On Sebald’s “Self-Protective Porkies”: An Interview with Carole Angier

by Andrew Koenig

Carole Angier has written award-winning biographies of Jean Rhys and Primo Levi, and this summer saw the release of her third biography, Speak, Silence: In Search of W. G. Sebald. Recently, Angier sat down with me (on Zoom) to talk all things Sebald. We discussed the controversial, genre-bending, and inimitable work of the “inveterate fictionalizer,” his fraught relationship to the German literary establishment, and his legacy as one of the great writers of the Jewish refugee experience.

Andrew Koenig: How did you first encounter Sebald?

Carole Angier: When I read The Emigrants, like so many people, I was just completely bowled over. So I moved heaven and earth to get somebody to allow me to interview him. The Jewish Quarterly agreed. So I went up to the University of East Anglia in 1996, just after The Emigrants came out in English, and interviewed him then. I did interview him one more time, after The Rings of Saturn came out in 1998.

I can’t say he was a friend, but he was wonderful. He was, I thought at the time, extremely forthcoming. He was very kind and thoughtful, very funny, told me masses of things, all of which I believed. It turned out that some of them I shouldn’t have believed because he was an inveterate fictionalizer. But he was terrific, and I fell for him as a person as much as a writer, although he was extremely gloomy in person, as well as on the page. He played the gloom bucket. He turned this genuine disposition into a performance, so that most people thought it was just a performance, but it wasn’t.

The last time that we spoke was when Austerlitz came out. I rang him to congratulate him in October of 2001, a few months before he died, and he was absolutely, totally himself. I said Max, congratulations! You’re getting such wonderful reviews, you know, universal praise! And he said, Oh, yes … And I’m going to have to go to America. He just looked at all the dark sides, you know, making fun of himself as he did it.

I certainly had no idea at the time that I would ever write about him—and more, that I would want to write about him—because he was my age. It never occurred to me that he was going to die, that he would be somebody whose story was a whole story, because biography has to be like that, unless you’re a twenty-one-year-old sports star or something.

AK: How much was his gloominess a true reflection of his personality, and how much was it a literary persona that he cultivated?

CA: Sebald was, as I say, a fictionalizer. He was always turning everything into stories, so he turned himself into a story, too. We all have to present ourselves. The question is really not do you present yourself? It is do you present yourself honestly or not? Are you presenting something which is fake and false? My sense is that he didn’t present anything fake or false. He was deeply pessimistic, and this pessimism and gloom of his grew intensely throughout the 1990s, the years of his literary writing. And during those years, all of his friends and his family attest that he became darker in his view of the world, of life, and of history and the future. So I would say that his narrator’s personality was very close to his genuine personality.

AK: You call him an inveterate fictionalizer. I think that’s a diplomatic way of putting it. I did occasionally wonder when reading this book: when does this just become lying?

CA: I was lucky enough to be edited by Bill Swainson, who was Max’s own editor. When he was editing the book, Bill said to me, Um, I wonder whether you should use this word “lying,” because it’s a serious charge. And I said to him, I understand that, but he did lie on a couple of occasions, so I’m going to say so.

I think when it comes to the things he said to interviewers—not only me, but also James Wood, who is a most important Sebald scholar and critic—Max also told him some of the same porkies, as we call them. For example, he conveyed to me by the stories he told that the model for Dr. Henry Selwyn [of The Emigrants] was a Jewish refugee. That was not the case. And when I put this into my interview, and it was then repeated by various people, the way that interviews get repeated, it very much distressed the family—not that they minded his being a Jew, but they minded the whole distortion of his story.

The other point at which he completely lied was to several people who interviewed him about Austerlitz. He told them definitively that the photograph on the cover of the book—that marvelous photograph of the boy, Austerlitz, age four—was the genuine childhood photograph of his main model for the character. And this was simply false. The first person to discover that it wasn’t true was indeed James Wood, who found the original postcard in Max’s archive in Marbach, Germany, where his papers are lodged. And when I got there, I found it too, of course: a postcard that he bought for 30p—it says 30p on the corner.

Sebald was someone, as I say in my book (and he said it of himself), whose imagination—whose mind—was so powerful that it was his world. It completely affected what he thought was real. So he would say things like: “Memories affect me as powerfully as present experience. I almost can’t distinguish them; they move me in the same way.” It’s possible some element of this had to do with his extraordinary artist’s mind. But he cannot have forgotten that the photograph of Austerlitz was a secondhand postcard.

So, you know, those were lies. But are they terrible? He wanted readers to believe that these stories were real stories because that’s how he experienced them. However much he was in despair about recent German history, it was, as it was for many Germans, abstract agonizing, because they didn’t know any Jewish people, for appallingly obvious reasons—there weren’t any left in many parts of Germany. Where he grew up, he never met a Jewish person. It was only when he came to England that he met some Jewish people, and to him this was a revelation. He knew perfectly well that they were real people, but he met them, he liked them, he knew them. They were living right there, and they’d lived in Munich, where he lived, and they’d skied on the same hills that he skied on. He had this terribly vivid experience of the revelation of meeting a real person, and he wanted to reproduce that experience for his readers. That was one of the sources of that extraordinary innovation of his of putting photographs in works of fiction—because he wished people to understand, to feel: These are real people—look at them! And that’s why he told these untruths to his interviewers. And I don’t think that’s so terrible. If we get onto the business of how he treated some of his models, that’s a different question, I think.

AK: I want to come back to that, but first about the photos. When I read Austerlitz, one of the pictures that really struck me is a yearbook photo of Austerlitz in high school. He’s leaning back, he’s blond and extremely handsome in this photo, but it’s not actually him. It’s interesting to read Speak, Silence and find out that some of the impressions that are most vivid to me from having read Sebald’s work are the very moments where he was fictionalizing or falsifying or doctoring, or whatever you want to call it.

CA: It had to be the case because these are fictional characters. Of course Austerlitz doesn’t exist. That’s the extraordinary trick that he’s performing—he’s making the reader feel, as you felt, wow, this is a real person. But, of course, he can’t be a real person. It’s a fictional character. You know the standard novelist’s procedure—they take bits from various people. There often are models for fictional characters—multiple models or single models. So basically, he was just a novelist. Of course, he wasn’t a novelist because he didn’t write novels, and he was very clear about that, and he was right. His books don’t have standard plots, they don’t have dialogue, they’re very unlike standard novels, which is one reason why people find them initially quite puzzling, and always astounding. But he worked like a novelist in that way. And that’s what’s so extraordinary: his readers have to go through this sort of paradoxical experience. He often says to interviewers that he intends this, that he introduces doubt about the photographs quite deliberately. So, for example, in “Max Ferber” in The Emigrants, there is a photograph that he talks about at some length, which is a fake photograph of a book burning at Würzburg. Well, there was a book burning in Würzburg, but this wasn’t a photograph of it. It was an adapted photograph of it. He’s telling you what he’s doing: What I’m telling you are true, true stories—distressingly true stories that I want you to believe—but the method that I’m using to make you believe in the stories is a trick.

AK: This habit he has of making composites of several different stories and calling that a particular person’s life is something novelists do all the time and it’s not objectionable. But his ability to make us believe in the truth of these stories is so powerful. Even if it’s irrational, you feel a slight sense of betrayal finding out that that photo, which you thought was real, is a fake.

CA: You might feel misled or cheated because you’ve had such a powerful experience of the reality of these people, which is what Sebald wanted to produce. This is what happened when people read The Emigrants, which is the work that raises this question most acutely. It’s my own personal favorite, partly for that reason. People were so blown away by the complete convincingness of it. The only trouble is that the stories are Holocaust stories, or post-Holocaust stories. You could say: well, should he have used this tricky fictionalizing method—faking, as it were—when telling these horrible stories? This is a problem I try and grapple with in the book. I really don’t know the final answer to it. I think that it’s well worth what he did because, no matter what the logical traps are that we might come across and stumble over, in the end, they are just such powerful, moving stories.

AK: To put the most uncharitable construction possible on The Emigrants, you might say it’s a German author appropriating the narrative of Jewish people who lived through the Holocaust.

CA: The problem you raise about a German telling Jewish stories was one he was reminded of all the time, particularly in Germany. His huge success is really in the British-American world. In Germany he’s quite problematic, and one reason is that intellectuals and the literati are hypersensitive about the relationship between Germans and Jewish stories. They take the line that you enunciate as a possible one: that he is a German who purloins Jewish stories. But because he was so aware of it, he was terribly careful. In other words, he never tells a Jewish story. It’s always the Jewish character survivor who’s telling the narrator the story, and the narrator’s just, as it were, reporting it, passing it on.

The other thing is that he never ever enters the camps. He never portrays violence or atrocities or anything like that. The people he writes about are refugees who got away. He doesn’t write about concentration camp prisoners at the time of their imprisonment, at the time of their suffering. He writes about the refugees, the ones who partake in what he partook in, which is survivor’s guilt. He always said that he couldn’t understand—he was this young man growing up in this very peaceful part of the southern German Bavarian Alps, far away from the war. And while he was being this perfectly privileged happy child, these appalling atrocities were going on, perpetrated by his countrymen. And he couldn’t ever compute that. He said, I don’t know how I deserved it—how did I deserve being the one who could grow up in that peaceful setting?

AK: That reminds me of a passage from The Emigrants: Luisa Lanzburg’s diary in “Max Ferber” about her idyllic upbringing before moving away and losing everything. That, for me, most succinctly captures this problem of plagiarism or retelling stories that belong to someone else, because the original was in writing—writing that was circulated to Sebald, that he was able to borrow from, occasionally verbatim. And again, this is what I remember most clearly about that book. It’s an unbelievable twenty pages.

CA: But he makes those twenty pages wonderful. As I say in my book, it’s true, there was a memoir given to him by his great friend Peter Jordan, who was his landlord in Manchester when he came as a twenty-two-year-old, written in the 1960s by Peter Jordan’s aunt, Thea Gebhardt, who had survived the war in Switzerland. Max said, this is brilliant. So he took all the best bits. I mean, not all of that memoir is brilliant, not by any means; she wasn’t a writer. She had a very vivid way of describing this background and a lot of it was terrific, but only patches of it were terrific. So he used some of those terrific bits and didn’t use all the other bits, so that his twenty pages are completely, concentratedly, as you say, so vivid and moving and extraordinary that that’s almost the main thing you remember from “Max Ferber.” He transforms and turns it exactly the same way that he transforms the account of the Kindertransport child whom he uses for Austerlitz. She wrote a book too, and he used some of it, but he transforms it. He turns it into not just great art but also great history and great observation, which neither of them really did. Well, Thea Gebhardt was a great observer, but Susi Bechhofer, who was the Kindertransport child, her book is, although a moving book, not a good book. It’s not literature.

So is this a terrible thing that he did? One of the things that makes the Thea Gebhardt steal, or borrowing, more dubious is the fact that it was unpublished. Susi Bechhofer’s book was a published book. You can always find out what she wrote; it’s got her own name on it. All the great critics say Sebald’s books are tissues of quotation and borrowing from great writers, Kafka especially. But Kafka can stand up for himself. We all know who Kafka was and many people will recognize the bits. That’s how Max thought of it as: as a homage to Kafka or to Bernhard or Joseph Roth. Whereas, in the case of Thea Gebhardt, because it was an unpublished memoir and she was an unknown person, it can’t be seen as homage. It is a borrowing. There is a moral dilemma about it, and I face that moral dilemma in the book. Certainly, one thing that he could have done would have been to have a note in The Emigrants, at the beginning perhaps, saying that he had drawn on testimonies, and even naming Thea Gebhardt, and that her testimony is one of the sources for the Luiza Lanzberg diary. He could have done that. I don’t think it would have really harmed his story, do you?

AK: If there were a prefatory note at the beginning of that book it would, maybe, prime you to receive the book a little bit differently than just opening it up and entering this haze of reflections and eerie reminiscences. But, no, I don’t think it would have compromised his art. His reasons may not have been the best for that particular omission.

CA: There are those who attack him and those who defend him. I’m amongst those who basically defend him because I think that he transformed these sources in a way that only he could and made them into great art. That’s my defense: it’s great art, and it’s worth preserving like that. I defend him on the whole, but these are legitimate worries to have about his method.

AK: You’ve mentioned the divergent reception Sebald has had in Germany and the Anglophone world. I wanted to ask you about his own views of Germany versus England. As you describe in Speak, Silence, Sebald left Germany. He couldn’t stand being there. Every time he would go back for various possible posts or visits they were inevitably cut short or he would go back to England. Why England? How did that form him? It’s easy enough to understand why he felt that German culture was hypocritical. Since you yourself have, as you put it, become more British over time, were you able to connect with that strand of the narrative? What did that move do to his writing and his career that wouldn’t have happened if he had stayed?

CA: It was huge. He was always very modest and sort of self-doubting about why he had left Germany and said it was largely a practical thing, that he needed to earn more money and he was offered more money faster in in the UK. But [the move] clearly was related to his deep guilt and dissatisfaction and despair about Germany and about his father’s generation and what had happened. And, of course, this was shared by his whole generation, at least by the university students. He wasn’t alone in it, but I think he was alone because he took it to heart in the most literal sense, more than anyone. It really destroyed him. If you see photographs of Sebald throughout his life, you can see that this is somebody who is aging in the most extreme way. By the time he was in his late 50s—he died at 57—he looked like a man of 70. And that’s unusual. I think that he suffered from what he knew had happened to an extreme degree.

AK: I think that shows up in the extreme morbidity of his writing. It’s almost as though he’s compensating for this cavalier attitude that a lot of Germans may have held after the war. I know that you’re a great defender of him, but one of my reservations about his work has been this overwhelming apocalyptic vision which is, right now, popular with people for obvious reasons.

CA: I quote a friend of his who admires and loves him but said to me: Max took his own personal situation or feelings about his life and turned them into a vision of general human life, whereas it really was just his own personal sufferings. There’s some truth in that. But on the other hand, I don’t think he was wrong either, alas.

AK: You acknowledge at the very beginning of the book that, although his widow didn’t obstruct in any way the writing of this book, she didn’t assist or cooperate in it. I assume the same to be the case with his daughter. You’ve written biographies before. What particular challenges did you face in writing this one, when this crucial pair of people wouldn’t really talk to you about him?

CA: My biography is about his inner life. It’s about his life as an artist—what he was thinking, what he told us about what he was thinking. And that’s not to do with his daily life. His marriage is a marriage, like any marriage. I’m sure it was full of trouble. The man was a genius and a depressive—it must’ve been hell to live with him. In the end I was rather glad, to tell you the truth, that I had to leave that out, because it could only have been banal. And this is not to be rude about her, or about their relationship, but it was a marriage—good, bad, or indifferent. What was important about him was what he what he was writing about, what he was telling us, and why he told us, and how he told us. Not being able to describe [his personal life] almost helped my biography.

AK: Some of the chapters go by date and some are named after particular people. How did you arrive at your particular organization for the book?

CA: Biographies are essentially linear—they must be essentially chronological because you’re telling a life. A life grows, and a person grows and builds upon the past, so you can’t mess around with the subject’s life too much. You’ve got to respect it and you’ve got to respect readers as well; readers want to know what happened in what order. But one of the great things about Sebald’s work is that it is completely nonlinear, and he has an obsession with the disruption of time. Time doesn’t go in one direction in Sebald’s books. “You know, the future is in the past,” Max said, “the future is in the past.” Austerlitz’s great desire is for time not to operate just in one line. He wants to be able to go back in time. He wants to be able to meet people in the past, he wants to be able to meet the dead. In other words, it’s important to Sebald’s vision that time not be linear and that time should be disrupted, so I wanted to do something like that in my in my biography of him as well, without disturbing the basic chronological structure. I therefore decided to fillet those stories in. I want people to look behind those stories and think about them as we’ve been doing. But the essential reason why I wanted to disrupt the chronology a bit was because it was so important in his own work.

AK: And his own life didn’t follow a conventional trajectory. He had this very eventful youth and then he entered an academic career for two decades, with his occasional tirades and bad-boy reputation. His fame came very suddenly and only for a short period before he died.

CA: He said that he started his literary writing to escape his academic routine. It was something he told a porky about—a self-protective porky. He started his literary writing because he had a massive breakdown. He often had disturbed periods in his life, the first one being when he was seventeen or eighteen. He had another terrible disturbance at twenty-two, when he first arrived in Manchester, and at thirty-five he had another very severe, difficult period of distress. Don’t forget that Austerlitz, at the end, is somebody who is in permanent, desperate breakdown, and Max was writing out of his own experience here. When he finally did start his writing, it was because he was tipped over into being like Max Ferber—dealing with the trauma. This is writing that’s all about trauma, and it deals with his own traumas, historical and personal.

What I really want to convey is the fact that Sebald suffered desperately. He was in no way trying to clothe himself falsely—which some people have accused him of, particularly in Germany—with borrowed gravity and tragedy which was not his, just to make his own work significant. He wrote out of the intense distress that he experienced throughout his life and that worsened as he got older. He was born with this extreme artist’s sensibility. Experience was overwhelming to him. Where other people could cope with experience—take it in but not be destroyed by it, know that their father was a Nazi soldier without it destroying their whole lives—well, he couldn’t. He tried.

He doesn’t write novels partly because he’s not writing about society, he’s not writing about human relationships in ordinary ways. His human relationships are all disastrous in the books. It’s about time, it’s about space. He wants time and space to disappear, to merge, so that you feel other times and other spaces and characters in his books. He wanted to break down the barriers between people, between times and places. He wasn’t just a writer—he was a mystic and a visionary.

Carole Angier’s Speak, Silence: In Search of W. G. Sebald  is available from Bloomsbury now.

Published on December 8, 2021