*** DEBUG END ***

Speak, Silence: In search of W. G. Sebald by Carole Angier

26 November 2021

Natalie K. Watson finds a careful balance in this life of W. G. Sebald

W. G. SEBALD is frequently considered one of the most respected writers of post-war Germany. Alongside names such as Lenz, Canetti, and Handke, his name represents a generation of authors who sought to mediate to audiences in Germany and beyond their experience of living in the shadow of events that were so close and yet never mentioned.

Carole Angier’s new biography of Sebald explores the life of a writer well known to British audiences, not least because he spent a significant part of his adult life teaching in British universities. The title of Angier’s beautifully written and thoroughly researched book sets the tone. Silence is, indeed, a leitmotif not only in Sebald’s work but also in what is accessible to the biographer.

Born in 1944 as one of three children in Wertach in Bavaria, Sebald’s experience of silence on the part of his parents’ generation is by no means unusual for people growing up in post-war Germany, but it is here interpreted to a wider English-speaking audience.

And there is Sebald’s own silence, for example, about his family life. Angier handles this with great sensitivity. While she has made great efforts to track down those who knew Sebald — members of his birth family, schoolfriends, members of the Wertach village community — she does not seek to intrude where this is not wanted.

Angier traces Sebald’s life chronologically, beginning with his Bavarian youth, his life as a student in Freiburg and Fribourg, his experiences as a lecturer and academic at the Universities of Manchester and East Anglia, to his death in a car accident in 2001. She puts his best-known works — such as Vertigo, Austerlitz, The Rings of Saturn, and The Emigrants — in context, and makes connections with characters and events in Sebald’s life. The latter is perhaps most beautifully illustrated by Angier’s account of her encounter with present citizens of Wertach and their disgruntlement with the portrayal of their home town and their lives in “Il Ritorno in patria”.

alamyThe writer W. G. Sebald on a visit to Germany in 1995

Angier reflects on Sebald’s sometimes complex and not always entirely sensitive attempts to break the silence and to recount the stories of victims and survivors of the Holocaust; yet it is probably the fact that a German writer of his generation expressed profound empathy rather than continue to build a wall of silence which gained Sebald his place in the literary canon of his generation.

Speak, Silence is certainly a remarkable example of a literary biography that remains eminently readable, and balances an account of the subject’s life with detailed engagement with his work. Angier offers not only a fascinating insight into Sebald’s life and work, but also glimpses into the society that generated the intergenerational tensions that laid the groundwork of the events of the 1968 student revolution.

Natalie K. Watson is a theologian, writer and editor based in Peterborough.


Speak, Silence: In search of W. G. Sebald
Carole Angier
Bloomsbury £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events


Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World

28 May 2024

A Church Times/Church House Publishing webinar

Tickets are FREE


Church Times/Modern Church:

A Political Faith?

Monday 3 June 2024

This panel will explore where Christians have come to in terms of political power and ask, where should we go next?

Online tickets available


Church Times/Modern Church:

Participating in Democracy

Monday 10 June 2024

This panel will explore the power of voting, and power beyond voting.

Online tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)