Biography is always a matter of joining holes together, like a net, for reasons that W. G. Sebald’s own work explores: the fallibility of memory, the death or disappearance of witnesses, the dubious role of the narrator. All these reasons must exercise any biographer. But Sebald’s biographer more than most. For the holes in the net of this story are many.
The central absence is his family life, because his widow wishes to keep this private. Without her permission, his words from privately held sources, such as certain letters, cannot be quoted, only paraphrased. Even his published words, in books and interviews, can be quoted only within the limits laid down by the law.
There are other gaps as well. For instance, I write about Sebald’s four great prose books, but less about his academic writing and his poetry. There are excellent books on both by the scholar Uwe Schütte; so far they are available only in German, but I hope one day we will have them in English.
There are gaps, too, about an important friendship and about Sebald’s work with his last English editor, because both the friend and the editor preferred not to speak to me. I regret these, but not as much as the last and greatest silence, which takes us back to the first. It is the question why, despite a long and loyal marriage, despite devotion to his daughter, he was always alone. His books are so full of this aloneness that some critics scoff at it—why is every street, every landscape, so improbably empty? But really it was no laughing matter. Like his pessimism—which critics with more fortunate dispositions also question—his essential solitude was with him for most of his life. It coexisted with his charm, his humor, his deep empathy, but it could leap out at any moment and fix him in its icy grip. When he was young it leapt out rarely, with the closest friends and relatives of his youth not at all, but as time went on it took him over more and more. So that he felt for many years—the years of his writing—deeply alone, and the people he loved must have felt alone as well.
Why on earth, with these limitations, did I persist? I persisted because W. G. Sebald is the most exquisite writer I know; because I accept his widow’s right to protect her privacy and his, but not to stop any inquiry whatsoever into the roots of his writing; because I am as stubborn as the next person. But the main reason I would not give up writing his biography is a limitation of my own.
Readers of Sebald increasingly agree that it is wrong to see the Jewish and German tragedy of the Holocaust as the sole focus of his work: the darkness of his vision extends much further, to the whole of human history, to nature itself. That is true. But here is my limitation: I am the daughter of Jewish refugees from Nazism. It was the fact that Sebald was the German writer who most deeply took on the burden of German responsibility for the Holocaust that first drew me to him, and it is still one of the things that most amaze and move me about his work. He didn’t want to be labeled a “Holocaust writer” and I don’t call him one here. But though the Holocaust was far from the only tragedy he perceived, it was his tragedy, as a German, the son of a father who had fought in Hitler’s army without question. It was also my tragedy, as the daughter of Viennese Jews who had barely escaped with their lives. I think it is right to see the Holocaust as central to his work. But if I make it too central, that is why.
W. G. Sebald is famous for many things apart from the sheer quality of his prose, and for identifying more powerfully with Germany’s victims than any other German writer. What he is most famous for is that his books are uncategorizable. 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. (He would really have liked to list them under four, but three was the maximum allowed.) And no one has been sure ever since. Eventually, scholars and critics—and even publishers and booksellers—accepted something surprising but true: Sebald had invented a new genre, balanced somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. And many younger writers have followed his lead, from Robert Macfarlane in Britain to Teju Cole in the United States to Stephan Wackwitz in Germany, and many more besides. Every great writer creates a new genre, said Walter Benjamin. The twentieth-century writer who best passes that crazy test is W. G. Sebald.
The second-most famous thing about him is the main way he achieved this balance between fiction and nonfiction: by placing photographs and documents throughout his work. When you first open a Sebald book it looks like a biography: there are not only photographs of Edward FitzGerald and Roger Casement but also of Paul Bereyter and Ambros Adelwarth, and of Jacques Austerlitz on his cover. Or else it looks like an autobiography, with photographs of Sebald leaning against a tree in The Rings of Saturn, or with his face struck through in a cancelled passport picture in Vertigo. And it reads like autobiography, too, with the narrator following almost exactly W. G. Sebald’s path through life, from birth in a South German village to living in Norfolk and teaching at an English university.
There is no problem with Fitzgerald or Casement, or—as far as the photographs go—with Sebald. And at first there seems no problem with Bereyter or Adelwarth or Austerlitz either. Their photographs bring us closer to them than words—even Sebald’s words—can do. The encounter with their flesh-and-blood presence adds something immeasurable to their stories. It is as though we can look, if we can bear it, straight into their eyes.
But then we read the next story, and the next, and we begin to wonder. The stories are so doomed, so fatal, with their obsessive portrayal of suffering, mental and physical: this is beyond mere observation; it is a vision of life, or, rather, of death. Then you notice, too, how literary they are, with constant echoes of other writers, and how Vertigo is held together by a motif from Kafka, The Emigrants by the image of Nabokov. Those two works, then, are fiction, and so are all the others. There were models for all the characters, from Dr. Henry Selwyn to Austerlitz, but they were changed and combined by Sebald into fictional creations. And at this point something strange happens. Those photographs and documents that made them all so real to us—what are we to make of them now? If the characters are fictions, who are the photographs of ? And suddenly they flip. Where first they created an extraordinary closeness, now they create distance; instead of feeling intensely with the people pictured, we’re asking, Who are you? Precisely the technique Sebald adopted to make his creations real to us now makes us more aware they’re not real than if we had simply been left to imagine them, as in a normal novel. This is a circle he cannot escape from, like several others in his life. And my book traps him in it. If you read him without questioning, and are moved—that is his main aim. I remind you of the truth. That is the job of the biographer. It’s why writers don’t want biographers, and I know Sebald wouldn’t want me. But I would say to him, You’re wrong. You always wanted people to believe your stories. But they will believe them more, not less, when they know the truth.
It is not only the relationship of the subjects and their photos that is a game of smoke and mirrors. It is also the relationship of Sebald and his narrator—and even the relationship of Sebald to his interviewers.
I interviewed him soon after The Emigrants was published in Britain. He was kind, gloomy, and funny; he told me many things in his excellent English, slowly and seriously, and I believed every word. But doing the research for his biography, I saw that I’d been wrong. He had been honest about himself, and shockingly honest about his parents, but about his work he had spun me a tale. Which I published in my interview, and which has been repeated as a fact ever since. So I’ve made one of the holes in the biographical net myself. That would amuse him, at least.
Carole Angier was born in London and spent her early years in Canada. She returned to England, where she taught English literature and philosophy, including eight years’ work for the Open University. Her biography of Jean Rhys was published to critical acclaim in 1990 and she subsequently published an equally acclaimed biography of Primo Levi in 2002. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Copyright © 2021 by Carole Angier. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury. Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald is out on October 5.