We look at this detailed and well researched biography of W. G. Sebald, written by Carole Angier. Published by Bloomsbury, see more on their website here.
Speak, Silence In Search of W. G. Sebald by Carole Angier, reviewed
At the beginning of the book the author, Carole Angier, gives lots of good reasons why she should perhaps not have written it. The main challenges are that many of the key people who could have shed real insights, including his wife, and many close associates to WG Sebald, refused to cooperate with Angier. This seemed disappointing, but, thankfully for Angier, it was not a reason to abandon her goal. WG Sebald is someone who is well worth a deep dive and writing a carefully researched book. His stories, when investigated and researched open up some potentially complex and problematic cans of worms.
Firstly it is important to acknowledge that Sebald created something beautiful and important even if it is slightly hard to categorise, and it perhaps even to praise unequivocally. Angier wrestles well with these dilemmas, as she explains well how so much of Sebald’s ‘fiction’ was often anything but. However it often has the strange twist that many of his ‘Jewish’ main characters have liberally borrowed from the real lives of non-Jewish people.
Overall it is accurate to say that Sebald wrestled with the German guilt of what was done by the Nazis to Jews and many other disliked minorities based on their deeply flawed concepts of racial purity. Angier captures a wide German collective post war denial of what had taken place. Many Germans wished to ‘just get on with their lives’, negating the fact that this was never going to be possible for those whose lives were destroyed by the Nazis themselves.
Sebald was born in 1944, so it was his parents’ generation which he looked to with confusion, dislike, hate, guilt and a desire to try and atone through his writing where possible. The challenges arise though when he appropriates other people’s stories and biographies to form the thinly, are barely even renamed characters in his books. Is this fair or right, or should he have at least acknowledged in his texts that he was doing this? Angier discusses this well, and this makes for an interesting and thought provoking book.
In many ways this crossing between fact and fiction and then creating a bended mix of the two reminded us of at least two other fabulists who have played fast and loose with truth and notions of what is permissible. One of these, Werner Herzog is mentioned briefly in the book, but we felt that Bruce Chatwin’s liberal plundering of other people’s stories was also reminiscent of that process that was happening in Sebald’s books too.
In many ways the text should always stand alone from the writer, ie that a book should be read and evaluated on it’s own merits, rather than being cross referenced with actual experiences in the author’s own life. With Sebald it raises the question however of what happens when the author has used other people’s live’s with free abandon and no acknowledgement. Angier also feels that she herself has been possibly manipulated by the author in an interview with him to plant further mistruths about the sources of his stories.
Maybe none of this matters if the writer has created transcendent art. The value of this book is that it inspires us to return to his four key works, Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. This is probably the mark of a great writer, that it offers, and rewards multiple readings of their work. Angier’s book succeeds in this regard and perhaps it will inspire those key players who didn’t speak to her, to subsequently add their insights and to corollate or correct our understanding of this talented writer.
More about the book
W. G. Sebald was one of the most extraordinary and influential writers of the twentieth century. Through books including The Emigrants, Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn, he pursued an original literary vision that combined fiction, history, autobiography and photography and addressed some of the most profound themes of contemporary literature: the burden of the Holocaust, memory, loss and exile.
The first biography to explore his life and work, Speak, Silence pursues the true Sebald through the memories of those who knew him and through the work he left behind. This quest takes Carole Angier from Sebald’s birth as a second-generation German at the end of the Second World War, through his rejection of the poisoned inheritance of the Third Reich, to his emigration to England, exploring the choice of isolation and exile that drove his work. It digs deep into a creative mind on the edge, finding profound empathy and paradoxical ruthlessness, saving humour, and an elusive mix of fact and fiction in his life as well as work. The result is a unique, ferociously original portrait.
More about the author
Carole Angier is the author of Jean Rhys: Life & Work (shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize) and The Double Bond: A Life of Primo Levi. She was educated at the universities of McGill, Oxford and Cambridge. She taught academic and life writing for many years and has edited several books of refugee writing. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
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