Speak, Silence, In Search of WG Sebald: Seek his books instead

Carole Angier’s investigation does little more than send us back to genre-defying writer

German writer WG Sebald: The author of famously lugubrious books was himself a gloomy presence. Photograph: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times

German writer WG Sebald: The author of famously lugubrious books was himself a gloomy presence. Photograph: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times

WG Sebald would surely have hated being likened to Nick Hornby and Helen Fielding, but hear me out. Hornby and Fielding are talented writers who, through a combination of timing, judgment and luck, popularised new genres: ladlit and chicklit respectively. With Sebald, whom Carole Angier in the first major biography calls “the most revered 20th-century German writer in the world”, the genre was the genre-defying prose work, that combination of essay, memoir, history, literature – and photographs – that is now de rigueur in non-fiction. The genre-slippage is summed up in the three editions of his book The Rings of Saturn I own, which are categorised on the back first as Fiction/Travel/History, then Memoir/Travel/History, and most recently Fiction/Memoir/Travel. Nobody knows anything.

Let’s settle on “essayistic semi-fiction”, as Sebald’s friend and fellow writer Michael Hamburger put it. And it’s just how semi- the fiction is that Angier spends a good deal of her book trying to work out. After all, the chances of this being a full-blooded biography, based on the testimony of the people who knew him best, are slim, as we find out in the preface when she notes that Sebald’s widow, his closest friend and his last UK publisher all refused to speak to her. The subtitle of the book is telling: it echoes Ian Hamilton’s In Search of JD Salinger, a book about the failure to write a biography of a famously private author. “I knew Sebald wouldn’t want me,” Angier writes. The question is, do we?

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