Friday, 11 September 2015

The other Vertigo - Sebald and Kafka

All the writings of W.G. Sebald are essential, and in particular the astonishing Austerlitz. Today however I will quote from Vertigo, first published in 1990. Its original German title is Schwindel. Gefühle and translated by Michael Hulse. The quotes below are from part III, "Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva", and concerns K, who is unhappy in Verona and consoles himself with a visit to the cinema:
Perhaps it was the bills, still posted throughout the city, announcing the spettacoli lirici all'Arena that August and the word AIDA displayed in large letters which persuaded him that the Veronese show of carefree togetherness had something of a theatrical performance about it, staged especially to bring home to him, Dr K., his solitary, eccentric condition - a thought he could not get out of his head and which he was only able to escape by seeking refuge in a cinema, probably the Cinema Pathé di San Sebastiano. In tears, so Dr K. recorded the following day in Desenzano, he sat in the surrounding darkness, observing the transformations into pictures of the minute particles of dust glinting in the beam of the projector.
Dr K. is Franz Kafka and the time is the 1913, when Kafka left Prague for a trip through Italy to Switzerland, for health reasons. In Switzerland he had an affair with a young woman, before returning home again.

But let's get back to that day in Verona, where Sebald wonders what it was that Dr K. saw:
Was it the Pathé newsreel, featuring the review of the cavalry in the presence of His Majesty Vittorio Emanuele III, and La Lezione dell'abisso, which, as I discovered in the Biblioteca Civica, were shown that day at the Pathé and which are both now untraceable? Or was it, as I initially supposed, a story that ran with some success in the cinemas of Austria in 1913, the story of the unfortunate Student of Prague, who cut himself off from love and life when, on the 13th of May, 1820, he sold his soul to a certain Scapinelli? The extraordinary exterior shots in this film, the silhouettes of his native city flickering across the screen, would doubtless have sufficed to move Dr K. deeply, most of all perhaps the fate of the eponymous hero, Balduin, since in him he would have recognised a kind of doppelgänger, just as Balduin recognises his other self in the dark-coated brother whom he could never and nowhere escape.
The German film The Student of Prague opened in late August of 1913 so it is a possibility. In any event Sebald describes the story of the film, up until its melodramatic ending with a bullet in the heart of Balduin, and speculates as to why it might appeal to Dr K.:
Final contortions of this kind, which regularly occur in opera when, as Dr K. once wrote, the dying voice aimlessly wanders through the music, did not by any means seem ridiculous to him; rather he believed them to be an expression of our, so to speak, natural misfortune, since after all, as he remarks elsewhere, we lie prostrate on the boards, dying, our whole lives long.


  1. Have you read a book about Stefan Zweig's final days called THE IMPOSSIBLE EXILE? It's apparently much more ambitious than the typical literary biography and has been compared to Sebald. It's in my pile of library books to read.

    1. No, that one I have not read. Some 15 years ago I read The World of Yesterday, and I loved it then. I've also read some short stories.

    2. Anthea Bell, who has translated Sebald into English, has also translated Zweig.