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Saturn’s Moons – Apocalypse 2013

In the final pages of W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo the narrator takes a train out of London while reading Samuel Pepys account of the Great Fire of London, which occurred in 1666.  In his fatigue, the voice of the narrator and Pepys become one.

Is this the end of time?  A muffled, fearful, thudding sound, moving, like waves, throughout the air.  The powder house exploded.  We flee onto the water.  The glare around us everywhere, and yonder, before the darkened skies, in one great arc the jagged wall of fire.  And, the day after, a silent rain of ashes, westward, as far as Windsor Park.

And thus ends Vertigo.  Or so I thought.

Reading “Echoes from the Past: A Conversation with Piet de Moor,” in Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook, my eyes froze upon reading a question that de Moor asked Sebald about the end of Vertigo: “Does that end with the apocalypse that you have taking place in 2013?”

2013?  Vertigo was first published in German in 1990.  Had Sebald intended the final scene of the book to happen twenty three years into the future?

Of course [Sebald replied], I don’t know what 2013 will bring, but whether we shall carry on for that long, either individually or collectively, is uncertain. Even so, it is amazing that we still learnt at school that the world is eternal and that we are all very secure within the balance of Nature.  Less than half a century later, this comforting certainty has simply vanished; one day we shall be presented with the bill.  Since reaching that insight, we have been under enormous psychic pressure.  I believe that because of this the last foundation stone of our secure existence in this world has been removed.  The theocratic supports fell away much earlier.  After that, we could find solace on the notion that we, as mortal individuals, depend on a greater process that ends in a comforting form.  But now, even transcendence can no longer be taken for granted either.

The editors of Saturn’s Moons kindly placed a footnote here that cleared up my confusion.

In the German original, and Dutch (and most other) translations, Schwindel. Gefühle. ends with the lines ‘ – 2013 – | Ende’. This is omitted in the English translation.

Sebald’s use of the year 2013 brings a numerical rhyme to three of the four sections of Vertigo.  As de Moor notes, the sections describing the Italian trips of Stendhal and Kafka take place in 1813 and 1913 respectively.

I suppose the mystery of the missing 2013 lurks in various places in the Sebald literature, but this was the first time it grabbed my attention.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Someone should contact translator Micheal Hulse (his email is: ) and ask him why the date was omitted from the English-language text.

    August 28, 2011
  2. : #

    Someone should ask Micheal Hulse why he suddenly stopped translating Sebald. His translations are the best in English.

    August 29, 2011
    • Martin Shaw #

      Michael has a very illuminating little essay on the subject in Saturn’s Moons, FYI !

      August 29, 2011
  3. holy crap, this is the first time for me, too!

    August 29, 2011
  4. Prof. Richard Sheppard #

    For more examples of Sebald’s use of dates involving 13, see Martine Carre’s book on Sebald of 2008 (Lyon, in French), p. 73.

    Richard Sheppard

    August 29, 2011
  5. So now Sebald is an apostle of the apocalypse, engaging in ‘the mystical mathematics of heaven’, in his writing. However, seeing no mention of the year 2000 here, my understanding of maths makes the year 2013 as being 23 years away from 1990 not 13 years.

    August 30, 2011
    • Kevin, Thanks for catching my mathematical error. There’s a reason I ended up in the arts and not in science… I fixed the post so that the difference between 2013 and 1990 is, indeed, twenty three years. I don’t know whether it qualifies as a superstition, but Sebald clearly harbored an affinity for certain numbers.

      August 30, 2011
  6. Terry, if it really is the case that Sebald had an affinity to numbers (you’re the expert there) it would be a further neat connection to Browne with his Pythagorean inclinations and well worth developing.

    Will Self’s observations on Sebald are invaluable. I wonder whether we will meet if the UEA holds any Sebald events in December ? Keep you posted there! Cheers!

    August 30, 2011
  7. There are similar numbers (which I can’t recall now) that show up repeatedly in Cormac McCarthy’s novels. These apocalypse-mongers are apparently number obsessed.

    November 12, 2011

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