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.