WG Sebald’s mother Rosa once said that her son had been born without a skin, so that he was unable to protect himself from being overwhelmed by the suffering of others, and even normal experience was traumatic for him. For Carole Angier, author of this unauthorised biography, something about this acute sensitivity made Sebald “the most exquisite writer”, a man oppressed by experience and the burden of his mind, who believed that the remembering of great injustices was an attempt, however small, at what he called “restitution”.
In Janet Malcolm’s memorable dictum, biographers are burglars, robbing the lives of their subjects. But what Angier realised, as she embarked on her own pattern of theft, was that she was dealing with the most light-footed of all burglars. For Sebald’s books, a mixture of history, fiction, memoir and biography, are also heavily stolen from friends, family and acquaintances, leaving many of them furious and aggrieved. As Peter Jonas, former director of the English National Opera and a close friend of Sebald’s, put it: “He wasn’t just a listener. He was a recording machine.”
Angier’s task was not an easy one. The fact that Sebald’s wife and daughter wanted his life to remain private, which meant that she could quote only very little of his letters or even his published work, was clearly a huge drawback. The intimate life is inevitably sketchy. To compensate, she has done a meticulous job of research, both in Germany, where Sebald was born, and in England, where he lived for much of his adult life, interviewing hundreds of friends and colleagues, scrutinising every scrap of his voluminous writings, and unearthing the identity of many of the characters whose stories he used. She visited every place he ever lived or spent any time in and delved into the backgrounds of his many friends. She quotes another dictum of Malcolm’s: “We do not own the facts of our lives … this ownership passes out of our hands at birth, at the moment we are first observed.” The result, if somewhat overlong, is fascinating. As she says, biography is a question of joining holes together, and her skills as a joiner are formidable.
Sebald was born on the southern edge of Bavaria in May 1944. He had two sisters, Gertrud and Beate, both of whom talked at length to Angier. His father returned from the war when he was three, and their relationship was never good; as he grew up, Sebald saw in him everything he hated about the generation who had accepted the Nazis. By contrast, he loved and was largely brought up by his grandfather, who taught him to read, to love stories and to look closely at nature.
Until he was 40, Sebald’s work lay in academia, first as a schoolteacher, later as a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, where he founded a prestigious centre for literary translation, and where students found his seminars more like conversations than lessons – challenging, subversive and humorous. He told them that they should steal all they could from the world around them. His papers, most of them on German writers and intellectuals, infuriated the academic establishment with their provocative assertions and cavalier attitude towards orthodox critical methods.
But then, in the early 1990s, came The Emigrants, the first of his books to be translated into English, greeted by Susan Sontag in the TLS as “an astonishing masterpiece”. A collection of stories, based closely on real people, it introduced readers to what would be Sebald’s unique style: characters that are a composite of many people, drawing on conversations, readings, memories and plundered secrets, mixed up, embroidered, illustrated by grainy black and white photographs that might be relevant, but seldom are. He credited no one, because that, he said, would reduce what he was trying to do, which was to write fiction, behind which stood real people. It was, he told Angier in the one interview she had with him, an act of homage, “tipping his hat to artists with whom he felt affinity”. These included Franz Kafka, Friedrich Hölderlin and Vladimir Nabokov, whose Speak, Memory was one of his favourite books.
In the beautiful but despairing books that followed – The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo and Austerlitz – these gestures of homage continued and with them the themes that define his books: the memory of the genocide of the Jews in a Germany torn between denial of the past and determination to come to terms with it, and the wartime bombing of German cities. It made Sebald’s books unlike any others, in their fascination with coincidences, the way things hang together in forms we don’t expect or understand, their mixture of genres and use of language, and his conviction that literature has to be an ethical activity, inseparable from questions of moral value. They deal with oppression, persecution, war, loss, but never overtly with politics, and his characters are people who have been cast adrift, who feel they have taken wrong paths and misspent their lives. Angier further suggests that the books all reflect Sebald’s deep interest in that which lies beyond our grasp, somewhere between the past and the present, between the living and the dead, reality and dream. As the central character in Austerlitz puts it: “I have always felt I had no place in reality, as if I were not there at all.” People who read his books never forget them.
And if in the process not everyone was happy to see themselves and their intimate lives and secrets portrayed and transmogrified into composites, well, Angier argues, “every great writer who has ever lived is ruthless”.
As part of her exhaustive research, Angier examined the voluminous working papers that Sebald left. They revealed a man of obsessive, agonising concentration over every detail, a writer who revised, rewrote, revised again. The drafts for The Rings of Saturn ran to 2,000 pages, from which he distilled 400. Going through them allowed her to follow the workings of Sebald’s mind, as he cut, expanded, borrowed and transposed, reimagined scenes and set biographical puzzles. This same minute concern carried over into the translations of his books, which also ran to many drafts, and in which he restored and rewrote passages. He spent 350 hours with the translator of The Rings of Saturn. Not surprisingly, relations with his translators were not always smooth.
Sebald’s nature, as it emerges from Angier’s book, was, even as a boy, anxious, gloomy, passionate and clever, and he was desperate to control the world around him. He was, and remained all his life, very alone. Photographs show his long face brooding. He was much loved by his friends, but could be sharp and cutting. He was a depressive, with spells when he feared that he was crossing “the line from melancholy to madness”. One of the few bright spells in his life seems to have been a late friendship – an affair? – with a woman he had known as a boy and who he met again towards the end of his life. The Sebald glimpsed in their encounters is playful, capable of private jokes and light-hearted pleasure. During her one meeting with him, Angier found him “kind, gloomy and funny”, honest about himself and his parents, but “about his work he … spun me a tale”.
Though only in his late 50s when he died, Sebald had long been unwell with bad migraines and back pain. Friends noted that he was breathless and suspected heart trouble, but he refused to see a doctor. Always easily distracted, over the years he had had many minor car accidents. On 14 December 2001, driving his daughter near Norwich, he turned into the path of a lorry. His daughter was largely unhurt. Sebald died instantly, probably, the coroner concluded, of a heart attack.
In her long and scholarly book, a testament to the powers of research and detailed dissection, Angier has presented a remarkable portrait of a writer consumed by work, a man who fashioned, out of his own considerable erudition and culture, his imagination and his empathy, a kind of writing that was entirely his own. Speak, Silence will certainly turn readers back to the four great books that made him one of the most famous German writers of modern times. Sebald’s genius, she writes, was to “see the fiction in facts”.