Lost Books – Retreat to Innocence

December 12, 2014

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In 1956, in the middle of writing her Children of Violence series, Doris Lessing published her now neglected novel, Retreat to Innocence. Reprinted in 1967, it has never reappeared, largely as result of Lessing’s own dismissal of it as ‘shallow’ and ‘soft-centred and sentimental.’ Perusing the substantial list of Lessing’s works which often preface her books, including poetry, operas and drama, you will find no trace of it. This, of course, raises the general question of whether writers should be able to censor their own canon, and the more particular one of whether Lessing was correct in allowing the novel to vanish like a disgraced comrade from a photograph.

Retreat to Innocence works with a small cast of characters to tell a love story where the political dimension is as important as the emotional. Julia is the innocent, a young woman from a privileged background who is now making her own life London. Quite by chance she meets a middle-aged Czech refugee, Jan in a café; he has experience in excess. She, of course, dismisses any idea of being attracted to him, but later finds she cannot forget him:

“She shut her eyes to feel the happiness; and clear against her lids came the picture of the man in the coffee-house. She saw his mouth, tense and quivering; his eyes, shadowed – tormented. She had not seen them then: now she could see nothing else.”

Soon she finds herself heading back to the café without entirely admitting to herself that is her destination. Their relationship follows the traditional path of initial dislike and distrust to love and passion. Just observe the description of their second conversation: “she frowned”; “she bit her lip and gazed furiously at him”; “she said aggressively.” Lessing, however, is interested in more than a young girl’s infatuation with an older man; Jan is soaked in politics, with a background as an active Communist in his own country. Julia, on the other hand, dismisses politics entirely:

“We don’t plot and dream about the future and carry on an intrigue – …My generation…I tell you, if we’re ever tempted to have anything to do with politics, we’ve only got to look at you and that’s enough.”

Lessing is keen to point out that this is a generational rather than an individual contrast, and characters frequently refer to differences between the generations. Her father, clearly a pillar of the British establishment, also observes a similar difference:

“A more self-centred, selfish, materialistic generation has never been born into this unfortunate old country.”

(Interesting how this has been said by every generation of the next since). Julia’s innocence is, as the title suggests, willed, a refusal to look beyond her own happiness. Her relationship with Jan forces her to leave her comfort zone and engage with a wider world. This does, of course, mean that much of the novel is taken up with Jan talking patiently to Julia, interspersed with her often inane interruptions. When he says, a few moments after they have slept together for the first time, “Now listen, Julia, I shall give you another little lecture,” it’s not a euphemism.

However, the novel does not entirely lack complexity. As usual with Lessing, all the characters are presented with some sympathy, even stiff upper lip types like Julia’s father and her boyfriend, Roger. Lessing is particularly good on the relationship between Julia and her room-mate Betty, one minute best friends, the next resenting some slight or bad habit. This relationship allows us to see Julia as a more rounded character; with Jan she is inevitably diminished, particularly as Lessing at no point describes the physical aspect of their relationship, or presents it from his point of view outside of what he tells her. Jan, too, has depth. His certainty is not all-encompassing: he cannot decide whether to return to Czechoslovakia or not – his brother lives there, but he also has friends who have been imprisoned or executed.

The novel’s main weakness seems to originate in the feeling that the relationship between Jan and Julia has been created only to explore particular themes: the difference between the generation which fought the war and that which came after; between East and West; between youth and experience. Jan is apparently based on a man whom Lessing did have a relationship with, but Julia is not Lessing and her attraction to Jan never entirely convinces. This is not the same, however, as saying that the novel deserves to be consigned to oblivion. When Julia asks:

“Are you quite sure that even in your half of the world people want what you want, and not just comfort and being able to get out the rain?”

she is asking a question as pertinent to politics now as then. Whether it should be reprinted is an economic question (though it will soon have been out of print for fifty years – fairly good publicity, I would have thought). It does seem, though, the kind of novel that should be available electronically, now that we have that option.

The Buddha’s Return

December 10, 2014

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In Gaito Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf the narrator reads an exact account of an event in his own life written from the point of view of the only other witness, a man he believed dead. Such double lives are everywhere in The Buddha’s Return (translated again by Bryan Karetnyk), with each character having experienced some transformative event much like Wolf’s apparent demise. For the narrator, like Wolf, his journey begins with death: “I died,” the novel opens, with the narrator going on to describe plummeting to his death as the branch to which he finds himself clinging breaks (a literal cliff-hanger).

“Such was my recollection of death, after which I mysteriously continued to survive, if I am to assume I remained myself.”

So powerful is the illusion of his death, that the narrator becomes convinced of the illusory nature of reality afterwards:

“I could now sense the strange illusoriness of my own life everywhere – an illusoriness that was many-layered and inescapable…For me the world consisted of objects and sensations that I recognised – as if I had experienced them all long ago and only now were they coming back to me, like a dream lost in time.”

One of Gazdanov’s purposes is to use the novel itself to make the reader feel likewise, taking the narrator down a dark alley where he is attacked and, in defending himself, kills his assailant. This crime sees him imprisoned, not in France where he resides, but in some unrecognised foreign country – this, too, seems to be an “attack of mental illness.” Strangely, it also foreshadows the novel’s main event, the murder of the narrator’s friend, Pavel Alexandrovich.

Alexandrovich’s two lives form a more coherent whole. The narrator first meets him when he is begging for money, giving him a generous ten francs – a fact that explains Alexandrovich’s desire to befriend him when he inherits his estranged brother’s wealth. More than once, the rich Pavel is not recognised by those who knew the poor Pavel, suggesting that in some way he is not the same man. He is murdered and a golden statue of the Buddha is stolen. The narrator is the prime suspect: the last person to see him alive and the man to which he leaves everything – and, once again, he is imprisoned. If the Buddha can be found, however, his innocence can be proven.

The Buddha, of course, is deliberately chosen as the novel’s McGuffin to suggest the illusory nature of truth in the novel’s philosophical heart while at the same time representing the search for a different kind of truth in the crime fiction narrative. Just as in The Spectre of Alexander Wolf Gazdanov superficially uses the thriller format, here he uses the whodunit, with the investigation of the crime taking second place to the novel’s philosophical investigations.

While imprisoned, the narrator considers other possible suspects: Alexandrovich’s mistress, Lida, and her Tunisian lover, Amar (her time in Tunisia is Lida’s other life). Though clearly incriminating them would be in his interest, he remains doubtful:

“The first hypothesis to enter my head was that Amar was the murderer. But I failed to see why he would do this. There could be no question of jealousy.”

The narrator retains his equanimity while the crime narrative follows through to its conclusion, but the novel’s conclusion turns to an old love affair, a woman he promised to return to “as soon as the clarity of your mind is no longer obscured.” She, too, is now leading a new life, as the narrator also promises to do:

“From the next day onward I began a new life, completely different from the one I had been leading until now.”

The Buddha’s Return is a novel about chance and change, about facing fate without expecting to understand or reason with it. Its main character is neither a hero nor a villain. It’s a more frustrating novel than The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, but, for that very reason, makes Gazdanov a more interesting writer.

Soul of Wood

December 5, 2014

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Soul of Wood by Jakov Lind is a late addition German Literature Month (well, technically only my review is late as I did read it in November). During Spanish Lit Month I located a forgotten copy of The Family of Pascal Duarte by Camilo Jose Cela after a review by Stu at Winstonsdad reminded I might own it. Soul of Wood comes from the same neglected pile of books shivering in a corner of my attic, united only by the fact that I have picked them up without knowing anything about their authors. This time I proactively searched for anything originally written in German and unearthed the Austrian exile Lind’s first collection in a 1964 translation by Ralph Manheim (though in an edition published in 1985 by Methuen). I have since discovered that Lind has been subject to a recent revival, with Soul of Wood (the same translation) available from New York Review of Books and two other titles reprinted by Open Letter – though this does make my ignorance even more shameful.

Lind was born in Vienna in 1927 and survived the Second World War by adopting a Dutch identity. Afterwards he lived for some time in Israel but later moved to England, writing his early books in German and then later in English. Soul of Wood was his first publication in 1962 – the titular novella taking up around half the book, with a further six stories following. Soul of Wood tells of German war vetreran’s attempt to hide a Jewish paralytic, Anton Barth, from the Nazis, but of the other stories only one deals directly with the Holocaust. All are told with a macabre humour and flashes of surrealism.

Lind is a master at sudden shifts of tone within his stories. It is difficult to imagine a more solemn opening sentence than:

“Those who had no papers entitling them to live lined up to die.”

Yet, as soon as Lind has dealt movingly with Barth’s parents’ death, we find Barth being placed in a crate marked “Caution Do Not Drop – Fragile” by his protector, Wohlbrecht, “wedged in between the preserved fruit (guaranteed nutritious), the cans of sardines and the loaves of bread.” An argument with the cab driver follows as Wohlbrecht attempts to get Barth to the safety of the countryside. Soon the bleak realism of the beginning is left behind as Barth describes his childhood:

“When I came into the world I was nothing but a head…When I was five, my neck grew, when I was six, my shoulders, when I was seven, my right and left arm; by the time I was nine I had hands. Barth has hands, the newspaper screamed. They sold standing room outside my windows.”

By the tale’s end we are not far from farce as various Nazis attempt to locate Barth (who, having miraculously gained full movement, is living wild in the woods) as proof of their anti-Nazi sympathies, all intending to claim they have saved him. If this makes Lind sound like one of those writers who is entertaining and inventive from page to page but lacks coherence, this is not the case. Soul of Wood has a clear moral centre, exploring the dynamic between good and evil actions, the focus being on Wohlbrecht rather than Barth. The fact that Barth’s father is a doctor, and that Wohlbrecht spends some time in an insane asylum further add to the story’s unity.

Lind’s ability to carefully construct his narratives can be seen to even greater effect in the short stories that follow. Though only the final story, ‘Resurrection’, relates directly to the Holocaust (it is about two men sharing a hiding place), death is never far away. In ‘Journey through the Night’ the narrator finds himself locked in a railway carriage with a man who intends to kill him:

“Very slowly he opened the little suitcase. He took out the mallet and closed the suitcase. He held the mallet in his hand.
Well, how about it?”

In ‘The Judgement’ a murderer asks to see his father one last time before he faces execution; in ‘Hurrah for Freedom’ a medical student, Leonard, finds himself invited to spend the night with a family of naked cannibals. Yet, even within this world where death seems to be waiting to meet us round every corner, characters retain a certain amount of good humour, as is shown above, and when Leonard flees the flesh-eaters:

“The naked Balthasars waved after him, long after he had vanished in the woods.”

Jakov Lind is yet another delightful find of German Literature Month. It makes me wonder what other instinctive acquisitions await upstairs.

Night Work

November 30, 2014

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Like Clemens J Setz, Thomas Glavinic is a young Austrian writer who is not afraid to use the trappings of genre fiction. Both Indigo and Glavinic’s Night Work have the feel of a high concept US television series. In Night Work, translated by John Brownjohn, both the story-telling and the concept are more straight-forward: (as posed on the cover) How does it feel to be the last man alive?

Night Work begins with its protagonist, Jonas, waking up to discover the world is not quite as it was. Initial clues are more puzzling than unsettling: his television doesn’t seem to be working (“Nothing on the screen but snow”) and his newspaper hasn’t been delivered; his computer will display only a server error message and the helpline simply rings unanswered. None of this stops him making his way to work, but once outside his apartment he discovers:

“…there was no-one else in sight. Not a soul or a car to be seen.”

This occurs within the first few pages of a novel which is almost 400 pages long. Once it is established that Jonas is alone, Galvinic’s focus is not why this has happened, but how Jonas will react. Of course, initially his actions are fairly predictable: he goes to his work to see if anyone is there and also checks his father’s house (his girlfriend, Marie, is staying with relatives in England). The next day he searches further, leaving Vienna and writing messages as he travels, including sending postcards to himself, perhaps hoping that if everything just as mysteriously returns to normal they will provide proof of his experiences. Already, despite the absence of all other life (no animals or birds either) he feels threatened:

“He stuck the knife in his belt. He also took the wrench with him.”

Initially the reader may well expect external events to progress the narrative: will he find someone else? Will evidence emerge of what has happened? But this is a narrative driven entirely by Jonas’ internal life, which becomes increasingly suspicious and confused. He begins to set up cameras around the city in the hope of discovering life, but also films himself when asleep. This creates another persona whom Jonas refer to as the Sleeper, becoming convince he has his own identity:

“The Sleeper must have been equally tired last night. Lay quite still.”

Jonas also becomes increasingly attached to his past, decanting much of his parents’ house to his apartment, visiting a family holiday spot, and frequently reminiscing over photographs, places or objects. Given his loneliness this seems quite natural, and also allows the author to give us more insight into his character.

The most dynamic part of the narrative is when he heads through the Channel Tunnel to England in an attempt to find Marie. He is now exhausted most of the time and often disorientated when he wakens:

“Jonas opened his eyes, but everything was till dark. He tried to get his bearings, couldn’t even remember going to sleep. His last memory had been of the motorway, the monotonous grey ribbon ahead of him.”

As Jonas’ life becomes increasingly internal it raises the question of whether the entire narrative is simply within his head. In the final pages Glavinic uses the fact this is a written text to slow time (“Time was juxtaposition, not a succession”) which would, of course, allow for the novel itself to occur in a much more fleeting moment than Jonas’ careful notation of dates would imply. Similarly, with only one character, we are entirely reliant on a single consciousness for the presentation of the novel’s world. Glavinic’s central aim, however, seems to be to explore Jonas’ loneliness, and to reaffirm our need for others.


November 22, 2014

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Early in Clemens J Setz’s novel Indigo there is a discussion of the uncanny valley – the theory that as simulations (for example, robots or animations) approach human likeness, they cause revulsion in the final moments before reaching complete realism (the valley refers to the dip in the graph that records how comfortable people feel):

“…people were shaken, profoundly shaken. That’s known as the uncanny valley…The uncanny effect is always present with particularly realistic-seeming simulations, especially of babies.”

In Setz’s novel this revulsion is caused by children suffering from Indigo Syndrome, a condition which manifests itself by its effect on others:

“People were getting sick by the dozen and didn’t know why. Mothers vomiting over their baby’s cradle. A big mess. Dizziness, diarrhoea, rashes, down to permanent damage of all internal organs, these are serious symptoms after all which can’t be explained psychosomatically.”

The reader himself also enters something of an uncanny valley in the novel’s construction, though this is more likely to result in dizziness than nausea. Told from the point of view of two different characters, though not chronologically, and with other texts inserted at regular intervals, the novel is something of a puzzle, requiring the reader to keep careful track of events. A gap between novel simulation and reality is created by one of the charters sharing the same name as the author, though Setz has said this is simply a result of originally writing in first person, changing to third when he admitted to himself that the narrator basically shared his personality.

Clemens Setz (the character) comes into contact the Indigo children (the author plays a clever game where, as he moves back and forward in time, the acceptable term for referring to the children changes) when he works at the Helianau Institute, where many of the children from Austria have been placed. His time there ends after an altercation with the Head of the Institute, Dr Rudolph, over the ‘relocation’ of the children. Over the next few years he investigates the events surrounding the Institute, compiling folders of evidence, some of which is reproduced in the novel. The author presents Setz in a nuanced way that leaves the reader uncertain whether he is uncovering the truth or dangerously obsessed.

The other main character is Richard Tatzel, one of the Indigo children. We meet him, however, as an adult, with his effect much faded, but struggling to fit in with social norms. When, for example, a neighbour comes to the door to apologise because she fears her son has insulted him, he replies with an invented story of further abuse:

“You should see what they do with the mongoloid from the yard next door!…They took turns punching him the stomach. Your son was there too.”

When he reads that Setz has been acquitted in a murder trial he slowly develops a desire to see him and find out what he has uncovered.

This summary makes the novel seem like a straight forward thriller, but Setz’s story is not told coherently, and Tatzel’s lack of 100% humanity makes his motivation difficult to understand. It is also scattered with further texts, some more clearly linked to the main narrative than others – it begins, for example, with a (true) story about the use of steel from the German fleet scuttled at Scapa Flow. In some novels this can, of course appear gimmicky, but here I found it worthwhile as the reader’s experience of the novel reflects society’s reaction to these children.

Interestingly, it is not long since I read another contemporary novel about children who cause illness in adults, Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet. I would have to agree with Setz’s translator, Ross Benjamin, when he says that this is not simply about illness:

“I wonder whether it doesn’t say as much about our attitudes to anything we can’t understand, explain, master or control, to what we’ve been calling the uncanny, the strange and creepy and slippery and elusive. A frequent “attitude” explored in this novel seems perhaps a very basic human one: a simple incapacity to get a complete handle on things that profoundly and uncontrollably destabilize our world.”

In this way it explores a very modern anxiety which arises from a belief we should be able to understand and therefore control everything coupled to a realisation we cannot – something that is experienced by most people in relation to their children, but might also be a reaction to much of the modern world. This is a demanding but rewarding novel which will hopefully find a readership beyond it’s the one its rather pulpy cover suggests.

Leonardo’s Hands

November 16, 2014

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My first exposure to the work of Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig came when Peirene Press published Maybe This Time in 2011. Peirene are often the first to introduce a writer to an English speaking audience, but on this occasion Hotschnig had appeared once before when his third novel, Leonardo’s Hands, was translated by Peter Filkins in 1999 for the University of Nebraska Press. Leonardo’s Hands is a novel rather than a collection of short stories, but it still feels fragmented, its central experience broken into narrative pieces which the reader must put together, not inappropriate for a novel concerned with the healing process.

An indication that the reader will have to reconstruct the novel’s wholeness is that its starting point is not revealed until page 34:

“Police are still completely in the dark in their search for a driver who fled the scene of an accident. Innsbruck police know the driver was involved in the crash…claiming the lives of two people…Twenty-four-year-old Anna K is still in critical condition. Though she survived, she has not yet come out of a coma…”

As by this time we have acclimatised ourselves to the fact that the novel’s protagonist, Kurt Weyrath, is a part of an ambulance crew (or rescue worker in the terms of the translation), our initial reaction to the news report (one of a number of different texts to be found in the narrative) is that chronology is intact. It soon becomes clear, however, that Weyrath is the fleeing driver and his subsequent career change is an attempt to redeem himself. (In his introduction, Filkins tells us that Rettung, the German for ‘rescue’, also means ‘salvation’).

The news report, a device used again in the events of the novel’s conclusion, provides a context for the novel’s other voices. These include anonymous reflections on the job of rescue worker:

“Indifference was a professional tool without which it was impossible to do the job, as indispensable as the latex gloves that were always nearby.”

Also unattributed conversations, letters, and lost fragments of dialogue:

“But where are you really talking me?”

The effect of this is to imbue everything with wider significance by robbing it of a particular context, while at the same time insisting that the reader create a context if they wish to understand the novel as a narrative. That last question, which lies entirely alone, is clearly a patient inquiring, but can also be read as a plea from the reader. The earlier advice, whether Weyrath’s thoughts or generic counselling, serves to point out his weak spot. When told at a traffic accident he can stop searching, he hears Anna’s voice:

“Look further here, Kurt, you can’t drive away again, you have to be here for me, do you hear, Kurt?”

Weyrath cannot find salvation in his new role and instead takes up position at Anna’s bedside:

“Sit down next to me, Kurt, that way we’ll be together. Pick me up, why don’t you say something, grab hold of me. My eyes, look into my eyes. I’m opening my eyes.”

Eventually Anna does wake up and the novel’s second half goes on to chart their relationship. Anna has, of course, been a blank space until now; her character almost incidental. In what develops Hotschnig demonstrates the complexity, perhaps even the futility, of atonement.

Leonardo’s Hands (the title refers to Da Vinci’s Annunciation where Anna feels the message is conveyed and accepted by the angel and Mary’s hands) is a short novel (less than 150 pages) but its style means that it feels like a long journey for the characters– the reader is filling in the gaps, after all. For the same reason, despite our access to their inner lives, our understanding is only partial. When, towards the end, Anna says about their story, “We have something on our side that doesn’t really exist, we call it the truth. We will clear ourselves through inconsistencies,” she is to some extent describing Hotschnig’s approach. Filkins likens it to trying to understand a crisis by channel –hopping between interview, report, analysis. This gives the novel an invigorating urgency that is difficult to resist.

The Inspector Barlach Mysteries

November 14, 2014

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The Swiss writer Friedrich Durrenmatt is perhaps best known as a playwright, but among his other writing is a number of detective novels, including the two collected here by the University of Chicago Press, The Judge and his Hangman (1950) and Suspicion (1951), both translated by Joel Agee. You will frequently see them described as ‘philosophical’ detective fiction, as Durrenmatt uses the form to explore issues of morality, but if you also take this to mean that they are in any way lacking as examples of the genre you would be mistaken. The Judge and his Hangman is a carefully constructed puzzle in which layer upon layer of mystery is unravelled until only in the final pages do we understand the truth. Suspicion is a bleaker, more direct novel, where tension rather than mystery is Durrenmatt’s main weapon as he places his protagonist in more jeopardy than in perhaps any other crime novel I have read.

Inspector Barlach is a detective in the Maigret tradition: unsympathetic, largely closed to the reader, pursuing his investigation without either consulting or confiding in others. He is approaching both retirement and death. “The old inspector,” his boss, Lutz, says of him at one point, “…is, admittedly, somewhat rusty.” His imminent mortality is a less likely trait, with most writers keen to invest in a long-running series rather than a couple of short novels. It is revealed in the novel’s central scene when Barlach confronts the man implicated in his current case, the murder of a police officer:

“You’ll have to hurry up Barlach…You don’t have much time. The doctors give you another year if you let them operate on you now.”

It is in this conversation with Gastman that we discover their relationship dates back forty years when, as a result of Barlach’s proposition that to commit a crime “is an act of stupidity,” Gastman vowed to do so in his presence without Barlach being able to prove that he did it.

“Three days later… we were crossing the the Mahmoud Bridge with a German merchant and you pushed him into the water in front of my eyes.”

Barlach has been hunting him ever since, giving the novel a Sherlock / Moriarty feel, with Barlach’s solution revealing the moral ambiguity at the heart of crime and punishment, the novel’s title noticeably referring only to judgement and retribution rather than truth and justice.

The second novel, Suspicion, begins just after Barlach’s operation as he recovers in hospital. As he glances through old copies of Life magazine, his doctor, Hungertobel, turns pale; when Barlach presses him, he admits that he thought he recognised a picture of notorious concentration camp doctor, Nehle. However, he quickly dismisses his suspicions as ridiculous: the man he thought it was, Emmenberger, was in Chile at the time, and Nehle is known to have committed suicide after the war. Barlach defends his suspicions:

“Even if it’s a crime to think what we’re thinking, let’s not be afraid of our thoughts. How can we overcome them – presuming they’re wrong – unless we examine them, and how can we do that unless we admit them to our conscience?”

While the novel begins in traditional detective mode, with Barlach uncovering a number of clues that Emmenberger might be Nehle, it changes tone when he decides to have himself admitted to Emmenberger’s clinic, an undercover operation that is in fact a confrontation between good and evil. Anyone who has experienced the powerlessness of being a hospital patient, even under 21st century conditions, will quickly identify with the danger Barlach has placed himself in by challenging Emenberger (including paying a journalist to publish a story alluding to the connection). The atmosphere of the scenes which take place in clinic have more in common with the horror genre than the detective with their use of the grotesque and ‘trust no-one’ trope.

I would highly recommend these novels (especially in this handy one volume format) to anyone who enjoys detective fiction, but I don’t feel a love of the genre is a prerequisite: these are the kind of detective novels which demonstrate the way the form can be used to examine morally complex issues while remaining a page-turning read.

Lost Books – Two Women

November 9, 2014

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There is a temptation to think that books exist in a Darwinian universe where the fittest survive as classics and those less worthy perish into out-of-print extinction. Of course, as in the animal world, those blessed with longevity do not necessarily possess the best qualities, simply those qualities which are best suited to survival. Books also have the advantage that, Jurassic Park like, they can be resurrected for a new audience at any point – you need only think of Sandor Marai’s Embers, or Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. Reason tells us, however, that not every neglected text has been unfairly allowed to die out, and that some should remain the sole preserve of academics. Harry Mulisch’s Two Women is a case in point – not a bad novel, but one that feels very much of its time (the 1970s) and unlikely to survive long if released into the present literary climate.

I’ve long been an admirer of Dutch writer Harry Mulisch, though only a few of his many novels have been translated into English. I was delighted to obtain a copy of Two Women, originally published in 1975 and then translated into English by Els Early in 1980 for John Calder – at that time Calder published a number of exciting European writers like Heinrich Boll and Alain Robbe-Grillet, as well as Beckett, William Burroughs and Jorge Luis Borges’ Fictions. It’s a slim novel, a little over 120 pages, which recounts a relationship between two women (the title is something of a giveaway, though the male authorship is not).

Laura, the narrator, is older and recently divorced; her attraction to twenty-year-old Sylvia is immediate and unexpected:

“Never before had I felt so clearly from one moment to the next that I was doing something that was going to change my life. Never before had I been involved with a woman, and at that point I hardly realised what I was about to do. Presumably I still though I was being carried along by some platonic, aesthetic feeling, as found in books.”

They move in together but Sylvia refuses to tell her mother – Laura must pretend to be her boyfriend’s mother. She even arranges to have a photograph taken with a young man on a trip to zoo to provide evidence of ‘Thomas’, an example of calculation that foreshadows her behaviour later in the novel. Laura’s ex-husband. Alfred, is puzzled by her new relationship, describing it as a ‘performance’ and a ‘game’, and speculating it originates in her inability to have children. To be fair, Laura herself seems uncertain of her sexuality:

“Each of us were only lesbian in that we slept together, but neither of us were women who got sick at the idea of having to sleep with a man. We never went to cafes or clubs for homosexuals, or to one of those women ghettos which could be found in the city, and as far as I was concerned, I knew there would never be another woman in my life except her.”

It is because the novel exists almost entirely in the world of sexual politics that it can feel dated. When two men pick up Laura and Sylvia in Nice, they become furious when they realise they are not going to sleep with them. Even a visit to the theatre sees an all-male performance of Orpheus and Eurydice, masturbation included.

All of this takes place in Laura’s memories as she drives to France where her mother has died. She has not spoken to her mother since she attacked Sylvia with her cane on a visit where Laura had asked Sylvia to stay in the background. Since then, Sylvia has left Laura for Alfred (when I said the novel was about sexual politics, I wasn’t kidding). This, in turn, leads to the novel’s dramatic conclusion which I am now largely going to give away because: a) no-one else is going to read it; and b) it was the one event that made it both interesting and powerful. When Laura returns from France, Sylvia appears to tell, her she’s pregnant:

“That’s what you wanted, didn’t you? You wanted a child from me…I’ve come to bring it to you.”

This is what a book group would call a ‘talking point’, though, again, it feels dated as a result of both advances in technology and attitudes.

I certainly have no regrets for having both tracked down and read Two Women – if nothing else it provides a further dimension to my reading of Mulisch. However, I don’t feel I can demand that it be immediately brought back into print. It’s a novel whose time has probably passed, best left to be discovered by those are prepared to dig down into the lost layers of the second-hand shelves.

The Glory of Life

November 7, 2014

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Not many writers inspire an adjective: Dickens, of course, Rabelais, and, above all, Kafka. This intimidating legacy has not encouraged other writers to leave well alone; from Alan Bennett to Haruki Murakami, the Kafka legend has been plundered and parodied, and now German author Michael Kumpfmuller (a name unlikely to be extended to descriptive use) has chosen to fictionalise the last year of his life in the novel The Glory of Life. Fourteen years ago Kumpfmuller published the comedic Adventures of a Bed Salesman, also translated by Anthea Bell into English. Two novels since have failed to attract the attention of UK or US publishers, and it can probably be assumed that the Kafka connection (and Haus Publishing’s focus on literature in translation) helped this fourth novel get noticed.

The Glory of Life takes as its starting point the meeting between Kafka and Dora Diamant in July 1923 in Graal-Muritz on the Baltic Sea where Kafka was holidaying and Dora was working as a cook at a home for Jewish children. Dora was the last in a line of young women (of course they started when Kafka was young, but by now he was forty while Dora was twenty-five) including the Felice and Milena now immortalised in Letters to… The correspondence to Dora has been lost allowing Kumpfmuller more artistic licence. Kumpfmuller presents the story from both Dora and Kafka’s point of view. Here, for example, is their first meeting:

“She tells him in far too much of a rush: I saw you on the on the beach with your wife – although she knows it can’t have been his wife or why has she felt so light-headed since he came to stand close to her in the kitchen? … I’d like to see you again, he says…She feels like calling her reply out loud: as soon as you wake up, whenever you like.”

The attraction is instant and all-consuming. It is also reciprocated, as we can see in the echo of Dora’s thoughts in Kafka’s own:

“…he knows at once in the morning that she is there somewhere, as if there were a rope between him and her, and they are slowly working their way along it towards each other.”

Soon they are planning their life together in Berlin, where they do eventually spend many happy months together despite food shortages and rampant inflation. (While they are far from wealthy, they are never quiet poor, and the sources of their income remains something of a mystery). Kafka had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 19717, and his condition had to be carefully managed, eventually deteriorating to the point he has to be readmitted to a sanatorium. The novel ends with his death in 1924 (as a factual event, this can hardly be termed a spoiler).

The Glory of Life is a touching love story, with Dora’s devotion to Kafka often affecting. At this point in his life Kafka was writing short stories, including ‘The Hunger Artist’ (ironically weeks prior to his death from starvation). His writing is mentioned frequently, yet the novel sheds little light on it. It is an activity he undertakes as opposed to an intellectual process that is revealed to us. Of course, that may not be Kumpfmuller’s concern, but then why chose a writer as your central character if his writing does not interest you?

For this reason, Kafka often comes over as a rather bland character. There is little conflict in his life, particularly in his relationship with Dora. She, and his sister, Ottla, seem to go out of their way to please him. Despite his gloomy reputation, in this novel he seems mostly happy, even as death approaches: “he feels surprisingly well”; “a new calm mood sets in”; “he is in a cheerful mood until evening.” He considers Dora’ future after his death but decides “she will be all right.”

I enjoyed The Glory of Life and its recreation of Kafka’s final year. Kumpfmuller’s attention to setting is a particularly interesting – though Kafka is in some ways remote from ordinary life, the novel also shows him immersed in it. My misgivings lie in the novel’s inability to give us much insight into Kafka the writer – and also in the irony that he has somehow become trapped in a rather conventional novel.

Thanks to Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life for my copy of The Glory of Life.


November 3, 2014

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“Fate,” says the writer Arthur Friedland, the unifying character of Daniel Kehlmann’s new novel F:

“The capital letter F. But chance is a powerful force, and suddenly you acquire a Fate that was never assigned to you. Some kind of accidental fate. It happens in a flash.”

F, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, is a novel about how much control we have over our lives. Its characters, in particular Arthur’s three sons, Ivan, Eric and Martin, all look to place their faith in something that will give their lives direction and meaning only to find themselves guilty of falsifying that meaning. Martin becomes a priest who does not believe in God; Ivan dedicates his life to art only to use his talent as a forger; and Eric enters the world of finance, sustaining his investment company through deception and fraud. The F of the title, however, stands for none of these things – fate, faith, forgery or fraud (none of which begin with f in German) – but family, as Kehlmann has explained:

“’Family’ is quite a big word, so in the case of my novel only the first letter remained. When I started out I thought: ‘I want to do to the family novel something similar to what I did to the historical novel when I wrote Measuring the World. Which is to write an unusual specimen of the form. A family novel for people who don’t trust family novels.”

For this reason perhaps, it’s a family novel in which the members of the family are rarely together. Only in the first chapter, a family trip on which Arthur takes his three sons to see a hypnotist, do they seem at all united. Despite his protests that hypnotism will not work on him, Arthur is led to the stage. He answers Lindeman, the hypnotist, honestly – he’s a writer whose work is largely unpublished living off his wife’s money. “Maybe ambition would be an improvement,” Lindeman tells him, “Starting today you’re going to make an effort. No matter what it costs.” Arthur is still dismissive of the hypnotist as they leave, but when he drops Martin off at his mother’s, he also leaves Eric and Ivan (he has remarried). He drives off and his sons do not see him again until they are adults.

The novel, too, travels forward in time. We learn that Martin has become a priest but that he has yet to find faith – instead he overeats and continues to enter Rubik’s Cube championships, a toy his father gave him. Eric, an investment banker, has been using his clients’ money to make it appear as if their investments have been successful but now has nothing left and knows it’s only a matter of time before he is found out. The pressure, and a steady supply of prescription drugs, mean he now has an uncertain relationship with reality:

“Stay calm. Always calm. I look up, there he is, sitting in front of me. Martin. My brother. I look at the phone, the message is still there. I look at his face. Is it my imagination after all? Am I sitting here alone?”

Ivan, having decided that his own artistic talent didn’t stretch to genius, is forging paintings for the artist’s estate which he administers. Kehlmann connects the narratives using events like the lunch which Eric and Martin share (we see it from both brothers point of view) and characters such as the boy in the Bubbletea is not a drink I like t-shirt. He also includes a chapter called ‘Family’, purportedly written by Arthur, which traces his family back over generations in a way that makes life seem bleak and meaningless.

Novels by their very nature, however, imply fate rather than chance, subject as they are to the author’s plan. Kehlmann makes no attempt to disguise this, creating a puzzle of interconnecting parts which the reader must twist and turn, like the Rubik’s Cube which Martin cannot leave behind in his childhood, until the pattern is plain. A further clue is given when Marie, Arthur’s granddaughter, looks closely at a painting by Ivan:

“She stepped even closer, and immediately everything dissolved. There were no more little people, no more little flags, no anchor, no bent watch…
She stepped back and it all came together again.”

Is Kehlmann suggesting life is meaningless when viewed from close up, but subject to pattern when the proper perspective is taken? Or is that a property only of art? Is the novel’s form in conflict with its meaning? Is its comic tone at odds with its bleak message, a question once asked of Arthur’s first novel:

“Is My Name is No One a merry experiment and thus the pure product of a playful mind, or is it a malevolent attack on the soul of every person who reads it?”

Rarely does a novel so easily read, ask the reader such difficult questions.


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