Angier wants to argue that Sebald put his invention in the service of showing people a horror they preferred not to see ... At the same time, she doesn’t seek to shut down doubt over his violations or broader questions about the forms and limits of empathy, but it’s to her credit, I think, that she doesn’t try to settle the question of Sebald’s effects. Ultimately, the brilliance of her biography, a spectacularly agile work of criticism as well as a feat of doggedly meticulous research, lies in Angier’s ability to look her subject straight in the eye while holding on to the sense of adoration that made her want to write it in the first place.
Angier’s book is ungainly at times, and oddly structured. It escapes, for sure, what the biographer Michael Holroyd called 'the prison of chronology.' Readers not already familiar with Sebald’s work will find her synopses of his books difficult to parse. But her biography acquires a stubborn dignity ... Angier has stared down a writer whose life, in many ways, remains a similar container-box of holes. If future biographies will surely have more to say, Angier has persisted, and written an intelligent and intuitive book about a writer who, like certain mountains, has his own weather, and whose career remains a contested site.
Sebald, as Angier so meticulously documents, constantly shifts between soliciting and frustrating our confidence in the historical veracity of his work ... It does seem by the end of Speak, Silence that Angier feels she is in possession of the fundamental 'truth' of Sebald ... I have trouble reconciling this 'truth' about Sebald with Angier’s belief that he is 'the German writer who most deeply took on the burden of German responsibility for the Holocaust.' The diagnosis of this 'artist’s disease' erases both Sebald’s particularity and his capacity to reckon with particulars; it is the image of a person who, as Angier puts it, 'makes no distinction between the herrings and the victims of Bergen-Belsen.' I want to be clear that I’m in no way suggesting that Angier—a thorough researcher and the daughter, as she says, of Viennese Jews who fled the Nazis—is suggesting that all catastrophe is interchangeable. But if this is somehow Sebald’s truth, it strikes me as a startling indictment, not a defense of the writer. The vertigo I feel reading Speak, Silence is that precisely where it approaches hagiography I find it damning ... Angier seems to me to be imposing an aesthetic pattern on the complexity and contingency of a real life...a contradictory desire to acknowledge contingency even while abstracting it into mythology. I find all this distressing because of what I consider the (subtler) risks of patterning and mythologization within Sebald’s work—that tension between illumination and obfuscation, between exploring the burdens of historical memory and aestheticizing history, of making real people Fates or fated, which denies both agency (that we might change, individually and collectively) and accident ... I also find that Angier’s descriptions of Sebald’s 'truth'—that everything was trauma, that he suffered for all of us and died for or from his suffering—jar with the revelations and collocations of her patient research, those misrepresentations I began by cataloging ... if Angier is right and he felt authorized to lie in his dissertation because of his 'magical connection' to Holocaust victims, I again see her ostensibly sympathetic account as an indictment.
[Angier] has done a meticulous job of research, both in Germany, where Sebald was born, and in England, where he lived for much of his adult life, interviewing hundreds of friends and colleagues, scrutinising every scrap of his voluminous writings, and unearthing the identity of many of the characters whose stories he used ... In her long and scholarly book, a testament to the powers of research and detailed dissection, Angier has presented a remarkable portrait of a writer consumed by work, a man who fashioned, out of his own considerable erudition and culture, his imagination and his empathy, a kind of writing that was entirely his own. Speak, Silence will certainly turn readers back to the four great books that made him one of the most famous German writers of modern times.
... impressive ... This is a nuanced biography. Its subject contained multitudes. Angier investigates most and with remarkable results ... The major flaw is that Sebald’s wife did not co-operate with the biographer. This is especially frustrating when one of the lines of inquiry is Sebald’s seeming aversion to physical love ... Her research is exhaustive, her discoveries regularly enlightening and her conclusions consistently sound ... Yet Sebald resists capture in all his foibles, flaws and greatness. This escape, though, is to the credit of Angier. When she doesn’t know, she says she doesn’t know. She also, as a lover of Sebald’s work, knows that he defied definitive judgment. He could lie in an interview with the same facility with which he invented seemingly authentic histories on the page ... Angier resurrects him. His books remain vibrant, vivid.
An insistently obtrusive biographer, Angier peppers her paragraphs with the first-person pronoun, dramatising encounters with her sources as though the process—her search—was as significant as her discoveries ... towards the end of her biography, in a chapter entitled 'An Attempt at Restitution,' Angier pardons Sebald’s many transgressions (including his 'deep compulsion to lie') with an urgent appeal to the restorative power of his art.
... [an] enlightening new biography. It's an apt assessment of a singular artist ... Angier, a British scholar who interviewed Sebald in the 1990s, is not uncritical. She effectively sides with some people who resent serving as unwitting inspirations for Sebald's fiction. At times, she's unforgiving ... Her insightful book understands what made him unique.
There were many obstacles [in writing this biography] and Angier had no choice but to ignore them, skirt them, plough over them, turn them to her purpose. She is tenacious, unthwartable, courteous, sympathetic, creative in approach ... She places Sebald’s work squarely in the literature of the Jewish Holocaust but when she more subtlely and heroically examines the writing and pursues the quiet, considerably cloaked life, her approach becomes more nuanced, more befittingly complex ... So captivating, so intelligent has been her tale. The prohibitions explain the increasingly non-linear approach of Speak, Silence as it progresses, the ghostliness of W. G. 'Max' Sebald, his absence from the very livingness of his life ... Angier retreats for forty pages to the remarkable books, analyzing their imagery and patterning, the sourcing and merging of their characters, the blending of the stories and lives and texts of others. This is fascinating and meticulously researched.
Ms. Angier works like the most dogged of detectives to trace the origins of characters and settings and the way Sebald develops, changes and embellishes his material ... The biographer is a character in the story rather than an agent of the material...But her arguments, closely marshaled and based on deep thought, are on the whole persuasive ... Ms. Angier’s prose is fluent, with only the occasional dash of purple. Unlike Sebald, whose work contains no dialogue, she shakes in plenty of yeasty direct speech to make the book rise. There are nearly 150 pages of end matter to support it, including links to music and film, media important to Sebald ... The book is too long. Does the reader wish to know background details about Sebald’s schoolteachers? The length is especially egregious given the hole at the book’s center: Ms. Angier states at the outset that her subject’s widow would not speak to her, and both she and the couple’s daughter remain nameless in the main body of the text. This in turn meant stringent limitations on the use of quotations from both published and unpublished material. It is a small tragedy, really, as most Sebaldians would love to read this formidably accomplished biography but may not on account of its size. One can only wonder what Ms. Angier and her publisher were thinking when they countenanced this costly indulgence ... remarkable and respectful.
... a suitably unorthodox life of this singular writer ... Without permission from his estate, Angier couldn’t quote directly from some privately held sources, even certain letters to which she had access, or cite his published works at any length. Angier’s solution is to cut back and forth among the usual portrayal of an artist’s ascent, in which she captures glimpses of the man; astute critical assessments of the work; and vivid accounts of her quest for the people and places that appear in his writing, many of them barely disguised. Her strategy pays off: This is an insightful, compulsively readable book.
She is clearly a passionate admirer of Sebald and writes well about his three – or four if you include Vertigo (1990): I don’t – major prose works ... Why does Angier see it as her role to rob Sebald’s work of this mystery? ... if this sort of tinkertoy detective work is your thing, you will find out a great deal about people like Susi Bechhöfer, who resented Sebald’s borrowing of her life details in Austerlitz, or the painter Frank Auerbach, who never forgave Sebald for using his techniques as inspiration for Max Ferber in The Emigrants. And although she can’t speak to those who knew him best in his mature years, Angier leaves no distant relative unturned in exploring Sebald’s childhood and young adulthood, which make up the vast majority of the biography ... When we do finally get to his time as a published writer – about 100 pages from the end of a long book – there’s interesting stuff...But this isn’t enough to rescue a work that has little value other than to send us back to the books, which are after all the only reason to be interested in a writer in the first place.
Angier’s Speak, Silence is the first major biography of Sebald to appear in any language, and her approach both confirms his swift canonization in the Anglophone world and suggests there is something a little weird about it ... As if hoping to prove that she has done a lot of research, she spends pages and pages detailing the various possible influences for Sebald’s fictional characters; the result is often a deeply confusing timeline, ominously foreshadowed leads that end up going nowhere (Sebaldian), and the conclusion that, like most fictional characters, his were composites. She also includes armchair psychologizing by people not particularly close to Sebald, admitting their gossip is unprovable but allowing nevertheless that it seems 'deeply true' ... From the beginning, it is difficult to trust much of what Angier says, and her kitschy style made me long for Sebald’s Gothic melodrama, and want to defend him from her misguided approach.
Accomplished biographer Angier has undertaken the formidable task of capturing the notoriously private and enigmatic Sebald. Drawing on a close reading of Sebald’s oeuvre and countless interviews with childhood friends, classmates, and colleagues, Angier dexterously untangles the autobiographical from the fictional ... Angier deftly allows this meditative and elegiac genius to emerge naturally from his self-created spectral persona in the first major biography of an artist once considered a favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Working without authorization of the Sebald estate but without its opposition either, biographer Angier [...] delivers a careful portrait of Winfried Georg “Max” Sebald (1944-2001) replete with astute literary analysis. Its title echoing a favorite book of Sebald’s, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Angier’s life centers on her subject’s learning of the Holocaust as a young student and of his father’s willing service in the Wehrmacht ... Every serious reader of Sebald’s will find much of value here.
Angier devotes a handful of chapters to analyzing Sebald’s work, especially its relationship to his own life, and although these chapters tend to interrupt the flow of the larger narrative, they do add complexity to the portrait of Sebald as a writer who 'lied' about his life for the sake of his literature. Sebald fans will find much to consider in this detailed tome.