I re-read my three favourite, unclassifiable W.G. Sebald books every year in the vain hope that I might one day fathom them. Their unfathomability is a large part of their appeal. That and their unclassifiability. And their peerless, formal prose. And their mysterious photographs. And their melancholia. And their dry humour. Ever since I first read Vertigo, The Emigrants, and The Rings of Saturn, I have found them utterly compelling.
With each re-reading, and by reading Sebald’s other works, both prose and poetry, and by reading around some of the subjects he covered, I feel I’m beginning to fathom him a bit better. Maybe 1% or so better each time. I still have a long way to go. I get the distinct impression I’m by no means alone.
Carole Angier’s Speak, Silence is the first full-length biography of Sebald, who died in 2001. It’s one that will be seized on with relish by his fans. The book is very much an unofficial biography, having been written against the wishes of Sebald’s family, and without licence to quote directly from his works. These difficulties no doubt hindered Angier’s task, but she works around them very well.
Sebald famously blended fact with fiction, embellishing and grafting, repurposing and misdirecting, adding to the realism with unassailable photographic ‘proof’. Angier does well distinguishing between true events depicted in Sebald’s work, and stuff he fabricated. She also unearths plenty of fascinating details about Sebald’s life and personality.
The W.G. Sebald who emerges from this biography is, to this particular fan, every bit as likeable as I had previously thought, although considerably more melancholic. I had always assumed the relentless mournful tone—which can sometimes come across as exaggerated for humorous effect—was simply a brilliantly manufactured element of Sebald’s unique style. But it seems that particular aspect of his work was perhaps the least fabricated.
I thoroughly enjoyed this autobiography, and will certainly return to it for further readings.