Speak, Silence: In Search of W G Sebald by Carole Angier - review by Ben Hutchinson

Ben Hutchinson

The Eternal Emigrant

Speak, Silence: In Search of W G Sebald


Bloomsbury 617pp £30

In the two decades since he died, at the wheel of his car, in December 2001, W G Sebald has grown into one of the most influential writers of our times. His presence has proliferated in extraordinary ways. Not just in literature but also in photography, cinema and visual art, the Sebaldian approach to looking at the world – mixing archival fact with artful fiction, emotional tact with exquisite prose – has come to define a certain mode of oblique engagement with the past. If all great artists, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, either dissolve a genre or invent one, Sebald’s greatness is assured: with his digressive, perambulatory style and grainy, ungraspable photographs – the provenance of which he often falsified– he essentially created a new way of writing. Even when alive, he seemed to be writing, like Chateaubriand, from beyond the grave. Following his death, his trademark mixture of empathy and imagination evolved into a kind of moral imperative, a standing rebuke to our hurried, harried lives. Sebald, in short, reinvented the real.

What, though, of his own life? The first full-length biography of this most major of writers, Carole Angier’s study sets out to unpick the many mysteries surrounding Sebald’s troubled existence. Disarmingly, the book begins by conceding its numerous gaps: Sebald’s immediate family did not wish to speak to Angier,

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