by Carole Angier (Bloomsbury Publishing, 870 pp., $24.49)
The author W. G. Sebald is a hard man to know. Reading his books is an extraordinary literary experience; they are intriguing and disturbing and stay with you for a long time. The four most important of them are The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, Austerlitz, and The Emigrants. These books all touch on human destinies and feature characters who emigrate, as Sebald did himself. Sebald also writes about the unsaid—the Holocaust and those who died.
To help us understand Sebald, we now have Speak, Silence: In Search of W. G. Sebald, Carole Angier’s new unauthorized biography. Born in Germany during the Second World War, Sebald emigrated to England in his twenties and never returned to live in the land of his birth. Tragically, twenty years ago he suffered a heart attack while driving and died in a crash. Only two of his relatives, sisters Gertrud and Beate, consented to speak to Angier. She was left with a giant puzzle.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
Speak, Silence plays on the title of Vladimir Nabokov’s book, Speak, Memory, but whereas Nabokov writes about what he remembers from his childhood and youth, the life of Sebald is covered by a carpet of smoke—ironic, given that Sebald’s books are all about excavating things in the past. Angier follows Sebald’s recipe of mixing genres and merges Sebald’s fiction with the few pieces of information that she can get hold of. Sebald himself likely would not have appreciated Angier’s unearthing of facts where he had chosen to remain silent.
Little Winfried Sebald—soon Max, as he preferred to be called—who moved from Wertach in Bavaria to the neighboring town Sonthofen and later to East Anglia, steps into the light in the pages of Angier’s book. Like Sebald himself, Angier uses photographs, but unlike Sebald’s imagery, we know exactly who is pictured and when and where the images are from. Angier solves the puzzle of Sebald by meticulously reading Sebald’s books, talking to his friends and former acquaintances, and visiting the places that Sebald wrote about or resided in. Her work is impressive, and the result is that many pieces of Sebald’s life and writings are tied together. She has made the silence speak. Sebald did reveal important stories about his family, relatives and friends in his works, and Angier helps us get a clearer picture of why Sebald started writing, how he perceived his background, the Germans during the war, and how managed to create great literature.
In revealing where Sebald’s stories come from and who his characters were in real life, Angier’s research can be disturbing. People who believe they recognize themselves in fiction usually react negatively. Sebald recieved many adverse reactions to his work, especially from neighbors in the village he came from and from friends and acquaintances in England. They tend to forget that Sebald’s world is literary, not documentary. For instance, in The Emigrants, retired English doctor Henry Selwyn lives in a big house called Prior’s Gate. However, the fictional place is based on a real house called Abbotsford in East Anglia’s Wymondham, owned by Sebald’s good friend Philip Rhoades Buckton. But while Selwyn was a Jewish emigrant from Lithuania, Buckton is English–subverting the Jewishness that is central to Selwyn’s character.
Angier, herself a daughter of a Jewish refugee from Nazism, states that it is wrong to see the Jewish and German tragedy of the Holocaust as the sole focus of Sebald’s work, but her statement that the Holocaust was Sebald’s tragedy as a German rings true. He apparently harbored guilt for it even though he was only a baby during World War II. His father, meanwhile, was fighting for Hitler without asking questions.
Walter Benjamin has said, “Every great writer creates a new genre.” Sebald belongs to this exclusive group. He is impossible to categorize. Does he write fiction, non-fiction, documentary, travelogues, or biographies? It often appears uncertain, but what is not in dispute is that Sebald creates fabulous art. He is a master at paring his initially voluminous writings back to the most fascinating parts, and he layers his literary world with a visual one, illustrating his books with photographs of people, sketches, and small drawings.
My reading of Sebald started with The Rings of Saturn, which contains four long, strange stories. The book came into being thanks to Sebald’s writing down stories and memories other people told him along with those he experienced himself. Lonely, sad, disturbing destinies are illustrated with black and white photographs. Sebald takes the reader on long walks, wanderings in memories, history, and coincidences. He is the narrator, and it feels as if he is always present. This is not unusual for an author or an artist, but Sebald does it with elegance and excellent prose. He combines stories and changes and borrows when needed; the reader gets drawn into his universe, which comes across as entirely credible and natural.
The essence of Sebald’s fused literary approach is found in the story about Austerlitz, a seven-year-old German-Jewish boy sent to England during the war to live with Welsh foster parents. Whereas Sebald himself wanted to remember the unjust and inhumane actions during the war and the Germans’ participation in it all, Austerlitz completely erases from his mind all that has happened to him before he was seven, in order to avoid information that might remind him of where he came from and what happened to his family who stayed behind.
In The Emigrants, the first of the short stories is about Paul Bereyter, a composite of people Sebald knows, notably his own primary school teacher, Armin Müller. Paul commits suicide in the book, a tragedy stemming from his losing work under the Nuremberg Laws because he had Jewish ancestors.
Another story in The Emigrants is about Ambros Adelwarth, a character based on Sebald’s own great uncle. Throughout the decades of his life covered in the book, we never know if he is homosexual or not. Ambros ends his life in a mental institution in the United States. Angier writes, “For Ambros that danger [of homosexuality] has changed to flourishing until his love is lost. Thus by ‘Adelwarth’ homosexuals have become like Jews: victims of the cruel German past, who deserves empathy, not hatred and fear.”
Vertigo is also a book of wanderings, which interestingly ends in Sebald’s hometown in Bavaria. These wanderings are like the Odyssey—fiction, often in a dream world, but they manage to connect with the reader as highly relevant and authentic. Vertigo was the most recent book by Sebald that I read, and I might say, the most difficult. At least for the book’s first three stories, before Sebald takes us to his home town “Il ritorno in patria,” set many years after he left. In Vertigo’s last story, he offers an intriguing observation: “The more images I gather 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, the appalling.”
It’s an enjoyable journey to embark on Sebald’s books before reading Carole Angier’s biography, which enriches our understanding and appreciation of Sebald and his literature. The stories don’t lose their magic or attraction; instead, they become even more interesting with the additional context of Sebald’s life and his literary universe. Sebald never received the Nobel Prize in Literature, but many have thought him highly deserving of it.
Mathilde Fasting is a project manager and fellow at Civita, a Norwegian think tank dedicated to liberal ideas, institutions, and policies based on individual liberty and personal responsibility.
Image: The Visit - Couple and Newcomer, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1922, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
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