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Publisher's Summary

Bloomsbury presents Speak, Silence by Carole Angier, read by Kristin Atherton.

The long-awaited first biography of W. G. Sebald - a TLS Summer Read.

W. G. Sebald was one of the most extraordinary and influential writers of the 20th century. Through books including The Emigrants, Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn, he pursued an original literary vision that combined fiction, history, autobiography and photography and addressed some of the most profound themes of contemporary literature: the burden of the Holocaust, memory, loss and exile.

The first biography to explore his life and work, Speak, Silence pursues the true Sebald through the memories of those who knew him and through the work he left behind. This quest takes Carole Angier from Sebald’s birth as a second-generation German at the end of the Second World War, through his rejection of the poisoned inheritance of the Third Reich, to his emigration to England, exploring the choice of isolation and exile that drove his work. It digs deep into a creative mind on the edge, finding profound empathy and paradoxical coldness, saving humour and an elusive mix of fact and fiction in his life as well as work. The result is a unique, ferociously original portrait that pushes the boundaries of biography just as its subject pushed the boundaries of fiction.

©2021 Carole Angier (P)2021 Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Critic Reviews

"Speak, Silence is an extraordinary achievement. Carole Angier has been able to capture the genius of Sebald without trapping him in facile definitions, allowing his portrait the many hues and changing angles that those who knew him will recognise as profoundly true." (Alberto Manguel)

"It is a considerable achievement to unpick, so convincingly, mysteries Sebald has taken care to contrive. And to do it with such respect, and indeed generosity, that the great originals are burnished." (Iain Sinclair) 

"Carole Angier extends the scope of biography by turning her intense admiration for Sebald’s work into a personal quest for this enigmatic and disturbing writer." (Hilary Spurling)

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  • Everyone'sacritic7
  • 01-13-22

Strange book, poorly read.

This is an "Unauthorised" biography, which means that many of the people who were closest to Sebald refused to cooperate with Angier, including, and especially, his wife. (Angier seems rather put out by this and, in a manner that could be interpreted as mean-spirited, barely mentions her). With such glaring and important gaps, its value as an account of Sebald's life and his personality is limited. Carole Angier's day job is as a literary critic, so she makes up what she lacks in biographical information by inferring the facts of Sebald's life and personality from his work. Given that Sebald was infamous for blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality, this is a tricky business and makes for some rather tendentious claims, particularly about the connection between Sebald's relationship with his father and his later obsession with the Holocaust.

It also makes the book a difficult one to follow. I love Sebald but have only read a couple of his novels and some of his essays. Consequently, the fact that the book alternates chapters of biography with others describing in minute detail the plots of short stories and novels from which Angier then draws her conclusions, makes it a jarring and, at times, frustrating read (or listen).

However, all of this would be made easier with a better reader. Kristin Atherton may be a good actor, but her reading is lugubrious, mannered to the point of affectation, and punctuated by bizarre pauses and emphases that do little to enhance the meaning of the words and, I feel sure, do not reflect the actual punctuation. Her tone is that employed by actors when reading poetry; a wistful, sighing delivery that seems supposed to hint at the depth and numinosity of the text. Perhaps she was trying to mimic the cadence of Sebald's prose, but the point is that this isn't Sebald; it's Angier and it's a biography, much of which is quite detailed and technical, making the tone inappropriate.

The most annoying aspect of Atherton's "performance" is her insistence on flawless pronunciation of foreign words and names. I realise that this is a thorny issue when reading text, but it sounds to me as though Atherton is trying to give us the impression that the people to whom she is referring are her constant bedtime reading! Adorno is pronounced with an almost comically exaggerated Italian accent, in spite of the fact that he was German (the name Adorno came from his mother who was Corsican, so maybe French would be better?) and his name is very commonly Anglicised by academics. Hölderlin is pronounced with an intense German accent, as are all the members of Sebald's Bavarian family. There are some real clunkers, as when his sister, Gertrud, is mentioned next to her French husband, Jean-Paul, which happens quite frequently, each name pronounced in its original accent as if it were part of a polyglottal elocution class. The best is a sentence where she pronounces three names in a row from different countries with different accents. It may be a piece of vocal virtuosity but the effect is actually more comical than anything else! All in all, the impression I get is that Kristin Atherton is much more interested in Kristin Atherton than in the text.

To summarise, the book is not without interest. Angier's exploration of the sources of Sebald's stories and the specific distortions he employed is fascinating, as is her analysis of his literary and philosophical influences. However, much of it is, necessarily, speculation, especially regarding the origins of Sebald's fascination with the Holocaust. (One interviewee, a psychoanalyst and close friend of Sebald who is apparently planning to write his own biography, told Angier she had completely misunderstood her subject, but that she would have to read his book to understand why!) As such, it leaves a great deal to be desired as a biography. It would perhaps have been better left as a work of literary criticism, but then she wouldn't have sold as many copies. This is a work which left me with a bad taste in my mouth: Biographies should be about their subjects; this one is as much about its author (and its reader) as it is about W. G. Sebald. I think he deserves better.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 05-12-22

Excellent details, but many pronunciation errors

Enlightening biography. Distracted by narrator's inaccurate pronunciation of French words, why not check beforehand?

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  • Severn
  • 12-29-21

Good book, wrong narrator

Of all subjects, this is one which requires a skilled, pleasing and sympathetic narrator. It is very disappointing that this is not the case here. Better to read the book, I think.

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  • ahala
  • 10-19-21

great background

rather too much detail on peripheral friends who don't appear as main characters in the novels. speaker could do with more edge. but overall was like experiencing all Sebalds work in one sitting

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  • Joe Rotheray
  • 10-19-21

Fascinating and sad

This is essential reading for anyone interested in Sebald. But the reading of this audio version is awful. The reader inserts long, totally unnecessary pauses after almost every clause, dragging out her delivery and sounding like the condescending narration of a children’s educational programme. Very, very irritating.