April 25, 2007
In 1990, Sebald published Schwindel. Gefühle (Frankfurt: Eichborn Verlag), the first of his four radically distinctive volumes of prose fiction. The first clue to the book’s originality lies in the two-word title and the dividing period. “Schwindel” has a primary meaning of vertigo or dizziness, with a secondary sense of cheating or lying (an appropriate metaphor for the slippery handling of “truth” in Sebald’s work), while “gefühle” means sense or feeling. The sense of disorientation continues when the book opens not with a sentence but with a picture, a poorly reproduced 19th century image (probably, but not assuredly, a drawing) apparently meant to show Napolean’s troops struggling across the Great Saint Bernard Pass between Switzerland and Italy.With this volume, the professor, literary critic, and occasional poet Winfred Georg Maximilian Sebald started his reshaping of the novel.
The first trade edition of Schwindel. Gefühle is an octavo volume with forest green boards that are stamped with a tiny diamond pattern. A gold-stamped light green sticker on the spine provides the author’s name – W.G. Sebald – and the title of the book. The book includes a thin green woven cloth placeholder. Schwindel. Gefühle was the 63rd volume issued by Eichborn Verlag in poet/editor Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s highly influential series of new books Die Andere Bibliothek (The Other Library). (Update May 12, 2007. Another Sebald collector has told me that the first edition of Schwindel. Gefühle originallycame with a Cellophanschuber, a very fragile silver, almost parchment-like paper slip cover on which the title and subtitle is rather dramatically printed. Most copies of the first edition don’t seem to come with one of these intact.)
Simultaneously, Eichborn Verlag released a limited edition of 999 special copies of Schwindel. Gefühle bound in a lighter green leather and accompanied by a pale colored slipcase. The limited edition is hand numbered but not signed.
In spite of being the first of Sebald’s fictions to be published in his native Germany, it was the third to be translated and released in England. Vertigo (London: Harvill Press) was not released in English until1999, after both his second and third books of fiction (Die Ausgewanderten and Die Ringe des Saturn) had already preceded it. Translated by Michael Hulse, the Harvill edition of Vertigo is a handsomely designed book and one of my favorites from a physical standpoint. The hardcover first edition is a simple black cloth with gold-stamped spine that boldly reads SEBALD VERTIGO, with the two words separated by a design comprised of two superimposed letter vees – one in normal position and one inverted. To my mind, this manages to echo the period that separates the two-word title of the book in German. The dust jacket employs a photograph by the great Czech photographer Josef Sudek (1896-1976). It’s a dramatic design that encompasses the entire from of the just jacket. I especially like the effect of having the title Vertigo printed in a reflective silver foil. Nevertheless, as much as I love the cover design, I think it tends to evoke the other Vertigo – the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock – more than Sebald’s reflection on history and memory.Just after the book was released, I was lucky to have purchased a copy of Vertigo signed on the title page by Sebald directly from a British book dealer for the cover price of the book.
By contrast, the Vertigo put out by New Directions in 2000 is more pedestrian. This first American edition is hard bound in forest green quarter cloth (reminiscent of the original German edition) and gray boards. The use of stepped type for the title and the orange and green montage of uncredited cover photographs on the just jacket (designed by Semadar Megged) is a more thoughtful design that is clearly more suited to Sebald’s content than the British cover design but just lacks punch.
Curiously, Vertigo is the only one of Sebald’s major books for which I have never seen a British or American proof or advanced readers copy offered for sale. I wonder if one even exists. [Thanks to a reader of this blog, I now have a New Directions promotional copy used to announce the paperback edition of Vertigo. More here. Updated August 5, 2009]