There’s nothing in this country we love to do more than to tear down our heroes. And what better place to do it than in a book review?
I tend to shy away from writing book reviews because they tend to say much more about the reviewer than they ever do about the book itself. So keen is the reviewer to demonstrate that they know just as much, or usually far more, than the person who’s actually written the book, that they tend to be incredibly wearing and uninformative. Invariable the reviewer knows the author of the book, and therefor doesn’t always give an honest opinion.
You know him as W G Sebald. I know him as Max. Max Sebald was killed in a car crash near Norwich in 2001. I remember the shock I felt at the time. I didn’t know as one of the country’s greatest literary figures and authors, I knew him as a friend. He never taught me at my time at the University of East Anglia in the early to mid 1980s, but we got to know each other. He was professor of German literature, and studying German literature was not part of my degree. He was the sort of man who radiated greatness. A striking physical figure, his walrus moustache endowed him with an authority few could match. His intellect could be intimidating, but he a common touch and an outrageous sense of humour. When I was at UEA he didn’t have the public profile that he was later to have.
And so when I was reading this week’s issue of The Spectator I was interested to see that a new biography of Max, called SPEAK, SILENCE: IN SEARCH OF W G SEBALD by Carole Angier was being reviewed by Lucasta Miller, the writer and literary journalist. I hadn’t known about the book, so I read Miller’s review with interest. It should be noted that she herself was awarded a Phd at UEA six years after Max’s death.
I clearly haven’t read Carole Angier’s book, but I have read Lucasta Miller’s review. Having read the review it rather put me off buying the book, as Miller concentrates on Angier’s uncovering of Sebald’s apparent difficulty with the acutalite, in some of his interviews, when discussing the provenance of some of his literary characters. By the end of the review you’re left with the impression he was some sort of pathological literary liar.
I then turned to Amazon to see if anyone had reviewed the book. Amazon reviews can be intemperate works of fiction in themselves, but the first review turned out to be a far more insightful read than the one offered in The Spectator. Written by someone called Gumbel’s Yard (OK, I know…) it seemed to offer a genuine insight into the book by detailing its themes, its variety and its conclusions. Miller, in mainly concentrating on one aspect of Angier’s findings failed to do that.
Angier did, admittedly, face an uphill task in writing the biography given Sebald’s wife Ute wouldn’t cooperate with the book and she was prevented from quoting from his books and interviews, apart from ‘fair usage’. And at 650 pages in length, it’s a bit of a doorstop, although as Gumbel’s Yard notes, 200 of those pages are footnotes.
Miller in her review finishes with these words
Does recognising this problematic moral hinterland mean we have to reject his work and its seeming empathy with Jewish characters? Certainly not. Its extraordinary literary qualities are ambiguously enhanced by our knowledge of his tortured relationship both with truth and with himself.
Well thank heavens for small mercies. I mean, perish the thought that all writers should have any personal or moral flaws… It’s not for book reviewers to try to moralise like this and tell us who we should or shouldn’t read. Personally, I don’t really want to read a biography of a perfectly behaved moral example to us all. But in my experience, Max Sebald was someone any of us should be looking up to. He was the best of us.
Ruth Spaeth has written a much longer, a very much longer review of Angier's book on the New Republic website, which you can read here. Now this really was what a book review should be like. It actually reviewed the book - warts and all. It finishes with these words...
Sebald died before he could see the upheavals wrought by terrorism, then economic collapse, then right-wing nationalism, then climate disaster. He had more foresight than most because he did not let his backward gaze waver. The boy he once was, like the boy peering at Jacques Austerlitz, expected something of him. So all the dead expect something of us, too.
A literary biography is not something I would normally read, but I’ve just ordered the book. I’ll post an update to this article once I’ve read it.