It is tempting to wonder if the refusal to cooperate is linked to Angier herself. His biography of Primo Levi has been much criticized for its intrusive and overconfident psychologization, and for having too much Angier in it: to a lesser extent, his work on Sebald has some of the same problems.
She dramatizes her interviews with her sources; she writes in the presumptuous subjunctive (“He would have thought…”) and hovers solicitously over the young Sebald on his arrival in Friborg (“I imagine lending him the 1928 Baedeker guide to Switzerland…”). And although she follows the consensus that Sebald’s life was profoundly affected by three events – the Holocaust, the Allied bombings of German cities and the death of her beloved grandfather – she has her own theories about his personality. .
On the basis of his adolescent shyness with girls, for example – nothing unusual in a Catholic in the 1950s one might think – of a passage from an unpublished novel where the substitute author is proposed by a man, and the recurrence of homosexuality-ish themes, Angier wonders if Sebald was secretly afraid of being gay. The biographer’s alchemy transforms what can only be guessed into fact; fortunately, however, Angier does not then try to make it the key to everything.
Although Angier writes with warmth, not hostility – she can be boring at times, but never obnoxious – her response to some of Sebald’s idiosyncrasies may seem a bit overinvested. He enjoyed telling great stories, especially when he was young, and seems to have viewed interviews, like his books, as an opportunity to blur the lines between fact and fiction. Angier herself interviewed him once and seems personally aggrieved by it.
Yet despite the occasional gotcha tone, Angier’s discoveries sharpen our sense of artistry, the transformative processes behind all writing. It is fascinating to learn that the models of Henry Selwyn and Cosmo Solomon in The emigrants were not Jews, and that in Saturn’s rings some of the seemingly real characters who share the page with Kurt Waldheim and Empress Tz’u-hsi never existed.
Some of the real people whose stories have made their way into Sebald’s books aren’t thrilled with how they’ve been portrayed, but that’s what the writers do, as Angier herself says. She is more disturbed, reasonably enough, by the unacknowledged use of Sebald, in Austerlitz, from Susi Bechhofer’s memoir on the Kindertransport, which distressed her greatly: when asked about it, Sebald’s reaction was rather jaded.
Sebald does not seem to have distinguished between his technique of weaving the prose of classic writers – Kafka, Thomas Browne, Stendhal – into his own, and this kind of theft. Perhaps one should not be too shocked that the memoirist of the victims of history can be so ruthless: these literary critical eliminations show his steely and combative side, although the tributes to his kindness and gentleness do not not missing either.
To Angier’s flaws and eccentricities are added real strengths: his lack of detachment must also be what gives his writing all its eloquence and verve. She is particularly interesting about the working aspects of the book, the revisions and rewrites, and how the German was transformed into English, by Sebald and the people listed as his translators: the secretary of the German department at the ‘UEA appears here as the invisible heroic woman, refining idioms and vocabulary.
Biographies can tell us all kinds of interesting things to know about cultural background, literary politics, and the psychology of creativity. But nothing Angier did with life, however precious, dispels the strangeness and aura of Sebald’s books.