A new book about WG Sebald reminds Alexander Wells how ambivalent he feels about literary biographies.
Fans of WG Sebald are typically a melancholy sort – not the easiest group to get up in arms. But the new Sebald biography, Carolyn Angier’s 640-page Speak, Silence, is sure to raise hackles. Alarm bells rang in August, when a promotional newspaper headline hinted at the tackiness to come: “Revealed: the secret trauma that inspired German literary giant.” That this “secret trauma” happened to be the Holocaust and its aftermath, personified by a cruel Nazi father, was hardly Watergate: Sebald’s fiction and criticism were obviously hugely concerned with his homeland’s dark past. On a deeper level, too, reducing Sebald’s vision to personal trauma-lit seemed to grossly misrepresent the ethics of his project, which occasionally pilfered victim’s stories but never dared to appropriate the victim role.
What do we want from books like these anyway? Isn’t there always something vulgar about wanting to peek behind the curtain and discover the private person behind the author – the reality behind the fiction?
There are certainly exceptions: insightful critical biographies, avowedly personal tributes, experimental works like Rainer Schach’s Is that Kafka?: 99 Finds. Generally, though, pop biographies of authors disappoint. Primarily, that’s because most writers don’t have very interesting lives. Aside from quasi-political figures like Václav Havel or Christa Wolf, what’s most notable about these people is their imagination, their literary craft – all the stuff they came up with in a quiet, boring room over a nice cup of tea. That’s what they’re good for; that’s the gift they left behind for us. The rest is either gossip or fan fiction.
“I have always felt I had no place in reality, as if I were not there at all,” says the protagonist of Sebald’s novel Austerlitz. To Sebald and many others, reality was not the place where they excelled. In fact, the triumph of a great author lies in defeating real life, transcending its minor details and petty rivalries to produce something of lasting value. We have a choice. We can drag them back here into the real world – interviewing high school teachers, scrutinising transcripts. Or we can dare to go and meet them in the world of their work. For Sebald, start with Vertigo. It’s un-real.