Speak, Silence: In Search of WG Sebald

Carole Angier

Bloomsbury, £30

Review by Hugh MacDonald

QUIET, brooding, depressive, WG Sebald was a writer who was both fuelled by passion and created it. He was, almost incidentally, a genius. His work is so extraordinary that bookshops did not know where to place his books. Should they be in non-fiction, travel or fiction?

The answer, of course, is fiction. Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz and The Emigrant adopt the pose of non-fiction, with photographs peppering the text, but Sebald was an innovator rather than a recorder.

There is mischief and downright larceny in his work. Sebald was adept at, er, borrowing from other authors and adapting other people’s lives to fit his narrative.

His specialist subject was metaphysics. This sounds pompous and will not have non-believers besieging the bookshelves in search of his work. But Sebald’s prodigious gift was to take matters from history, biography and a life of studying literature and spin it into something new and powerfully substantial.

He was entranced by memory, seduced by the mystery of time. He was obsessed by the horror of the Holocaust. He believed in fate. He suffered from all this and more.

A German, whose father served in the Wehrmacht, Sebald condemned the post-war silence over the “Final Solution” and was tireless in exposing those who took part in it.

Early reviews of Angier‘s impressive biography have concentrated understandably on this element of the story and the theory that Sebald’s drive to create was a result of his antipathy to his father.

Angier, though, is more thoughtful and insightful than merely to frank this case. This is a nuanced biography. Its subject contained multitudes. Angier investigates most and with remarkable results.

The major flaw is that Sebald’s wife did not co-operate with the biographer. This is especially frustrating when one of the lines of inquiry is Sebald’s seeming aversion to physical love. He formed close friendships with women but Angier never uses the term “lover”. Similarly, his books never describe sex between characters.

All this, of course, would matter little if the subject of repressed homosexuality had not been raised. Angier is judicious but it is certain that Sebald was inhabited by a force that chased him towards brilliance.

The price was heavy. He suffered from great anxiety and heavy depressions. His happiness was fleeting. Yet he was loved, even if he found love hard to reciprocate.

Most geniuses straddle the line between neurosis and genuine madness and Sebald crossed over to the darkest of sides on at least three occasions.

His work, though, is invigorating. I read the first page of the Rings of Saturn and decided immediately to buy everything he ever wrote. I have never regretted that decision.

He tackled the subject of life and death with an unremitting originality. The précis of a Sebald novel sounds grim. The reading of one produces wonder.

Angier explores his journey from Germany to East Anglia where he became an academic and finally an author of sublime gifts. Her research is exhaustive, her discoveries regularly enlightening and her conclusions consistently sound.

Yet Sebald resists capture in all his foibles, flaws and greatness. This escape, though, is to the credit of Angier. When she doesn’t know, she says she doesn’t know. She also, as a lover of Sebald’s work, knows that he defied definitive judgment. He could lie in an interview with the same facility with which he invented seemingly authentic histories on the page.

His truth, sincerely held, was in the greatness of art, though he sometimes doubted its resilience in the tides of history. In this, he has been vindicated. He died in 2001 in a car crash. Angier resurrects him. His books remain vibrant, vivid.

Sebald is thus a benign ghost. He may well have embraced that fate.