Schwindel. Gefühle; Vertigo

[This page by Dora Osborne]

Schwindel. Gefühle ; Vertigo (1990)

Schwindel. Gefühle was Sebald’s first substantial piece of prose and already bears many of the marks which make his work so distinctive. It cannot simply be called a novel, but comprises in part a kind of travelogue of the narrator’s journeys to Vienna, Venice, Verona, Milan and his return to his hometown of W., as well as semi-biographical sketches of literary figures, such as the Swiss author Robert Walser and the schizophrenic Swiss poet Ernst Herbeck. The first chapter describes the life and travels of Henri Beyle, better known as the nineteenth-century French novelist Stendhal, and the third recounts the journey of a certain Dr K., recognisable as Franz Kafka, to Riga. Kafka makes uncanny reappearances throughout the text: the narrator encounters twins on a bus journey who figure a kind of redoubled Doppelgänger, and there are repeated references to Kafka’s short story 'Der Jäger Gracchus'; 'The Hunter Gracchus'. Sebald’s literary forebears provide an important structuring element in this first prose work, and already we sense the complexity of their significance for the author: does he simply draw on the European literary tradition which inspired him, or does he identify with, even try to take the place of, those authors who went before him? With his intricate use of Kafka’s story about the undead, Sebald indicates the haunting presence of others in his text, a text which is never entirely his own.

As the title Schwindel. Gefühle announces, in its instability, narrative produces dizzying effects. But as well as the vertigo of the English translation, 'Schwindel' can also mean its English cognate, ‘swindle’, and we are alerted to the fact that these effects may not be entirely incidental; rather, they may be the result of an elaborate ruse on the part of the narrator or author himself. Here we encounter another factor fundamental to all of Sebald’s prose work, namely, the identity of the narrator. In many ways, this figure consistently bears close resemblance to Sebald the author, but this correspondence is not made explicit, or at least when the narrator is about to reveal his identity, he quickly withdraws again. In Schwindel. Gefühle, the narrator recounts losing his passport and includes a copy of the replacement. Sebald’s photograph and signature are visible, but, crucially, the passport has been voided with a thick black line running down the middle. The face in the photograph is obscured, thwarting our ability to see it properly: if the passport as official certification of identity is invalid, then we cannot claim that this document proves anything about the narrator.