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
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