Traveling in the footsteps of Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka, the narrator draws the reader line by line into a dizzying web of history, biography, autobiography, legends, literature, and--most perilously--memories.And, indeed, the opening section of the book begins:
In mid-May of the year 1800 Napoleon and a force of 36,000 men crossed the Great St. Bernard pass, an undertaking that had been regarded until that time as next to impossible. For almost a fortnight, an interminable column of men, animals and equipment proceeded from Martigny via Orsières through the Entremont valley and from there moved, in a seemingly never-ending serpentine, up to the pass two and a half thousand metres above sea level, the heavy barrels of the cannon having to be draged by the soldiery, in hollowed-out tree trunks, now across snow and ice and now over bare outcrops and rocky escarpments.Marie Henri Beyle is, of course, Stendhal. Naturally, I did not know this when I started reading Vertigo, nor did I know it by the time I'd finished the entire section dealing with Beyle and his memories of this march. Sebald does not identify Beyle as Stendhal; the reader is expected to know it. Granted, it's not taken to be an earth-shaking piece of information, but I usually don't pay much attention to literary biographies. I'd had some vague notion that Stendhal was a pseudonym, but beyond that, I'd never given the matter any thought. (In fact, I didn't realize till I was actually reading The Red and the Black that it's simply "Stendhal", with no other name attached to it.)
Among those who took part in that legendary transalpine march, and who were not lost in nameless oblivion, was one Marie Henri Beyle.
Perhaps inevitably, given how much his biography's been picked at, I happen to know bits and pieces about Kafka's life, so I was able to piece together that the section "Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva" is about Kafka. And it was this that made me wonder whether I'd been expected to know who Stendhal was earlier (I'm smart like that sometimes).
I said that I don't pay much attention to literary biographies, which is true. But, oddly, it's Kafka that might change my mind about that. It's hard for me to say exactly why. I've read The Trial, The Castle, and most of the stories, and I intend to read them again, but I've never wondered where they came from or why they exist. So it's not that. But all of a sudden, in the last year, I feel a need to read a good biography of him. His Diaries, too. Is it for a glimpse of the literary? A peak into the mind of this person who had to write, but then wanted it all destroyed at his death? I don't know. Maybe it's memory, the working through of memory on the page. Will I know why when I finally do read them?