W. G. Sebald: Going Abroad

Granta publishes an extract from Sebald’s Vertigo, translated from the German by Michael Hulse
W. G. Sebald's passport.
W. G. Sebald’s passport.

In October 1980 I travelled from England, where I had then been living for nearly twenty-five years in a county which was almost always under grey skies, to Vienna, hoping that a change of place would help me get over a particularly difficult period in my life. In Vienna, however, I found that the days proved inordinately long, now they were not taken up by my customary routine of writing and gardening tasks, and I literally did not know where to turn. Early every morning I would set out and walk without aim or purpose through the streets of the inner city, through the Leopoldstadt and the Josefstadt. Later, when I looked at the map, I saw to my astonishment that none of my journeys had taken me beyond a precisely defined sickle- or crescent-shaped area, the outermost points of which were the Venediger Au by the Praterstern and the great hospital precincts of the Alsergrund. If the paths I had followed had been inked in, it would have seemed as though a man had kept trying out new tracks and connections over and over, only to be thwarted each time by the limitations of his reason, imagination or will power, and obliged to turn back again. My quartering of the city, often continuing for hours, thus had very clear bounds, and yet at no point did my incomprehensible behaviour become apparent to me: that is to say, my continual walking and my reluctance to cross certain lines which were both invisible and, I presume, wholly arbitrary. All I know is that I found it impossible even to use public transport and, say, simply take the 41 tram out to Pötzleinsdorf or the 58 to Schönbrunn and take a stroll in the Pötzleinsdorf Park, the Dorotheerwald or the Fasangarten, as I had frequently done in the past. Turning in to a coffee house or bar, on the other hand, presented no particular problem. Indeed, whenever I was somewhat fortified and refreshed I regained a sense of normality for a while and, buoyed up by a touch of confidence, there were moments when I supposed that I could put an end to the muted condition I had been in for days, and make a telephone call. As it happened, however, the three or four people I might have cared to talk to were never there, and could not be induced to pick up the receiver no matter how long I let the phone ring. There is something peculiarly dispiriting about the emptiness that wells up when, in a strange city, one dials the same telephone numbers in vain. If no one answers, it is a disappointment of huge significance, quite as if these few random ciphers were a matter of life or death. So what else could I do, when I had put the coins that jingled out of the box back into my pocket, but wander aimlessly around until well into the night. Often, probably because I was so very tired, I believed I saw someone I knew walking ahead of me. Those who appeared in these hallucinations, for that is what they were, were always people I had not thought of for years, or who had long since departed, such as Mathild Seelos or the one-armed village clerk Fürgut. On one occasion, in Gonzagagasse, I even thought I recognized the poet Dante, banished from his home town on pain of burning at the stake. For some considerable time he walked a short distance ahead of me, with the familiar cowl on his head, distinctly taller than the people in the street, yet he passed by them unnoticed. When I walked faster in order to catch him up he went down Heinrichgasse, but when I reached the corner he was nowhere to be seen. [Read More]

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