In defense of Max Sebald

There is nothing in this country that we love to do more than take down our heroes. And what better place to do it than in a book review?

I tend to avoid writing book reviews because they tend to say a lot more about the reviewer than they ever do about the book itself. The reviewer is so eager to demonstrate that he knows as much, or usually a lot more, than the person who actually wrote the book, that he tends to be incredibly boring and uninformative. Invariably, the reviewer knows the author of the book and therefore does not always give an honest opinion.

You know him as WG Sebald. I know him as Max. Max Sebald was killed in a car crash near Norwich in 2001. I remember the shock I felt at the time. I didn’t know him as one of the country’s greatest literary figures and authors, I knew him as a friend. He never taught me at the University of East Anglia from the early to mid 1980s, but we got to know each other. He was a professor of German literature, and studying German literature was not part of my degree. He was the kind of man who radiated greatness. A striking physical figure, his walrus mustache gave him an authority few could match. His intelligence can be intimidating, but he has a common touch and an outrageous sense of humor. When I was at UEA, he didn’t have the public profile that he was going to have later.

And so, when I was reading this week’s issue of The Spectator, I was interested to see that a new biography of Max, titled SPEAK, SILENCE: IN SEARCH OF WG SEBALD by Carole Angier was being reviewed by Lucasta Miller, writer and literary journalist. I wasn’t familiar with the book, so I read Miller’s review with interest. It should be noted that she herself earned a doctorate from UEA six years after Max’s death.

Max sebald

I clearly haven’t read Carole Angier’s book, but I read Lucasta Miller’s review. After reading the review, this rather deterred me from buying the book, as Miller focuses on Angier’s discovery of Sebald’s apparent difficulty with acutality, in some of his interviews, when discussing the provenance of some of his literary figures. By the end of the review, you get the impression that he was some kind of pathological literary liar.

I then turned to Amazon to see if anyone had commented on the book. Amazon reviews can be pop-up fiction in and of themselves, but the first review turned out to be a much more insightful read than offered in The Spectator. Written by someone called Gumbel’s Yard (OK, I know…), it seemed to offer a real insight into the book detailing its themes, variety and conclusions. Miller, focusing primarily on one aspect of Angier’s findings, failed to do so.

Max Sebald

Angier admittedly had to face a daunting task writing the biography given that Sebald’s wife Ute would not cooperate with the book and she was not allowed to cite his books and interviews, apart from of “fair use”. And at 650 pages in length, it’s a bit of a doorstop, although as Gumbel’s Yard notes, 200 of those pages are footnotes.

Miller in his criticism ends with these words

Does acknowledging this problematic moral hinterland mean that we should reject his work and his apparent empathy with Jewish figures? Certainly not. His extraordinary literary qualities are ambiguously reinforced by our knowledge of his tortured relationship to both truth and himself.

Well, thank God for the little mercies. I mean, perish at the idea that all writers should have personal or moral flaws… It’s not for book reviewers to try to moralize like that and tell us who we should and shouldn’t read. Personally, I don’t really want to read all of us a biography of a perfectly behaved moral example. But in my experience, Max Sebald was someone we should admire. He was the best of us.

Ruth Spaeth wrote a much longer, much longer review of Angier’s book on the New Republic website, which you can read here. This is what a book review should look like. He actually went through the book – the warts and everything. It ends with these words …

Sebald died before he could see the turmoil caused by terrorism, then economic collapse, then right-wing nationalism, then climate catastrophe. He had more foresight than most because he didn’t let his gaze flicker back. The boy he was, like the boy who looked at Jacques Austerlitz, expected something from him. So all the dead also expect something from us.

A literary biography is not something I would normally read, but I just ordered the book. I will post an update for this article once I read it.

About Norma Wade

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