Into the Mystic

Speak, Silence: In Search of W. G. Sebald BY Carole Angier. New York: Bloomsbury Circus. 640 pages. $32.
The cover of Speak, Silence: In Search of W. G. Sebald

So, as he always said himself, W. G. Sebald is not a novelist. Nor a travel writer, since his journeys and landscapes are more inward than outward. He is a historian, biographer and autobiographer. But beneath these, he is at heart a visionary and a mystic. That is why there is no one like him in modern literature.

And that is why Austerlitz is, after all, his masterpiece. For it is not only the peak of his imaginative identification with the victims of the Holocaust and of his psychological investigation of trauma. It is also where the mystical vision he has pursued from the start, then hidden in Saturn, is displayed as fully as it can be—in the moths’ flight, in Alphonso’s watery sketches and Turner’s Funeral at Lausanne, in the play of light over Barmouth Bay and on the wall in Andromeda Lodge—including an earlier intuition, when Adela leans towards Austerlitz and says, “Do you see the caravan coming through the dunes over there?’ Alphonso puts it, tentatively, as clearly as it can ever be put. “It was,’ he says, “the sudden incursion of unreality into the real world . . . that kindled our deepest feelings, or at least what we took for them.”

So Sebald is a mystic and a visionary. And simply a writer. He turns everything—his experience, his reading—into writing. And sometimes—often—like Keller and Walser and all his other great models, into writing so beautiful it breaks your heart. The recurring image of Gracchus on his bier—the ending of every story in The Emigrants—in Saturn the magical forest of Anne’s dream, the fancy that the world is held together by the flight of swallows, the vision of the boy Algernon with his fiery hair—in Austerlitz Adela appearing in a watery glow, the snow-white goose listening spellbound to human music—all these passages and so many more open up vistas of such beauty and intensity as life itself is scarcely able to provide.

Despite all this, Sebald is also the target of much criticism. Or rather, because of this, he is the target of much criticism. For no one expects a book to be about a mystic vision these days. Famous detractors include Günter Grass in Germany and Alan Bennett in England, and critics such as Georg Klein and Iris Radisch in Germany and Michael Hoffmann and Adam Thirlwell in England. Sebald has to accept even violent criticism, since he dished it out so liberally himself. But like his own attacks, not all are justified.

One of the commonest objections made in readers’ letters to him, German as well as English, was to his long sentences, and even more to his long paragraphs, great blocks of print that go on and on for page after page. It’s unarguably strange (though not unique: Bernhard does it too, for example). But once again it reflects Sebald’s vision. Look at those pages and you see what they hint at: everything is connected, everything is one.

A second objection is that the books are hyper-literary, stuffed with references to other writers, often difficult ones like Kafka and Borges. Well, Max turned his reading into writing, and that was his reading. But it undoubtedly keeps many readers away, and on the other hand makes him a darling of academics, who have endless fun excavating his sources. He wouldn’t have enjoyed either of these consequences. But he just was hyper-literary, and his work isn’t for everyone. That objection (if it is one) is valid.

Perhaps, though, style isn’t crucial. More important is something so well known that it became the butt of Private Eye’s satire: his extreme, unrelieved, and (some would say) ethically and aesthetically damaging gloom. Sebald was perfectly aware that unleavened gloom is not a possible diet. Yet that is what he serves up, these critics would say. His deep despair about nature and history, his concentration on pain and horror, destruction and decline—it’s all too much, too unvaried, to be palatable, or even true.

Max (W. G. Sebald), © Reinbert Tabbert
Max (W. G. Sebald), © Reinbert Tabbert

Well, no one can say that W. G. Sebald is the lightest of writers. Moments of beauty lift The Emigrants and Austerlitz, but are there any moments of happiness or humor in either? There is Luisa’s happiness as a child in “Ferber,” and with each of her loves—but these are lost; perhaps Paul’s contentment with Lucy in “Bereyter” (too late) and Adelwarth’s with Cosmo in Jerusalem (lost as well). For Austerlitz there is hardly any happiness at all—only at Andromeda Lodge, and one fleeting moment with Marie de Verneuil. As for humor—well, Elaine’s trolleys in “Dr Henry Selwyn” and Gracie Irlam’s Teasmade in “Ferber” make us smile, but nothing in Austerlitz does, except perhaps the little bow-legged man of the same name who came to circumcise Kafka’s nephew. But The Emigrants and (especially) Austerlitz are the Holocaust memorial works, as we might say, and humor could feel out of place in them. There is humor in the other two—think for instance of the Kafka twins in Vertigo and Squirrel in Saturn, and the episodes of the two cakes in the first and the frozen fish in the second. They’re all surreal, with a dark streak, rather than light relief; but they’re breaks in the Sebaldian gloom.

So much for palatable: What about true? This sounds a more objective question, but when it comes to a judgement about the whole past and future of the world, how do we amass, let alone assess, the evidence? I can only give my own view.

Sebald is a double Cassandra—a Cassandra about the past as well as the future. And who believed Cassandra? About the burning forests, the problem of water, the desertification of vast tracts of the world, we know now that he was right.

About pain and suffering we remain constitutionally optimistic, because we have to. If we truly took in all the suffering in the world, and the inevitable end of ourselves and those we love, we could hardly live at all. W. G. Sebald could hardly live at all. Like Cassandra, I think, he paid the price for being right.

Finally, there are some objections that seem to me not even worth dismissing. Let me dismiss them anyway.

Some German critics accused him of sentimentality about his subjects—meaning the subjects of The Emigrants and Austerlitz, mostly Jews who fled from Germany or Eastern Europe, often (Selwyn, Ferber, Austerlitz) as children. “Sentimentality” is cheap or excessive emotion. To suggest that any amount of sympathy with persecuted Jews could be excessive is disgraceful, and I can only suppose that those critics (very few) never imagined they’d be read outside Germany.

The worthless English objection is the opposite—that Sebald’s restraint, his measured, formal tone on this subject as on others, is cold. Both views can’t be right, and this one isn’t either. The fact that they can both be taken is proof enough.

Lastly there is a shared objection, which is the most worthless of all. It is that Sebald’s portrayal of Germany’s victims, and of all the victims, human and animal, of the manifold cruelties of nature and history is exploitative, an appropriation of suffering that is not his in order to lend his work a spurious seriousness. This is not a textual point, but a personal one, about his motivation and sincerity. It is, in other words, a biographical point, made by people who know nothing about Sebald’s biography. It would have been better for him if they’d been right. But they’re wrong. The unique empathy of his work was genuine.

So literary issues merge with biographical ones, as Max himself knew.

Excerpted from Speak, Silence: In Search of W. G. Sebald. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2021 by Carole Angier.