Vertigo by W. G. Sebald

BOMB 71 Spring 2000
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I had learned that the only member of the Seelos family still living in W. was Lukas. The Seelos house had been sold, and Lukas lodged in the smaller house next door, where once Babett, Bina, and Mathild had dwelt. I had been in W. for about ten days before I finally decided to go over and call on Lukas. He had seen me coming out of the Engelwirt several times, he told me straight away, but although I had somehow seemed familiar, he had not quite been able to place me, perhaps because I reminded him not so much of the child I once was as of my grandfather who had the same gait and, whenever he stepped out of the house, would pause for a moment to peer up into the sky to see what the weather was doing, just as I always did. I felt my visit pleased Lukas, for after working as a tin-roofer until his 50th year he had been forced into retirement by the arthritis that was gradually crippling him, and now spent his days sitting at home on the sofa, while his wife continued to run the little stationer’s shop belonging to old Specht. He would never have believed, he observed, how long the days, and time, and life itself could be when one had been shunted aside. Moreover, he was troubled by the fact that, apart from Regina, who was married to an industrialist in northern Germany, he was the last of the Ambrose clan. He told me the story of how Uncle Peter disappeared in the Tyrol, and of the death of his mother soon afterwards, who during the last weeks of her life had lost so much of her considerable weight that nobody had recognized her any more; and he expatiated at length on the strange circumstance that Aunts Babett and Bina, who had done everything together since they were children, had died on the same day, one of heart disease and the other of grief. No one had ever been able to find out much, he said, about the car accident in America in which Lena and her husband were killed. It seemed that the two of them simply left the road in their Oldsmobile, which as he knew from a photo had whitewall tires, and plunged into the depths. Mathild had lasted a long time, until she was well over 80, perhaps because she had the most alert mind of any of them. She had died a quiet death in her own bed in the middle of the night. His wife, Lukas said, had found her the next day, lying just as she always did when she retired in the evening. But Benedikt, unwilling to go further into the subject, had been consumed by ill fortune and now, he added, it was his own turn. Having brought to an end his chronicle of the Ambrose family with this remark, not without satisfaction as it seemed to me, Lukas wanted to know what had brought me back to W. after so many years, and in November of all times. To my surprise, he understood my rather complicated and sometimes contradictory explanations right away. He particularly agreed when I said that over the years I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but in spite of that, far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever. The more images I gathered from the past, I said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling. To which Lukas replied that now, laid up as he was on his sofa for much of the day or at best performing pointless little tasks about the house, it was quite unthinkable that he had once been a good goalkeeper and that he, who was ever more frequently assailed by dark moods, had in his time played the clown round the village—had indeed held for years, as I perhaps remembered, the honorary office of carnival jester since a successor was not to be found who could hold a candle to him. As he recalled that glorious time, Lukas’s gouty hands began to move more freely, demonstrating how he had held the great carnival shears, which he said required exceptional strength and poise, and how he had stuck his fool’s staff up the women’s skirts at the very moment when they least expected it. Just as they imagined themselves safe, behind locked doors on the top floor, and were leaning out of the windows to watch as the carnival floats passed by, he had climbed up at the back through the hay loft, or up an espalier, and given them the fright they were hoping for all along, though they would never admit as much. Often he had ducked into the kitchen and filched the freshly-baked doughnuts in order to distribute them in the street to the applause of the women until, seeing the empty plates, they realized it was their own doughnuts that had been handed out.

From such carnival exploits, our talk turned to Specht the printer, whose stationer’s shop Lukas’s wife was now running. For Specht, as Lukas said, had invariably still had his Christmas tree in his shop window when carnival week came round; indeed, that tree, which he had put up during the last week of Advent and which was now quite bare of needles, remained in the window not only until carnival but frequently until Easter, and on one occasion Specht even had to be reminded to remove the tree from the window in time at least for the Corpus Christi procession. Specht, who since the 1920s had written, edited, set and printed the fortnightly four-page newspaper Der Landbote, was an extremely introverted fellow, as is not infrequently the case with printers. Moreover, the constant handling of lead type had made him

71 Sebald Body

ever smaller and greyer. I had a clear memory of Specht, from whom I had bought my first slate pencils and later the pens and the exercise books made of pulp paper on which the nibs constantly stuck when one was writing. Year in, year out he wore a grey calico coat which almost reached down to the floor, and round steel spectacles, and, whenever you entered the shop beneath the jingling bell, he would emerge from the printroom at the back with an oil rag in his hand. In the evenings, though, he could be seen sitting in the lamplight at the kitchen table, writing the articles and reports which were to be included in Der Landbote. Lukas claimed that much of what Specht wrote week after week for Der Landbote was rejected by him in his capacity as editor as not being up to the standards of the paper. Later on, when we had run out of Kalterer wine, Lukas took me around the house, showed me where Babett’s and Bina’s café, the Alpenrose, had been, where Dr. Rambousek had his surgery, and where the bedrooms and the living room of the three sisters once were. As I was leaving, Lukas clutched my hand in the birdlike grasp of his gouty fingers for a long time, and I said that I would be glad to come over to see him more often so that we might talk further about the past, if he did not mind. Yes, said Lukas, there was something strange about remembering. When he lay on the sofa and thought back, it all became blurred as if he was out in a fog.

That same evening, over a second bottle of Kalterer in the Engelwirt, I was able to assemble some of my recollections of the Alpenrose. Whether it was Babett and Bina who had the idea of opening the café, or whether Baptist thought that it would support his unmarried sisters, was a part of the story that nobody could recall any more. At all events, there had been a Café Alpenrose, and it had continued until the deaths of Babett and Bina, although nobody had ever set foot in it. In summer, a small green metal table and three green folding chairs stood in the front garden under a pollarded lime tree which afforded a fine broad canopy of leaves. The door of the house was always open, and every couple of minutes Bina would appear in order to look out for the guests who would, surely, be arriving sometime. There is no way of telling what kept visitors away. Probably it was not simply because strangers, as summer guests were referred to in those days, hardly ever came to stay in W., but rather because the coffeehouse was run by Babett and Bina as a sort of spinsters’ parlour which had nothing to offer the men of the village. I do not know, nor did Lukas know, what sort of figure the two sisters had made at the beginning of their business venture. The only thing that could be said with any certainty was that whatever Babett and Bina had been at one time, or had wanted to be, was eventually destroyed by the years of continuous disappointment and perennially revived hope. The impairment to their lives which that destruction and their unending dependency on each other entailed ultimately led to their being regarded as no more than a pair of dotty old maids. Of course it did not help that Bina, smoothing down her apron with her hands, spent the hours running around the house and the front garden, while Babett sat in the kitchen all day long folding tea towels, only to unfold and refold them again. It was with the greatest effort that the two of them managed to keep their small household in order, and what they would have done if one day a guest had actually crossed the threshold is quite inconceivable. Even when making a pot of soup they were more of a hindrance than a help to each other, and the weekly creation of a cake for Sunday, Lukas told me, was always a major operation that took them the whole of Saturday. Nonetheless, whenever the end of the week was approaching, Babett would prevail upon Bina, as much as Bina prevailed upon Babett, that a cake should be baked once again, alternately either an apple cake or a so-calledGuglhupf. Once the task was accomplished, the cake would be carried with some ceremony into the front room and there, virginal and freshly dusted with icing sugar, as it was, placed under a glass dome on the sideboard, next to the apple cake, or else the Guglhupf, that had been baked the previous Saturday, so that any guest who had happened by on the Saturday afternoon would have had a choice of two cakes—a stale apple cake and a fresh Guglhupf or a stale Guglhupf and a fresh apple cake. On the Sunday afternoon that choice ceased to be available, for it was always on Sunday afternoons that Babett and Bina consumed either the stale apple cake or the stale Guglhupf with their Sunday afternoon coffee, Babett eating a cake with a cake fork while Bina would be dunking hers, a habit which Babett deplored and which she had never been able to correct in her sister. After consuming the stale cake the two of them would sit for an hour or two, sated and silent, in the gloom of their parlour. On the wall over the sideboard hung a picture of two lovers in the act of committing suicide. It was a winter night and the moon had emerged from behind the clouds to witness this final moment. The pair, out on a narrow landing stage, were about to take their last decisive step. Together, the foot of the girl and that of the man were suspended over the dark waters, and one could sense with relief how both were now in the grip of gravity. I remember that the girl had a thin, viridescent veil draped over her head, while the man’s coat was taut against the wind. Below this picture stood the cake intended for the coming week; the clock on the wall ticked, and whenever it was about to strike it gave a long drawn-out wheeze, as if it could not bring itself to announce the loss of another quarter of an hour. In summer, the light of late afternoon entered through the curtains, in winter the falling dusk, and on the table in the center, biding its time, stood the enormous aspidistra which the long years had left untouched and around which, in some mysterious manner, everything at the Alpenrose seemed to revolve.

Translated from the German by Michael Hulse.


W. G. Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgäu in the Bavarian Alps. He has won the Berlin Literature, Literatur Nord, and Mörike Prizes, the Johannes Bobrowski medal, as well as the LA Times Book Award for Fiction for The Rings of Saturn. He is also the author of The Emigrantsand Vertigo, which will be published by New Directions in May.

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Schlegel on Wit by Duncan Smith
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Writers of fragments will always be indebted to Friedrich Schlegel for affirming the practice.

Originally published in

BOMB 71, Spring 2000

Featuring interviews with Frank Stella, John Currin, Jim Crace, Frances Kiernan, Brian Boyd, Marsha Norman, and Arto Lindsay. 

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