How strange it is, to be standing leaning against the current of time.
—W. G. Sebald, Vertigo

Travel, Kierkegaard claimed, is the best way to avoid despair. But for the German writer W. G. Sebald, it leads, as often as not, from one state of despair to another. In his first novel, Vertigo (1990),1 translated two years ago, Sebald’s lightly fictionalized alter ego explains that “In October 1980 I travelled from England, where I had then been living for nearly twenty-five years in a country 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.” Yet without his routines of work in his garden or with his books, he finds himself at...

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