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The Lost World of W.G. Sebald

How the cataclysms of the past loomed over Sebald’s life and haunted his fiction

The four great prose works of W.G. Sebald were published around the turn of the millennium, a period once perceived by some as the end of history. Vertigo was quietly released in Germany a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn followed in the 1990s, as Europe was completing a utopian project to bind its warring polities into a single, peaceful union. And Austerlitz, his masterpiece, was published in early 2001, mere months before the terrorist attack that, among its many world-upending consequences, reminded Western democracies that the events of the past cannot be left behind. Rather, as Sebald once wrote of the dead, they are ever returning to us.

Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald
by Carole Angier
Bloomsbury Circus, 656 pp., $32.00

Sebald died later that year at the age of 57, likely of a heart attack as he was driving near Norwich, England, where he had made his home since leaving West Germany in the 1960s. He did not live to see the resurgence of ethno-nationalist forces across Europe, part of a broader backlash to a postwar liberal democratic order that has never seemed shakier. But he probably would not have been surprised by these developments, since his books do not carry a trace of the triumphant tenor that marked the era in which they were produced. To the contrary, they are more like the tombstones that often appear in the grainy photographs interspersed throughout his work: mournful monuments to all that has been lost and destroyed over the course of European civilization; glimpses of the vast necropolis just beneath the surface of things.

Sebald wrote in this pessimistic vein partly because he was, by nature, given to brooding. “Wittgenstein was right,” says Carole Angier in Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald, the first major biography of the writer. “It is not just that a happy man is different from an unhappy one. It is that the world of the happy man is different from the world of the unhappy one.” Sebald also wrote this way because he was German, and, like many others of his generation, would always be ashamed of what his parents, particularly his father, had done during the war. Indeed, he is best remembered as a writer of the Holocaust, which for him remained both the ultimate symbol of humanity’s destructive urge and the black apotheosis of European history, whatever attempts the continent made in the subsequent decades to forge for itself a new fate.

Yet despite the pervasive gloom of his books, Sebald was, and still is, an intensely beloved writer. And despite the reserve he showed in his life (one close associate said he resembled a “block of ice”), he could be warm and playful and bitingly funny, and was adored by his sisters, his friends and colleagues, and his students at the University of East Anglia, where he taught German literature for the bulk of his career.

“People lose the faculty of remembering,” he once told his students. “This is the function of literature.” His compulsion to remember and resurrect is central to the appeal of his work, which, in addition to the somber business of saving the forgotten souls of the Holocaust, is full of curiosities and wonders. His method is now widely imitated: a bricolage of history and fabrication, images and narrative, memoir and borrowed text—“a most satisfactory form of essayistic semi-fiction,” as his friend, the writer Michael Hamburger, told him. The lost world Sebald stitches together feels alien and deeply familiar at the same time, which is another way of describing that foreign country we call the past.

Another friend told Sebald that when he read Vertigo for the first time, it felt like “real literature”—as if literature was also one of the lights going out of the world. This, too, is part of Sebald’s appeal, or was at least for influential champions like Susan Sontag: the discovery that there are still Kafkas in our midst. And just as Kafka seemed to prophesy the totalitarian state in his depictions of helpless individuals terrorized by bureaucratic forces, so Seb­ald may have seen what lies in store for us in his recurring vision of an abandoned Earth cast in perpetual twilight—a “secret sickening away of the world,” as he wrote in his narrative poem After Nature. He came to this vision not by looking forward but by looking back. As he once wrote to a friend, “The future is in the past.”

Winfried Georg Sebald was born in 1944 in Wertach, in the Bavarian Alps. His mother was a homemaker, “the perfect Hausfrau,” Angier writes. His father was a prisoner of war. He returned from France when little Winfried was three years old; as the son would later recall of the reunion, one day a stranger showed up at their door and claimed to be his father. Sebald père had entered the army in the late 1920s because, like other working-class men of that depressed era, he needed the job, eventually serving in the Wehrmacht as a technical support officer in charge of vehicles. At his wedding in 1936, he wore a Nazi uniform.

Sebald hated his father from the beginning, a feeling that only hardened as he became aware of his Nazi past. (The idealized father figure in Sebald’s life was his mother’s father, a kindly village policeman who died when Sebald was 12.) Nazism was the cataclysmic event whose repercussions defined his youth, even if hardly anyone spoke of it. Wertach and nearby Sonthofen, where the family moved when Sebald was eight, were remote enough that they were largely untouched by the war. There were not many Jews in these towns either, and the few who were there were stripped of their livelihoods and often compelled to emigrate. (“I never even knew what a Jew was,” Sebald’s sister Gertrud tells Angier.) There was, in other words, scant trace here of the Nazi past, so that the past ended up being both nowhere and everywhere—an abomination that was deeply felt but not properly remembered; a silence that rang out across the majestic mountains of Germany’s southern edge.

This was where Sebald grew up: an almost premodern idyll of breathtaking beauty, the atmosphere of which was nevertheless laden with trauma and terror. If that sounds like a fair description of Sebald’s work, it’s because he plumbed his childhood home for material in stories like “Il ritorno in patria” in Vertigo, in which a Sebald-like narrator returns to his hometown of “W.” after a long absence, and “Paul Bereyter” in The Emigrants, in which a different Sebald-like narrator recounts the story of a primary school teacher who lost his job during the Nazi years because he was part-Jewish (based on the travails of a real person, Sebald’s former instructor Armin Müller). These stories are marked by the “private silence of German families,” as Angier writes, belying Germany’s postwar reputation for publicly flagellating itself for its past atrocities. The profound disconnect between surface reality and its hidden currents would haunt Sebald his entire life. “It is the simultaneity of a blissful childhood and these horrific events that now strikes me as quite incomprehensible,” he once said.

Like his fictional counterpart Paul Bereyter, Armin Müller would take his young charges on rambles through the countryside to study the flowers and trees. He would also show them the quaint hallmarks of the town’s industry: the wickerwork factory, the brewery, the cheesemaker, the mill, the gunsmith. (In “Paul Bereyter,” Sebald’s narrator recounts how the gunsmith, upon fixing the complicated lock on an old firearm, would take the gun out into the garden “and fire a few rounds into the air for sheer pleasure, to mark the end of the job.”) Sebald was an active boy, swimming in the lakes in the summer, skiing in winter. He romped about the fields with his friends, once falling into a river when they tried to cross a bridge on its handrails like a balance beam. When the outside world intruded, it came as a shock. During a family holiday in 1947, he got his first glimpse of a city: Munich, still ravaged by the war, a wasteland of blasted ruins. As his narrator recalls in “Paul Bereyter,” “ever since I had once visited Munich I had felt nothing to be so unambiguously linked to the word city as the presence of heaps of rubble, fire-scorched walls, and the gaps of windows through which one could see the vacant air.”

The other great intrusion was the reality of the Holocaust, epitomized by the showing in school one day of Billy Wilder’s Death Mills, a film sponsored by the U.S. Department of War to educate Germans about the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Sebald was 17 years old, but was still unprepared for what he saw. “It was a lovely spring day, he always said, and they were expecting some light entertainment as usual,” Angier writes. “Instead emaciated corpses were piled on their desks. Afterwards nothing was said. No one knew how to react, so they just went off to a football match.”

It was in adolescence that Sebald raged even more against his father, demanding to know what he had done during the war, only for the elder Sebald to stubbornly respond, “I don’t remember.” He rebelled, too, against his family’s Roman Catholicism, its hollow bourgeois affectations, its fetishistic obsession with order and cleanliness. He insisted on wearing jeans even on Sunday, much to his mother’s chagrin, and shrank them so tightly (by soaking them in the bathtub) that he had trouble peeling them off.

His emerging politics—“anti-bourgeois, anti-military, anti-clerical, anti-establishment,” in Angier’s summation—were part of a broader flourishing. Contrary to the morose figure he cut as a famous author, his friends at the time thought he was “heiter, lustig, ganz normal—cheerful, funny, completely normal,” Angier reports. Literature became a passion, a rare ember of truth amid the dark cone of silence that surrounded him, and he read everything from Hemingway to Bernhard. His friends, an eclectic group who shared his politics and artistic interests, meant the world to him—not just companions, but fellow conspirators in the campaign against their parents’ morally repugnant generation. He was handsome, charismatic, and intensely serious about life, the kind of boy girls fall in love with. One of these girls was Marie, a French exchange student who spent two magical summers in Sonthofen with Sebald and his crew and never forgot it. But even at that tender age, Sebald was already showing the reserve that would characterize his later years. “He was alone,” says another girl who had loved him. “I’m sure of that.”

He was also struggling with psychological difficulties, undergoing his first breakdown toward the end of high school. He hid it from his friends and family, and the specifics are elusive, but Angier speculates that he fell into a deep depression laced with panic and anxiety. These breakdowns would dog him throughout his life, and inflict the various Sebaldian personae who proliferate in his books. “I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility,” the narrator declares on the first page of The Rings of Saturn. “I went through a difficult period which dulled my sense of other people’s existence,” says the narrator in Austerlitz.

When Sebald enrolled at Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg in 1963, his occasional lapses into a distant silence were interpreted as evidence of a poet’s romantic soul, as if he were “a young Hölderlin,” according to a fellow student. Otherwise, he was the charming figure of his high school days, surrounded by artists and rebels in the dormitory known as Maximilianstrasse Studentenheim, “an island of freedom and openness in what was still a reactionary and authoritarian world,” Angier writes. The faculty was home to former Nazis (as was the case at other German schools; the university at Göttingen even required applicants to prove they were not Jewish up until the early 1960s), and they were detested by Sebald and the other members of the Maximilianheim. It was in Freiburg where Sebald developed an abiding enmity toward German academia and began to think of leaving the country for good. “He was always searching for his way and his place,” says Sebald’s college friend and rival Albert Rasche, “not just geographically, but in himself.” It was also at this time that he adopted the name that he would use for the rest of his life: Max.

By the time Max Sebald had settled into the University of East Anglia in 1970, he had married a woman from his Sonthofen days named Ute (who refused to speak to Angier, a significant lacuna in her biography). He had spent some years in Manchester, the gloomy setting of one of his most famous stories, “Max Ferber” from The Emigrants, about a Jewish émigré painter haunted by loss. He had written a novel based on his university days that was never published, as well as a slashing attack on a dead author, Carl Sternheim, who he thought had been improperly elevated by a German scholarly establishment bent on whitewashing the country’s racist militarism. He spent the next decade on this sort of barn-burning academic work, which won points for originality but was full of inaccuracies, sloppy citation, and tendentious arguments, all fueled by a towering anger toward his rivals in Germany.

He turned to literature in the 1980s, after what he described as a “midlife crisis.” “The illusion that I had some control over my life goes up to about my 35th birthday and then it stopped,” he told an interviewer the year he died. This crisis was brought on not by the perception that he was a failure—quite the opposite. He was by then established in his career; he was married to a woman his friends described as beautiful and sophisticated; he had a daughter to whom he remained devoted until the end of his life; he lived in a grand country house in Norwich, known as the Old Rectory, that he had lovingly refurbished himself. His sister Gertrud thinks it was his ostensible success that left him wanting. “Until his house was built, she says, Max was just an angry young man,” Angier writes. “Once he had realized his dream, his real suffering began.”

He began with poetry and plays. He even made a misguided foray into television screenwriting, trying for years to sell a script titled, in what now reads like a parody of Sebaldian self-seriousness, Now the Night Descends: Scenes From the Life and Death of Immanuel Kant. His first book, the poem After Nature, was published in 1988. But it was during the year before that he struck on his true calling, filing a grant application for a “prose work with pictures.” This work was the seed for two books, Vertigo and The Emigrants.

His vision and his voice are already fully formed in these books. The prose is precise, pristine, moving always at the same lugubrious pace, but nevertheless the reader feels swept up, carried along, in a slow, mighty current. It is clearly not the writing of a young man, but one who is already well into middle age, for whom history is not an abstraction, not the area of darkness before he was born, but actual experience, the past overlapping constantly with the present. His books can feel like a metaphor for getting old: If youth is a belief in autonomy, in the notion that you can be free of your origins and your family, then age is the growing conviction that the secret of yourself lies waiting to be discovered in the darkening mists of the past. For Sebald, this search can result in moments of perfect clarity, of light parting the clouds, but also leads to cul-de-sacs of absurdity and awfulness that offer no meaning at all, let alone redemption.

The black-and-white photographs—some taken by Sebald himself, others found in thrift stores or purloined from friends and family—function exactly in this ambiguous manner. Their purpose is expressed most explicitly in Austerlitz, which is about a Jewish orphan who, late in life, tries to discover what happened to his parents during the war. As the eponymous hero says of developing prints in a darkroom: “I was always especially entranced … by the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night.” Yet the meaning of these blurry photos of rucksacks and landscapes and dead moths and long forgotten people remains difficult to pin down, as if Sebald has returned the past to us in a way that makes it only more mysterious, even sinister. The photos are the great formal innovations of his work, marking him as both a postmodernist and a post-Holocaust artist—his human subjects in particular, in their pronounced muteness, are evocative of the silences of Celan and Beckett, of ghosts.

In a more basic sense, the photos also make the books feel “real,” as if they are closer to newsmagazines than novels. When I first read The Emigrants, not knowing anything about Sebald, I assumed it was nonfiction (my copy is categorized by the publisher, nonsensically, as “HISTORY/FICTION”). And indeed significant swaths of his work are real, the events either taken from his own life or stolen from others. Sometimes the stories are taken from famous authors—Stendahl, Kafka, Chateaubriand—whose identities are obscured. Others are pilfered from less exalted figures: the inhabitants of his hometown of Wertach; his former landlord in a place near Norwich called Abbotsford; a Jewish friend who escaped the Nazis,* providing material that Sebald used in both “Max Ferber” and Austerlitz.

Almost to a person, the real-life inspirations for Sebald’s fictions hated what he had done to them. The main source for the scenes of village life in “Il ritorno in patria” became a reviled outcast in Wertach because he talked to Sebald—“No one ever forgave him,” one villager tells Angier—and he blamed Sebald for his woes. The family of Philip Rhoades Buckton, the inspiration for the main character in “Dr. Henry Selwyn” in The Emigrants, was miffed that Sebald turned Buckton, a gentile, into an exiled Jew in Abbotsford suffering from a loss of identity. Worse, Sebald lied to Angier and other interviewers about the genesis of that story, claiming he could discern that his former landlord was “not a straight English gentleman” but secretly a Jew. This tall tale was so widespread that the novelist Will Self once gave a lecture in which he claimed that Dr. Henry Selwyn was based on a “real Jewish émigré.”

Sebald’s most egregious appropriation involved his friend Peter Jordan, an actual Jewish émigré who met Sebald in Manchester, and who later became a distinguished figure in the world of European opera. Sebald not only used Jordan’s experience escaping Nazi Germany* to create the central backstory for his character Jacques Austerlitz, but also lifted passages verbatim from a memoir by Jordan’s aunt, a Jew who grew up in Germany before the war, to fill out the fictional diary of Max Ferber’s lost Jewish mother. Jordan is one of the rare subjects who feel honored to be included in Sebald’s books, even in quasi-fictional form, though he believes his aunt should have been credited as a primary source. Angier agrees.

Furthermore, Ferber himself is partly based on the Jewish artist Frank Auer­bach, who condemned Sebald’s story, which originally contained images of Auer­bach’s paintings (these were removed in later editions), as a “presumptuous” misuse of other people’s lives to bolster what was otherwise a “narcissistic enterprise.” Angier sides against Sebald on this score as well, saying he had callously treated Auerbach as if “he were already dead.”

I’m not sure I agree with Angier on either of these points. While I find it hard to square Sebald’s mendacity in real life with the painful honesty of his work—not to mention his scrupulous tact, evident in his steadfast refusal to theatricalize any aspect of the Holocaust—the obfuscation of his sources and the blurring of fact and fiction are crucial to maintaining the integrity of his project. It is the disorienting nature of his books—is this real or not?—that changes our understanding of the past and hence makes it strange and new. There is a related point, too, about a non-Jew using the Jewish experience of the Holocaust to make broader claims about humanity. Sebald’s suggestion is that its specific themes of exile and trauma and genocidal destruction say something important about us all, that the plight of European Jews is a source of tragic empathy precisely because European civilization at its height was composed of industrial empires built on mass death from the Congo to the Americas—and, forebodingly, the poisoning of the planet. Some, like Auerbach, might call Sebald’s identification with the Jews exploitation. Others would call it art.

It was the English-language publication of The Emigrants in 1996, originally published in German in 1992, that made Sebald famous. He was feted at literary events across Europe and the United States. He became a client of the superagent Andrew Wylie. Even the slighted denizens of Wertach ultimately came around, creating a “Sebald Way” that shows pilgrims the path Sebald’s narrator takes in “Il ritorno in patria.” But he was not in a good way during this time. His heart and his eyesight were deteriorating. His writing took an immense toll on him—he emerged from marathon sessions “totally beaten up,” as he once put it—which was exacerbated by bitter disputes with his English translator, Michael Hulse, over the books he had already written. He was in a hole, struggling to finish Austerlitz.

Then a miracle happened: He fell in love. Although he remained married to Ute, the person who saved him, and who became the most important figure in his life, was none other than Marie, the girl who had first fallen in love with him back in their Sonthofen days. In the intervening years, she had become a doctor. She had married and divorced and had three children. In 1999, she read about this world-renowned author who grandly called himself W.G. Sebald, and deduced that this person was her Winfried. She wrote him a letter, and they reconnected during his book tour later that year in Paris.

One of the remarkable aspects of Seb­ald’s books is that there are almost no women. The narrators show flashes of desire and longing, but these little fires are quickly extinguished in the ash of their dark obsessions. For such an autobiographical writer, it suggests that Sebald had difficulty loving people. The exception was Marie, and indeed a character named Marie de Verneuil in Austerlitz is one of the few romantic interests to appear in Sebald’s books. She was able to bring him back to himself. “When he thought of happiness, he told her, he thought of return,” An­gier writes, “and he had always half hoped his books might make someone like her reappear.” They traveled across Europe together in those final years, but, because of his marriage, they were also kept apart for long stretches of time, during which he would write her copious letters. Half their relationship was in writing. He thought of her so often, he wrote, that when he walked down the street he leaned toward France.

There are no coincidences in Sebald’s work—only connections in a subterranean network of meaning. It is no coincidence either that a person who invoked his youth, and all the hopes he might have harbored then, rescued him in those dark days, helping him finish Austerlitz. The book was his crowning achievement, released just as Europe was entering a brave new world that, in hindsight, also resembled a forgetful senescence. The cover featured one of Sebald’s enigmatic images: a boy in a brilliant white costume with a gossamer cape, playing the page to the fabled Rose Queen. In the book, the boy represents the young Austerlitz. “I always felt the piercing, inquiring gaze of the page who had come to demand his dues,” Austerlitz says, “who was waiting in the gray light of dawn on the empty field for me to accept the challenge and avert the misfortune lying ahead of him.” In reality, Sebald discovered the photo in a junk shop, paying 30 pence for it (and later lying about its origin).

None of that makes his gaze any less demanding. Sebald died before he could see the upheavals wrought by terrorism, then economic collapse, then right-wing nationalism, then climate disaster. He had more foresight than most because he did not let his backward gaze waver. The boy he once was, like the boy peering at Jacques Austerlitz, expected something of him. So all the dead expect something of us, too.

* This article originally misstated the way Peter Jordan escaped Nazi Germany.