CAROLE ANGIER Speak, Silence: In search of WG Sebald. Reviewed by Michael Jongen
Carole Angier’s biography of writer WG Sebald examines his German origins, English exile, and his hugely influential books.
In the preface to Speak, Silence, Carole Angier addresses the difficulties of writing Sebald’s biography when so many significant aspects of his life remain hidden. She talks about these gaps and why she has persisted in her task, choosing to focus on Sebald’s best-known work, his four books of uncategorisable prose: Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz.
Are they fiction or nonfiction? Are they travel writing, essays, books of history or natural history, biography, autobiography, encyclopedias of arcane facts? His first British publisher, Christopher MacLehose, was so unsure that he listed The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo under three genres: fiction, travel and history.
Angier is the daughter of Jewish refugees who escaped from Nazism and admits her fascination with Sebald’s writing on the tragedy of the Holocaust, and his role as the German writer who most profoundly took on the burden of German guilt.
Sebald was born in the south of Bavaria in 1944 and grew up with a feeling of emptiness, imagining there had been a ‘silent catastrophe’ that no one would tell him about. This feeling was so pervasive that he had no knowledge of the Holocaust, or the Allied fire-bombings of Nuremberg and other German cities, for the first 12 years of his life. People did not speak of Jews either at home or at school. It was this silence that he was compelled to explore as a writer. At 17 he learned about the concentration camps when a film was shown at his school and, like many of his contemporaries, he began to question what his father had done during the war. He also became aware of the silence about the Allied bombings, and the belief that Germans could not complain because what they had countenanced was so much worse.
As Angier takes us through Sebald’s early life, she refers to him as Winfried, but switches to Max, the name he gave himself as an adult, to show how he used his life to build his fiction, including his use of family photographs in his four great prose works. She shows how his characters were formed by the people around him, and how he took their stories and made them his own. This appropriation did not prevent a certain resentment from the people who grew up around him in Wertach (where he was born) and Sonthofen (where he grew up).
Sebald’s sister Gertrud describes how ‘Vertigo was a catastrophe for my mother.’ It had been assumed that Sebald would write a historical novel about the town where he had spent his first few years, but his mother Rosa wasn’t prepared for how he told fictions about some people and revealed the secrets of others. She was upset and understood how people in her village would see this as a betrayal and blame her. According to Gertrud, Rosa never returned to her village. Angier notes that ‘practical Wertach forgave his trespasses’ and utilised his fame as a tourist asset, but Sonthofen never acknowledged the connection nor raised any monument to its most famous citizen.
A pivotal moment in Sebald’s adolescence – and that of his generation – was his school’s screening of Billy Wilder’s film about the death camps. Sebald says this was the moment that he became aware of what had happened to the Jews under Hitler’s regime. In an interview decades later, Sebald said:
‘I can’t exactly remember how I reacted. Naturally, normal life went on, but these experiences lay down a sediment in you, that somehow moves on, pushes itself on, like the moraine in front of a glacier.’
That is: trauma cannot be recognised at the time or remembered afterwards, but grows slowly and inexorably inside you. That is what happened to him with that mountain of bodies. And that is what he would write about.
The conflict with his father, who was absent in the early years of his life due to being a soldier in the Wehrmacht, became stronger, and he left his Catholic faith. Angier also refers to Sebald’s fear that he may have been homosexual, and it appears that he had a breakdown ‘between his sixteenth and eighteenth years’. She suggests it was a deep depression that he managed to cover up and others did not notice. However, for the rest of his life he would be subject to this melancholy and occasional anxiety and panic attacks.
Angier hypothesises that Sebald’s burning to be a writer started at University in Freiburg, and the chapters on his undergraduate life are fascinating as she looks at the friendships he built there and their lifelong influence on him. He regarded the current academic approach to modern German literary history as ‘a branch of scholarship stricken with almost premeditated blindness’.
Sebald had believed that university would be different, that the conspiracy of silence would be over. However, as he learned, the professors had been appointed in Nazi days or immediately afterwards, and were tainted by the association. Angier reminds us in these chapters that Sebald was an unreliable interviewee and that these thoughts may be the product of hindsight; there is little contemporary evidence that Sebald thought this way. Nonetheless he left the university without sitting his final exams. This effectively meant that he would never have an academic career at a German university; he would always be an outsider.
Instead, Sebald finished his degree at the University of Freiburg in Switzerland, where he felt free and relaxed and enjoyed life as an expatriate not responsible for the country in which he lived. He shared a flat with his sister and her husband, a native of Freiburg, and their child. He wandered the town and the flea markets where he developed his practice of collecting postcards and obscure photographs.
While at Freiburg he applied for a junior academic post at Manchester University and was accepted. And so Sebald began to adjust to life as an academic exile. He wondered whether he would be able to write convincingly of his country, or whether escaping his origins would produce worthless work. At this time, for obscure reasons, he decided to change his name from Winfried to Max, and teased colleagues and interviewers who asked about it.
His first major thesis was on Junker values, and on Sternheim, a half-Jewish playwright popular in the early twentieth century. Sebald judged Sternheim for abandoning his Jewish heritage while simultaneously taking on the role of Prussian nobility.
Whether Winfried’s assessment of Sternheim was right or wrong is not very important. What is important is how his first major academic work seems to contain his whole future practice. It is polemical and extreme to the point of exaggeration, designed to attack and provoke the Germanist establishment; it focuses strongly on the author’s biography; and perhaps most important of all, it insists that literature, and literary criticism itself, are ethical activities, and inseparable from questions of moral value. Judging literary works apart from the values they embody is as false as judging them apart from the history and society from which they emerge.
Angier points out that Sebald was pushing against established academic rules by putting history and biography at the heart of literary criticism. Many of Sebald’s suspicions about the Germanist establishment were subsequently proven after the long silence of the 1950s and early 1960s. Sebald’s passions and subjectivity could have been his undoing, but in the 1960s and 1970s universities were much more tolerant of quirkiness and rule-breaking.
In 1966 Sebald began teaching German language and conversation at the University of Manchester. Although he went back to Germany several times to see about work in academia there, he remained in England until his death in December 2001.
He wrote his four most significant books between 1990 and 2001. His childhood and adolescence led to the writer he would become as an expatriate in England, and his distance from his friends, family and Germanist academia gave him the space to meticulously construct his visions.
This biography helps us to understand Sebald’s psychology and how it affected his writing and the prism through which he saw his own life. Important people in his life, including his wife, chose not speak to Angier, although others such as his sister Gertrud did.
Angier has constructed a marvellous literary biography, opining, conjecturing and building Sebald’s own story to show its influence on his four major books. It is a great work of literary detection and fascinating for anyone who has read Sebald. The intricacies of the changes that Sebald made to the stories that came to him, and his subtle plotting, made for exquisite writing of an almost unique character about some of the worst moments of the twentieth century.
Carole Angier Speak, Silence: In search of WG Sebald Bloomsbury 2021 640pp HB $59.99
Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.
If you’d like to help keep the Newtown Review of Books a free and independent site for book reviews, please consider making a donation. Your support is greatly appreciated.