W.G. Sebald wrote unusual, unforgettable books about history and trauma. In a tragically abbreviated career, he forged a body of work that "achieves the impossible Romantic ideal: it is original," Carole Angier writes in "Speak, Silence," her enlightening new biography. It's an apt assessment of a singular artist.
Sebald, who died at age 57 in 2001 after suffering an aneurysm and then crashing his car, was renowned for his solemn, challenging hybrids of fiction, history and biography — and for his unyielding scrutiny of Nazi atrocities. "Austerlitz," the German writer's final novel, is a powerful portrait of an anxiety-ridden Holocaust survivor. Its sentences are sinuous marvels. One is 10 pages long.
His father served in Hitler's military, and as Sebald grew up after World War II, he couldn't persuade "his parents to talk about the past," Angier writes. This informs his work. In "The Emigrants," a book whose main theme is the persecution of European Jews, the excavation of painful history is evoked in Sebald's account of a real-life event — the recovery of a man's body from a melting glacier, 72 years after his disappearance. "They are ever returning to us," he writes, "the dead."
"Speak, Silence" follows Sebald from German villages to British universities, where he taught literature for three decades. Like some of his fictional characters, he was beset by depression. His impeccable sentences were the product of copious rewriting. "The Rings of Saturn," a digressive, inspired 300-page book about European history, emerged from 2,000 rough-draft pages.
Sebald's doggedness served an extraordinary literary project. "He was most interested, he would say, in metaphysics: the enquiry into the true nature of reality, which lies beyond physics, beyond this world," Angier writes. His ethereal prose is interspersed with evocative photos, drawings and paintings. His search for history's intangible truths made him "unlike any other literary writer of our time, indeed of all recent times."
Angier, a British scholar who interviewed Sebald in the 1990s, is not uncritical. She effectively sides with some people who resent serving as unwitting inspirations for Sebald's fiction. At times, she's unforgiving. Sebald liked to say he became a writer in the 1980s, when he began working on his best-known books, not the 1960s, when his first academic writing was published. To Angier, this is "one of his biggest lies."
For all his success, Sebald doubted that art — his or anyone else's — could comprehend humanity's worst evils. "What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world," he writes in "The Rings of Saturn."
In recent years, Sebald has surpassed countrymen and Nobel laureates Gunter Grass and Peter Handke as "the most revered twentieth-century German writer," Angier says. Her insightful book understands what made him unique.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald
By: Carole Angier.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 617 pages, $32.