“The most exquisite writer I know”: Carole Angier’s “Speak, Silence”
For anyone who read W.G. Sebald attentively, he seemed to be giving readers bits and pieces of his autobiography in nearly every one of his books. And yet, when most outsiders probed a little further into Sebald the man, they would hit a wall, for he was a notoriously private person. A few facts and stories leaked out here and there if you were a close reader of the vast literature that was growing up around Sebald, but he was not a public figure like so many writers these days.
Sebald has now been gone twenty years, having died suddenly in an automobile accident in 2001 at the age of 57, and it’s striking that it is only this week that the first biography has come out. And what might also strike you when you begin to read the Preface to Carole Angier’s Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald (Bloomsbury), is that several key people still would not speak to her. His widow, perhaps understandably, asked that his family life be kept private, and so Angier carefully tiptoes around Sebald’s marriage—except at the very end of Sebald’s life, when she can’t. But the voices of a number of important friends and colleagues are noticeably absent.
But an even bigger hurdle for Angier was the lack of permission to quote from many of Sebald’s letters or from his books and interviews. As she explains in her book, when Sebald was in his late fifties he was desperate to raise enough money to be freed of the grind of academia, so he turned to the powerful mega-agent Andrew Wylie for help. Wylie’s agency pulled the rights to his forthcoming book Austerlitz from his devoted long-time publishers Eichborn in Germany, Harvill in the U.K, and New Directions in the U.S. and instead auctioned the book off for very large sums to publishers that are, in effect, multinational corporations. This made Sebald modestly wealthy for the last few years of his life. But in an instant, much of his literary output became, and still is, heavily controlled by corporate interests that appear, at times, to place a curious, if not unwarranted chokehold around his copyright. Was Angier singled out for rights denial because there was some disapproval of her approach? Is the Wylie Agency working with a another biographer and doesn’t want competitors? I do not know.
“Why on earth,” asks Angier, “with these limitations, did I persist? I persisted because W.G. Sebald is the most exquisite writer I know.”
Angier has previously written two substantial biographies—Jean Rhys: A Critical Biography (1991) and Primo Levi: The Double Bond (2002)—and it doesn’t take too much digging to discover that there is considerable passionate criticism of them, mostly on the latter. Some of the angst is really little more some nit-picking over stylistic concerns, such as the reviewer who disliked the basic idea of a quest biography in the first place and the other one who felt that referring to Primo Levi by his first name was impertinent. But the real case against her biography of Primo Levi was. . . well, there it gets sticky. The inimitable Clive James worried that Angier had reduced “a moral genius” to the psychological problems that developed during his childhood and teenaged years.” Driving home his point that mere mortals shouldn’t toy with the lives of moral geniuses, James added that, “in the democratic component of liberal democracy, there is a sore point called egalitarianism, and the craze for biography might be one of its products. The craze for biography puts the reader on a level with superior people. . . the whole effect of Angier’s, is to suggest that Primo Levi was a bit like us; which is only a step away from suggesting that we are a bit like him.”(1) (my emphasis) Janet Maslin, in the New York Times, accused Angier of being a “scholarly busybody” and a biographer who desired to have “a pathological knowledge of virtually everyone who ever met her subject”(2) Thomas Laqueur, writing in the London Review of Books, makes the same complaint, namely that “She says she wanted to ‘read every mark he left on paper; and every mark he left on people’, and may well have done so,” but then he goes on to decide (mansplain?) that she was “manifestly in love with her subject” and that “large chunks of this book read like a Harlequin romance.” Oh, and her style was “detestable”(3)
There are other complaints, to be sure. Since I have not read the combined 1,700 pages of these two prior works, I’m not here to judge them. But it takes only a small shift of focus to transform each of these complaints into the positive attributes of a new form of biography, one more attuned to the era of autofiction and social media and, perhaps, the genre-breaking books of W.G. Sebald. One critic, Blake Morrison, in reviewing her book on Primo Levi, seemed to be hinting at this same idea: “she writes with brio and occasional brilliance, and, for all her self-dramatising, is passionately engaged with Levi’s work, which she analyses at some length. By the end, I felt convinced that she had got to the heart of Levi.” This, he proclaimed, was an “exciting piece of life-writing.”(4)
The subtitle of Angier’s book, In Search of W.G. Sebald, confirms that Angier herself is going to personally lead us as she goes on her quest to uncover what she can about Sebald the man and Sebald the writer and that she will indeed be a character in her own book. Readers are used to this now. Rather than giving us bald quotations from the people she has interviewed, Angier sometimes gives us her entire conversations with people, which, in turn, can provide critical context. We not only know the answers, we know the questions that were asked.
The subtitle of her book also hints that she knows she is going to fall short of being Sebald’s ultimate biographer, that because key figures were not going to speak to her “the holes in the net of this story are many.” Crucially, Sebald’s wife and daughter were off-limits and, in fact, are not even named in the book (until his wife is mentioned in the Acknowledgments at the very end of the book); the two are simply referred to as “his wife” and “his daughter.”
What Angier has done for a decade is to interview everyone who knew Sebald who would talk to her, including two of his sisters, many old friends from childhood and university, many colleagues, even his landlord from more than forty years ago. (In her Acknowledgements, we learn how many of these people have passed away in the few short years since she interviewed them.) Angier has done her research in the relevant archives and she has read just about everything written by and about Sebald. She is thorough, but I never once wished it otherwise.
Even before Angier’s book was released, it was already making waves. “Revealed: the secret trauma that inspired German literary giant,” read the headline in The Guardian last month. All that was lacking was an exclamation mark. As Donna Ferguson noted in her sneak preview of the book, Angier posits that Sebald suffered from deep psychological wounds which began to appear when he was about seventeen after he saw a documentary movie at school on concentration camps, about which he and his classmates had known nothing before. When he confronted his father, who had been a German soldier and a P.O.W. during World War II about the war, he was met by a “conspiracy of silence” from both parents. I won’t go into everything that contributed to Sebald’s condition during his lifetime, but it is Angier’s belief that he suffered three serious breakdowns: one in the early 1960s, another when he as a twenty-two year-old teacher on Manchester, and the last one beginning in 1979. “The one that hit him in 1979 and rippled on through the early 1980s was the worst. I think he feared, as he had the first time, that he might really go mad.”
Angier’s psychological profile of Sebald is the essential backbone to her story. It’s a verdict that she determines after talking with two of his sisters and a number of his close friends, as well as closely examining Sebald’s own words. She suggests that, more than anything else, he felt the weight of “two catastrophes” from World War II. The first was the Holocaust, what his country had done to Jews and others. The second was the unremitting campaign of the Allies to bomb the civilian populations of German cities. And here, Sebald was equally outraged by the bombing and by the total German silence after the war about this. But, why, Angier asks, “was he the one to suffer for Germany, and beyond Germany for the whole world?” Why him? Her answer is that “everyone who knew him well knew how sensitive he was, how hard life was for him, how he grew more depressive with age.”
[He] had an absolute inability to protect himself from experience — all experience, inner and outer, so that everything he saw, remembered or imagined could overwhelm him. He was born without a skin, as his mother prophetically said when she first saw him, and as he said himself fifty years later. The skin is the barrier between inside and out. . . and in him it was not only physically troubled, but metaphorically missing.
Angier has a tendency to wrap up complex situations (like Sebald’s psyche or his relationships with women) in oversimplified summaries like this that strike me as unnecessary and harmful to her cause. She has usually already built up a complex and substantiated case that doesn’t need to be reduced to what amounts to an elevator speech.
From the beginning, Angier makes it clear that she has no intention of pretending to be a completely objective and impartial biographer. For starters, she opts to call him Max, which is what his friends called him, choosing not to refer to him by his last name, which would have been the more traditional option for an arm’s-length biographer. Moreover, she is here to play judge and jury when it is called for. For example, Sebald, she discovered, seems to have criss-crossed various ethical lines throughout his writing career. We don’t even make it out of her Preface before Angier admits that Sebald lied to her when she interviewed him. “He had been honest about himself, and shockingly honest about his parents, but about his work he had spun me a tale.” In fact, he lied to interviewers habitually.
More seriously, she discovers, his family members, his friends, and even strangers found their personal stories published in his books, sometimes transformed a bit, sometimes “plundered” ruthlessly, without their permission. Some people were honored, some were furious at him. Susi Bechhofer, for example, one of the models that Sebald used for his character Jacques Austerlitz in his final novel, was so angry that her life story had been used that she tried unsuccessfully for years to get the book’s publisher to add an acknowledgment to new editions of Austerlitz. Faced with revelations like this, what’s a responsible biographer to do? “Is any of this stealing?” Angier asks. Yes, she decides. When the subject of one of Sebald’s stories was living, Angier declares: “Max did wrong.” He was in his rights to use their stories, but he should have given them credit.
Nor does Angier hesitate to show what might be called the uglier side of Sebald’s life. She details at some length “one of the least attractive episodes in Max’s life,” when he turned against his first translator, Michael Hulse, and “raged about him to everyone he met.” And she doesn’t hesitate to call Sebald’s abandonment of his loyal first publishers for the lure of money that the bigger multinational publishers could bring him, a “betrayal.” She’s not so familiar with him that she can’t call him out when he acts like a cad.
And then there is Marie. Marie was a young French exchange student who spent two summers in Sebald’s home town of Sonthofen, Germany in the late 1950s, when they were each in their early teens. She fell secretly in love with him at the time before returning to France, which leaves us curious why Angier pauses Sebald’s biography to give us a four-page bio of the French teenager and her family life. Until several hundred pages and forty years later in 1999, when it all becomes clear, as Marie reappears at reading Sebald gave in Paris.
When they met he was in a deep pit. He needed his solitude for writing but, like [his character Jacques] Austerlitz’s, it had gone too far and turned against him. It would take a miracle to bring him out. And that, amazingly, is what happened.
She was a miracle, he told her. . . She rescued and cured him; she was like rain on dry ground.
Marie had been married, had raised children, and had been through a divorce. But Sebald was still married and had a daughter. Unwilling to hide Sebald’s “friendship” with Marie (as the book’s index carefully puts it), Angier delicately tells us about the trips that the two took, the times they spent together, and so on, without ever venturing to label this an “affair” (if that is what it was) or to delve into the privacy of the relationship between Sebald and Marie (whose last name is never divulged). It’s a balancing act that may not please everyone, but I think Angier pulls it off.
One of my big concerns is for the general reader of Speak, Silence who might not be very familiar with Sebald’s books. Throughout the biography, Angier intersperses chapters which deal with specific stories or books by Sebald. This begins as early as Chapter 2, when Sebald is still a young boy and the reader is suddenly confronted with a chapter devoted to “Dr Henry Selwyn,” from The Emigrants. We have scarcely read a dozen pages of his biography and now we are reading about a story that Sebald wrote more than forty years later, before the next chapter takes up his childhood once again. Angier presumes that her reader possesses a working knowledge of Sebald’s books, and thus I pity the curious newbie starting with this book because Angier doesn’t always provide an adequate synopsis of his stories and books before plunging into her analysis.
For those expecting a traditional biography, refereed by a neutral and omniscient power, Speak, Silence will be seen as flawed. It was also hobbled from the start by powers beyond her control. I, however, am terribly glad it’s here and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. For all of its shortcomings, Speak, Silence seems a remarkable and welcome achievement. It’s chock full of new biographical information from start to finish. Yes, someday someone will have more access and be granted the golden key to the kingdom and we will have a biography that feels fuller, deeper. But Angier’s book will always have it’s place. For one thing, it’s full of the voices of people who knew Sebald at all stages of his life—most notably Sebald’s sister Gertrude and his close friend Marie, who are two of the most quoted sources in the book. If Carole Angier speaks directly to us in this book, it is because she wants every reader to fall under the spell of W.G. Sebald, the most exquisite writer she knows. And I think she succeeds.
Angier, it seems to me, is trying to redefine the parameters of what makes a great biography, just as Sebald did in a book like A Place in the Country (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) when he broke from the staid traditions of literary criticism to write highly personal, biography-infused essays about five writers and one artist with whom he had a great affinity. In her Foreword, Jo Catling quotes Sebald as saying that he had an “unwavering affection” for each of the artists he wrote about in that book. I don’t suppose Carole Angier would object if I suggested she had an “unwavering affection” for Sebald, and that her book is better—and different—for it.
Sebald spent his life trying to break out of the conspiracy of silence that his parents and his nation tried to keep around the inhuman horrors and deep traumas of World War II. So it is ironic that there is now something of a conspiracy of silence being imposed around Sebald’s own life. Maybe those who withheld the rights and who wouldn’t speak to Angier are waiting for a different biographer to come along, perhaps someone who is more of a Sebald “insider” or a different sort of biographer. So be it. In the meantime, every year, witnesses die off, voices are silenced. Sebald is famous for the quotation “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.” But these dead, they will not be returning.
Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for the review copy. Bloomsbury has created a “dedicated companion site, an interactive biography providing supplementary material to the book” that can be found here.
(1) Clive James, “Primo Levi and the Painted Veil.” The Meaning of Recognition: New Essays 2001-2005. London: Picador, 2012.
(2) Janet Maslin, “Looking for Every Mark Primo Levy Ever Left.” New York Times June 13, 2002.
(3) Thomas Laqueur, “Traveling in the Classic Style.” London Review of Books vol 24 no. 15, September 5, 2002.
(4) Blake Morrison. “A prisoner outside the gates.” The Guardian March 22, 2002.