Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald 
by Carole Angier.
Bloomsbury, 617 pp., £30, August 2021, 978 1 5266 3479 5
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The coroner​ decided, on the basis of a post-mortem examination, that the unnatural death had a natural cause: a heart attack. W.G. Sebald lost control of the car he was driving, and it crashed into an oncoming lorry. He died ‘before the impact’. Many of his friends thought differently: there had been too many earlier accidents in which Sebald had been distracted, too many non-fatal rehearsals of the last event. Several people considered it suicide, because at times Sebald himself seemed to think of little else. One theory cited by Carole Angier combines the first and the third of these views. Commenting on Sebald’s repeatedly saying that he ‘had never intended to live beyond fifty’, a friend and student wondered whether ‘he chose to end his life anyway, by simply undermining his health.’ In this perspective, ill-health would have become a sort of fate, but the exact timing would have been an accident.

Angier accepts the coroner’s view. ‘He didn’t choose that death … But when it came to him that way, it was what he’d always thought coincidence was: destiny.’ This is a wonderful way of opening a closed case. The thought echoes a line from Adorno’s Minima Moralia, one of Sebald’s favourite books. ‘Psychology knows that he who imagines disasters in some way desires them. But why do they come so eagerly to meet him?’ We have to allow for the irony in ‘psychology knows’, and of course Adorno is not really asking why disasters behave in the way they do or why they are so eager (eifrig). But then what is he asking? There are many questions here: about coincidence and destiny, including our fascination with the first and our curious allegiance to the second.

Sebald was born in 1944 in Bavaria and died in Norfolk in 2001. He studied at the universities of Freiburg (in Germany) and Fribourg (in Switzerland), and even though his sister lived in the second city, there are other universities, and you have to wonder what he made of the same/different names. Maybe he didn’t believe in free towns. He was a lector at the University of Manchester in the late 1960s, and then took up a post at the University of East Anglia, where he remained for the rest of his life. Angier shows convincingly that Sebald had always wanted to be a writer, but he published his first non-academic work, After Nature, only in 1988. Then things sped up, and his remarkable reputation grew, supported principally by Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992), The Rings of Saturn (1995) and Austerlitz (2001), all first written in German.

Perhaps the greatest attraction of Angier’s biography, apart from its patience and thoroughness, is its attention to divided loyalties: to Angier’s own admiration of Sebald’s work (‘the most exquisite writer I know’) and to the feelings of the models and sources who regard themselves as betrayed or robbed in Sebald’s pages. Speaking to the granddaughter of Dr Henry Selwyn, who appears in The Emigrants, Angier says Sebald used fake photographs – that is, actual photographs of the wrong people – ‘to make readers feel these people were real’. The granddaughter replies: ‘But it doesn’t work in the end, does it?’ Angier says: ‘No, I suppose it doesn’t,’ and goes on to reflect in her book that she seems to be

planning to show how in his very eagerness [Sebald] had almost provided a foothold for Holocaust deniers. How had he achieved this? How had I? I felt his vertigo swirl around me, as it would often do over the next few years. I would either find a solution, or I would have to live with it. I already guessed which it would be.

She guessed right, but she does offer some semi-solutions, which fall on both sides of the divide. One is to say Sebald is only doing what writers do. ‘Every great writer who has ever lived is ruthless.’ Or: ‘Most novelists are worse, never asking anyone permission to borrow bits of them. In this way Sebald was a normal novelist. That is the worst we can say.’ Another approach is to assert that this behaviour is still wrong, and technically (or philosophically) mistaken anyway: ‘It wouldn’t destroy the effect of his story to let us know that it is a fiction, and that real people stand behind it.’ ‘How could he both want to shock us with the reality of his photos and at the same time remind us that they could be fakes?’

Not quite fakes, though. Displaced documents, like the unacknowledged textual borrowings that Sebald gave to imagined authors. Angier is right to come down hard on this practice if she feels she must. Biographers don’t have to attack or defend their subject but they do have to face the relevant music. The situation is different for readers. We can forswear the authors we disapprove of, but as long as we are reading them we are their accomplices.

I should say too that, as Angier well knows, Sebald is not ‘a normal novelist’ – not a novelist at all, he himself said (‘my medium is prose, not the novel’). And his method is not to have real people ‘stand behind’ a fiction but ostensibly to portray only realities, with names and locations sometimes changed. This is quite close to what Angier herself says: ‘The placing of photos and documents … produces an unrivalled sense of reality – and a moment later, when we realise the stories are fictions, snatches it away: which makes us feel the elusiveness of truth more keenly than any simple fiction or non-fiction could do.’ I would add only that the method also makes us feel the stubbornness of truth, its ability to lurk among fictions. The effect is similar to that which once made us believe the camera could not lie. We know better now: every photo is taken by someone, and any photo can be edited. But we also know worse, because we can no longer account for our faith in snapshots sent from crime scenes, catastrophes and insurrections. Sebald invites us to live in the world of the witness.

His method becomes elaborately clear in an eerie sequence in Vertigo. A good English title, but perhaps it makes us think too soon of Hitchcock. It’s also a little technical – ‘dizziness’ would be more idiomatic. And we might like to remember that Schwindel also means (and probably is the origin of) ‘swindle’. Visiting Venice, Sebald thinks two young men may be following him. ‘The fear passed across my mind that these two men who were looking at me now had already crossed my path more than once since my arrival.’ He takes off for Verona, where he sees (or thinks he sees) the same men again:

I became aware of two figures in the deep shadow on the other side of the arena. They were without a doubt the same two young men who had kept their eyes on me that morning at the station in Venice … At first I could not move from the spot, so ominous did these probably quite coincidental encounters appear to me.

Scared as he is (‘I had a compulsive vision of an arrow whistling through the grey air, about to pierce my left shoulder blade’), Sebald manages for six pages or so to concentrate on the work of Pisanello, which he has come to study, before he picks up a newspaper and reads about a group called Organizzazione Ludwig that has ‘claimed responsibility for a number of murders that had been committed in Verona and other northern Italian cities’. Sebald takes the night train to Innsbruck. Seven years later, back in Italy, he meets a friend who puts the whole story together for him. Both members of the Organizzazione have been tried and sentenced for the killing of 14 people (by the count in Sebald’s pages, 28 in reality), including a schoolboy, two monks and a priest. ‘Their purpose in life,’ they said in a letter sent to the press, ‘was to destroy those who had betrayed God,’ though ‘apart from providing irrefutable evidence, the investigation produced nothing that might have made it possible to comprehend a series of crimes extending over almost seven years.’ As usual in such cases the men came from ‘highly respected families’, and showed no sign of psychological disturbance.

Angier writes of ‘the delusion of the narrator’, and Sebald evokes it himself when he uses the word ‘compulsive’ and says the encounters were ‘probably quite coincidental’. Even ‘without a doubt’, with its quiet excess of confidence, contributes to this view. Sebald wants to show us how crazy he felt, and also how clearly he recognised his craziness. This is what he says in an interview: ‘Even the crime story [in Vertigo] has a genuine background. It is the account of two young male murderers … I felt as if I had really been caught up in their immediate environment.’ The story is true and so is the fear. What is fictional is their relation, but this is exactly how Sebald works.

Within the text of the Italian story in Vertigo, he reproduces his bill from a pizzeria in Verona, dated 1980: it was in this restaurant that he first read about the murders (but not yet the fate or names of the murderers). It shows the date of the dinner, the price of the pizza and the wine, and the names of the owners. One of them is called Cadavero. You wouldn’t have to be paranoid to feel targeted by this, or at least to feel that reality, as so often, is behaving like a bad novel. Sebald’s answer to Adorno’s question about disasters is not that they do come eagerly to meet us, but that we all too often feel this is what’s happening.

Sebald’s deep preoccupation is with what his character Jacques Austerlitz calls ‘the marks of pain’, psychological and physical, in human and other animals. These marks are indelible, and for some people unforgettable. For others, though, they are all too deniable, and resolutely covered up. A notable instance of the second reaction is the silence of Angier’s title, a silence that refuses to recognise there was ever any noise. It may start in a kind of innocence. Angier describes the moment in 1962 when Sebald and his schoolmates were shown Billy Wilder’s documentary about the concentration camps. ‘Afterwards nothing was said. No one knew how to react, so they just went off to a football match.’ The continuation of the silence becomes a conspiracy. Sebald thought things would change when he went to university, but ‘the recent past was as carefully avoided in the classroom as it had been at home.’ ‘You were surrounded by dissembling old fascists,’ he later said. Angier suggests there were two major silences for Sebald: about the Holocaust and about the Allied bombings of German cities, both examples of the human appetite for the destruction of others. Of course we don’t call this an appetite but that is part of the silence, and one of Sebald’s most powerful myths – those places where ‘fact and fiction are, so to speak, inseparably linked together’ – suggests that every ambitious construction is designed to arrive at its own ruin.

I came to the conclusion that in any project we design and develop, the size and degree of complexity of the information and control systems inscribed in it are the crucial factors, so that the all-embracing and absolute perfection of the concept can in practice coincide, indeed ultimately must coincide, with its chronic dysfunction and constitutional instability.

Austerlitz is speaking of his dislike of the new Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, which reduces the apocalyptic tenor of the remark a bit, but Sebald is surely thinking of what he elsewhere calls ‘the technical enterprise of destruction’, and the ‘administrative apathy’ that allows us to do nothing to halt the horrors we have so carefully planned.

In the passage about the linkage of fact and fiction Sebald answers the question in Angier’s title: how can silence speak? He quotes Peter Handke as saying, in A Sorrow beyond Dreams, that ‘the utmost need to communicate comes together with the ultimate speechlessness,’ and suggests that images may ‘escape that paralytic confrontation’. He acknowledges the philosopher Ernst Cassirer’s claim that images are in no way exempt: ‘all symbolism harbours the curse of mediacy; it is bound to obscure what it seeks to reveal.’ And then he reaches – against the logical odds, but this is the territory of myth – for a conception of ‘literature that includes image, symbolism, language and much else, and says it ‘can transcend this dilemma only by keeping faith with unsocial, banned language, and by learning to use the opaque images of broken rebellion as a means of communication’.

It would take weeks to unpack this proposition, but we can remember for the moment that an unsocial language is still a language, and that the curse of mediacy may be lifted, if only briefly, by means of already practised magic.

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