for newyorker.com, | November 20, 2021

W. G. Sebald, the Trickster

A new biography tries to uncover the real lives behind Sebald’s fiction. Do they help us understand him?

Read at newyorker.com

W. G. Sebald, the Trickster

A new biography tries to uncover the real lives behind Sebald’s fiction. Do they help us understand him?
Drawn portrait of W.G. Sebald the lines making up the left side of his face draw off the page like a river
Illustration by YONIL

When asked to categorize his books by genre, W. G. Sebald demurred. He called an early project a “prose work with pictures,” and his last, charmingly, “a prose book of an indeterminate kind.” Perhaps the poet Michael Hamburger put it best, when he praised his friend’s “essayistic semi-fiction, which gives rope to both observation and imagination.” If you stand back far enough, though, you could also call Sebald’s work biography. From the four exiles in “The Emigrants” to the reflections on posterity in “The Rings of Saturn,” from the formative travels of Stendhal and Kafka in “Vertigo” to the study of a Kindertransport child in “Austerlitz,” Sebald followed that tenuous silken weave, stretching through the chaos of history, that constitutes a life. He was a biographer in the literal sense: a life writer.

Each of those remarkable books, which Sebald published in the decade or so before his death, in 2001, takes a different form, moving from the concentration of poetry to the fluid expansiveness of a novel. But all of them are marked by the narrator’s stubborn quest to piece together his story. He’s compelled across borders and through archives, looking through old snapshots and postcards, newspaper clippings and diaries, many of which are reproduced on the page. Throughout, this narrator poses questions to the people he meets, in search of what, in Sebald’s long poem “After Nature” (2002), he called the “nervature of past life.” Sebald was less interested in memory itself than in the painful work of recollection. He was haunted by the upheavals of the twentieth century, above all the Holocaust, but, despite his aesthetic of facticity—the photos, dates, addresses—nowhere does he claim that the people he describes are real, or that he sticks to the facts of their lives.

Sebald’s genius was to see the “fiction in facts,” Carole Angier writes in “Speak, Silence,” the first major biography of the author. Angier sets out to find the facts in the fiction. Interspersing chapters on Sebald’s life with essays that dissect his books, Angier canvasses virtually everything Sebald ever said and wrote about his childhood, his family, and his career, with the same kitchen-sink exhaustiveness that marked her biographies of Jean Rhys and Primo Levi. “I remind you of the truth,” Angier writes in her introduction. “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.” As the defensive tone suggests, Angier didn’t write the book without a fight. For reasons that remain unclear, she was not allowed by Sebald’s estate to quote from a number of his personal papers; more important, Sebald’s widow, daughter, and final English editor were unwilling to talk. Sebald himself laid a number of false trails before his death, even lying, albeit subtly, to Angier’s face in a 1996 interview. “You always wanted people to believe your stories,” Angier writes. “But they will believe them more, not less, when they know the truth.” The question is: What does Angier mean by “truth”?

Winfried Georg Sebald was born on May 18, 1944, in the pastoral German village of Wertach, near the borders of Austria and Switzerland. “I’m a perfectly normal case,” Sebald once claimed, but “normal” meant something different in postwar Germany. Sebald’s father, Georg, had joined the German defense force in 1929, when he couldn’t find work, and was promoted to transport officer before ending up in a French prisoner-of-war camp. He returned in 1947, weighing little more than a hundred pounds, and brought an uncomfortable, sometimes violent military discipline to young Sebald’s life. The war, however, was never discussed—and the Holocaust never mentioned. Sebald’s childhood might as well have occurred in the nineteenth century. It was only in high school that he learned about the crimes of his “compatriots,” as he tended to call the Nazis, and began to notice a “conspiracy of silence” everywhere.

As a teen-ager, Sebald developed an anti-establishment attitude that would stay with him the rest of his life. He was “intense, handsome, romantic”; thanks to some family in America, we learn, he had the first jeans in town. He was also unhappy. Whether it was his German guilt that “broke” him, as Angier claims, or simply a melancholy disposition, he had to get away from home. He enrolled in university at Freiburg, and reinvented himself as Max. But even there, he recalled, “The ghosts of the Third Reich were still floating through the halls.” He transferred to the University of Fribourg, in Switzerland, and then earned a master’s degree at the University of Manchester. Sebald set down his roots in England around 1970, when, after completing his doctorate, he was offered a position at the University of East Anglia. Although repulsed by Germany’s postwar amnesia, he revelled in Norwich, where the countryside seemed pregnant with the past. He would teach there until his death, first German literature and language, and later creative writing.

Sebald’s academic persona was as outspoken as his literary one was subdued. He despised the way scholars of German literature ignored, “with almost premeditated blindness,” the lives of the authors they studied, and throughout his career he undertook what Angier calls a “guerrilla war against Germanistik.” For Sebald, you couldn’t read literature in a vacuum, and his German peers, so unwilling to confront their own history, were blind to the hypocrisy of the writers they praised. One example was the Jewish playwright Carl Sternheim, whose satires of the stolid German middle class, banned by the Nazis, were undergoing a revival in the early sixties. In his first critical stunt, Sebald viciously attacked the author, claiming that he had unwittingly adopted the bourgeois values he was sending up. Even more notorious was his takedown of the writer Alfred Andersch, who was celebrated for his resistance of Nazism but guilty, Sebald pointed out, of divorcing his half-Jewish wife to advance his career.

Sebald was producing socially conscious criticism in the tradition of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin; over time, his writing would increasingly resemble theirs, as he moved toward more speculative, essayistic modes. (With his round glasses and perpetual mustache, he also began to look, it must be said, an awful lot like Benjamin.) Sebald even wrote to Adorno to seek his opinion on his master’s dissertation, which would become his book on Sternheim. Adorno replied, and Sebald cited the letter in a footnote. Then he cited a second letter, dated May 17th—a letter that Adorno never sent. “Somewhere in Max Sebald lay . . . a deep compulsion to lie,” Angier writes. Whether we call it dishonesty, as Angier revealingly does, or a kind of dark humor, Sebald clearly had a more elastic conception of truth than his colleagues did.

Why Sebald started writing the books that would make him famous—though more outside Germany than within it—is the central mystery of his life. By his own account, the cause was a midlife crisis around the age of thirty-five; he also spoke of frustration with the strictures of academic work. Angier, pointing to a novel that Sebald wrote and shelved in his twenties, calls this narrative one of his “tallest tales,” but here, as in some of her other speculations, she doesn’t quite convince us that we shouldn’t believe him. For we can see the transition happen on the page, as his more imaginative criticism (in the soulful pieces collected in “A Place in the Country,” for example) shades into the half-literary, half-critical method we find in “After Nature” and “Vertigo.” With these searching long poems and prose sketches, Sebald was reaching for a different kind of writing—an antidote to the silence in German life, and to the hypocrisy in German literature, that drove him to the margins of his discipline.

A defining feature of Sebald’s voice is its unobtrusiveness, a manner that the writer Maria Stepanova compares to the way a “well-bred interlocutor in a train car conversation is always ready to turn away and look out the window.” His narrators are quiet and ambivalent, and live in the shadow of the Second World War. Like Jacques Austerlitz, the refugee, in “Austerlitz,” who’s driven to catalepsy by the burden of a forgotten past, they struggle with putting into words the experience of having their life determined by forces out of their control. “These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing,” Sebald writes in “The Emigrants.” In “Austerlitz,” his most fully realized book, the narrator’s voice is largely replaced by that of the protagonist; the questionable business of writing gives way to listening.

Should it bother us, then, to learn that there was no Jacques Austerlitz? In 2011, James Wood discovered in Sebald’s archive that the photograph on the cover of the book’s English edition—a little boy, dressed extravagantly in white, posing with fragile pride—was not a portrait of Sebald or Austerlitz, as was often assumed, but something Sebald bought in a junk shop for thirty pence. What’s more, the whole arc of Austerlitz’s life, and many of its details, was taken from a woman named Susi Bechhöfer, who had described her Kindertransport experience in a memoir published in 1996. Bechhöfer sought an acknowledgment in “Austerlitz,” and even wrote an op-ed in the London Times titled “Stripped of My Tragic Past by a Bestselling Author.” Sebald died before the matter could be settled.

Many people saw themselves or their family in Sebald’s characters, and not always in the way they would have liked, or in a way that makes us feel perfectly comfortable. He often turned Gentiles into Jews; when he stuck close to the facts, he almost never asked permission to use them. One of the central characters of “The Emigrants” is Dr. Henry Selwyn, a displaced Lithuanian Jew who shoots himself with a hunting rifle. This melancholy figure, Angier tells us, was based on a doctor named Philip Rhoades Buckton. When Angier went to meet his family, she discovered that they were resentful of how Buckton was portrayed, and felt that Sebald had appropriated his death. Frank Auerbach, one of two models for the painter Max Ferber, another principal in “The Emigrants,” was even more troubled by what Sebald had done, calling it “a narcissistic enterprise.” The author’s deep, even hypnotic identification with his subjects—what Angier calls his “imaginative sympathy”—might also be called theft, another instance of German plunder.

Yet Sebald’s stealing was so widespread as to constitute a method. Few authors’ work is so obviously a patchwork of other peoples’ words. As Angier notes, Sebald borrows long sections (sometimes straight, but often adapted) from Conrad, Kafka, Chateaubriand, Stifter, and others; her own book’s title signals his debt to Nabokov. There is a “Waste Land” aesthetic to his pointedly old-fashioned prose, a gathering together of what Austerlitz, looking through the window of an old junk shop in Terezín, calls the “objects that for reasons one could never know had outlived their former owners and survived the process of destruction.” And Sebald gave us hints. In “The Emigrants,” Ferber discusses a forged picture of a book burning in Würzburg, and the photograph is reproduced in the middle of the page, authentically grainy and, with its clumsy doctoring, authentically fake. “I thought very consciously that this is a place to make a declaration,” Sebald once said, speaking of the image. “It couldn’t be more explicit. It acts as a paradigm for the whole enterprise.” Sebald was fascinated by the aura of a found photograph, the way an unknown image could seem to tell us everything—even if, in reality, it told us nothing at all.

This slippage, in which intimacy evaporates into doubt, is central to Sebald’s art, and comes to the fore in the frequent coincidences that push his tales to the limits of credibility. Throughout his books, patterns and dates recur, and images, whether of a butterfly collector or of Kafka’s Hunter Gracchus, create folds in space and time. Angier argues that Sebald’s “accidents and improbabilities give us glimpses of profound meanings we cannot rationally reach.” But, viewed from another angle, coincidence exposes the very fragility of that meaning, the way that history and biography are constructed—and elided—by our thirst for coherence. The linkages that obsess Sebald’s characters—“Does one follow in Hölderlin’s footsteps, simply because one’s birthday happened to fall two days after his?” the narrator of “The Rings of Saturn” asks—are at once ridiculous and indefinably moving. Even more than they suggest a hidden order, they expose our longing for one.

For Angier, we can believe more in the story of Henry Selwyn, or of Jacques Austerlitz, now that we know the hidden truth of their origins. But “believe” is too simple, too naïve a verb. In fact, Sebald is more interested in the sense of disbelief that comes when you see that the past is contingent to the point of being absurd—or, as he put it in “Vertigo,” “if not absurd, then appalling.” Sebald didn’t stick to facts, but he also wasn’t lying. In the end, we, like Austerlitz, like Angier, can only sit “pushing the pictures back and forth and over each other,” grappling with Sebald’s books of indeterminate form, those darkly beautiful tales that hold a black mirror up to the world.


New Yorker Favorites