Like many of the late W.G. Sebald’s books, Vertigo is almost impossible to describe. The only adjective that really seems to fit is Sebaldian. It’s a strange yet compelling blend of speculative biography, autobiography, travel writing, and fiction, interspersed with strange black and white photographs.
The book is in four, loosely linked sections, set mainly in Northern Italy and Sebald’s hometown in Germany. Two of the sections describe events in the lives of Henri Beyle (whom Sebald never bothers to tell us is better known to the world as the nineteenth-century writer Stendhal), and one ‘Dr K.’ (Sebald’s alias for Franz Kafka). The other two sections describe the narrator’s travels as he carries out research. As with a number of Sebald’s other books, this narrator is clearly meant to be him, albeit a somewhat fictitious version of him.
There are recurring themes—disorientation, unreliable memory, a dead hunter, a series of real-life murders, coincidences, short people, years ending with the digits ‘13’, and more—which somehow seem to link the various sections, though you’re never quite sure how.