He told friends his first novel had been accepted for publication when it hadn’t; he said he was “at home” in Vienna before he’d ever gone there; he claimed, falsely, to have directed a play by Harold Pinter during his student days at Freiburg; he said he was a photojournalist for an American magazine, which wasn’t true; “he told Brigitte,” the wife of a friend, “that he had six first names (not just three, his usual claim later, which wasn’t true either), and that he had ridden to his final exams on a horse.” Less funny, more disconcerting: in his master’s thesis he quotes from two letters he received from Adorno, but in fact Adorno sent him only one. “The quotation from the ‘second’ letter comes, like the others, from the first and only one. The solemn footnote referencing the second letter is a fake.” “Even as a respected professor” he would, “after hunting in vain for a forgotten source, throw up his hands in despair and invent it.”

Then there is the problem of sources in Sebald’s fiction—I mean beyond the inevitable complaints about how he repurposed friends’ stories without their blessing. (He “was so charming that you told him everything…and then he went away and wrote it.”) The “whole of one page” of The Emigrants is taken from the journal of a woman named Thea Gebhardt, the aunt of Sebald’s friend Peter Jordan (one of the models for the fictional Max Ferber), who provided him with the journal but not with permission to use it without crediting Gebhardt as its source. The artist Frank Auerbach, the other model for Ferber, never forgave Sebald for taking details of his life from Robert Hughes’s biography, as well as reproducing, in the German edition of the book, a drawing of Auerbach’s without permission. In Austerlitz, Sebald repurposed Susi Bechhöfer’s experiences in the Kindertransport as she’d described them in a BBC documentary and in her book Rosa’s Child, which led her to publish an objection titled “Stripped of My Tragic Past by a Bestselling Author.”

He not only often failed to—or, on whatever grounds, decided not to—acknowledge his sources and models, but, in interviews, he misrepresented the real people and relationships behind his fictions. Carole Angier, the author of biographies of Primo Levi and Jean Rhys, interviewed Sebald in the mid-1990s about The Emigrants, the first of his remarkable books to appear in English, and which is divided into four chapters tracing the lives of four exiles: Dr. Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber. “So the schoolteacher in the second story, Paul Bereyter, and all the others, too, were real people?” Angier asked. “And these are their real stories?” Sebald responded:

Essentially, yes, with some small changes…. [The models for] Dr. Selwyn and his wife lived a smart country life for years. Terribly well spoken, he was, terribly well spoken…he told me about Grodno, sooner than I say in the story, but very cursorily. The first time I thought, this is not a straight English gentleman, was at a Christmas party they gave. There was this huge living room and a blazing fire, and one very incongruous lady. Dr. Selwyn introduced her as his sister from Tel Aviv. And of course then I knew.

Knew, that is, that the real Selwyn was Jewish. In The Emigrants (like Angier, I consider it his best book), Selwyn is a melancholy, charming, eccentric doctor and naturalist who reveals to the narrator that, while he seems thoroughly English, his family in fact emigrated from Lithuania when he was a young child. It is typical Sebaldian quiet that the word “Jewish” doesn’t appear in the chapter, but Selwyn mentions attending a cheder. “I changed my first name Hersch into Henry, and my surname Seweryn to Selwyn.” At the chapter’s end, Selwyn shoots himself, becoming the first of the many figures in Sebald’s writing who commit suicide when a repressed past surfaces later in life. “Certain things, as I am increasingly becoming aware,” the narrator muses, “have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.”

Early in Speak, Silence, Angier identifies the sources for the Selwyns. The doctor, she tells us, was based on the late Philip Rhoades Buckton, whose family and estate she visits. Like Selwyn, “Sebald’s landlord and friend in Abbotsford was a doctor, a naturalist, and a reserved man of old-fashioned courtesy. He was also,” like Selwyn, “married to a Swiss wife who was more practical and socially ambitious than himself; he was tall and broad-shouldered but stooped,” as Sebald describes Selwyn, “and he often lay on the grass of his lawn to examine an insect, a plant, perhaps even a blade of grass,” which is how Sebald’s narrator first encounters the doctor in The Emigrants. “And he did,” Angier says,

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a few years after the Sebalds left Abbotsford, take his own life with a hunting rifle. In other words, he was almost exactly like Dr. Henry Selwyn except in the most important respect. For he not only seemed English; he was English, through and through. He was born in Cheshire, not Lithuania, and he didn’t have a Jewish bone in his body.

Sebald’s books suggest that we are powerless to remember adequately and powerless to forget. Memory invariably involves falsification (“And the last remnants memory destroys” is the epigraph to “Dr. Henry Selwyn”), and what we repress always comes back, often with deadly results. Repetition is both his technique and theme; his books are more patterned than plotted; the way phrases and figures and events recur at intervals enacts what he and his characters so often describe: a vertiginous sense that the past has erupted in the present, that the dead are with us (“And so they are always returning to us, the dead”), that we have doubles (“I felt as if an invisible twin brother were walking beside me, the reverse of a shadow,” says Austerlitz).

I have been rereading his books, but reading Sebald for the first time feels like rereading; we experience déjà lu in step with his narrator’s déjà vu. In part this is a function of Sebald’s use of allusion and collage. His phrases, sentences, even paragraphs are often lifted from or echo other writers; a critical cottage industry has been built around tracking down the sources he integrates so seamlessly into his own melancholic voice. This means that even his narrator’s most personal statements are ghostly and choral and anachronistic and often vaguely familiar in their very texture. And the length of his sentences can cause you to forget and recover their subject several times in a single syntactic unit; one sentence in Austerlitz is more than seven pages long.

The sense of having read this before is also an effect of the way he elaborates motifs within and across books. Some of these repetitions are unmistakable—the Nabokov figure with his butterfly net who recurs across The Emigrants, Kafka’s “Hunter Gracchus” whose appearances structure Vertigo, the star-shaped architectural pattern that more subtly haunts Austerlitz, the “crystalized twigs” that figure in multiple books, and so on. And on. Some of these motifs grow a little loud. (Do we need quite so much of Gracchus—the hunter suspended between life and death, who can neither be buried nor restored to life, and so serves as Sebald’s supreme figure for the impossibility of integrating the past, of moving from melancholy to mourning?) And some motifs are so quiet they might not really be motifs at all, such as the multiple mentions of people firing guns into the air in The Emigrants. I start to wonder, as I make my little checks in the margins, if I’ve perceived a pattern where there is none. Sebald probably intended his readers to feel that doubt, given that his narrator’s supersensitivity to coincidence often shades into paranoia.

In one sense Sebald’s use and depiction of repetition are historically specific, a German gentile’s reckoning with the legacy of the Holocaust. It is far from his only concern, but it’s never far from any of his concerns. It is the tragedy he can neither responsibly “remember” (both because he wasn’t there and because artifice risks simplifying, supplanting the reality it supposedly depicts) nor forget. Angier’s title—in addition to constituting another Nabokov allusion—refers first and foremost to Sebald’s commitment to breaking what he called “the conspiracy of silence” surrounding the Nazi past in Germany in the aftermath of World War II. He never forgets, but he never pretends to have arrived at a form of remembering equal to a horror that exceeds representation; his melancholic repetitions become a way of addressing, and acknowledging the complexity of addressing, the genocide of the European Jewry.

But Sebald’s obsessive repetitions can also threaten to undermine historical specificity. This ambiguity is built into repetition as method: it concretizes and abstracts, heightens and flattens, focuses attention and disperses it, marks an event as significant at the cost of its singularity. Even the lightest of Sebald’s motifs, Nabokov, “the man with the butterfly net” who appears impossibly across The Emigrants, necessarily works against the individuality of each life that is being elegized. (This is the point, or part of it; the figures serve to declare artifice, to acknowledge fictionality.) The repetition that is doubling also blurs as much as it differentiates: Paul Bereyter, the teacher, is based on a teacher of Sebald’s, but he’s also clearly based on Wittgenstein.

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More generally, if history is one long catastrophe returning in new guises, the work of historical reckoning can pass into a transhistorical fatalism. This is why I can lose patience with Sebald’s narrators’ tendency to see only ruins, which is a way of not seeing forms of life and meaning-making that have sprung and might spring up in their midst. It’s not that it’s depressing; it’s that it’s leveling. And this is why I’ve always found passages like the one that ends The Emigrants disconcerting, all the more so for being lovely.

The narrator describes a photograph of a workshop in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto:

Behind the perpendicular frame of a loom sit three young women, perhaps aged twenty. The irregular geometrical patterns of the carpet they are knotting, and even its colours, remind me of the settee in our living room at home.

Even the patterns in the carpets start to form a pattern.

The young woman in the middle is blonde and has the air of a bride about her. The weaver to her left has inclined her head a little to one side, whilst the woman on the right is looking at me with so steady and relentless a gaze that I cannot meet it for long. I wonder what the three women’s names were—Roza, Luisa and Lea, or Non, Decuma and Morta, the daughters of night, with spindle, scissors and thread.

Sebald makes these three nameless young Jewish women the Three Fates; the gaze he can’t hold is Death’s, but then Sebald saw Death everywhere. He was no doubt aware of the tension between historical memory and mythologization; to an extent we could say that is his subject here, and “here” is a work of fiction. Still, what is on one level an encounter with the reality of the workshops of Litzmannstadt is on another level the erasure of its particularity through the return of the Moirai.

The mythical tendency in Sebald isn’t only doom and bad abstraction. It is also a source of wonder and beauty—and as close as he gets to hope. The books are laced with little synchronicities, hidden symmetries, hints of domains beyond the rational, beyond the merely human. (There is infinite hope in Sebald, one might say, but not for us.) “I’ve always thought it very regrettable and, in a sense, also foolish,” Sebald told the writer Joseph Cuomo,

that the philosophers decided somewhere in the nineteenth century that metaphysics wasn’t a respectable discipline and had to be thrown overboard, and reduced themselves to becoming logicians and statisticians. It seemed a very poor diet, somehow, to me.

Sebald collects—like a man with a butterfly net?—the small traces of mysterious orders.

But the beauty is itself double-edged. The exquisite patterning, the archaic involutions of syntax, the lyricism: Does Sebald’s style reinscribe a sense of human possibility while keeping vigil with the dead? Or does it merely aestheticize catastrophe? “In his classes on Hans Erich Nossack and Alexander Kluge,” Angier tells us, Sebald “said that they were the only ones who wrote adequately of the bombing of the cities, and that their witness-messenger style was the only possible and decent one.” Kluge’s writing—still too little known in the US—largely disavows literariness and instead experiments with the flat affect and language of administration to explore modern systems of organized destruction. Kluge’s use of photographs almost certainly influenced Sebald’s, as did his mixing of fact and fiction and his open engagement with both the Third Reich and Allied firebombings. Many of the claims for Sebald’s novelty are exaggerated—but then those claims for novelty weren’t made, so far as I know, by Sebald himself.

“In his classes on Peter Weiss and Jean Améry,” Angier continues, “he said that ‘only from these Jewish writers can we get any real insight’ into the experience of the victims.” With these statements Sebald could be preparing to condemn his own work, which he often does within his work, where he (or at least his narrator) claims to be

continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralysing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing.

There is a fine line between an illuminating sensitivity to historical correspondence and the loss of historical specificity; between a vigilant acknowledgment of the complexity of his confrontations with the Holocaust and stylized, general despair, which risks making all tragedies fungible; between being open to intimations of alternative orders and paranoia (Sebald’s narrator often feels pursued); and between empathic identification with victims and appropriation of their experience. Sebald’s work has been important to me not because it solves any of these problems but because it makes them felt. To take him seriously is to find his books unsettling.

“If you read him without questioning, and are moved—that is his main aim,” Angier writes in the preface to her biography:

I remind you of the truth. That is the job of the biographer. It’s why writers don’t want biographers, and I know Sebald wouldn’t want me. But I would say to him, You’re wrong. You always wanted people to believe your stories. But they will believe them more, not less, when they know the truth.

I am confused by this statement in several ways. I can’t imagine that Sebald (or for that matter any serious writer) would want us to read him “without questioning,” whatever that means, especially when Sebald, as Angier so meticulously documents, constantly shifts between soliciting and frustrating our confidence in the historical veracity of his work. That his narrator so closely resembles him, that he uses images which, at least at first, seem to offer documentary evidence about the people and places in his “stories,” that his techniques and tonalities are more often associated with nonfictional genres (the essay, the travelogue, reportage), and so on—these tactics produce truth effects he then immediately undermines.

The narrator, say, claims to be reproducing passages from his uncle’s journal (there’s a photograph of the “agenda”), but nobody could mistake the dreamlike prose poem that follows, whether it draws on a real journal or not, for anybody but Sebald. (Nobody in Sebald sounds like anybody but Sebald; he isn’t interested in a mimesis of other voices.) In “Max Ferber,” he describes and then reproduces a faked photograph of a book-burning in Würzburg; the burning itself really happened, but “since it was already dark…they couldn’t take any decent photographs” (see illustration on page 18). This, on the simplest level, is one of myriad warnings to the reader not to be seduced by the supposed objectivity of archival photographs. I would feel silly multiplying examples here of Sebald demanding that we question text, image, him; that’s what reading Sebald is. And surely by “stories” Angier doesn’t mean his stories about his stories, his claims about his sources, since few will “believe them more, not less” when some of the main “truths” revealed by her biography are Sebald’s misrepresentations, starting with the way he misled her—Angier is clear that she considers it deliberate—about Philip Rhoades Buckton.

Maybe Angier means the “truth” about Sebald’s life—that if we understand the man, despite his preference for privacy, we will then believe in the work, “believe” in the sense of better grasp its importance? Or does she mean that we’ll believe more in the goodness of his intentions? It does seem by the end of Speak, Silence that Angier feels she is in possession of the fundamental “truth” of Sebald. Here I need to quote two paragraphs from late in the book:

Scholars like Mark Anderson and Uwe Schütte, friends like Richard Sheppard, all look back to childhood trauma as the source of Sebald’s troubles. Their candidates are, as we know, the death of his grandfather and his clashes with his father. But what is more common than the death of grandparents, and—especially in his generation—clashes with one’s father? Gertrud [Sebald’s sister] is sure that Georg [Sebald’s father] never seriously maltreated her brother, as we also know. But now we have, I think, an explanation: normal experience was a trauma to the child Winfried, as to the man Max [Sebald]. His father cutting his hair and scrubbing him, his mother dressing and watching him, anyone photographing him—all were ordinary experiences, but to him traumatic and intolerable. So was the death of his grandfather a trauma beyond normal loss, and so too, therefore, was the experience of the film about the concentration camps, and the dawning knowledge of what had happened. That was not an ordinary experience for anyone. Nonetheless, Gertrud and Beate could survive it, Ursula and Jürgen and the other friends could survive it. But not Walter Kalhammer, and not Max.

So much falls into place now. His hyperbole, for instance, so surprisingly common in his subtle work, and the basis of his melancholy humour—it wasn’t really hyperbole at all. He wasn’t exaggerating about his awful train journeys, or his encounters with awful people, though he played to his audience’s belief that he was: it was his experience that was extreme, not its expression. Or his feeling, from his schooldays on, of being overwhelmed by work and longing for peace. He did vast amounts of work, always. But the feeling of being overwhelmed came from far more than that. It came from his universal penetrability, his artist’s disease.

What can “trauma” mean when it means anything, means everything? A struggle over a haircut, the loss of a loved one, a train trip, having your photo taken, your first encounter with the shocking footage of the genocide in which your family was complicit? This is leveling in the extreme, everything rendered interchangeable by a supersensitivity that—if it means the collapse of all distinctions—becomes a species of insensibility. I lose sight of any actual person altogether in this description; it is an intense version of the trope (and tropes aren’t people) of the Romantic artist whose troubles—“how sensitive he was, how hard life was for him, how he grew more depressive with age”—signify the depth of his genius. In this account Sebald becomes a Whitmanic or even Christlike figure. “Why was he the one to suffer for Germany,” Angier asks, “and beyond Germany for the whole world?”

I have trouble reconciling this “truth” about Sebald with Angier’s belief that he is “the German writer who most deeply took on the burden of German responsibility for the Holocaust.” The diagnosis of this “artist’s disease” erases both Sebald’s particularity and his capacity to reckon with particulars; it is the image of a person who, as Angier puts it, “makes no distinction between the herrings and the victims of Bergen-Belsen.” I want to be clear that I’m in no way suggesting that Angier—a thorough researcher and the daughter, as she says, of Viennese Jews who fled the Nazis—is suggesting that all catastrophe is interchangeable. But if this is somehow Sebald’s truth, it strikes me as a startling indictment, not a defense of the writer. The vertigo I feel reading Speak, Silence is that precisely where it approaches hagiography I find it damning.

Others “could survive it”—“it” being the knowledge of the Nazi past—but not Walter Kalhammer, Sebald’s friend who killed himself, and not “Max.” But Sebald’s death in a car accident in 2001—his daughter was with him and thankfully survived—was not a suicide. Angier reports that the inquest revealed that Sebald most likely had a heart attack, but her account of his life seems to require that his death be, if not deliberate, fated; his death must help things “fall into place.”

Early in the book, Angier recalls how Sebald, flipping through an album during an interview with the journalist Arthur Lubow, pointed out a photograph from 1933 that his father had taken of a fellow soldier who had died in a car accident. Sebald told Lubow that he first saw the photograph when he was five and said that he had “a hunch that this is where it all began—a great disaster that had occurred, which I knew nothing about.” Lubow considers this the primal scene of Sebald’s obsessive interest in both photography and death, but Angier asks, “Was this the silent catastrophe he felt around him, hidden not in the past, but the future?” Was it, that is, a premonition that he was meant to die in a car crash?* Later she writes, “In some mysterious way, Max Sebald and car accidents were connected,” but, beyond the fact that a crash is important in his first (unpublished) novel, the main connection seems to be that he was a horrendous driver, clumsy and easily distracted, and that he’d already experienced some harrowing near misses before his fatal accident.

Since Angier accepts that the car crash wasn’t suicide, the only way I can understand her claim that Sebald “couldn’t survive it” is if we view his heart attack (assuming that’s what happened) to have been directly caused by his “universal penetrability”—that his heart literally broke or burst from accumulated sorrow as he drove with his daughter on that summer day. But that is not what an inquest shows when it shows that your arteries are “80 percent occluded,” arterial disease is not artist’s disease, and while of course Sebald’s early death felt painfully resonant with the darkness of his work, Angier seems to me to be imposing an aesthetic pattern on the complexity and contingency of a real life. “He didn’t choose that death,” Angier concludes her book, “with his daughter beside him. But when it came to him that way, it was what he’d always thought coincidence was: destiny.” This sentence seems to me disfigured by a contradictory desire to acknowledge contingency even while abstracting it into mythology.

I find all this distressing because of what I consider the (subtler) risks of patterning and mythologization within Sebald’s work—that tension between illumination and obfuscation, between exploring the burdens of historical memory and aestheticizing history, of making real people Fates or fated, which denies both agency (that we might change, individually and collectively) and accident (that you might get struck by lightning without its meaning anything). Sebald, however, was writing—for all his blurring of genres—fiction, what he once called “semi-documentary fiction,” not biography, and despite his obsession with historical echoes, his books refuse closure, refuse the sense that everything must, ultimately, “fall into place.”

A doctored photograph of a book burning on the Residenzplaz in Würzburg, Germany, 1933

Stadtarchiv Würzburg, Germany/New Directions

A doctored photograph of a book burning on the Residenzplaz in Würzburg, Germany, 1933; from W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants

I also find that Angier’s descriptions of Sebald’s “truth”—that everything was trauma, that he suffered for all of us and died for or from his suffering—jar with the revelations and collocations of her patient research, those misrepresentations I began by cataloging. Angier has many terms for Sebald’s untruths—“Sebaldian games,” “fairy tales,” “whoppers,” and sometimes “lies.” Who cares about his fibs about his name or exams or student theater days? They are inconsequential and sometimes a little charming. I’m not interested in lies he might have told in his private life, but what about claiming, in your graduate thesis, to possess a second letter from a major Jewish intellectual? Angier reports that “Richard Sheppard, who uncovered this Sebaldian joke, says that it ‘is not a case of academic dishonesty,’ but of ‘Max the Schelm [trickster] having a…laugh at his examiners’ expense.’”

Assuming we’re not overinterpreting an innocent mistake, is the joke funny? If you are a young German scholar attacking, as Sebald was, Carl Sternheim (who was half Jewish, banned by the Nazis, and died in Belgium in 1942) for his aesthetic and moral failings, to lie about receiving a letter from Adorno (among other things, a Jewish refugee) seems to me a pretty bad joke. (Sternheim was “hopelessly trapped in the process of assimilation,” Sebald writes in the English-language abstract to his German thesis; “not only was Sternheim unable to create an ethically and aesthetically valuable and independent work, but, further [he] was forced to reproduce the fallacies, idiosyncrasies and prejudices of the Wilhelminian ideology.”) I won’t go on about why I find the “fake footnote” perplexing, even if Sebald thought he was just travestying the academy in a thesis nobody would read, but I was startled by Angier’s interpretation:

But there is a last surprise, which sheds a very different light on this strange fake footnote. Adorno was a Jewish refugee from Nazism. Max dated the fictional second letter from him to 17 May, which is the date both of Ferber’s escape from Germany and of his murdered mother’s birthday. And, of course, the day before Max’s own birthday. That is, in his dissertation of 1968 he was already making a magical connection between himself and victims of the Holocaust. Thus, what he hid in his fake footnote was not only a lie and laugh, but beneath them the opposite, the catastrophe for which he would spend the rest of his life trying to atone.

The “fictional second letter” shares a date with Max Ferber’s escape—except Max Ferber isn’t a real person, but a character (albeit based on at least two real people) in a work of fiction. And since that date is the day before Sebald’s birthday, this lie about Adorno is recuperated as a sign of Sebald’s “magical connection” to those who perished in the Holocaust. I’m unable to view Sebald’s misrepresenting his correspondence with Adorno in order to demote Sternheim as part of his atoning for the Nazi past. I don’t know what Sebald thought he was doing, but if Angier is right and he felt authorized to lie in his dissertation because of his “magical connection” to Holocaust victims, I again see her ostensibly sympathetic account as an indictment.

The questions about his right to repurpose the experiences (e.g., Susi Bechhöfer, Frank Auerbach) and even the writing of others (e.g., Thea Gebhardt) without permission or crediting them are murkier. How do you acknowledge—not just in an acknowledgments page but in the structure of the work itself—that you have models and that you’ve departed from them? Here Sebald’s purposeful destabilization of fact and fiction, and his dramatic alteration of the facts in question, within his four great books of prose fiction is a moral and aesthetic necessity, not some sort of failing: it foregrounds artifice, constructedness; it proclaims that Sebald is experimenting with making sense, making pattern, that he is weaving out of disparate materials an artwork that will not live or die according to fact-checkers.

Still, I agree with Angier that his not seeking permission from Peter Jordan to use language from Gebhardt’s journal or his failure to credit Bechhöfer were “wrongs”—especially because of his position and subject matter. “Both were wrongs,” Angier says, “against just those people with whom he felt more imaginative sympathy than any other German writer.” The question, of course, is when “imaginative sympathy” passes into exploitative appropriation. Certainly he could have been frank in interviews.

Which brings us back to the “whopper” with which Angier’s book began—the lie Sebald told her about Rhoades Buckton when she interviewed him. “He had spun me a tale.” It was a tale that traveled; Angier notes that it has “been repeated ever since.” Will Self repeated it when he gave the annual W.G. Sebald Lecture in 2010. Rhoades Buckton’s granddaughter, Tessa, attended that lecture and approached Self, who referred her to Angier’s interview. Angier writes:

I can see only one answer: that he wanted readers to believe his story, and used me to confirm it. He wanted us to believe that he had known a mysteriously suffering Englishman who turned out to be a Jew. If he wasn’t a Jew, it would be a quite different story.

But would it have been a different story—assuming that “story” here means “Dr. Henry Selwyn” in The Emigrants—if Sebald had told the truth about the model for his character? Most fictional characters are composites of people the author knows (or thinks she knows) and whatever alterations the larger pattern of the work requires. The closer the fictional character is to an identifiable historical person, the higher the risk of giving offense—Angier tells us that Rhoades Buckton’s family wasn’t upset about Sebald claiming he was Jewish, but about his suicide being “used”—or leading readers to believe you’re just calling your writing fiction to avoid getting sued.

Yet it’s not obvious to me that The Emigrants, that deftly patterned work, would be a different book if we knew more about its basis in fact. Again, we might debate whether any blurring of fact and fiction in a book that even obliquely touches the Holocaust is morally hazardous, or whether it’s a species of appropriation for a German writer to turn gentiles into Jews, and so on. But even these moral debates will usually feed back into aesthetic ones, return us to the books, not the stories behind them, because our sense of whether these costs were in some sense worth it will depend on how valuable we ultimately find the artworks.

To me, it’s the lie that risks making it quite a different story. It troubles my sense that the books are powerful in part because they willfully but elegantly undercut their own authority, their claims to objectivity. It might support Angier’s assertion, in her discussion of the Adorno footnote, that Sebald “lived more in his imagination than in the real world,” but if that renders him unable or unwilling to tell the difference between fact and fiction, history and myth, how can she consider him to be the German writer who most took on the “burden of responsibility” for German history? Or maybe it’s not that Sebald “wanted us to believe”; maybe he wanted to get caught, outed, made to do public penance for his canonization as the good German, given his aforementioned “scruples”? But look at how I’m now also transforming trespass into atonement.

One last lie, this one better known: Sebald told many interviewers, including James Wood, that the image of the boy dressed as a page that appears on the cover of Austerlitz was a photograph of a real-life architect who was the model for Jacques Austerlitz. When Wood examined the Sebald archive in Marbach am Neckar in 2011, he turned it over and saw that someone had written the name of the English town where it was purchased and a price: “Stockport: 30p.” Wood interprets all this as Sebald’s slyly introducing “a note of the unreliable”—not an attempt to make us “believe his story,” as Angier has it, but the opposite:

To register that he himself, who was not Jewish and had only an indirect connection to the Shoah, was merely a survivor of the survivors—and even then only in a figurative sense. And also perhaps to register that the novelist who writes, of all outrageous things, fiction about the Holocaust cannot have a comfortable and straightforward relation to the real.

It would be reassuring if Sebald’s purpose—however much I think the lie he told Angier is different from the one he told Wood, and callous in its instrumentalization of Rhoades Buckton and his family—had been to undermine his own authority as opposed to bolstering it, a time-release acknowledgment of fictionality his readers must first swallow as fact. This seems more consistent with the spirit of the work, but I don’t pretend to know. If something like that is the case, a softer version of the self-sabotage I imagined above, then the irony of Angier’s defenses of Sebald—he couldn’t tell imagination from reality, he desperately needed us to believe him, and so on—is that they make his misrepresentations seem much worse than they were.

Toward the end of her book, Angier enumerates some of the common criticisms of Sebald’s work, noting that many share the “objection,” which she describes as “worthless,” 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.

I’ve already written at length about how I worry her defenses of Sebald’s “unique empathy” threaten to hollow out the claim for the “genuine.” I also disagree that the question of whether or not his “portrayal of…victims” is “exploitative” is ultimately a “biographical point” and not a textual one. I’m not saying that Sebald’s motivations are wholly irrelevant to our sense of his books (clearly I’ve been speculating about his intentions myself), but a sincere belief that you can understand or share the feelings and experiences of others is hardly proof against appropriation; that’s often how it starts.

“The difficulty and slipperiness of empathy,” as Saidiya Hartman, who has spoken admiringly of Sebald, puts it, “lies in its capacity to lend to appropriation. In making the other’s suffering one’s own this suffering is occluded by the other’s obliteration.” Sebald is a significant writer not because he meant well or had, as Angier describes it, “mirror-touch-synaesthesia-like penetrability.” It’s because his formally innovative fictions enable us to feel the past in the present while also acknowledging the instability of memory. The work poses but does not answer the questions of when empathy shades into appropriation or history into myth or a moral reckoning into the aestheticization of tragedy. Writing is a questionable business.


An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of the character Jacques Austerlitz.