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.
The latest issue of the Journal of European Studies (vol. 44, no 4, December 2014), contains a section called “Three Encounters with W.G. Sebald (February 1992 – July 2013),” edited by Richard Sheppard. Sheppard also provides some introductory remarks. (The complete Table of Contents for the issue can be found here.)
The first encounter is a reprint of Toby Green’s 1992 revealing interview with Sebald called “The Questionable Business of Writing,” accompanied by a new introduction by Green. This first appeared on the Amazon.UK website. [NOTE, 2022 It has finally disappeared after lingering on for many years.]
The second encounter is a transcript of a reading held October 15, 2001 at Kaufmann Concert Hall, Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York City. After brief introductions by Hanna Arie-Gaifman, David Yezzi, and André Aciman, Sebald came onstage to make some remarks and read a section from his the-newly published Austerlitz. Then Susan Sontag replaced Sebald onstage and read from two essays: “Homage to Halliburton” and “Answers to a Questionnaire.” This was followed by an audience questions and answer period with both Sebald and Sontag. Sheppard has provided a complete transcript of the remarks by all of the speakers, omitting only the published texts from which Sebald and Sontag read. A video of Sebald’s reading is available here.
In the final encounter, Sheppard provides his own translation of an introductory talk given by Jürgen Wertheimer before he and others read from Austerlitz at the Academy of the Spoken Word, Stuttgart, on July 3, 2013. Part of Wertheimer’s message is:
We must not allow Max Sebald to become a canonical author. For when a writer has been canonized and no-one dares to laugh any more for fear of looking silly in front of the cognoscenti,that is when he or she is really dead.
Another audio recording of W.G. Sebald has surfaced on the Internet. Over at Lesungen.net, there is a recording of Sebald reading nearly all of his essay “Her kommt der Tod die Zeit geht hin: Anmerkungen zu Gottfried Keller” from Logis in einem Landhaus (translated as “Death Draws Nigh, Time Marches On: Some Remarks on Gottfried Keller” in the English edition). Sebald was participating in one of Literarisches Colloquium Berlin’s Studio LCB project, along with several other specialists in German-language literature, but Sebald’s is the only recording from the November 25, 1997 session currently available. (Apparently the others have yet to give permission.)
Yesterday, New York’s 92nd Street Y posted on YouTube a video of W.G. Sebald’s public appearance there on October 15, 2001. It’s a really remarkable must-see document and, I believe, the only video of Sebald currently online. The video is 49:23 long. Sebald introduces his just-published book Austerlitz for about five minutes and then reads for twenty-five minutes from the section in which Jacques Austerlitz and Marie travel to the spa town of Marienbad. That selection is not only a very important part of the book, it’s an interesting one to watch Sebald read since it contains segments in both French and German and so we hear Sebald actually reading in three different languages.
That night at the 92nd Street Y, Sebald shared the stage with Susan Sontag and so they are seen sharing the question-and-answer period. Sontag is asked about her admiration for Nabokov and to elaborate on the consequences of the controversial essay she wrote for The New Yorker immediately after 9/11.
Sebald is shown answering two questions. The first has to do with his use of photographs. He explains that often the photographs precede the writing as was the case with the cover image for Austerlitz, which was “the point of departure” for the whole book. Sebald says that photographs “hold up the flow of discourse” in the text, slowing down the reader’s path down the “negative gradient” of a book. All books must come to an end, therefore the book is inherently an “apocalyptic structure.” Photographs also serve as an affirmation to the reader that the story is based in truth. But, at the same time, “pictures can be used as means of forgery” and Sebald confesses to have tampered with “not a few” in his books and he admits that he uses photographs to “develop complex games of hide and seek.” Sebald notes that historic photographs “demand” that the reader address the lost lives they represent.
The second question posed to Sebald had to do with translation and why he uses a translator. In the midst of his response, Sebald mentions that authors occasionally have to “intervene” with a translator and he hints – not for the first time – that he had to do so himself. As to why he uses a translator, he offered two reasons. He doesn’t completely trust his English and, because feels he is running out of time, he doesn’t want to spend his days translating himself. He says he “sees the horizon.” (Two months later he was dead.)
The final question was addressed to both Sontag and Sebald: What is their favorite book of the ones they’ve published. Sontag: “the last two novels” Volcano Lover and In America. Sebald’s answer is to say that “books written look like abandoned children” and so he cannot pick a favorite. But there are certain rare sections of his books that are his favorites, namely those pages that came to him “without hesitation”. Here, Sebald talks a bit about the “Il ritorno in patria” section of Vertigo, which flowed from pencil to pad.