W.G. Sebald was one of the most extraordinary and influential writers of the twentieth century. Through books including The Emigrants, Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn, he pursued an original literary vision that combined fiction, history, autobiography and photography and addressed some of the most profound themes of contemporary literature: the burden of the Holocaust, memory, loss and exile. The first biography to explore his life and work, Speak, Silence pursues the true Sebald through the memories of those who knew him and through the work he left behind.
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.