The German writer WG Sebald, who died in a car accident in 2001 at the age of 57, left behind a slender body of complex work that is even more intricate – and troubling – than it first looks, as Carole Angier’s extraordinary biography makes plain.
He first appeared in English in 1996 with The Emigrants, which obliquely addressed the Holocaust, a preoccupation of all Sebald’s books, via the juxtaposition of four memoirish narratives about Jewish or part-Jewish men living in the aftermath of antisemitic violence. In The Rings of Saturn, which became a bible to the psychogeography movement, the Belgian Congo and the siege of Nanking were among a dizzying array of subjects haunting the narrator’s walking tour of Suffolk.
But it was Austerlitz, published in English three months before his death, ultimately his most novel-like novel, centred on a former Kindertransport child’s quest for his origins, that did most to introduce Anglo-American readers to his signature style: the rolling, run-on paragraphs that, broken only by the regular interruption of captionless photos, flit between the encounters, memories and dreams of a Sebald-like narrator who operates as a kind of ambulant sensorium, hyper-alert to forgotten (or ignored) traces of past bloodshed. In The Rings of Saturn, a digression on the silkworm’s arrival in Europe from China, proves to be the prelude to a discussion of the importance of silk cultivation under the Third Reich, the point being that horror is everywhere if you know how to look.
While that gloomy sensibility got him parodied in Private Eye, Angier has no truck with mockery. The daughter of Viennese Jews, she’s grateful for what she sees as the guilt that motivates his work – it’s “how all people should feel who live through a terrible time” – and she takes with utmost seriousness the unshakable sense of dissonance that seems to have dawned on Sebald once he understood what else had been happening in 1940s Germany during his peaceful Catholic boyhood in the Bavarian Alps.
Yet her biography is far from reverential. Angier, revealingly, shows how Sebald, who lectured at universities in Manchester and Norwich, was essentially unfit for academia, not merely because his instinct when writing about Friedrich Hölderlin was (as he told a friend) to visit the poet’s former home rather than bone up on the latest scholarship, but because of his alarming readiness to invent footnotes and sources.
In literature, such shenanigans earn you the tag “Nabokovian” rather than, say, “charlatan”, but Angier nonetheless suggests they sit ill with the weight of Sebald’s subjects. In The Rings of Saturn, a double-page image of bodies at Bergen-Belsen appears in the middle of a description of an article from a Norfolk newspaper about the death, at 77, of a British army major, George Wyndham Le Strange, who liberated the camp. The article was invented, Angier finds, and yet it seems so authentic: not just because Sebald inserts a photo of the extremely plausible-looking clipping (which he typed himself), but, more troublingly, because of that intervening image from Belsen.
Angier probes the implications of this aesthetic – a kind of analogue deepfake – for Sebald’s treatment of the suffering that he so urgently sought to acknowledge. In The Emigrants, the narrator stays at the home of an English village doctor, Henry Selwyn, who at length reveals how, as a Jewish child in 1899, he fled a pogrom in Lithuania. In later years, he takes his own life, an event the reader can’t help but see as determined by the traumatic history that the doctor had long kept hidden, even from his wife.
Interviewing the family of Sebald’s model for Selwyn, who was actually born in Cheshire and “didn’t have a Jewish bone in his body”, Angier finds, unsurprisingly, that they object to his use of his suicide (which was real) as a symbolic response to the genocide of Jewish people – they simply don’t think it makes sense to falsify material related to the Holocaust, given the virulence of denial.
It wasn’t the case, as Sebald said, that he sought permission from his sources as a principle. The painter Frank Auerbach, who objected to a character based on him in The Emigrants, made Sebald revise the book’s first published version; Susi Bechhöfer, a Kindertransport child raised in Wales, complained that Austerlitz lifted material from her 1996 memoir, Rosa’s Child. Angier knows novelists plunder and embroider, but she knows too that in Sebald’s case his sins are doubled by his work’s nonfictional appearance, not least all those photos, which, as readers probably don’t expect, were scavenged from junk shops or manipulated with Tipp-Ex and repeat visits to the photocopier.
Angier wants to argue that Sebald put his invention in the service of showing people a horror they preferred not to see; at one point, she even wonders if Sebald’s consistent use of non-Jewish models for his Jewish characters represents a deliberate coded reference to “the elimination of Europe’s Jews”. At the same time, she doesn’t seek to shut down doubt over his violations or broader questions about the forms and limits of empathy, but it’s to her credit, I think, that she doesn’t try to settle the question of Sebald’s effects. Ultimately, the brilliance of her biography, a spectacularly agile work of criticism as well as a feat of doggedly meticulous research, lies in Angier’s ability to look her subject straight in the eye while holding on to the sense of adoration that made her want to write it in the first place.