TThe German writer WG Sebald, who died in a car accident in 2001 at the age of 57, left behind a lean body of complex work that is even more intricate – and disturbing – than it appears at first glance, as the extraordinary biography of Carole Angier.
It first appeared in English in 1996 with Emigrants, which indirectly addressed the Holocaust, a concern of all Sebald’s books, through the juxtaposition of four memoir narratives about Jewish or partly Jewish men living in the aftermath of anti-Semitic violence. In The rings of Saturn, which became a bible for the psychogeographic movement, the Belgian Congo and the Nanking site were among a dizzying array of subjects that haunted the storyteller’s walking tour of Suffolk.
But it was Austerlitz, published in English three months before his death, ultimately his newest novel, focusing on a Kindertransport boy’s search for his origins, which did more to introduce Anglo-American readers to his signature style: the rolling paragraphs and continuums that, broken only by the regular interruption of photos without captions, flutters between the encounters, memories and dreams of a Sebald-like narrator who operates as a kind of roving sensorium, hyper-alert to the forgotten (or ignored) traces of the spill past blood. In The rings of Saturn, a digression on the arrival of the silkworm to Europe from China, turns out to be the prelude to a discussion about the importance of silk cultivation under the Third Reich, the point is that horror is everywhere if you know how to look .
While that gloomy sensibility caused him to be parodied in Private detectiveAngier has nothing to do with the mockery. The daughter of Viennese Jews, she is grateful for what she sees as the guilt that motivates her work – it is “how all people who live in a terrible time must feel” – and takes the unshakable sense of dissonance that she seems to have most seriously. Sebald realized once he understood what else had been going on in 1940s Germany during his peaceful Catholic childhood in the Bavarian Alps.
However, his biography is far from reverential. Angier revealingly shows how Sebald, who lectured at the universities of Manchester and Norwich, was essentially unsuited to academia, not only because his instinct in writing about Friedrich Hölderlin was (as he told a friend) to visit the old poet’s house instead of visiting the bone. aware of the latest research, but due to its alarming willingness to make up footnotes and sources.
In the literature, such antics give him the label “Nabokovian” rather than, say, “charlatan,” but Angier suggests nonetheless that they feel bad about the weight of Sebald’s subjects. In The rings of Saturn, a two-page image of bodies in Bergen-Belsen appears amid a description in a Norfolk newspaper article about the death, at age 77, of a British Army major, George Wyndham Le Strange, who released the field. Angier finds that the article was made up, and yet it looks so authentic – not just because Sebald inserts an extremely plausible-looking photo of the cutout (which he wrote himself), but, more disturbingly, because of that in-between image of Belsen.
Angier investigates the implications of this aesthetic, a kind of analog deepfake, for Sebald’s treatment of the suffering he so urgently sought to recognize. In Emigrants, the narrator remains in the home of an English village doctor, Henry Selwyn, who finally reveals how, as a Jewish boy in 1899, he fled a pogrom in Lithuania. In later years, he takes his own life, an event the reader cannot help but see as determined by the traumatic story that the doctor had long kept hidden, even from his wife.
When interviewing the family of Sebald’s model for Selwyn, who was actually born in Cheshire and “did not have a Jewish bone in his body”, Angier discovers, unsurprisingly, that they are opposed to the use of his suicide (which was real ) as a symbolic response to the genocide of the Jewish people: they just don’t think it makes sense to falsify Holocaust-related material, given the virulence of the denial.
It was not the case, as Sebald put it, that he sought permission from his sources as a principle. The painter Frank Auerbach, who opposed a character based on him in Emigrants, had Sebald review the first published version of the book; Susi Bechhöfer, a Kindertransport girl raised in Wales, complained that Austerlitz drew material from his 1996 memoirs, Son of Rosa. Angier knows that novelists loot and embroider, but he also knows that, in Sebald’s case, his sins are duplicated by the non-fictional appearance of his work, especially all those photos that readers probably don’t expect were rescued from junk shops or handled with Tipp. -Ex and repeated visits to the copier.
Angier wants to argue that Sebald put his invention in the service of showing people a horror they preferred not to see; at one point, he even wonders if Sebald’s constant use of non-Jewish models for his Jewish characters represents a deliberate coded reference to “the elimination of the Jews from Europe.” At the same time, she does not seek to extinguish the doubts about her violations or broader questions about the forms and limits of empathy, but I think it is her credit that she does not try to solve the question of the effects of Sebald. . Ultimately, the brilliance of her biography, a spectacularly nimble piece of criticism, as well as a stubbornly meticulous feat of investigation, lies in Angier’s ability to look her subject directly in the eye while clinging to the sense of adoration that she is. made you want to write. first.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism