The great German author W. G. Sebald died in a car accident in 2001 at the age of 57, 13 years after he’d published his first work of literature and five short years after the English translation of a book of stories set in motion his rise to international renown. (Months before his death, he was rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize.) Throughout his career and afterward, critics struggled to find words to describe the hallucinatory quality of his deceptively sober prose. Sebald tells tales, that much one can say—ghost stories of a sort, as dark and translucent as smoky glass. Displaced Jews haunt some of these narratives; the shades of literary figures—Kafka, Stendhal, Nabokov—materialize in others. And yet Sebald writes like a man typing up case histories, and he accompanies his narratives with something like documentation—photographs of people, facades, notes, newspaper articles, train tickets. These have no captions, and you don’t always see how they relate to the text. But because photographs testify to the onetime existence of things, they give the weight of the real to stories that may or may not be made up. Sebald’s refusal to respect the line between fact and fiction has become commonplace, especially among younger writers. But his adroitly artless synthesis of fable, history, photography, and artifact is still jarring.
The Sebald scholar Uwe Schütte called Sebald’s method bricolage, which can mean both “collage” and “tinkering.” The critic James Wood speaks of “fictional truth,” and also offers this aptly mournful phrase: “cinders of the real world.” The poet Michael Hamburger came up with “essayistic semi-fiction which gives rope to both observation and imagination.” In her new biography, Speak, Silence: In Search of W. G. Sebald, the first life of the writer, Carole Angier calls that “the neatest summary” of Sebald’s method that “anyone ever managed.” I like “periscopic,” which Sebald used, because it captures the subaqueous stillness of his worlds, and his disorienting angle of vision. Every great writer founds a new genre, Walter Benjamin decreed. “The twentieth-century writer who best passes that crazy test,” Angier writes, “is W. G. Sebald.”
In 1996, Angier was asked to review The Emigrants, the first book of Sebald’s to be translated into English, and read it in a single night. The book consists of four stories about men who die from the delayed effects of catastrophe. Three are Jewish. Two of them had their lives upended by the Nazis. The fourth man is the German valet, traveling companion, and lover of the scion of a Jewish banking family from New York. Sebald disavowed the term Holocaust writer, and indeed the Holocaust forms just one piece of his vision of modernity as an ongoing disaster and a march toward the total destruction of nature. Yet the Holocaust holds a privileged place in Sebald’s worldview. He told interviewers that it “cast a very long shadow over my life” because he grew up in an Alpine corner of Germany, blissfully unaware of the past (he was born in 1944, just before the end of World War II), and “I don’t really know how I deserved it.”
Angier agrees that Holocaust writer is inadequate, even as she anoints him “the German writer who most deeply took on the burden of German responsibility for the Holocaust”—a “survivor’s guilt” that, as the daughter of Jewish parents who barely escaped from Nazi Vienna, she thinks “all Germans should feel.” Shortly after reading The Emigrants, she went to Sebald’s office at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, where he had been teaching on and off for more than 20 years, to interview him for The Jewish Quarterly. She had questions. Was The Emigrants fact or fiction? Who was this German who wrote about the tragedy of Jews?
A quarter of a century later, Angier, the author of biographies of Jean Rhys and Primo Levi, has produced a suitably unorthodox life of this singular writer. That was the only kind circumstances permitted. Sebald’s widow refused access to any material relating to his family. Without permission from his estate, Angier couldn’t quote directly from some privately held sources, even certain letters to which she had access, or cite his published works at any length. Angier’s solution is to cut back and forth among the usual portrayal of an artist’s ascent, in which she captures glimpses of the man; astute critical assessments of the work; and vivid accounts of her quest for the people and places that appear in his writing, many of them barely disguised. Her strategy pays off: This is an insightful, compulsively readable book.
However melancholy the artist, the man could be playful. Sebald’s colleagues remember him as companionable and witty. He had a laugh in his voice; he made up mordant aphorisms; he captivated his students. As a high-spirited college student himself, he was nicknamed “Cocky.” Yet Sebald also published crepuscular poems and prose in the student newspaper. He nursed his rage at his parents, particularly his father, who served as a transport officer during the Nazis’ invasions of Poland, Russia, and France—and refused to talk about it. Sebald had episodes of terrible depression. By the time Angier met him, though, he had resolved his contradictions into a persona at once “kind, gloomy, and funny.”
What interests Angier is how Sebald used his life, and that of others, in his art. Her curiosity has an edge. Back in 1996, when she asked whether he based his characters on real people, he said, “Essentially, yes, with some small changes”—an assertion repeated so often in articles about him that it attained the status of fact. Sebald told Angier about the man on whom he based Dr. Henry Selwyn, the protagonist of one of the four stories in The Emigrants. In the story, the narrator and his wife rent rooms in a British manor owned by Dr. Selwyn, a courtly and eccentric recluse, and his wife. Doctor and narrator become friends, and eventually Selwyn divulges his secret: He is actually a Jew from a village near Grodno, in what used to be the Russian empire (now Belarus), who came to England as a child in 1899. A short time after Selwyn makes this confession, the narrator and his wife learn of his grim death.
The main difference between Dr. Selwyn and the doctor who was in fact Sebald’s landlord, Sebald said, is that the real doctor told him about Grodno “sooner than I say in the story,” and “very cursorily.” Sebald already suspected something anyway, because at his landlord’s Christmas party he met “one very incongruous lady,” whom his landlord introduced as his sister from Tel Aviv.
In 2014, Angier arrived at the door of Abbotsford, the home of the model for Selwyn, the late Dr. Philip Rhoades Buckton. There she talked with members of his family and discovered that Sebald had flat-out lied. Buckton was not Jewish. He did not come from Grodno. He had no sister in Tel Aviv. He came from Cheshire and “didn’t have a Jewish bone in his body,” Angier writes.
Sebald had told Angier that he’d invented the minor details in The Emigrants, not the major ones. Instead, it is the story’s minor details—which are Gothic and implausible—that turn out to be true to life. The narrator first spots Selwyn facedown on the grounds of his decaying estate, counting blades of grass. Yes, Buckton lay on his lawn to examine insects, plants, sometimes even blades of grass. The narrator used a strange exterior bathroom that teetered on columns and was reachable only by a footbridge. Yes, the bathroom was there until it was torn down. Then there’s the maid in the story, who wears “her hair shorn high up the nape, as the inmates of asylums do,” and croons all night long. The daughter-in-law confirms that the maid looked like that and mumbled to herself, then adds, “But he didn’t have to say so.” Nor did he have to advertise the particulars of Buckton’s death, a move that enraged the family. What they do not mind, or so they say, is that Sebald turned their paterfamilias into a Jew. “We have many close Jewish friends,” says Esther, a daughter.
Angier minds, though, or is at least confused: “What was Sebald doing in his interviews?” Sebald can’t have just forgotten that Buckton wasn’t Jewish. Of course, improving on life is what novelists do, and authors often don’t want to come clean about their sources. But the context of Sebald’s borrowings raises troubling ethical questions. As the husband of Buckton’s granddaughter asked Angier: Couldn’t Sebald’s embellishment of the truth and his confusing use of photographs, when he wrote about the Holocaust, encourage its deniers?
Sebald told a less innocent lie too. When Angier asked how he dealt with his models’ possible objections, he said he showed them his manuscripts, and if they were unhappy, he didn’t publish. “This whole business of usurping someone else’s life bothers me,” he told Angier in the 1996 interview. “But—unless they’re dead—I ask them.”
Untrue again. Sebald usurped a lot of lives, and he didn’t always ask permission. One example among others involves his character Jacques Austerlitz in Austerlitz (2001), Sebald’s final work of fiction, and his best-known. Austerlitz, an architectural historian prone to nervous breakdowns, believes himself to be the child of a dour Welsh minister and his chilly wife. Only when he is well into his 50s does he learn that he is really a Jew from Prague brought to London at the age of 4 on a Kindertransport, a train that carried Eastern-European Jewish children out of reach of the Nazis. Sebald based Austerlitz, in part, on a Kindertransport child from a Munich orphanage, Susi Bechhofer, who was also raised by a Welsh couple and recovered her identity late in life. She’d published a memoir, and when Austerlitz appeared in Germany, her publisher told her that the main character in the novel sounded very similar to her. She wrote to Sebald. He confirmed that he had availed himself of her history in Austerlitz and later sent her a copy of the translation. She was shocked. “This was her story,” Angier writes. “Here was her home in Wales, her minister father, her years in boarding school, her parents’ silence. Worst of all, here were the most traumatic moments of her life” reproduced almost exactly—the moments when she learned “that she wasn’t who she thought she was.” Bechhofer published an angry article in the Sunday Times called “Stripped of My Tragic Past by a Bestselling Author.” She planned to ask Sebald to acknowledge his debt, but he died before she could. Her lawyer asked his publisher, but nothing came of that.
Is this a theft worth worrying about? It’s not technically plagiarism, and Sebald’s pirating of Bechhofer’s life is less injurious than, say, the revenge fiction Philip Roth wrote about his ex-wives. You could give Sebald a pass on the grounds that Bechhofer herself had made her life public. But Sebald expropriated more brazenly for another of the stories in The Emigrants, “Max Ferber.” Ferber, a painter of spectral portraits made by the repeated application and rubbing-off of charcoal, is another Jew who came to London as a child, in flight from the Nazis; he remembers his past only in fragments. As an artist, Ferber shared many traits with the painter Frank Auerbach, also a refugee from Nazi Germany and also furious about having his identity pilfered. But like Bechhofer, Auerbach was a public figure. Sebald’s other source for Ferber’s backstory, his good friend Peter Jordan, was a private citizen.
Ferber’s family and the details of his escape are faithful re-creations of Jordan’s. Both sets of parents were deported from Munich in 1941; the fathers of both were art dealers who were interned in Dachau. The boys fled Munich in the same way, by flying alone to London, and attended similar boarding schools. The resemblances aren’t the problem, though. In this case, Sebald did show Jordan a work in progress. Sebald even asked for corrections. But as Jordan shared his story with Sebald, he also loaned him family memoirs, including one by an aunt, Thea Gebhardt, about her childhood before the war. Sebald plundered many of Thea’s “best bits,” in Angier’s words, enhancing here, subtracting there, and adding two romantic interludes. He attributed the passages to Ferber’s mother.
What’s striking is that they constitute the thickest description of German Jewish life in Sebald’s oeuvre. His Jewish characters tend not to have recourse to the past; their memories are what history has suppressed. But Ferber’s mother, courtesy of Gebhardt’s memoir, evokes the daily life of a bourgeois family that is comfortably both German and Jewish. We see green-velvet armchairs, a china swan, a silver menorah, newspapers, the works of the Jewish poet Heinrich Heine “ornately bound in red with golden tendrils of vine.” The children go to a Christian nursery school, though they skip the morning prayers. Ferber’s mother writes of a favorite long family walk on the Sabbath during the summer or, “if it is too hot,” of just sitting with other Jewish families. In the shade of a chestnut tree, the men drink beer, the children lemonade. There are “Sabbath loaves” (presumably challahs) and salted (most likely kosher) beef. After that, they go to synagogue.
Where would Sebald have found such rich material, if not in the recollections of Jordan’s aunt? He grew up in a world without Jews. No one spoke of them “at home or at school,” Angier writes. “I never even knew what a Jew was,” his sister Gertrud tells Angier. During Sebald’s childhood, Germans remained closemouthed about two of the great horrors of the war: the genocide of the Jews and the wholesale destruction of German cities. The silence was “so complete that for the first eight years of his life, in the village of Wertach, and for several more in the small town of Sonthofen, he had no conscious knowledge” of these calamities. And yet, Sebald wrote, even as a small child he sensed “some sort of emptiness somewhere.” Angier says that Jordan, whom he met when he was 22, was the first Jewish refugee he came to know, and that the friendship was a turning point for Sebald, “the moment he saw that historical events had happened not to numbers or even names, but to real people who had lived across the landing.”
Jordan didn’t foresee that Sebald would pass Gebhardt’s memoir off as his own writing without attribution. That upset him. Sebald “should not have used it so closely without crediting it,” he tells Angier. Weighing the evidence, Angier decides that most of Sebald’s purloined histories amount to run-of-the-mill authorial borrowing, but in extreme cases like Bechhofer’s, she wonders: “Can there be any defense of Sebald here, with his special empathy for Jewish victims, and his special awareness of the moral dangers of a German writing about them?” Her answer is no. She thinks he should have attached a short note at the beginning or end. “It wouldn’t destroy the effect of his story to let us know that it is a fiction, and that real people stand behind it,” she writes. “He is no longer here to make the decision. But his publishers could.”
I’m not sure such a decision is called for. The effect of Sebald’s stories has everything to do with the seamless weave of embroidery and fact. Disentangling the sources from the finished product is the job of a biographer, not a reader.
Did Sebald commit acts of what we now call cultural appropriation? Yes, but to condemn him for that would be to miss the layers of meaning that complicate moral judgment. Sebald, in writing about Jews, wasn’t writing only about Jews. He was also writing about their absence—both from postwar Germany and, for those Jews who survived the Holocaust, from their own former selves. Nazi Germany forced into exile or murdered half a million German Jews and millions more elsewhere; it stole or burned hundreds of years of European Jewish culture. And it cut survivors off from, well, everything.
Angier notes that the most important things in Sebald’s fiction “are almost invisible, almost inexistent.” Perhaps the most consequential “almost invisible, almost inexistent” feature of his work is the Jewishness that his notably de-Judaicized characters have lost. His accounts of Jewish amnesia, without betraying the unique Jewish ordeal, share a root system, as it were, with German amnesia. The condition of not-knowing-yet-knowing that he attributes to some Jewish characters is sufficiently evocative of the national fugue state blanketing his childhood that we should not ignore the parallel, whether Sebald was conscious of it or not.
Absence is not just Sebald’s theme; it’s the essence of his style. Absence makes itself felt in Sebald’s gorgeously hollowed prose, richer in literary references than in the things of this world. The emptiness and silence of his childhood reproduce themselves in the unpeopled landscapes through which his characters wander. The present is vacuous, a vessel for the past, and the dead are more real than the living. In The Rings of Saturn (1995), Jozef Korzeniowski (later Joseph Conrad) perceives the “bombastic buildings” of the Belgian capital as nothing more than “a hecatomb of black bodies”—that is, of the millions of Congolese who died under Belgian colonial rule. As for Austerlitz, one Sunday morning he follows a porter into the bowels of London’s Liverpool Street Station for no reason he can explain and comes upon an abandoned ladies’ waiting room, the very room in which, an eternity ago, he sat waiting to be adopted. In the dusty gray light of the disused room, he sees himself, a small child clutching a rucksack, and the grim, unhappy couple who came to get him and divorce him from his Jewish past. Now long dead, they are dressed in the style of the ’30s, “a woman in a light gabardine coat with a hat at an angle on her head, and a thin man beside her wearing a dark suit and a dog collar.” This is a time in his life, he has just finished saying, when “the dead were returning from their exile and filling the twilight around me with their strangely slow but incessant to-ing and fro-ing.”
Contributing to the otherworldliness of Sebald’s narratives is the way that his characters float outside time. They can’t quite grab hold of the defining ruptures of their life. “I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood,” Austerlitz says. That sense of timelessness can follow a trauma. Angier tells us that Sebald often talked about an event in his childhood that he hadn’t been able to register when it occurred—a trauma, in short. This was the moment he learned the fate of the Jews. Angier summarizes the incident, but it’s worth reading Sebald’s own words, because they are so oddly depersonalized. In a 2001 interview (not with Angier), Sebald described how German schools dealt with the Holocaust in the 1960s: High-school students watched a documentary comprising footage of the liberation of the camps. With no preparation beforehand or discussion after, the teenagers saw mounds of emaciated corpses being bulldozed into mass graves, and other unassimilable horrors. “So, you know, it was a sunny June afternoon,” Sebald recalled, and “you would go and play football because you didn’t really know what you should do with it.”
I have to add a footnote here. Angier concludes that the film was “almost certainly” Death Mills, but doesn’t bring up the most shocking fact about this documentary: It never once mentions the Jews. The voice-over refers vaguely to victims from “all the nations of Europe, of all religious faiths, all political beliefs condemned by Hitler because they were anti-Nazi.” Sebald may not have remembered that the movie amounted to a further erasure of the Jews. But “these experiences lay down a sediment in you that somehow moves on, pushes itself on, like the moraine in front of a glacier,” he told another interviewer. You have to wonder whether this silence wrapped around a silence made the unspeakable more potent, and even harder to speak of. Like the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who took the same approach in his documentary Shoah (1985), Sebald refrained from trying to portray the horror of life after deportation, with one exception. In Austerlitz, he recounts how the Nazis forced the inmates of Theresienstadt, a way station to the camps, to disguise it as a resort for prominent Jews in order to fool visitors from the Red Cross. I take his inclusion of this grotesque farce as a caustic attack on attempts to reenact the concentration-camp universe. The only way to represent the unimaginable was to respect its unimaginability, to limit the audience’s experience to the truth of non-experience. Anything else would be monstrous.
And yet this scrupulous author went ahead and stole the life histories of actual Jews. Why? Angier never quite explains Sebald’s need to be underhanded, perhaps because it’s inexplicable. But to the degree that Sebald culturally appropriated (if that’s what you want to call it), I believe that, for him, understanding the Jewish quest for an obliterated past was inextricable from the work of excavation required to recover a usable German present. Literature is parasitical, sometimes in disturbing ways, and that is a source of its power.
I do sense an anxiety behind Sebald’s compulsion to be oblique in his fiction, an impression reinforced when I encountered its opposite in his essay “Air War and Literature,” included in a volume called On the Natural History of Destruction, published in English in 2003. Part investigation and part denunciation of the Allied firebombing of German cities, the essay—his most controversial piece of writing—lingers on scenes of human wreckage that are more explicitly gruesome than anything else Sebald ever wrote. We read of corpses “roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size”; “the remains of families” that “could be carried away in a single laundry basket”; mothers who lugged their dead children around in suitcases; the stench; the rats, maggots, and flies, “huge and iridescent green,” that fed on rotting flesh.
Perhaps Sebald could dwell on details like these because he felt a direct connection to this collective German tragedy, having experienced the inferno himself, albeit from a very peculiar position—that is, from the womb. While she was pregnant with him, his mother watched Nuremberg go up in flames from a nearby village, a scene whose uncanny and lasting effect on him he described in his poem “After Nature.” And he saw the aftermath firsthand—“houses between mountains of rubble,” he once wrote, describing a childhood trip through Munich. Though in the essay Sebald relied on the accounts of those who had been there, he wasn’t usurping. He didn’t need periscopic figures of speech, because he couldn’t be accused of capitalizing on the pain of others—of the most taboo Other in his universe. The firebombings were his disaster.
Shortly before he died, Sebald gave his last talk, “An Attempt at Restitution,” a typically Sebaldian ramble through places and historical events. Toward the end, he chronicles the wanderings of the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who was born in the late 18th century, a time “when the hope that mankind could improve and learn was inscribed in handsomely formed letters in our philosophical firmament.” Yet Hölderlin felt estranged from his native land, “as if he guessed at the coming dark turn” that history would take. Sebald notes that at one point the poet happened to pass through a French town where, a century after his death, a division of the SS rounded up the inhabitants, sent some of them to labor camps, and hung 99 men from balconies and lampposts.
“What is literature good for?” Sebald asks in his talk, and answers: “Perhaps only to help us to remember, and teach us to understand that some strange connections cannot be explained by causal logic.” He continues, “There are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts.” In On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald recited the facts; in his novels, he set out to make the “strange connections” that transform them into something more memorable. If Sebald the man ransacked lives unscrupulously, Sebald the artist did so with superb literary tact. He saved both the living and the dead from the oblivion of a purely physical death, and gave them an afterlife that—one hopes—will haunt us forever.
This article appears in the November 2021 print edition with the headline “W. G. Sebald, Usurper of Lives.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.