It is tempting to wonder if the refusal to co-operate has to do with Angier herself. Her biography of Primo Levi was much criticised for its intrusive, over-confident psychologising, and for having too much Angier in it: to a lesser extent, her Sebald work has some of the same problems.
She dramatises her interviews with her sources; she writes in the presumptuous subjunctive mood (“He would have thought…“) and hovers solicitously over the young Sebald as he arrives in Fribourg (“I imagine lending him the 1928 Baedeker guide to Switzerland…”). And although she follows the consensus that Sebald’s life was deeply affected by three events – the Holocaust, the allied bombing of German cities, and the death of his adored grandfather – she has some theories of her own 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with girls, for example – nothing unusual in a Catholic in the 1950s, one might think – along with a passage from an unpublished novel where the author-surrogate is propositioned by a man, and the recurrence of gay-ish themes, Angier wonders if Sebald was secretly frightened of being homosexual. Biographer’s alchemy turns what can only be surmise into a fact; thankfully, however, Angier doesn’t then try to make it the key to everything.
Although Angier writes with warmth, not hostility – she might be annoying sometimes, but never odious – her response to some of Sebald’s idiosyncrasies can seem a little over-invested. He liked to spin tall tales, especially when he was young, and appears to have regarded interviews, like his books, as an opportunity to blur the lines between fact and fiction. Angier herself once interviewed him, and sounds personally aggrieved by this.
Still, despite the occasional gotcha tone, Angier’s findings do sharpen our sense of the art, the transformative processes behind all writing. It is intriguing to learn that the models for Henry Selwyn and Cosmo Solomon in The Emigrants were not Jewish, and that in The Rings of Saturn some of the apparently real characters who share the page with Kurt Waldheim and the Empress Tz’u-hsi never existed at all.
Some of the real people whose stories made their way into Sebald’s books turn out not to be thrilled with how they were portrayed, but then that is what writers do, as Angier herself says. She is more troubled, reasonably enough, by Sebald’s unacknowledged use, in Austerlitz, of Susi Bechhofer’s memoir of the Kindertransport, which distressed her greatly: when told of this, Sebald’s reaction was rather blasé.
Sebald doesn’t seem to have distinguished between his technique of weaving classic writers’ prose – Kafka, Thomas Browne, Stendhal – into his own, and this kind of theft. Perhaps one shouldn’t be too shocked that the memorialist of history’s victims could be so ruthless: those literary-critical takedowns show his steely, combative side, though there is also no lack of tributes to his kindness and gentleness.
Angier’s own shortcomings and eccentricities are matched by real strengths: her lack of detachment must also be what gives her writing its eloquence and verve. She is particularly interesting on the work aspects of the work, the revisions and rewritings, and how the German was turned to English, by Sebald and the people listed as his translators: the German department secretary at UEA emerges as the invisible heroic woman here, fine-tuning idioms and vocabulary.
Biographies can tell us all kinds of things worth knowing about cultural background and literary politics and the psychology of creativity. But nothing Angier has done with the life, however valuable, dispels the eeriness and aura of Sebald’s books.