This spectacular, meticulously researched biography reveals how the singular German author blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction to illuminate the horrors of the Holocaust
The German writer WG Sebald, who died in a car accident in 2001 at the age of 57, left behind a slender body of complex work that is even more intricate – and troubling – than it first looks, as Carole Angier’s extraordinary biography makes plain.
He first appeared in English in 1996 with The Emigrants, which obliquely addressed the Holocaust, a preoccupation of all Sebald’s books, via the juxtaposition of four memoirish narratives about Jewish or part-Jewish men living in the aftermath of antisemitic violence. In The Rings of Saturn, which became a bible to the psychogeography movement, the Belgian Congo and the siege of Nanking were among a dizzying array of subjects haunting the narrator’s walking tour of Suffolk.
But it was Austerlitz, published in English three months before his death, ultimately his most novel-like novel, centred on a former Kindertransport child’s quest for his origins, that did most to introduce Anglo-American readers to his signature style: the rolling, run-on paragraphs that, broken only by the regular interruption of captionless photos, flit between the encounters, memories and dreams of a Sebald-like narrator who operates as a kind of ambulant sensorium, hyper-alert to forgotten (or ignored) traces of past bloodshed. In The Rings of Saturn, a digression on the silkworm’s arrival in Europe from China, proves to be the prelude to a discussion of the importance of silk cultivation under the Third Reich, the point being that horror is everywhere if you know how to look.
While that gloomy sensibility got him parodied in Private Eye, Angier has no truck with mockery. The daughter of Viennese Jews, she’s grateful for what she sees as the guilt that motivates his work – it’s “how all people should feel who live through a terrible time” – and she takes with utmost seriousness the unshakable sense of dissonance that seems to have dawned on Sebald once he understood what else had been happening in 1940s Germany during his peaceful Catholic boyhood in the Bavarian Alps.
The painter Frank Auerbach objected to a character based on him in The Emigrants