The Little Snake

December 8, 2018

A. L. Kennedy’s The Little Snake was first published in Germany two years ago as part of a series of books celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of The Little Prince, a story she has described as “quite jolly if you’re a kid but very sad if you are an adult.” With echoes of Saint-Exupery’s work, Kennedy has created her own fable of a friendship between a girl, Mary, and a snake who also happens to be Death. In stripped-down prose, she adopts a style which, she says, does not “allow you to indulge in the writerly nonsense you think you’ve got away from but actually, when you start doing this kind of thing which has to be very simple and very clear, you think, there’s still a lot of nonsense.”

The snake first appears around Mary’s ankle, mistaken for a bangle. With the childish innocence associated with fables, Mary is not afraid of the snake, and also quite prepared to refuse him when, for example, he asks of a mouse to eat. Perhaps this is the reason he befriends her, telling her he will visit her many times, and warning her:

“Little girl, little girl, the world is an odd place to explore, and you must promise me… that you will be extremely careful wherever you go.”

Of course, the logic of their friendship does not matter; it is the friendship itself which is important in a story which is, at heart, about caring for others. It is the characters who do not care for others who are punished by Lanmo the snake. This applies on a small-scale with the Very Attractive Girls who will not allow Mary to skip with them: the snake makes them skip until they are “hot and tired and worried” and no longer attractive:

“Not one of the Very Attractive Girls mentioned this but they knew it in their hearts, and when they looked at each other they were dismayed.”

The snake, however, also punishes those at the other end of the scale, beginning with Karl Otto Meininger, the third (or possibly fourth) richest man on earth, used to “being surrounded by respectful servants and sad, exhausted trees.” For children, Meininger’s repulsive selfishness is reason enough for the snake to kill him; for adults there is the joy of a justice which even the rich cannot escape: he tells the snake, “I’ll give you everything I have.”

“Other people had told him that too.”

Lanmo continues to aid Mary, particularly when she has to leave her home city. Kennedy highlights the inequalities of the city (which she has likened to London) in the book’s opening pages, and notes its deterioration when Lanmo returns to Mary two years later:

“…he noticed the city looked a good deal sadder than he remembered. There were angry words painted on some of the walls and the pavements were broken in places and not clean. There were fewer kites flying and the ones that did fly looked as if they had simply been forgotten…”

The kites, which people flew “in order to enjoy the sky”, are a visual display of joy, slowly disappearing from their lives. Eventually, Mary leaves her home, Lanmo finding only an empty house and a note. Mary is now travelling with Paul, who as a boy was able to see the snake on their teacher’s desk. Kennedy conveys the terrible choices of being a refugee when Mary must leave her parents behind.

The Little Snake, then, does not shy away from politics, albeit the politics of compassion which all politicians pay lip service to but few enact. In fact, Kennedy tackles this irony in her portrayal of The Great Man Who Loved the People who not only instructs his Commander-in-Chief to kill the elderly, women and children but goes on to demand:

“Once your men have carried out these necessary measures for the defence of my people, you must explain to them that because they had not already killed the traitors hidden in our glorious country… they are traitors. Therefore they must kill each other and then themselves.”

This would be clumsy if bolted on but the book’s message remains the same: for the world to be better, people must care for each other. Mary provides one example for us (the snake tells her, “You taste of the love of other people”), Lanmo another – able to be compassionate even as he kills – and their friendship most of all. It is the lack of love of others which creates the inequality which baffles the snake:

“I do not understand humans. Some of you will steal anything all the time and some of you will steal nothing all the time. Couldn’t all of you just steal something some of the time – if you need it?”

The Little Snake is both a timely and timeless fable which speaks straight to the heart but does not ignore the mind, its pessimistic portrait of humanity tempered with an optimistic outlook. Written with humour, imagination and compassion, it should find a place in everyone’s Christmas stocking.

Quotations by A L Kennedy from an interview with Janice Forsyth on Radio Scotland.

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The German Room

December 4, 2018

The German Room, the debut novel by Argentinian writer Carla Maliandi, is a novel of escape, its narrator abandoning her life in Argentina to return to the world of her childhood in Heidelberg, Germany, where her father lectured at the university. In a sense, she is fleeing her adult life, uncomfortable with who she has become and perhaps seeking to discover the adult she wishes to be. Her departure has been sudden and unannounced:

“Going down with the plane would have been easier than landing in Germany with my life in shambles, without having told anyone in Buenos Aires what I was doing.”

Later she reflects:

“How much longer will I be able to disappear from the internet too, from the lives of others? How much longer will the e-mails continue to pile up, their demands for explanations, their concern over things that I can’t even remember anymore?”

She has rented a room in student accommodation (though without enrolling at the university), perhaps because it allows her to feel, closer to her father, perhaps because she wishes to return to a point in her life when choices sill seemed possible. Her life here is a series of chance encounters with others, encounter she often seems eager to avoid. These characters are often kind to her, a kindness she generally returns with indifference. An Argentinian student, Miguel Javier Sanchez, makes it his duty to take care of her from the moment she arrives, sharing his breakfast with her. That she calls him ‘the Tucamano’ (after the area where he comes from) immediately feels like a distancing technique rather than an endearing nickname. As he speak to her, her mind wanders:

“Then I stop listening to him, he carries on talking and I think about how I’m going to cut my hair.”

It is Miguel Javier who first tells her she is pregnant, a fact she later confirms with the help of a Japanese student, Shanice. Shanice persuades her to go to a karaoke party where she lets a student kiss her only to drift off in her thoughts once more:

“The redhead stops kissing me and looks at me in silence. I apologise, tell him I was distracted because I remembered something.”

The party only makes her realise she doesn’t belong:

“But I don’t belong to this group. Even if I course the whole world looking or a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere.”

What she doesn’t realise is that she is not the only one to feel isolated and, the next day, Shanice commits suicide.

So far the novel has been very much a sympathetic character study of an individual who has lost their way, but the arrival of Shanice’s mother, Mrs Takahashi, sets a new tone. Shanice will warn the narrator about her in a dream:

“Warn you that my mother is full of a very dark sadness…and, ya know, that she can bet inside you.”

Further darkness is injected into the novel when Miguel’s sister, Marta Paul, back in Argentina, decides to consult a medium, Feli, much to Miguel’s distress:

“Feli is not a good person, Feli… is a horrible woman. That’s’ what’s wrong. I’m not there and she’s getting into trouble is what’s wrong.”

Feli will herself (via Marta Paul) provide a warning: “The girl is dead but the mother is alive. The girl knew that the mother was dangerous.” At this point the novel seems to be channelling a certain type of Japanese literature with its detached narrator, its emphasised ordinariness, and its ominous, even supernatural, overtones.

The narrator also complicates her own life when, after moving in with an ex-student of her father’s, Mario (now a lecturer at the same university), she begins sleeping with the man she assumes is his partner, Joseph. It is the first time she has attempted to get close to anyone but the circumstances are not auspicious. Mrs Takahashi keeps reappearing in the narrator’s life, Marta Paul goes missing, and everything seems certain to be heading to a cataclysmic conclusion. However, Maliandi is a far more subtle writer, and her final pages transcend rather than end.

The German Room (ably translated by Frances Riddle) is a surprisingly gripping novel, its drifting, disorientated narrator unexpectedly sympathetic. She tells Mario that:

“…maybe all my life I’ve idealised my childhood here, maybe I remembered this city as a place where time passed in a different way. Here we hoped that everything would get better so we could go back, and in the meantime, we were in limbo, far away, happy.”

Her return to Heidelberg seems another limbo, her escape altogether uncertain.

A Different Drummer

December 1, 2018

Publishers are always looking for the next big thing, but ‘next’ does not necessarily imply ‘new’. John Williams’ Stoner is only one example of the ‘rediscovered classic’, albeit an example so successful that it has become shorthand for the phenomenon. Not only did Stoner sell remarkable well for a novel by a previously unheralded writer originally published in 1965, but it brought his other three novels back into circulation. ‘This year’s Stoner’ may have become something of a gimmick since, but any reader knows that there are thousands of wonderful novels slowly drifting towards obscurity across the decades, as deserving of our attentions as those thrown ceaselessly back by the tides of literary taste to the printers.

William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer is the latest candidate for this accolade. Originally published in 1962 and much praised at the time, both the novel and Kelley himself soon fell out of fashion. Three further novels and a collection of short stories followed, the final novel in 1970, but, though Kelley continued to write, no further books were published. In an interview in 2012 he commented:

“My name just kind of faded away. There are still people today who say to me, ‘Oh, I thought you were dead.’”

A Different Drummer, set in a fictional state in the American South, is based on a premise which is both ordinary and other-worldly. One day, without obvious cause or provocation, a black farmer, Tucker Caliban, begins to throw salt onto his land. He then shoots his horse and cow before setting fire to his house:

“Orange flame climbed the white curtain in the centre section of the house, moved on slowly to the other windows like someone inspecting then house to buy it, burst through the roof with the sound of paper tearing, and lit the faces of the men, the sides of the wagons, and the faces of the Negros.”

As his home burns he leaves with his pregnant wife and child, and, in the days which follow, the entire African-American population of the state depart.

The novel may be predicated on Tucker’s actions, but, though its author was black, it is told entirely from the point of view of its white characters. As Kelley correctly pointed out, this disconcerted critics, forcing them to consider his work without reflexively reaching for another black writer to compare it to:

“There was a literary ghetto — certainly at that time and it still exists today — where African-American writers are really only compared to other African-American writers. But (the white critics) had to compare me to Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Robert Penn Warren.”

More importantly, rather than asserting that it is the duty of black characters to somehow free themselves from the constraints imposed by racism (or fail to free themselves and assume the status of victim), it turns the focus onto the root of the problem, the psychology of the white characters. This would not work unless Kelley was able to convince us he understands these characters but luckily, though the novel’s premise is arresting, it is its characterisation which is its greatest strength.

Kelley focuses in particular on two families, the Lelands and the Willsons. The Lelands are poor and the Willsons rich, descendant from a Confederate General, but both are to some extent sympathetic to state’s black population. Leland forbids his son, somewhat confusingly known as Mister Leland, to use the word ‘nigger’:

“I don’t think no word starts out being bad. It’s just a word and then folks give it a meaning… But if you call a coloured person a nigger he thinks you saying he’s bad, and maybe you don’t even mean it that way, you see?”

In David Willson’s back story we discover a close friendship with a black student, Bennett Bradshaw, at college:

“It is the first time in my life I carried on an intelligent conversation with a negro, and the first time I felt intellectually inferior to a negro.”

His mother is appalled when he tells his family he is going to room with Bennett, but his father agrees when he discovers David’s reasons: “it’s mostly that I like him.” Kelley perhaps picks these more sympathetic characters because their incomprehension over Tucker’s actions is as great as anyone’s. For them, for the other white characters, and for the reader, the novel becomes a puzzle with Tucker at its centre.

In this way the novel can be read as a series of clues, beginning with the story of Tucker’s ancestor, known only as the African, who escapes (carrying a baby) on arrival in the United States and proceeds to free slaves throughout the state before being eventually betrayed and killed. The baby is taken into slavery by the Willson family, and Tucker is his great-grandson:

“I can see whatever was in his blood just a-laying there sleeping, waiting, and then one day waking up, making Tucker do what he did.”

The novel moves backwards and forwards in time, through the experiences of the Lelands and the Willsons, creating a picture of Tucker, though one which never quite comes into focus. This ranges from a comment Tucker makes to Mr Leland as he walks away from the burning house (“you ain’t lost nothing, has you?”) to an outburst at his father’s funeral (“Sacrifice? Is THAT all? Is that really all?”) to his refusal to lend his wife a dollar for the National Society for Colored Affairs:

“Ain’t none of my battles being fought in no courts. I’m fighting all my battles myself.”

A Different Drummer is a novel which poses questions rather than giving answers, its provocative scenario allowing unexpected insight into an issue which writers continue to explore to this day. The one questions it does answer, however, is whether its rediscovery is justified, and it’s a whole-hearted yes.

Quotations by William Kelley from an interview by Steve Kemme for Mosaic magazine.

The Takeover

November 23, 2018

Reading Muriel Spark’s seventies novels (The Takeover was published in 1976) it becomes increasingly apparent that she was, in her idiosyncratic manner, a crime novelist. Violence has always been just beneath the surface in her work (take, for example, The Ballad of Peckham Rye), but her Italian novels in particular seethe with criminality and corruption. Rather than a cast of characters who may be guilty – the task of the reader (and the detective) being to discover which one is indeed to blame – we can assume all her characters are guilty, the only question being, of what?

Three houses in Nemi dominate The Takeover, all built by Maggie Radcliffe: in one live her son, Michael, and daughter-in-law, Mary; another is rented to an Italian family; and the third is the home of Hubert Mallindaine, a one-time friend of Maggie’s whose rent-free residence has become an irritant to her since her second marriage. Hubert refuses to leave and Maggie seems unable to remove him. As Mary says:

“She wants Hubert to go. He says he won’t and he can’t pay rent. She’s going to put him out. The furniture belongs to Maggie as well. But my, she’s finding it difficult. The laws in this country… Hubert might get around them forever.”

(One can’t help feel that the lack of recourse to law – Maggie also fears a ‘scandal’ – is part of the attraction of the Italian setting as in Spark’s world a belief in earthly justice is seen as foolish). Hubert also feels he has a personal claim on the property:

“More Italian in origin than me you could not be…a direct descendent of a union between the Roman Emperor Caligula and the goddess Diana, here at Nemi.”

It is this belief that will lead Hubert to later create his own cult as a way of ensuring a continuing income now that Maggie is no longer supporting him. He is also planning for his future by having her Louis XIV chairs and valuable paintings forged so that he can sell the originals, a process that Maggie is paying for under the belief that the items are being maintained. Hubert is taking over her house, literally piece by piece, but also fears he is vulnerable:

“We mustn’t leave the house unguarded in case they suddenly swoop and stage a takeover.”

For Letizia, the Italian neighbour, “with her youth dedicated to an ideal plan of territorial nationalism”, the takeover is rich foreigners like Maggie buying Italian land. If all this seems almost playful, Spark ensures we understand what is at stake by referencing The Golden Bough, quoting Frazer’s description of the priest at Nemi being replaced when a challenger kills him – “if he slew him he reigned in his stead.” Frazer, like Spark, was acutely aware of the violence which lies beneath our stories.

Attempts to oust Hubert, and Hubert’s plans to outwit them, represent only a fraction of the plotting and deception which occurs in the novel. Maggie’s Italian lawyer, for example, sides with Hubert, going so far as to arrange a false medical certificate for him. She is also duped into losing her fortune to a fraudster, but retaliates by arranging to have him kidnapped so she can be repaid via a ransom. Her jewellery, despite elaborate attempts to hide it in a kitchen step, is stolen, not once, but twice, and Berto, her husband, unwittingly invites a pair of art thieves to lunch only for Mary to spot her Gauguin (which Hubert has replaced with a fake) in their catalogue. Infidelity is also rife, with Lauro, previously Hubert’s secretary and lover, now servant in Mary’s house, sleeping with both her and Maggie.

It is Lauro who ultimately comes out on top y marrying into the family who, in fact, own the lands on which the houses are built – Maggie has been fooled yet again. This should not be read as a victory for the workers – Lauro is just as scheming and mercenary as any other character. There is an argument to be made that Maggie ends the novel happier. Her final transformation may be superficial – she dresses herself “so like a tramp that the chauffeur failed to recognise her at first”:

“My clothes are a symbol of my new poverty, of course. And then, dressed like this, one hopes to avoid being kidnapped.”

But, without the need to remove Hubert from her house, they are able to talk to each other again. When Hubert is told, regarding the house, “It does not exist. How can it exist? It is not on the records.” Spark is reminding us that material possessions are transitory and only the spiritual is real:

“Truth… is not literally true. The literal truth is a common little concept, born of the materialistic mind.”

We cannot look to Spark to provide justice, or even guilt, but there is always a suggestion that redemption is possible.

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants

November 18, 2018

Mathias Enard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, newly translated by Charlotte Mandell, is strikingly different from both Zone and Compass in form, the loquacious title signalling a more taciturn narrative, broken into numerous short chapters. Thematically, Enard continues to explore links between East and West as the novel recounts a plausible visit to Constantinople by Michelangelo to design a bridge, a bridge that becomes a physical symbol of the desirability and difficulties of unifying the two cultures.

Michelangelo’s commission is believable because he is motivated by both his irritation with Pope Julius and his rivalry with Leonardo da Vinci, who has already submitted a design though without ever travelling to the city. Currently employed by Julius, he feels neglected and undervalued:

“The idea of having to humiliate himself once more before the pontiff whips him into a frenzy.”

Da Vinci, he knows, is widely regarded, like himself, as a genius. When he arrives at his studio in Constantinople he is presented with a model based on Leonardo’s drawings:

“Michelangelo the genius walks over to the project of his famous elder; he looks at it for a minute, then, with a broad swipe, propels it to the bottom of the pedestal.”

Finally, there is the fact he is offered a fortune if the work is completed.

The novel is largely told in short chapters focusing on Michelangelo; also included, however, are his letters, and a few chapters from the point of view of an Andalusian singer whom he becomes enamoured of. The structure partly echoes Michelangelo’s struggle to envisage the bridge:

“For now, the matter of the city is so obscure to him, he doesn’t know what tool to use to attack it.”

He spends his time drawing – he “knows that ideas come to you through drawing” – including a drawing of an elephant he gives to the poet who has been assigned as his companion, Mesihi. The short chapters also parallel the way in which characters reach out to each other but fail to connect. Mesihu is one example, developing a love for Michelangelo which he knows is not reciprocated:

“Mesihi sense that Michelangelo does not look at him with the same warmth that Mesihi feels for the Florentine.”

Michelangelo has his own infatuation, a singer whose performance entrances him, while leaving him uncertain whether it is a man or a woman:

“If it’s a woman’s body it’s perfect; if it’s a man’s body Michelangelo would pay dearly to see the muscles of his thighs and claves stand out, his bone structure moving, his shoulders animating his biceps and pectorals.”

It is the singer’s voice which opens the novel, addressing Michelangelo and suggesting he both longs for and resists union:

“Your fear and confusion propel you into our arms; you want to nestle in there, but your tough body keeps clinging to its certainties: it pushes desire away, refuses to surrender.”

The use of ‘our’ (and the placing of this chapter at the beginning without context) ensure that this can be read as applying to the East in general. The bridge-building between characters is not the only example in the novel; Michelangelo is portrayed as in need of bridges within himself. The singer refers to him as having “one foot in day and the other in night.” Later we are told:

“Michelangelo is searching for love.
Michelangelo is afraid of love just as he’s afraid of Hell.”

That the novel ends in violence and confusion, that the bridge which was finally built was destroyed in an earthquake, suggests that making connections without misunderstandings and weaknesses is not easy, but the novel itself is a powerful example of Enard’s ability to yoke the unexpected together. If you have yet to read him, perhaps daunted by the length of his two most famous novels, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is a sharp, swift entry point to one of the today’s most vital writers.

In the Flesh

November 15, 2018

Christa Wolf is a writer whom I have long intended to read, casually acquiring her novels (I have four) without ever quite opening one. I began In the Flesh, probably not a typical entry point, in the appropriate if not advisable surroundings of a hospital waiting room. Published in 2002 (and translated by John S Barrett in 2005), it is one of her later novels (Wolf died in 2011) and does not generally trouble sentences which begin, ‘Her works include…’ It does, however, convincingly portray the experience of a woman admitted to hospital with abdominal pains and a soaring temperature to such an extent that some element of biography is soon suspected.

Wolf’s bravura move is to alternate between the third and first person, in a narrative which is uninterrupted by chapters, thus conveying the sense that patients have of surrendering themselves, or at least their body, to the medical staff, and perhaps the institution itself. I immediately thought of Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Tulips’ where she finds this abnegation seductive:

“I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.”

In the Flesh begins in such a way as the narrator (‘semi-narrator’ sounds a little clumsy) is taken to the hospital:

“Something’s complaining, wordlessly. Words breaking against the muteness that’s spreading persistently, along with faintness. Consciousness bobbing up and down in a primordial tide. Her memories like islands.”

It is in her memories that she becomes alive (or perhaps ‘I-live’), reborn in the first person. While the doctor’s words “barely touch the outer limits of her consciousness”:

“I’m sinking past my mother’s face as she lies near death. I’m standing by the window of her hospital room and seeing myself through her eyes – a black silhouette against the summer light.”

Her memories are largely focussed on Urban, a friend from university who goes on to become someone of importance in the East German state, rising above the narrator and her husband Lothar a functionary rather than an artist:

“Was it just that Urban had been promoted over Lothar and was now in a position to give him orders and pass judgement on his work? Mild judgement if at all possible or, if criticism was unavoidable, criticism cloaked in irony that always made it evident that we’d all been hatched in the same incubator, as Urban put it.”

She meets him years later returning from West Berlin – one of the few trusted to travel back and forward – where he “had to make a presentation about the most recent cultural events in our country.” It is tempting to see Urban as a poison in the body politic, excised in the same way the narrator’s own infection is cut away. Later, she will declare:

“Urban’s dead and they’re a lot more pleased with me.”

However, another prominent memory is that of her Aunt Lisbeth:

“…that’s the face of my Aunt Lisbeth as a young woman, fifty years ago, when I was a child. Isn’t she dead?”

In the ‘memory’, a story she has presumably only been told, Lisbeth visits a Jewish Doctor, Leitner, “who’s no longer permitted to treat Aryans.” Luckily their love affair is unreported.

The connection between these scenes which the narrator experiences seems to be that participant is dead. She reflects on whether “there weren’t special keys – high fever for example – to unlock” our interior worlds, which she describes as an underworld:

“…now she understands… why people speak of the ‘realm of shadows’, call the netherworld the realm of shadows, and why the recently deceased are spoken of as ‘shades’.”

It’s an image she returns to (“someone must have given me a key to the cellar”) just as she uses images of water to describe the experience of pain and anaesthesia. Her closeness to death allows her to reinterpret these stories of others who, conforming or rebelling, neglect their mortality.

In the Flesh may not be one of Wolf’s best known novels, but it is an absorbing examination of the borderland between life and death. “I’m standing on the opposite shore of that river which has no name,” she says at one point. It suggests a writer willing to experiment, to cut to the bone, while ensuring her work remains pulsing with the marrow of lived experience.

Dance by the Canal

November 12, 2018

Gabriela von Haβlau – the ‘true name’ she writes under on packing paper as the novel opens, homeless and alone – is a woman who has been unable to find her place since her childhood in Communist East Germany. Her confusion, in Kerstin Hensel’s 1994 novel Dance by the Canal recently translated by Jen Calleja, is immediately reflected in her two nicknames, one for when she is good, and one for when she isn’t. Her father’s position – first as a surgeon and later as Chief Medical Officer –marks her out, even in a supposedly classless society –

“I couldn’t go to kindergarten because Father was the chief vascular surgeon and Mother was a housewife. I couldn’t play in the street either because there wasn’t anything to do on our street.”

He insists that she learn to play violin despite her lack of talent:

“I was so unmusical that Frau Popiol gave up on me after a year of futile effort.”

Only the illicit kisses and caresses of her violin teacher bring an end to the lessons – “Frau Popiol is sick,” her Father tells her. At school she is also singled out, her aristocratic ‘von’ ill-suited to the Communist system – “a bourgeois relic,” according to her teacher:

“…there was a big red ‘I’ for ‘Intelligentsia’ next to my name in the register as a result of my Father’s occupation. Next to all; the others were ‘L’ for ‘Labourer’ or ‘C’ for ‘Clerk’.”

She responds by befriending the “smallest, fattest and dirtiest among the girls”, Katka. Together they torment their teacher, play truant, and steal sweets.

Where Gabriela is unable to decide who she is, her Father’s idea of his identity is being taken away from him. He insists on holding parties because he is a ‘somebody’ but remains unhappy: his perception of his own ‘prestige’ is at odds with the society around him and, increasingly, his only remedy is alcohol. Her Mother, meanwhile, finds escape, in the arms of a young actor, Samuel.

Gabriela’s adult life is no happier. When she leaves school she begins an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer where she is given the task of filing the edges off iron plates:

“After working on three plates I had blisters on my hands and my shoulders and back ached.”

She rebels again, assaulting her foreman and falling into the hands of, presumably, the secret police who encourage her to write, though by this time the narrative is increasingly incoherent, culminating in a concert which seems peopled with characters from her childhood. It is in the aftermath of this that she begins living outside of society, finding work on a farm.

Alongside the story of Gabriela’s past, which we are led to believe she is writing, we learn of her present, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As it begins, she remains without a place:

“This was the one thing I knew from my first day of homelessness back then: it was forbidden in doorways, gateways and under balconies. So I headed for the Green Bridge… but the Green Bridge was occupied too.”

Only her writing brings her satisfaction:

“By midday I’ll have filled the whole reverse side of the packing paper. I feel the momentum within me, a heaving, driving pleasure.”

Dance by the Canal tells the immediately recognisable story of childhood unhappiness and rebellion, but in a context where the freedom to define yourself is absent, and Gabriella must absent herself instead. Distant from both her mother and father, her discontent originates from the same place. She clings to transitory relationships with Frau Popial and Katka because they represent the only affection she has been shown. In her final rebellion, against the two policemen who have attempted to recruit her, she rejects the state, and is left rootless until the state itself changes; offering her a second chance. Hensel gives us a glimpse into the lives of those who reject totalitarianism for personal rather than political reasons in a novel which insists on the ability of writing to reclaim and reform our lives.

Childhood

November 6, 2018

Following the success of Gerard Reve’s The Evenings, Pushkin Press have released a translation by Sam Garrett of two of his novellas (originally published in 1949 and 1950) under the title Childhood. If this, alongside the gentle sunset pinks of the cover, elicits thoughts of youthful innocence, you will perhaps be surprised by the contents, which are more faithfully represented by the darkness beneath the bridge. This is not a darkness inflicted on children by adults, but the twisted, sometimes violent, minds of his protagonists, who exist in a world which is quite divorced from adult experience.

‘Werther Nieland’ begins with its eleven-year-old narrator, Elmer, attempting to wrench a drainpipe from the wall before taking a hammer to ‘pulverise’ some twigs: “The weather remained dark.” His boredom is relieved by the discovery of a new neighbour, the titular Werther, “thin and spindly”:

“I felt the urge to in some way torment him or inflict pain on him underhandedly.”

Elmer is determined to assert his superiority to Werther, referring repeatedly to his windmill-building skills. Though his parents remain largely hidden in the story, Reve laces his speech with adult expressions such as, “I know that for a fact.” His determination throughout to establish a club (of which he, of course, is president) seems a distorted echo of the adult world:

“There will be a club. Important messages have been sent already. If anybody wants to ruin it, he will be punished. On Sunday, Werther Nieland is going to join.”

It is difficult not to see the influence of the recent German occupation in the nature of the club, which is constantly threatened by spies and enemies. Another friend, Dirk, is dismissed for “wanting to ruin the club because he is a spy”, and Werther is later expelled because he has “been turned against it.”

This, however, is only one strand of the novella. Though Elmer’s mother makes only a brief appearance, Werther’s family, and his mother in particular, feature when Elmer visits him. Werther’s mother is friendly with an intensity which is disconcerting. She produces pieces of cardboard on which she has written about moments from Werther and his sister’s childhood. When the boys begin playing ping-pong, she snatches at the ball as if she must have as much of Elmer’s attention as her son. In this scene Reve captures the mystery of families, each one entirely strange to an outsider:

“I did, however, realise that it must be impossible to understand everything that happened, and there were things that remained a mystery and caused as mist of fear to come rolling in.”

This eccentricity is further enforced by Werther’s father’s enthusiasm for Esperanto. The mother, however, is more than simply eccentric as we discover later when Elmer sees her in the street being followed by a group of thirty children:

“The woman turned a curtsied, seizing the hems of her skirts on both sides. When she straightened up I saw it was Werther’s mother… She began performing a series of rapid steps in place, clacking the soles of her shoes loudly on the paving stones each time. Suddenly she lifted her skirts above her head, almost throwing herself off balance.”

When Elmer returns to Werther’s house it is obvious that her husband is aware of his wife’s ‘nervous’ problem, and Elmer ensures he is invited on a family outing to a “miniature circus” with an aunt which is clearly intended to keep the children out of the way. (The show itself turns out to be ‘inappropriate’, another glimpse into the hidden adult world).

The second, shorter novella, ‘The Fall of the Boslowits Family’, also contrasts the world of childhood with adult experiences which are initially sensed rather than understood. It, too, captures childish curiosity regarding another family, in particular the father, ‘Uncle’ Hans:

“I greatly longer to see the crippled man’s departure, for I had seen him carried in by two guests, and the sight of it had fascinated me deeply.”

In this case it is the war which lies in the background, beginning when the narrator, Simon, is sixteen, and by this time his family and the Boslowits are close friends. His initial attitude is one of excitement:

“I hoped desperately that all the rumours flying round the neighbourhood were true. ‘Really, truly at war, glorious,’ I said under my breath.”

Simon, however, becomes the witness to the war’s effect on the Boslowits family once the Netherlands is occupied, particularly Hans, who cannot walk, and their mentally disabled son, Otto – the type of victims whom we perhaps think of less often. It’s a story which seems at once detailed and economical, conveying the helpless terror of being regarded as no longer of any use by society. If the childhood portrayed can at times seem cruel, Reve seems intent of reminding us that the cruelty of the adult world is far worse. As Elmer comments when passing Werther’s house:

“It’s a dark place, where they live.”

It is becoming clear that Reve is a major writer whom we are only now beginning to appreciate in English.

The Drinker

November 3, 2018

Hans Fallada would probably not feature on a list of my favourite writers, and yet it is noticeable that he is a writer I have written frequently about – five times, in fact, since the publication of Alone in Berlin. Certainly there is a rawness to his work, including a willingness to peel back to the emotional core of his characters, which is almost hypnotic, but, perhaps more importantly, his narratives are compelling, frequently depicting a desperation which drives his protagonists from one crisis to the next

The Drinker is no exception, a story of alcoholism and madness much of which is drawn directly from Fallada’s own life. The narrator, Erwin Sommer, begins as a respected businessman, but Fallada quickly identifies the series of events, each minor in itself, which cause him to turn to drink. His business is not as successful as it once was, and his relationship with his wife has deteriorated, with frequent quarrels. Exacerbating the situation, his wife is also his business partner, a role which has diminished over time and which even he is aware is a direct cause of the business’ current failings:

“In actual business dealings I was inclined to hold back as much as possible, not to force myself on anybody, and never to ask for anything. So it was inevitable, after Magda’s withdrawal, that our business went on in the old way at first, nothing new came in, and then gradually, slowly, year by year, it fell away.”

The catalyst, however, is the absence of a door mat, and a trail of muddy foot prints which causes his wife to criticise:

“The obvious injustice of the reproach took my breath away, but I restrained myself.”

The thought of wine is a casual one, but a glass and a half immediately cheers him and, he believes, repairs his relationship with his wife. In fact, it has only altered his perception – “the alcohol transformed the whole world for me.” Soon after, when he loses a major contract, his first thought is to have a drink, a visit to an inn introducing him to spirits:

“I felt it going down, burning and acrid – and suddenly a feeling of warmth spread in my stomach, an agreeable and genial warmth.”

The feeling is also emotional – “My cares had fallen way from me” – Fallada perfectly capturing the allure of alcohol’s escape. Of course, Fallada is equally accurate when it comes to the resultant hangover:

“I get up stiffly. My whole body feels battered, my head is hollow, my mouth is dry and thick.”

The novel follows Sommer’s descent from respectability to destitution. What makes it compulsively readable is that this fall is both resistible and inevitable. Taking on the tone of tragedy, his every step takes him further away from his previous life, tragic because at every point he has the power to prevent it. He believes that as long as he does not appear drunk, his drunkenness is above reproach, asking Magda “have you ever seen me stagger about or heard me stammer?” Fallada captures the classic delusions of the alcoholic: when his wife attempts to help him, insisting he see a doctor, he regards her as the enemy. She arranges for the doctor to pick him up in his car – he declares it is “a cleverly laid trap” – which he escapes from when it pulls over.

This ‘escape’ places him in the hands of a dishonest landlord, Lobedanz, who quickly strips him of his possessions in return for lodgings and alcohol until he is driven to rob his own house. Fallada dramatically demonstrates the disconnect between Erwin’s view of his actions and the perception of others when he is found in the house and the maid declares, “He wants to kill his wife!” He is not only dismissive of her reaction, but cannot see the danger for himself.

In the novel’s second half we see Sommer both in prison and in an asylum (in fact, he agonises over which is the better option for him), environments which Fallada knew well, and which are therefore presented in convincing, often excruciating, detail. We follow him because we know that, at heart, he is not a bad man, for example giving Magda the power attorney and naming her the sole beneficiary in his will. Fallada also never glamorises his addiction, nor glories in his disgrace.

Though it was written in 1944, the story of The Drinker continues to take place today, as we increasingly witness in the homeless on our streets. It is a tale of addiction as powerful and important as any.

The Abbess of Crewe

October 28, 2018

As Muriel Sparks’ twelfth novel, The Abbess of Crewe, begins, Britain is immersed in the “national scandal of the nuns”:

“The motorway from London to Crewe is jammed with reporters”

The scandal bears many intentional, if superficial, resemblances to Watergate, which began in 1972, and finally resulted in Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, the year the novel was published: wire-tapping, for example, is wide-spread in the abbey. Under the instructions of Alexandra, the newly elected Abbess, even the avenue of meditation is listening:

“The trees of course are bugged… How else can we operate now the scandal rages outside the walls?”

Behind this electronic subterfuge, as with Nixon, lies Alexandra’s desire to be elected. When one of her confidantes, Walburga, comments that her rival, Felicity, is at forty-two percent in the polls (typically, the novel retreats in the second chapter to the weeks before the election), she declares:

“It’s quite alarming… seeing that to be the Abbess of Crewe is my destiny.”

In this belief she shares something of the character of Jean Brodie, confusing her own personal wishes with fate. Like Brodie, she is a character both reprehensible and attractive, one it is difficult to feel Spark condemns completely. She believes herself superior with her “fourteen generations of pale and ruling ancestors of England, and ten before them of France, carved into the bones of her wonderful head.”

Felicity, on the other hand, represents a more modern form of Catholicism, roundly dismissed by Alexandra:

“Felicity will never see the point of faith unless it benefits mankind.”

Her weak spot is her affair with a Jesuit priest, Thomas, and Alexandra’s inner circle plot with the Jesuits against her:

“We could deal with Felicity very well… if you could deal with Thomas.”

The plot, of course, involves a break-in – to steal Felicity’s love letters, which she has secreted in her sewing box. Foolishly, the two Jesuit priests assigned this task take her thimble on a practise run to prove the theft is possible and, when they return for the letters, they are caught. Alexandra, in the meantime, is keen to retain what is now known as plausible deniability:

“You know, Walburga… from this moment on, you may not report such things to me.”

The novel does not really work as a satire – nor is it likely it is intended to. Spark generally finds immoral behaviour amusing and tends to mock rather than attack. As Alexandra puts it, “We are corrupt by our nature in the Fall of Man… O happy flaw!” Generally the novel is much more light-hearted than those which have preceded it, with jokes – “Gertrude should have been a man… With her moustache, you can see that” – and elements of farce, such as when a blackmail payment to the Jesuits takes place in a woman’s toilet requiring one of the priests to dress in drag. Gertrude, a perpetual missionary contacted by Alexandra for advice by phone (and always in a different location), might be seen as the voice of reason, but even she exists in an exaggerated reality, at one point negotiating a truce between a tribe of cannibals and a tribe of vegetarians.

Spark does not deal in problems and solutions, but in paradoxes and, as Gertrude tells Alexandra when asked “how one treats a paradox”:

“A paradox you live with.”

Paradoxes are everywhere in the text, even at the end, when Alexandra is told, “you may have the public mythology of the press and television but you won’t get the mythological approach from Rome. In Rome, they deal with realities.”

The Abbess of Crewe is a delight – clearly if a sitcom in a nunnery was required Spark should have been first in line to script it. And in Alexandra we have one of Spark’s most memorable characters: corrupt, cruel, and yet compelling, and, in the end (like Brodie), immune to guilt.