying perspective to what went on in the story. Might not this episode explain Dr K.'s repressed temperament throughout the whole section?

The text of "Dr K. Takes the Waters at Riva" was accompanied by 10 photographs and illustrations. By their immutable, black-and-white silences, the images enact the Sebald aesthetic. The text resists their false presence. But on the same page, their surface ink are of the same substance. Through both modes of expression runs the same subtle pretense.

On Kafka, these studies/essays by Sebald should be worth a look.

1. "The Undiscover'd Country: The Death Motif in Kafka's The Castle" can be found in Franz Kafka's the Castle (Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations) (Chelsea House Publications, 1988), a collection of essays on The Castle, edited by Harold Bloom. It was also published in Journal of European Studies (March 1972).

2. "The Law of Ignominy: Authority, Messianism and Exile in The Castle" is in the anthology On Kafka: Semi-Centenary Perspectives, edited by Franz Kuna (London: Paul Elek, 1976).

3. "To the Brothel by Way of Switzerland: On Kafka's Travel Diaries" and "Kafka Goes to the Movies" are in Campo Santo (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005; New York: Random House, 2005), translated by Anthea Bell.

4. Silent Catastrophes (Penguin Books, 2014), translated by Jo Catling, is an upcoming English omnibus of two essay collections of Sebald on Austrian writers (Stifter, Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Kafka, Canetti, Bernhard, Handke, Joseph Roth, Broch, Améry, etc.).


  1. I've been trying to pick apart what Sebald is doing, and what the photos add (or don't) to his narratives. This is very helpful, I think. Wonderful stuff.

  2. Many years ago meine Frau was reading one of the collections included in Silent Catastrophes, in German, of course, and she said "Here's a book that will never be translated." Of course, we did not know that Sebald would turn into "Sebald," and though I am pleased that she is wrong, the idea that there will be a lot of enthusiastic reading about Hebel and Hebbel and Stifter and so on is kind of amusing and still seems unlikely.

    Not that I'm not going to read the book. Of course I'll read it.

    I've enjoyed your dismantling of Vertigo.

  3. Not read much Sebald, beyond the poetry, so this kind of post gives me an insight into what I will face when I finally crack open the book sat on my shelf.

  4. Thanks, scott. I was actually inspired in this direction by your recent posts on Sebald and Amateur Reader's series a while back.

    Tom, the Catastrophes book surely took some time to cross over in English. Thank god for Sebald being himself. We'll be treated to a box of Austrian goods in time. Meantime, A Place in the Country--it's too good to be true too--is nearly upon us.

    Gary, there's a lot to be mined really. His fiction sits atop interconnected labyrinths.

  5. Yes, I read The Emigrants because Tom recommended it to me. I know I've missed a lot of what Sebald was doing, but I plan to look at more. It seems to make more sense to me if I think about Borges' stories. So I think I'll pick up Rings of Saturn, add it to my TBR stack and see how long it takes to bubble to the top.

  6. I've just finished 'Die Ringe des Saturn', my first Sebald, and I'm still not quite sure what to make of it (apart from the fact that it is excellent, obviously). On the strength of that, I immediately ordered 'Austerlitz', although if I'd read this great review first, I probably would have gone for 'Schwindelgefühle' instead (literally translated, it means 'swindle feelings' as well as 'vertigo'...). Especially as, as you well know, I'm very partial to a bit of Kafka ;)

  7. scott, I think even closely rereading Sebald one is bound to miss something. There's a lot to unpack in the accumulated details in his books.

    Thanks, Tony. Kafka really seems to hover in every Sebald novel though he's most pronounced in Vertigo.

  8. I really need to reread some Sebald - as I read your post I felt myself groping helplessly in my memory. All I can remember is loving the books and reading them all very soon after reading the first one.

  9. Séamus,I have to say Sebald is the kind of writer who grows in each rereading.