When the books of an unknown German writer called W G Sebald began to be translated in the mid-1990s, readers around the world were astounded by their mystery and melancholy, and above all by their deep empathy with the victims of history and the whole of nature. But researching and writing his biography, I learned that empathy wasn’t Sebald’s full story. One thing brought out ruthlessness in him instead: writing.
He was startlingly ruthless in his academic writing, for instance, when he was a young man making his way, teaching German literature at the University of East Anglia. He grew out of that, but never stopped attacking writers whom he judged inauthentic. The literary quality of a work depends on the personal integrity of its maker, he argued: if there’s any falsity in the writer, it comes out in the writing. He launched violent attacks on German literary stars like Alfred Andersch on these grounds. It made him thoroughly unpopular with many German readers. But he didn’t mind that as long as they listened.
This is the same man who wrote The Rings of Saturn, in which the destruction of pheasants for fun is described with extraordinary anger. The narrator’s empathy with herrings, murdered in their millions every day, is no less intense than his empathy with the victims of the extermination camps, murdered