Speak, Silence: In Search of W. G. Sebald

Car­ole Angier

  • Review
By – October 6, 2021

One of the giants of twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry lit­er­a­ture, W. G. Sebald, final­ly has his biog­ra­ph­er: Car­ole Ang­i­er, who has pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten about the lives of Jean Rhys and Pri­mo Levi. The title of the biog­ra­phy, Speak, Silence, echoes that of Vladimir Nabokov’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy Speak, Mem­o­ry while also allud­ing to a key dif­fer­ence between the two writ­ers. While Nabokov unam­bigu­ous­ly retells episodes from his life, Sebald was silent about what’s fact and what’s fic­tion in his narratives.

Per­haps the title also winks at Sebald’s explic­it men­tion of Nabokov’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy in his 1992 work, The Emi­grants, where he also inserts a pho­to of Nabokov as the unnamed but­ter­fly man.” Sebald used a lot of pho­tographs in his books, and he wrote in the first per­son, cre­at­ing the impres­sion that his sto­ries might also be auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. Ang­i­er finds that his char­ac­ters were indeed based on peo­ple whom Sebald knew, but the nar­ra­tives diverge sharply from those people’s actu­al lives. It’s not entire­ly unex­pect­ed, then, to learn that Sebald’s osten­si­bly fac­tu­al accounts of him­self in inter­views also depart from real­i­ty, fur­ther con­found­ing fact with fable.

W. G. Sebald grew up in a Catholic fam­i­ly, in a vil­lage in south­ern Bavaria where there was vir­tu­al­ly no Jew­ish pres­ence. Yet a sur­pris­ing num­ber of his sto­ries con­cern Jews. The title char­ac­ter of his final book, Auster­litz, turns out to be a Jew­ish refugee from Prague who was tak­en to Wales on a Kinder­trans­port and whose moth­er died in a con­cen­tra­tion camp. Dr. Hen­ry Sel­wyn, in The Emi­grants, con­fess­es that despite his thor­ough­ly British man­ner, he was born a Lithuan­ian Jew. Max Fer­ber, also in The Emi­grants, is an exiled Ger­man-Jew­ish painter. Why was Sebald so inter­est­ed in Jew­ish stories?

Car­ole Ang­i­er looks to Sebald’s own fam­i­ly, going back to his ear­ly child­hood. Sebald’s father, a sol­dier in Hitler’s army, was away dur­ing the first years of his son’s life. When the father returned home his young son found him alien, harsh, and emo­tion­al­ly dis­tant, a con­stant source of unhap­pi­ness. Years lat­er, as a teenag­er, W. G. Sebald learned about the Nazi atroc­i­ties against the Jews. He nev­er for­gave his father for serv­ing the Third Reich. Per­haps as a kind of rec­om­pense, he told sto­ries about Jews who were its vic­tims. That fits his life­long stance as a rebel against con­for­mi­ty and convention.

Ang­i­er vivid­ly evokes the atmos­phere of Sebald’s child­hood home, and cap­tures the joys of his intense friend­ships in high school, uni­ver­si­ty, and as a pro­fes­sor in Eng­land. She relates what she’s learned as if she were con­fid­ing it to a close friend, mak­ing the read­er her com­pan­ion in the quest to under­stand a writer whom she clear­ly adores. Thanks to her exten­sive research and deep under­stand­ing of Sebald’s work, this book will undoubt­ed­ly become a valu­able resource for future Sebald schol­ars as well. Speak, Silence is a true lit­er­ary event and a major achievement.

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