Carole Angier on writing WG Sebald’s biography


In order to blur the distinction between documentary and fiction, WG Sebald introduced a stylistic adjective into his prose literature, which he did not want to call “novels”. They are known as Sebaldians. Carole Angier, an English biographer who told the story of the man always searching for memories through fragments of reality and fantasy, spoke to journalist Ananta Yusuf and Shamsuddoza Sajen, Editor of Commercial Supplements at The Daily Star, about Sebald, his life and his works.

In Speak, Silence: In Search of WG Sebald (Bloomsbury, 2021) you write that the author’s British publisher, Christopher MacLehose, faced a dilemma in deciding on Sebald’s writing genre. After writing about his novel and life for so long, how would you define Sebald’s genre?

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Carol Angier (CA): [Sebald] said himself that he wrote only prose or prose literature. He rejected the term “novel” because he disliked the creaky apparatus (as he would say) of plot and dialogue, of getting people in and out of rooms. He rightly rejected the term, and anyone who opens a Sebald book expecting a normal novel will be disappointed. None follows a normal narrative arc or standard scenes of social interaction. Rather, they take the form of reflection and remembrance, with long passages of (apparent) digression, all expressed in impressive and very beautiful prose. So I would say they were just prose. And certainly fiction too, although often they don’t seem to be. But that’s an important question that we can perhaps come back to.

How did he achieve this balance between fiction and non-fiction?

CA: The fact that his stories are based on real life, often very closely – is nothing out of the ordinary; All authors use elements from their own experience and that of people they know. It is the inclusion of photos and documents that make his characters seem so real. We don’t just imagine them as we read, we see them, we look them in the eye.

It wasn’t entirely original. Stendhal used maps and drawings in his Vie de Henri Brulard, as Sebald shows in the second part of Vertigo. Other French writers like Georges Rodenbach and André Breton had done it, and German ones like Alexander Kluge and Klaus Theleweit, whose work Sebald knew well and admired. But he was the one who made it famous, who made it a well-known genre between fiction and non-fiction that, as you said, we call Sebaldian and which many new young authors have followed. Not so new and young either, such as William Boyd in his 2015 novel Sweet Caress.

Do you think the urge for freedom helped Max develop his own writing style? And how did he come up with this genre, which is difficult to define other than to call it Sebaldian?

CA: That’s a good question! Yes, I’m sure his need for freedom inspired most things in his life, both good and bad. Most notably, this led to his critical thinking and his inability to accept the silence and cover-up of the war and Holocaust that dominated his early years. That was good, to say the least. But you can’t be a loner in just one part of life; either you’re an outsider or you’re not. For example, he also refused to obey academic rules—if you rely on some of his footnotes, you’ll be in trouble. And in fact he didn’t follow any literary “rules” either, although there really aren’t any rules in literature.

He began his literary writing as a result of a psychological crisis that began in the late 1970s, early 1980s. It led him to visit the schizophrenic poet Ernst Herbeck in Vienna and from there to travel across northern Italy to his native village in the Bavarian Alps, which he describes in his first prose book Schwindel. It also led him to the poetry he incorporated and developed into After Nature, his first published work, and a screenplay he wrote earlier, in 1979. In all of them, and in the books he later wrote that culminated in Austerlitz, he explored his own trauma and psychological ailments as well as those of his subjects.

In fact, he had been writing since he was in school, and by the age of 20 he had made it his goal to become a writer. But he never admitted that; Instead, he made it sound like he first turned to writing at 40 to escape his academic routine.

Despite what I just said, I think at least sometimes and on some level he must have known it wasn’t true. He said it to protect himself and his privacy, which I invaded in my book. My excuse is that the roots of a great writer’s work are of great interest and even importance; and when someone’s dead, they don’t care anymore.

Ananta Yusuf is a journalist at The Daily Star.

Shamsuddoza Sajen is the Commercial Supplement Editor for The Daily Star.


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