Carole Angier’s massive biography of W.G. Sebald, Speak, Silence (Bloomsbury, 2021), has garnered dozens of reviews from around the globe, but a surprising number focused on her accounts of how Sebald would use parts of other people’s life stories in his books while feeling free to change some of the facts to suit his own literary needs. Some reviewers understood this to be an essential part of how every fiction writer works, but a handful turned this into an eye-catching headline and a controversial practice. Take Judith Shulevitz’s review in The Atlantic, for example: “W.G. Sebald Ransacked Jewish Lives for His Fictions: Why did he lie about his sources?” Or Lucasta Miller’s “W.G. Sebald’s Borrowed Truths and Barefaced Lies” in The Spectator.
Angier talks about this topic and much more in a new, 35-minute audio interview with J.C Gabel on LitHub‘s podcast Big Table episode 32. In his introduction to the podcast, Gabel writes: “One of the reasons I wanted to talk with her about [her biography]—apart from my longtime love of Sebald—was to ask for her thoughts on the controversy his work still seems to generate, even 20 years after his death. A great deal of the reviews of Speak, Silence, in the States at least, were hyper-critical of Sebald playing fast and loose with some facts in his fiction.”
Here’s part of Angier’s response:
I have to say, I regret having brought this opprobrium upon him, which was entirely unintended. . . when he told me these fictions about his characters, many, many different complex and interesting things were going on. To just boil them down to “lying” is really reductive and terrible. It’s not something I do in my book, although I did call one of the things he said a lie. I regret that now. I should have said he told “fictions” rather than “lies,” because I gave people the excuse to turn against him like that.
After the conclusion of the interview, the Big Table podcast excerpts six or seven minutes of audio from Sebald’s reading of a section of his book Austerlitz, held at New York’s 92nd Street Y on October 15, 2001. If you wish, you can access the entire 45-minute video of that event here. After Sebald’s 25-minute reading, Susan Sontag joins him on stage to talk for awhile before they answer questions.
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.”