My Century

November 25, 2015

my century

Literary reaction to the year 2000 was muted, as far as I can recall. Gunter Grass, however, decided, that, if he could not commemorate the millennium, he could at least acknowledge the previous century. In 1999 he published a book with just such a title, My Century, a collection of one hundred short pieces, typically two to three pages, each focusing on one year, beginning in 1900 and ending in the present.

The conceit is a simple one, its main danger being that it seem too schematic. Grass begins with a major historical event, the Boxer Rebellion, told from the point of view of one of the soldiers:

“For the sake of order the Boxers were rounded up in the square at Tiananmen gate, right in front of the wall dividing the Manchu city from the ordinary part. Their pigtails were tied to one another… Then they were either executed in groups or had their heads chopped off one by one.”

(In choosing this scene Grass immediately evokes echoes of the much more recent events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square). It’s likely, however, that assuming a character involved in a moment of history time after time (times a hundred) might quickly lessen the effect. Grass has no intention of doing so and quickly wrong- foots the reader with the opening of the next section:

“I have always enjoyed rummaging in junk, and late in the fifties…”

What follows is the discovery of postcards franked 1945, but describing the opening of the Wuppertal Suspension Railway – which occurred in 1901. Thankfully Grass’ intention is to use a variety of methods and voices to recall the years. This is particularly effective when it comes to years which have already been well served by literature, such as those during the two world wars. 1914, for example, begins:

“Finally, in the mid-sixties, after two of my colleagues had tried and failed several times, I managed to bring the two elderly gentlemen together.”

The two elderly gentlemen are Erich Maria Remarque and Ernst Junger, German writers particularly associated with the First World War. Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front has long been regarded as the German equivalent of Wilfred Owen’s poetry, exemplifying the pity and suffering of war; Junger’s Storm of Steel, conversely, has often been seen to glorify the war. Chapters 1914 through to 1918 tell the story of their meeting, as if Grass is seeking to represent the full complexity of the German view of the war rather than give us the usual set-pieces. Grass uses a similar approach to the years 1939-45 when he focuses on the reminiscences of a war reporter.

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Elsewhere there are some wonderful character based stories. 1946 tells of the rebuilding of Berlin:

“Brick dust. Brick dust everywhere, let me tell you. In the air you breathe, he clothes you wear, between your teeth – you name it. But don’t think that got us down. Not us women.”

The story of the separation between East and West is touched on a number of times, including 1951’s letter to Volkswagen asking whether workers for the car manufacturer now in the GDR are still eligible for the car they had paid towards throughout their employment. Later, in 1974, we meet a prisoner watching the World Cup match between East and West Germany:

“Which side was one for? Which side was I or I for? Whom was I to cheer on? What conflict broke out in me, what forces pulled at me when Sparwasser shot his goal?”

Grass also includes occasional autobiographical chapters describing his own life during that particular year, though as a public figure in Germany this goes some way to capturing the feeling of the times as well.

The book obviously has a German focus – no bad thing considering how central Germany has been to the history of Europe, and to a lesser extent the world, during the 20th century – but global events are not ignored. 1982, for example, revolves around the Falklands War, and 1991 consists of a discussion of the Gulf War, and the way it was reported. I found My Century to be a fascinating collection (perhaps collage is the best description) of continual surprises, sometimes revealing the unknown, at others looking at the well-known from a new angle.

The Film Explainer

November 20, 2015


As the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is absorbed into the Man Booker International Prize, it seems an opportune time to take a look at a past IFFP winner, Gert Hofmann’s The Film Explainer, translated by his son Michael. Coincidentally, this German novel was the last to win the prize in 1995 before it became dormant for five years; this year’s second German winner sees it disappear (in name anyway) again. Both novels deal with Germany’s problematic twentieth century (cynics would say that an IFFP jury loves anything connected to the Second World War), though Hofmann’s take on it is more traditional. Dispiritingly, the novel, like most of Hofmann’s work, is now out of print: yesterday’s prize-winners, it seems, are tomorrow’s fish and chip papers.

The novel tells the story of the author’s grandfather, Karl Hofmann; we can assume the autobiographical element from the novel’s dedication and introductory sentence:

“My grandfather Karl Hofmann (1873 – 1944) worked for many years in the Apollo cinema on the Helenenstrasse in Limbach / Saxony.”

Hofmann goes on to describe the role of the film explainer, an occupation of which I had been entirely ignorant:

“My grandfather was the film explainer and piano player in Limbach. They still had those back then… In the cinema they wore red or blue tail coats with gold or silver buttons, a white bow tie, white trousers, sometimes top-boots…
“Watch out, don’t nod off, here comes a wonderful sequence, maybe the most wonderful in the whole, film, cried Grandfather, reaching for his pointer.”

(You can hear more about film explainers in general here). It would be fair to say that Grandfather regards his role as a vocation rather than a job. On the long walks he often goes with his grandson he carries a notebook in case inspiration strikes; when at home he is often found leafing through newspapers and a school encyclopaedia in search of vocabulary:

“The words he wanted to use in the evening in the Apollo he would jot down on pieces of paper in the morning.”

On any visit to another town, inspection of the cinema is mandatory. His job, however, is threatened both by diminishing audiences and the arrival of sound. The cinema’s owner believes the talkies can save his business; at the same time they will make Grandfather’s role redundant.

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The novel generally has a light, comic tone. Grandfather is, in many ways, a ridiculous character, pompous when it comes to his ‘art’ and otherwise of little use. That his ridiculousness is filtered through the eyes of his admiring grandson softens this, though the narrative is frequently interspersed with barbed comments for the Grandmother to compensate:

“In January, he had got a new hat. This hat…had, if anything, an even broader brim than its predecessor. ‘You could use it to sweep the streets with’ (Grandmother)”

However, this is 1930s Germany and the novel inevitably has its darker side. Though the role of film explainer and Grandfather’s attachment to it may seem foolishly Luddite to the contemporary reader, the novel reveals the way in which technology advances regardless of the human cost – an issue society continues to grapple with. When Grandfather loses his job, he also loses his sense of self:

“I used to think, he said, that as an artist I was something special. But it isn’t true. I’m on the street, same as millions of other, and all of us treading on each other. Soon I’ll be reduced to begging, artist or not!”

It is during this time that attends his first political meeting:

“If people weren’t so desperate there wouldn’t be so many meetings in the world! Every meeting is a kind of last straw that they try to clutch.”

Hofmann shows us, in miniature, the way in which individuals can be attracted to extremism: when everything else is taken away from them. Luckily his love of film ultimately saves Grandfather: when on a rally, he abandons the flag to visit the nearest cinema.

The Film Explainer uses its provincial, unimportant characters to reveal a little of the process by which a country can lose itself. Perhaps its greatest achievement, though, is its wonderful three-layered narrative voice in which the Grandfather, the Grandmother and the grandson unite to tell their story.


November 16, 2015


Irmgard Keun’s first novel, Gilgi, One of Us, presents us with a young woman determined to get on in the world:

“Keep to the daily plan. Don’t deviate from the system. Don’t slacken. Not in the smallest trifle.”

After her day’s work as a stenographer, she takes lessons in Spanish, English and French, before retiring to the room she rents “so that she could work in peace…

“She pays for it, and it belongs to her… She bought the furniture gradually, piece by piece: divan, desk, cupboard, chair. Bought it all entirely with her own earnings. She did overtime to pay for the little Erika-brand typewriter and gramophone.”

Gilgi seems remarkably in control of her life; indeed the novel opens with an image of her “holding it firmly in her hands.” Even when it comes to dealing with the unwanted attentions of her boss, she has a plan. This confidence gives her a lively, amusing, and often sharp, view of the world, as demonstrated in the narrative voice. When her mother asks about fatalities in a news story we are told:

“It’s not callousness. It’s just that she enjoys the shuddering sympathy which news of deaths and scandals provokes in her.”

It also occasions a certain feeling of superiority:

“The hopeless people in the streetcar – no, she has nothing in common with them, she doesn’t belong with them. They’re grey and tired and lifeless. And if they’re not lifeless, they’re waiting for a miracle. Gilgi isn’t lifeless and she doesn’t believe in miracles. She only believes in what she creates and what she earns.”

Gilgi is an unusually independent woman for Germany (or anywhere in Europe) at the beginning of the 1930s, but, even as the reader admires her, there is also a sense that Gilgi’s mission to succeed requires her to keep an unnatural distance from those around her. We may be amused at her thoughts on her parents and her fellow streetcar passengers, but we can also see the lack of human sympathy which lies at their centre.

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Gligi’s plan begins to fall apart when she falls in love with an older man. Martin has no job and lives in an apartment he is looking after for a friend. In contrast to Gilgi’s relentless budgeting, he has no care for the money he spends. When Gilgi’s parents object to the relationship, Gilgi moves in with him, and soon he is encouraging her to give up her job:

“Gilgi…you shouldn’t go to the office anymore, the bed always gets so cold and uncomfortable for me when you get up so early.”

Gilgi finds that being in love overcomes all her other ideas and principles:

“…something in Gilgi had been broken beyond repair. – Oh, liking someone is good – loving someone – is good too. But being in love, really being in love: an extremely painful condition.”

(Keun also begins to break up the text with dashes to show Gilgi’s less coherent thought process). This is not, however, simply a story about the dangers of falling in love. It could be argued that her abandonment of her plan allows Gilgi the empathy needed to later attempt to aid an old friend, Hans. Hans’ story of employment also suggests that simply working hard is no guarantee of success. Earlier, Gilgi discovered she had been adopted, and in her potential alternative mothers (the rich woman who is her birth mother and the working class woman who was first given her to bring up) we see two different lives, completely independent of Gilgi’s personal qualities or effort.

In other words, this is a novel which is not simply about a young woman falling in love; it also explores ideas of how to live in an unjust society. And as society is not only unjust against woman, Gilgi cannot escape it simply by rejecting the role she feels is forced on her as a woman. The novel’s ambiguous ending is an indication that there is no easy answer to the questions it raises.

Gilgi is an excellent first novel, insightful not only regarding the time it was written, but exploring issues (the expectations placed on women; work / life balance; the individual at the mercy of social injustice) which we still struggle with today.

The Master of Ballantrae

November 13, 2015


Today, as you may or may not know, is Robert Louis Stevenson Day – the author of, not one, but two tales which have buried their way into the popular imagination (Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ). As for the rest of his work, however, Kidnapped aside, it is far less read – and has, at times, fallen out of print as well as out of favour. It’s true that he probably didn’t aid his partnership with posterity by writing in so many genres – including both fiction and poetry for children – and by co-authoring three of his novels with his stepson, Lloyd Osborne. Two others were left unfinished at his relatively early death. Only recently has he begun to be re-evaluated, perhaps in response to the love so many other writers have for his work.

The Master of Ballantrae, written in 1889, contains many of the elements familiar from his two most famous books: pirates, sea voyages, exotic locations (though ostensibly a Scottish novel, we are transported to both India and America) and an initially straight forward but increasingly ambiguous battle between good and evil. In The Master of Ballantrae this takes the form, not of a divided individual, but of two warring brothers.

The catalyst for their enmity is the Jacobite Rising for 1745: the Duries, like many other families, hedge their bets by sending one son to fight with Bonnie Prince Charlie and having the other swear his allegiance to King George. The more prudent choice would be for the younger son to go off to fight, but in this case the elder, James – the Master of Ballantrae – insists he should go, and the matter is decided on the toss of a coin, suggesting James’ love of risk and belief that chance will always favour him. In his conceited view of himself he assumes his brother, Henry, is simply jealous:

“And there spoke Envy! Would you trip up my heels – Jacob?”

The reference to the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau is appropriate as James has just rather impulsively given up his birthright (the inheritance of his father, Lord Durrisdeer’s, title) should the Pretender’s uprising fail. When the decision is made that it will be James who goes to war, Alison (the woman he is to marry) throws the coin “clean through the family shield in the great painted window,” a breach which is never repaired.

The Jacobite adventure ends at Culloden, yet, in his absence, the Master’s reputation soars as Henry’s declines:

“Mr Henry began to be shunned; yet a while, and the commons began to murmur as he went by, and the women… to cry out their reproaches to his face. The Master was cried up for a saint.”

Eventually an Irish soldier, Colonel Burke, brings news of James – he is in France and in need of money. From that point on, the Master cannot be shaken off – like the bad penny which decided his fate, he will always reappear, tormenting Henry in any way he can. The story becomes one of James’ persecution of Henry, and Henry’s attempts to free himself of it.


Stevenson is excellent on the increasing tension within the family. The novel includes a number of set-pieces which even now might make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The Master is a wonderful character – I did wonder whether the term was synonymous with the devil (though I can’t find any evidence of this) as there is something satanic about his pursuit of Henry. Utterly without scruples, he is also dangerously charismatic, so much so that even the Mackellar, the servant who tells much of the story, and a strong partisan for Henry, feels his charms. In contrast, Henry can seem rather dull – but as that is how other characters perceive him to his disadvantage, Stevenson may be intentionally placing the same temptation before the reader. Wherever the Master goes he gains loyal followers – but will sacrifice them without a thought when necessary. As the novel progresses, however, it is who is Henry is increasingly changed, becoming intent on his own revenge; in this we see the moral issues which Stevenson always puts at the centre of his adventures.

The Master of Ballantrae may not have lasted in the popular imagination like Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but in some ways it is all the better for that as the reader does not approach it with familiarity. Anyone looking for ‘A Winter’s Tale’, as it is subtitled, with suspense, shock, adventure and intrigue, will find it here.

The Assignment

November 9, 2015


Last year I was lucky enough to discover the Swiss writer Friedrich Durrenmatt during German Literature Month, reading his two Inspector Barlach novels. It seemed an obvious choice to read more of his work this time around, and I eventually alighted on an even darker and stranger novel, The Assignment, written in 1986 and translated by Joel Agee two years later. If the Barlach novels were Durrenmatt’s unnerving version of the detective genre, then The Assignment owes much to the spy novel, and was, of course, published during the Cold War. Durrenmatt takes the secrecy and complex plotlines of the genre and abstracts them further to create an existentialist tale focused (as its subtitle, On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers suggests) on the philosophy of surveillance, “symptomatic of our time, when everyone observed and felt observed by everyone else.”

The story begins when film-maker F is asked by psychiatrist Otto von Lambert to investigate his wife, Tina’s, death after she is found murdered in an unnamed African country. Von Lambert tells her he feels “guilty of his wife’s death because he had always treated the heavily depressed woman as a case instead of a person” – in other words, he observed her. (Tina flees after finding his notes, writing in her journal, “I am being watched”). F feels compelled to accept the assignment and flies out with a film crew to the site of Tina’s death with the assistance of the local police chief, who is ostensibly helpful but ensures that F’s film is replaced and parades before her a series of witnesses who all claim that someone tried to hire them to kill Tina, a procession that ends when one man says he has never seen her and is immediately executed for her murder.

It seems F must leave defeated, but then she spots a red fur coat identical to that worn by Tina in a local market. Buying the coat, she decides “she was not going to leave until she had found out the truth about Tina von Lambert’s death.” Throughout the coat is emblematic of Tina, and F’s assumption of it encourages the reader to believe she will share Tina’s fate (if, indeed, Tina was murdered – nothing in this novel is certain). As she heads back into the desert, it seems her attempts to recreate the circumstances of Tina’s death may force her to repeat them.

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The Assignment is told in a very particular way: twenty-four chapters, each one sentence in length, ranging between two and ten pages long. The limit on chapters (limited because inspired by Bach’s The Well Tempered Clavier Book I which uses all 24 major and minor keys) creates the sense of time running out; the breathlessness of each chapter suggests intensity of both thought and experience. Durrenmatt seems very concerned with identity in this novel. In an early chapter, a friend of F’s (known only as D – perhaps suggesting the author) argues there is no self but:

“…only a countless chain of selves emerging from he future, flashing into the present, and sinking back into the past so that what one commonly calls ones’s self was merely a collective term for all the selves gathered up in the past, a great heap of selves perpetually growing under the constant rain of selves drifting down through the present from the future…”

The uncertainty of identity is touched on as soon as F begins following Tina’s trail, encountering:

“…a painting of a woman in a red fur coat, which F at first took for a portrait of Tina von Lambert, but which turned out not to be Tina after all, it could just as well be a portrait of a woman who looked like Tina, and then, with a shock, it seemed to her that this woman standing before her defiantly with wide open eyes was herself…”

Identity is created as we observe and are observed: Tina’s red coat is her insurance that she will be observed, but ironically it also cause confusion over her identity. Again, Durrenmatt takes a staple of the spy genre and treats it on a philosophical level.

The novel is also a political satire, however. After her encounter with the police chief, F is taken aside by the head of the secret service who believes the police chief is plotting a coup. The war in which the country has been engaged in for ten years is the its “principal source of revenue…and no longer served any purpose except to test the products of all the weapons-exporting countries.” It is on this testing ground, where human observers have now been replaced by satellites, that the novel’s final scenes play out.

The Assignment is another haunting novel from Durrenmatt, dramatizing the anxieties of knowing yourself in a dangerous, unpredictable world where seeing is not enough.


November 7, 2015


Peter Weiss is perhaps best known as a playwright, in particular for his play Marat / Sade which became an international success, staged by Peter Brook in New York and later adapted into a film. He continued to write prose, however, and his greatest work is often regarded to be The Aesthetics of Resistance, a three volume sequence, only the first volume of which seems to have been translated into English (and that was in 2005, thirty years after its first appearance). Leavetaking is an earlier (1961) autobiographical novella which was recently reprinted by Melville House in its original English translation by Christophe Levenson from 1968.

The text is presented in one intense single paragraph, as memories of the narrator’s life resurface in the aftermath of his father’s death. In a sense, the novella is a series of leavetakings as he remembers the various homes in which the family lived despite the fact that:

“This man, who now lay lost before me, had never given up believing in the ideal of a permanent home.”

The turbulent history of Europe had decided otherwise, but the effect of the father’s death, which has closely followed his mother’s, on the family is described in terms of the house where they lived:

“We pushed and shoved around the chairs, tables, and sofas, violently we disrupted the order that had always been unassailable, and soon the house resembled a furniture warehouse and the objects that had been afforded a lifetime’s care and protection at my mother’s hand lay piled up in various rooms in five huge heaps, some to be taken away, some to be sold.”

He realises that “the home from which we had been thrust out had nevertheless embodied a security for us, and with its going the last symbol of our unity disappeared.” In this ending he remembers his beginnings, and a first house which has “large blind spots in it” due to his young age. Much of what follows comes in the impressionistic style of vivid but disconnected memories.

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The narrator’s distance from his parents is highlighted early on in a scene where he lays out their clothes in an attempt to understand them:

“About my father I knew nothing. The strongest impression he made was his always being away somewhere. I had heard only a few words about his past.”

This lack of knowledge of his father’s identity feeds into the narrator’s attempt to forge his own in opposition. Weiss’ birth around the time the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved left his family without a clear national identity (his father was also a converted Jew); though born in Brandenburg, Weiss was never a German citizen. He resists his father’s attempt to find him employment and instead becomes determined to be an artist (in this way the novella is a typical Bildungsroman). This attraction to a more Bohemian lifestyle is perhaps foreshadowed on a visit to friends where they find the children playing naked:

“And we now found out what we could have found out any day that summer, though it never returned, how alive we became in our nakedness.”

Like many an artist before and after, he finds escape in books:

“In books I encountered the life that school had kept hidden from me. In books I was shown another reality of life than that into which my parents and teachers wanted to force me.”

As one would expect from a Bildungsroman, Leavetaking also features the narrator’s sexual awakening; less typical is the involvement of his sister, Margit, in this. As adolescents they strip and explore each other’s bodies in Margit’s bed – the style of the narrative is such we cannot tell if this happens once or many times, and the scene appears largely without context. Perhaps Weiss’ intention is simply to suggest that nothing is hidden, though it emphasises that Margit is the only member of the family he seems close to. When she dies shortly after (the two scenes are placed very close together) he loses any reason to remain with his family:

“My sister’s death was the beginning of my attempts to free myself from the past.”

This is juxtaposed with his discovery of his Jewish roots, something which he suggests saved him from the temptation of Nazism; this tie to the past will also free him as he must move away for safety, determined to make his dream of becoming an artist a reality.

Though Weiss’ story of the artist as a young man is, in many ways, typical, it is the style of its telling which makes it worth reading. His impressionistic prose telescopes his defining years into a narrow space, cleverly mimicking the solipsistic viewpoint of childhood and adolescence while making each moment vivid for the reader.

The Method

November 5, 2015


While half the world continues to lack the basic requirements of good health – clean water, a sufficient diet, easily available (and affordable) medical care – the other half seems intent on creating its own health crisis. Increasing levels of obesity, diabetes, heart disease – frequently related to lifestyle choices. The associated cost to society raises questions of both individual and state responsibility (a sugar tax, for example, has recently been proposed in the UK) – and it exactly these questions which Juli Zeh tackles in her dystopian novel The Method (translated by Sally-Ann Spencer).

In it, Zeh presents a society where health is paramount and every individual has to take responsibility for ensuring they remain healthy. As described by Kramer, the character who articulates the Method throughout the novel, we might think we have reached a utopian rather than dystopian state:

“Our society… has attained its apotheosis. Unlike every previous or current form of organisation, we’re not in thrall to the market or religion. We’re not dependent on high-flown ideological beliefs. The smug, self-serving faith in popular democracy has no place in our system. Our society is guided by reason and reason alone: its sole founding principle is taken from biological life”

For the Method to work every individual must act rationally (within the terms of the Method) and do exactly as required. Any infraction is dealt with by law, and when we first meet Mia she is in court charged with:

“Violation of duty of provide medical data… Nutritional records and sleep patterns overdue for the current month. Sudden cessation of sporting activities. Failure to provide home blood pressure readings and urine samples.”

Mia is grieving over the death of her brother Moritz: her entirely human reaction is at odds with the logic of the Method. To make matters worse, Moritz’s death is something of a cause celebre as he committed suicide after being found guilty of murder. The suicide was not an admission of guilt: despite his DNA being found on the victim, Moritz had refused to accept responsibility for the crime, a defiance of reason which was seen as undermining the Method. Mia, too, cannot accept that Moritz was the killer.

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The challenge of writing dystopian fiction is in being able to give a full picture of your imagined society while at the same time telling a story on an individual level. Zeh manages this with great skill through Mia, a character initially accepting of the Method who becomes – unintentionally – a threat to the state. She is also given an imaginary companion – the ideal inamorata – a reference to her brother’s belief that in the woman he was accused of murdering he had found someone to love. (Relationships are also scientifically matched in the Method). The ideal inamorata represents her brother’s doubts about the Method, and adds a sacrilegious commentary to Mia’s conversations. As an imaginary companion she is in direct contrast to the rationality of the Method. (And ass a fictional device the ideal inamorata also challenges the reader to move beyond reason).

Once Mia is perceived as a threat to the Method, the novel becomes an examination of the way totalitarian states protect themselves. Much of this is played out in the courts and in conversations between Mia and Kramer. The latter lie at the heart of the novel, giving it at times the feel of a philosophical debate, enhanced by the sense they are playing particular roles and could otherwise be amicable:

“Mia’s attitude towards Kramer is ambivalent to use a word beloved of the undecided. She cannot even say she dislikes him. In fact, earlier that day, when he bent over her attentively to hand her a cup of freshly brewed water… it seemed to her briefly she could love him.”

The roles they play are of state and transgressor, Kramer cynically linking her to terrorist groups we cannot even be sure exist, but equally fearful that she may become a martyr. The legal system itself is more blinkered than corrupt. (The novel’s original title, Corpus Delicti, refers to principle that a crime must be proven to have been committed before a person can be convicted of it, presumably suggesting both the ambiguity of Mia’s crime and the irony of the proof of Moritz’s). Through Mia and Kramer’s conversations Zeh drives the twists and turns of the plot, cranking up the tension without the need for action sequence or histrionics.

The Method is an excellent example of its genre: in it you can see both the echoes of the past and the dangers of the future.

Thanks to Caroline and Lizzy for once again hosting German Lit Month, and to Lizzy in particular for my copy of The Method.


October 31, 2015


The stories in Joanna Walsh’s new collection Vertigo often give the impression of being borrowed from her own life. This is not only because of the ordinary moments they describe, but because Walsh avoids the troublesome details which would create the impression of multiplicity. Anonymity is the order of the day: each story is voiced by a nameless narrator who refers to those she knows by relationship (daughter, husband) or pronoun, and has a tendency to generic groupings when describing strangers. This is not a criticism; quite the reverse – it is this ‘voice’ which carves into the everyday and elicits deeper truths with its observations.

Take, for example, this description of a visit to a tourist attraction from the title story, one of a number which takes place when the narrator is on holiday:

“At the ruin, the light-coloured people do different things from the dark-coloured people. The light-coloured people sit in the debris of the ruin. They look, from there, at other buildings in the ruin. I cannot tell whether they are happy or not…
“The dark-coloured people sit on plastic picnic chairs between the ruin and the hut. They do not enter the ruin; they do not look at the ruin. They work there.”

From the vague and disparaging “ruin” onwards, the narrative voice draws back from the narrator’s experience as a tourist to pinpoint the slightly unreal atmosphere of tourism, an in-between existence that is partly our life and partly another. It is this ‘step back’ approach, likened here to vertigo, which reoccurs throughout the book. The satiric intent and the sense of alienation is echoed using the same approach in ‘New Year’s Day’:

“Everyone at the party was so lovely. Everyone was so happy. Everyone’s websites were now in colour with hand-drawn lettering. Everyone didn’t see why they shouldn’t like – shoes! Everyone had taken pictures of themselves or had pictures of themselves taken in thrift-store clothing.”

This distancing from others is a common thread throughout the stories, but one that enhances rather than inhibits Walsh’s exploration of relationships. In ‘Vagues’ she waits with a man (not her husband, it is revealed) she is considering sleeping with; much of her impression of his character is displayed using a simple typographical trick:

“He says,
‘They do not have enough staff.’

“He says,
‘They have too many tables.’”

Even better are stories that focus on the narrator’s relationship with her children (‘Vertigo’, ‘The Children’s Ward’) and her parents (‘Claustrophobia’). In ‘The Children’s Ward’ she is waiting on news of her son; her helplessness is revealed as she imagines a scenario in which an intruder enters her home:

“When this person leaves my kitchen and arrives, armed with my fantasies, at the very door of my room, which of my children would I save first: the venerable youngest or the one able to run?”

In ‘Claustrophobia’ the narrator remembers her relationship with her mother using a structure which counts down towards her death (Minus 5 Years, Minus 4 Years) though not in order. Her father’s death comes first, the comic imagery of his coffin suggesting family gatherings over the years:

“But here’s my father wheeled in on some kind of catering trolley! He is in a box surrounded by something piped, perhaps cream, or duchesse potatoes, though it could be carnations.”

It seems appropriate that the narrator’s relationship with her mother is later described using a cake:

“There’s no bottom to it. I’m digging through the kind of soil that supports rhododendrons: it’s that dark.”

There’s a beautiful balance in Walsh’s writing: it’s not showy but has a quiet style; it often raises a smile but one accompanied by melancholy eyes; it’s built from the quotidian material of unremarkable life, but insists we pause and look a little closer. I was tempted to quote the wonderful final paragraph from the final story, ‘Drowning’, but instead I would suggest you read it as intended, as the last words in this eloquent volume.

Reader for Hire

October 25, 2015


Peirene Press’ second novella this year comes from France in the form of Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean, originally published in 1985 and made into a film two years later, now finally available in English thanks to translator Adrianna Hunter. The premise is both simple and delightful: the central character, Marie-Constance, places an advert in the local paper offering her services as a reader. The suggestion comes from a friend and initially Marie is sceptical:

“And this was certainly a quirky idea: being a private reader – at a time when talking books are readily available – like in the days of duchesses, tsarinas and genteel companions.”

Her first listener is a wheel-chair bound fourteen-year-old boy, Eric. From the beginning it is clear that both text and reader will have an effect. Eric spends her first reading “without taking his eyes of the hem of my dress, or my knees even.” However, the ocular pleasure gained is balanced by the nightmares the story she reads him (Maupassant’s ‘The Hand’) gives him later:

“All through the night, she says, he kept pointing at the wall opposite him, as if he could see something terrifying there…”

Erotic attraction also plays a part with Michel, a managing director who has no time to read but wishes to have literary dinner party conversation:

“There’s no question that it’s admirable writing, perfectly admirable… but, how can you expect?… Can’t you see it’s you that I want, not that book?”

There’s an element of sexual farce in this with Marie as the innocent who is not so innocent after all. Not only was she warned when placing the ad that ‘young woman’ would send out a particular signal, but as she considers becoming a reader she admits “the thought of bachelors was entertaining.” This might explain why she gives in to Eric’s request that she wear a dress and Michel’s rather more physical demands.

Not all her clients are interested in her sexually, however. The elderly revolutionary, Countess Pazmany, requests that she reads extracts from Marx; to the young girl Clorinde she reads Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. What is perhaps more significant is that in each case she becomes involved in the listener’s life well beyond the passive capacity of reader. She joins the normally bed-ridden Countess on a protest march and takes Clorinde to the fair, including a giant caterpillar ride which might remind us of Alice.

This is a much lighter novel than we are used to seeing from Peirene. Although it demonstrates that the message cannot be separated from the medium, and there is a lot of fun to be had following Marie on her adventures, as is often the case with a great set-up, Jean seems uncertain where to take us. The loneliness of Marie’s clients reveal Marie’s own loneliness as a reason for taking up the position of ‘reader for hire’, but the novel’s denouement suggests that, after all, she is more commonly seen as a sex object. In this sense, the novel’s comedy can seem a little of its time (the eighties) and therefore dated now – consider the changes in both reading and sexual mores in the last thirty years. For these reasons, Reader for Hire is an enjoyable hour but one that is unlikely to provoke a long term commitment.

Fraulein Else

October 23, 2015


When Simon of StuckinaBook and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings launched their 1924 Club it struck me as a wonderful idea: instead of reading across a country or a language, here the challenge was to select from a particular year. Originally I thought I might read John Buchan’s The Three Hostages. As it’s the centenary of The Thirty-Nine Steps, the Richard Hannay sequel seemed an appropriate choice, but I was dissuaded by the fact it generally regarded as one of his weaker novels. Instead I turned to a part of the world which has provided a number of my favourite writers of that period, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the writer, Arthur Schnitzler, whose novella Fraulein Else was published that year. (The English translation by F. H. Lyon is from 1925).

Else is young woman, staying with her aunt – “the poor relation invited by the rich aunt” – with the intention, perhaps, that she marry her cousin Paul. The novel is written as stream of consciousness, occasionally interrupted by sections of dialogue, so we have only Else’s perspective, all other characters being viewed through her shifting lens. This seems appropriate to a novella which is about a young, unformed character, prone to self-reflection (or you might say, self-obsession) and high emotion. From her interior monologue we can tell she is both preoccupied and inexperienced with the opposite sex:

“An Italian might be dangerous to me. It’s a pity the dark man with the Roman head left so soon. Paul said he looked like a rascal. Suppose he is? I’ve nothing against rascals…You know, Paul’s shy… The day before yesterday in the woods, when we were so far ahead, he might have been a bit more enterprising… No one has ever been really enterprising with me.”

As the story opens, we learn she is expecting an express letter from her mother; her greatest fear is that she is being instructed to return home. In fact, it is to ask her to borrow money on her father’s behalf – “the sum in question is a comparatively trivial one, thirty thousand” – from a Herr von Dorsday who is staying at the same hotel (and who we met briefly prior to Else reading the letter). The money is needed almost immediately to avert (in her mother’s words) “a catastrophe”:

“She doesn’t seriously mean that father would commit…”

Borrowing is clearly a way of life for her father, and there must be some suspicion that, having exhausted other avenues, he (or her mother, or both) are using their daughter’s youth and beauty to get the money they need. Even Else suspects as much: “I must look bewitching when I talk to Dorsday.” And later when she is speaking to him: “Why do I look at him so coquettishly?” Dorsday agrees to lend Else’s father the money but under one condition:

“I ask of you nothing more than to be allowed to stand for a quarter of an hour in reverent contemplation of your beauty.”

By this, of course, he means he wishes to see her naked, inviting her to come to his hotel room later that night:

“I don’t answer. I stand here without moving. He looks deeply into my eyes. My face is impenetrable. He knows nothing. He doesn’t know whether I’ll come or not. I don’t know either.”

From this point on, Else agonises over what she should do. The dilemma, whether to sell her body for money or not, is exasperated by her own moral uncertainty (at one point she says she will have a hundred lovers; at another she speaks of a married friend who expresses dislike for her husband as having sold herself). She will eventually find herself naked under a long coat, still undecided as to whether to show herself to Dorsday. This seems appropriate for a story in which her character is presented nakedly to the reader by stream of consciousness while remaining unseen by those around her.

Fraulein Else is a fascinating work of its time, particularly in its modernist style, but it also presents a timeless moral dilemma regarding whether we should use sex for financial (or other) gain. Its intensity is perfect for its length, and its stream of consciousness ideal for Else’s internal struggle, which lies at the heart of its story.


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