W. G. Sebald, Usurper of Lives.
The Atlantic|November 2021
Germany’s renowned and morally scrupulous novelist ransacked the stories of Jewish lives for his fictions. Does it matter?
Judith Shulevitz
The great German author W. G. Sebald died in a car accident in 2001 at the age of 57, 13 years after he’d published his first work of literature and five short years after the English translation of a book of stories set in motion his rise to international renown. (Months before his death, he was rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize.)Throughout his career and afterward, critics struggled to find words to describe the hallucinatory quality of his deceptively sober prose. Sebald tells tales, that much one can say—ghost stories of a sort, as dark and translucent as smoky glass. Displaced Jews haunt some of these narratives; the shades of literary figures— Kafka, Stendhal, Nabokov—materialize in others. And yet Sebald writes like a man typing up case histories, and he accompanies his narratives with something like documentation— photographs of people, facades, notes, newspaper articles, train tickets. These have no captions, and you don’t always see how they relate to the text. But because photographs testify to the onetime existence of things, they give the weight of the real to stories that may or may not be made up. Sebald’s refusal to respect the line between fact and fiction has become commonplace, especially among younger writers. But his adroitly artless synthesis of fable, history, photography, and artifact is still jarring.

The Sebald scholar Uwe Schütte called Sebald’s method bricolage, which can mean both “collage” and “tinkering.” The critic James Wood speaks of “fictional truth,” and also offers this aptly mournful phrase: “cinders of the real world.” The poet Michael Hamburger came up with “essayistic semi-fiction which gives rope to both observation and imagination.” In her new biography, Speak, Silence: In Search of W. G. Sebald, the first life of the writer, Carole Angier calls that “the neatest summary” of Sebald’s method that “anyone ever managed.” I like “periscopic,” which Sebald used, because it captures the subaqueous stillness of his worlds, and his disorienting angle of vision. Every great writer founds a new genre, Walter Benjamin decreed. “The twentieth- century writer who best passes that crazy test,” Angier writes, “is W. G. Sebald.”

In 1996, Angier was asked to review The Emigrants, the first book of Sebald’s to be translated into English, and she read it in a single night. The book consists of four stories about men who die from the delayed effects of catastrophe. Three are Jewish. Two of them had their lives upended by the Nazis. The fourth man is the German valet, traveling companion, and lover of the scion of a Jewish banking family from New York. Sebald disavowed the term Holocaust writer, and indeed the Holocaust forms just one piece of his vision of modernity as an on going disaster and a march toward the total destruction of nature. Yet the Holocaust holds a privileged place in Sebald’s worldview. He told interviewers that it “cast a very long shadow over my life” because he grew up in an Alpine corner of Germany, blissfully unaware of the past (he was born in 1944, just before the end of World War II), and “I don’t really know how I deserved it.”

Sebald grew up in a world without Jews. No one spoke of them. “I never even knew what a Jew was,” his sister said.

Angier agrees that Holocaust writer is inadequate, even as she anoints him “the German writer who most deeply took on the burden of German responsibility for the Holocaust”—a “survivor’s guilt” that, as the daughter of Jewish parents who barely escaped from Nazi Vienna, she thinks “all Germans should feel.” Shortly after reading The Emigrants, she went to Sebald’s office at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, where he had been teaching on and off for more than 20 years, to interview him for The Jewish Quarterly. She had questions. Was The Emigrants fact or fiction? Who was this German who wrote about the tragedy of Jews?

A quarter of a century later, Angier, the author of biographies of Jean Rhys and Primo Levi, has produced a suitably unorthodox life of this singular writer. That was the only kind circumstances permitted. Sebald’s widow refused access to any material relating to his family. 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.

However melancholy the artist, the man could be playful. Sebald’s colleagues remember him as companionable and witty. He had a laugh in his voice; he made up mordant aphorisms; he captivated his students. As a high-spirited college student himself, he was nicknamed “Cocky.” Yet Sebald also published crepuscular poems and prose in the student newspaper. He nursed his rage at his parents, particularly his father, who served as a transport officer during the Nazis’ invasions of Poland, Russia, and France—and refused to talk about it. Sebald had episodes of terrible depression. By the time Angier met him, though, he had resolved his contradictions into a persona at once “kind, gloomy, and funny.”

WHAT INTERESTS Angier is how Sebald used his life, and that of others, in his art. Her curiosity has an edge. Back in 1996, when she asked whether he based his characters on real people, he said, “Essentially, yes, with some small changes”—an assertion repeated so often in articles about him that it attained the status of fact. Sebald told Angier about the man on whom he based Dr. Henry Selwyn, the protagonist of one of the four stories in The Emigrants. In the story, the narrator and his wife rent rooms in a British manor owned by Dr. Selwyn, a courtly and eccentric recluse, and his wife. Doctor and narrator become friends, and eventually Selwyn divulges his secret: He is actually a Jew from a village near Grodno, in what used to be the Russian empire (now Belarus), who came to England as a child in 1899. A short time after Selwyn makes this confession, the narrator and his wife learn of his grim death.

The main difference between Dr. Selwyn and the doctor who was in fact Sebald’s landlord, Sebald said, is that the real doctor told him about Grodno “sooner than I say in the story,” and “very cursorily.” Sebald already suspected something anyway, because at his landlord’s Christmas party he met “one very incongruous lady,” whom his landlord introduced as his sister from Tel Aviv.

In 2014, Angier arrived at the door of Abbotsford, the home of the model for Selwyn, the late Dr. Philip Rhoades Buckton. There she talked with members of his family and discovered that Sebald had flat-out lied. Buckton was not Jewish. He did not come from Grodno. He had no sister in Tel Aviv. He came from Cheshire and “didn’t have a Jewish bone in his body,” Angier writes.

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