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In November 2001, just a month before his death in a car crash near his home in East Anglia, WG Sebald gave his last public lecture to an audience in Stuttgart. He asked the question: “What is literature for?” His response was that the authentic vocation of literature resided in a kind of “restitution”.
As Carole Angier says in her new biography of the German writer, Sebald believed “that we can neither restore nor reward in this world what has been lost, but we can remember it and preserve it in art”. As such, his four great works in prose, which mix fiction, history, memory and biography in unusual and bewitching configurations, are attempts to save from the silence or condescension of posterity the murdered Jews of Europe, writers like Chateaubriand, Conrad and Swinburne. , and the people of his native Allgäu region in southern Germany.
For his part, Angier also sees the work of the biographer as a kind of restitution. “Biography”, she declares at the beginning of Speak, shut up, “is always a matter of joining holes together, like a net.”
This task is complicated in this case, however, by a number of factors. First, Angier had to reckon with the refusal to cooperate of certain key witnesses to Sebald’s life and work. His widow has not allowed some of his private papers to be cited, while his close friend, artist Jan Peter Tripp, and his late English publisher, Simon Prosser, both chose not to speak to Angier.
The second obstacle that Angier had to overcome was structural. Success and fame came to Sebald only in the last decade of his life. The first of these four prose fictions, Vertigo, was published in German in 1990. It was not until 2000 that the American writer and critic Susan Sontag, in her review of the English translation of Vertigo, anointed him as one of the last surviving representatives of “literary greatness” available to English-speaking readers. (At the end of the book, Angier awards Sebald the title of “the world’s most revered 20th-century German writer,” which, if not a backhanded compliment, at least invites question of how to measure reverence.)
It took him over 300 elegantly written pages to reach the early 1980s, when Sebald, increasingly disillusioned with the bureaucratic and administrative demands of his work as a lecturer in German literature at the University of East Anglia, where he had been teaching since 1970, began work on a prose poem that would eventually be published as After nature. You can see why she places such importance on a remark by Sebald about the “great disconnect between inflicting an injustice and when it finally overwhelms you.”
The decade-long four-book series on which his reputation is based – including Vertigo, The emigres, The rings of Saturn and Austerlitz – is thus presented by Angier as the bursting of a sort of psychological and historical barrier. “His grief over the German crimes,” she writes, “is what broke him and what he wrote about.
Sebald disliked the word “novel” – he called the books “prose fictions” – and admitted to being annoyed by “the business of having pieces of dialogue to advance the plot.” Prosser, who edited the last book in the sequence, Austerlitz, compared the effect of Sebald’s work to that of what is sometimes called “creative non-fiction”. There are also obvious affinities between Sebald’s genre leap and the contemporary genre “autofiction” practiced by writers such as Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, and Sheila Heti.
Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgäu in 1944. His father fought in the Wehrmacht during World War II and did not return from a French prisoner of war camp until 1947. Like many Germans who had come of age in the 1960s, Sebald had a difficult relationship with his father, whom he treated, Angier says, “like a Nazi.” He was tormented by his parents’ silence on the war. The “faces avoided” in the penultimate poem of his collection Not counted, published posthumously in 2004, are surely those of his mother and father.
In 1962, a leftist teacher who “refused to obey the taboo of the past”, and whom the young Sebald consequently revered, showed his class the film by Billy Wilder on the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Such experiences, said Sebald years later, “deposit a sediment in you.”
Angier reads his mature work as a sifting or obsessive disturbance of this sediment, which culminates in the remarkable Austerlitz, whose eponymous protagonist arrived in Great Britain on Kindertransports as a refugee child from Czechoslovakia.
If you believe, as she seems to believe, that Sebald’s work is a “puzzle” that the biographer waits to solve (and his crafty way of photographs, snippets and fragments of history and memory certainly encourages the reader’s detective instinct), then the answer is the Holocaust. The defining crime of the 20th century, according to Angier, is the “catastrophe for which he would spend the rest of his life trying to atone.”
Speak, shut up: In Search of WG Sebald, by Carole Angier, Bloomsbury £ 30, 640 pages
Jonathan Derbyshire is the executive opinion writer of the FT
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