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W.G. Sebald is probably the most revered German writer of the second half of the 20th century. His best-known books — “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn,” “Austerlitz,” published here between 1997 and 2001 — are famously difficult to categorize.
Carole Angier, the author of a new biography, “Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald,” likes to refer to them, borrowing from the writer Michael Hamburger, as “essayistic semi-fiction.” I prefer a comment from one of Sebald’s students, who said that his otherworldly sentences resemble “how the dead would write.”
His themes — the burden of the Holocaust, the abattoir-like crush of history in general, the end of nature, the importance of solitude and silence — are sifted into despairing books that can resemble travel writing of an existential sort.
His are fogbound fictions that leave themselves open to allegations of tediousness and pretension. It’s tempting to call him a “catatonic expressionist,” like Slab, the itinerant artist in Thomas Pynchon’s novel “V.”
Yet Sebald has a philosophical élan and transmits a worldly melancholy; his fictions read like prolonged hallucinations. He sounds like no one else, which is interesting, because one of the takeaways from Angier’s biography is how much Sebald plundered from unwitting others.
“Speak, Silence” is the first full biography of Sebald (1944-2001). It can’t have been easy to write. Angier, who has published lives of Primo Levi and Jean Rhys, was denied permission to quote from Sebald’s many letters and other privately held sources, and was limited in her ability to quote directly from her subject’s work.
Sebald’s widow, the former Ute Rosenbauer, refused to cooperate. In reprisal, Angier doesn’t print Ute’s name in the book until the acknowledgments page, and does not list her in the index. Ute and the daughter (unnamed in the book) she had with Sebald in 1972 essentially don’t exist in this biography, exaggerating the sense we have of Sebald’s isolation.
This book cannot have been easy to write for other reasons. Sebald was a serial dissembler about nearly every aspect of his life and work. One example: He went by the name “Max” as an adult, telling people it was his third, or sixth, name. It wasn’t. He made it up.
He stole ruthlessly, from Kafka, Wittgenstein and countless others, to the extent that some of his books are nearly collages. Like Montaigne, he seemed not to count his borrowings but to weigh them. He put people he knew into his work and infuriated many of them, causing, in just one instance, his mother to lose her friends. More problematically, Sebald pushed past the moral dangers inherent in a German writer appropriating Jewish stories.
To create the character of Jacques Austerlitz, for example, the architectural historian in “Austerlitz” who finds out later in life that he is Jewish, having been delivered to London at age 4 by Kindertransport, Sebald took many key details from a memoir titled “Rosa’s Child,” by Susi Bechhöfer.
She responded by publishing an essay titled “Stripped of My Tragic Past by a Best-Selling Author.” She wanted Sebald to acknowledge his debt to her book. It’s unclear if he would have done so, but he died before the issue could be settled.
Angier, the daughter of Jewish refugees who fled Nazism, walks a tightrope on Sebald’s appropriations. He was, she writes, “the German writer who most deeply took on the burden of German responsibility for the Holocaust.” He transmuted his borrowings into lasting art.
Sebald was born in the German village of Wertach, in the Bavarian Alps. His father had fought in Hitler’s army, and young Winfried, as he was known then, despised him.
His father prized order and cleanliness. Winfried would intentionally cut a corner off a stick of butter just to infuriate him. He’d stare at his father and wriggle his fingers under his nose, like Charlie Chaplin’s parody of Hitler.
Young Winfried was handsome and charismatic, but there were seeds of his later melancholy. He learned while in his teens that he had a heart defect. He dabbled with theater and student journalism while in college, and went into academia.
He liked to tell his students to think carefully before becoming a writer, because you will be miserable if you do write, and more miserable if you don’t. He didn’t work seriously and systematically on his nonacademic writing until he was in his 40s.
Writing was difficult for Sebald; he felt beaten up after a day at his typewriter. He tended to feel pummeled in general. He suffered from psoriasis, kidney pain, migraines, back issues, temporary loss of eyesight. He looked older than he was.
If intimations of death were constant, he sometimes had a sense of humor about them. He told a late-life lover, Angier writes, “that if somebody rang whom he didn’t recognize,” to tell them “he was in the middle of committing suicide.”
He had many phobias. Fire was one. The first thing he did in hotels was to check the placement of fire escapes. He also had a phobia about being boring.
Sebald became an international figure after his work was championed by Susan Sontag. Rereading his books in bulk recently, I found many winning moments, yet I was reminded of the friend who told me that the library in hell will be comprised solely of books Sontag has championed.
Sebald was a terrible, easily distracted driver. He’d veer off the road while telling a story, or while looking at roadside flowers. This book compiles lists of his accidents. The crash that finally killed him, some have suggested, might have been a suicide.
Angier’s book is ungainly at times, and oddly structured. It escapes, for sure, what the biographer Michael Holroyd called “the prison of chronology.” Readers not already familiar with Sebald’s work will find her synopses of his books difficult to parse. But her biography acquires a stubborn dignity.
When Sebald was a child, his beloved grandfather liked to tell him, with a straight face, that a truck was coming to deliver the holes for the Emmentaler cheese. Angier has stared down a writer whose life, in many ways, remains a similar container-box of holes.
If future biographies will surely have more to say, Angier has persisted, and written an intelligent and intuitive book about a writer who, like certain mountains, has his own weather, and whose career remains a contested site.