Femme Fatale

December 3, 2016

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All four of the stories in Femme Fatale (which come from the collection A Parisian Affair translated by Sian Miles in 2004 and now available as a Pocket Penguin Classic) concern themselves with relationships between a man and a woman, though it would be disingenuous to call them love stories. The title story comes closest to exploring that particular passion, though it would be fair to say the love is rather one-sided.

“Poor young devil, he’s got it bad!” says one onlooker of Paul Baron as he sets off in a skiff called Madeleine with Madeleine, a woman he loves enough to name a skiff after her. That her own love fro him might not reach those giddy heights is evident when they disagree about the arrival of a boat-load of lesbians (yes, I wasn’t expecting that either). Baron’s view of these women is one that would have been regarded as antediluvian ten years ago but is now probably mainstream in Brexit Britain:

“Shouldn’t be allowed! They should be drowned like puppies with stones around their necks!”

When he forbids Madeleine to have anything to do with them, she dismisses his demand out of hand:

“Listen, dear, I shall do exactly as I please. If you don’t like it you know what you can do.”

Paul’s rage only increases when Madeleine speaks to one of the women, Pauline (do you see what de Maupassant did there), when she comes in, and leaves her with a promise to “see you tonight!” Perhaps Paul’s anger is not simply homophobia after all.

The stand-out moment in the story is when Paul sees a representation of his relationship as he looks out over the river:

“All of a sudden the man jerked out of the water a little silver fish which wriggled at the end of his line. Twisting and turning it this way and that, he tried to extract his hook, but in vain. Losing patience he started pulling and, as he did so, pulled out the entire bloody gullet of the fish with parts of its intestines attached.”

Not only is this the symbolic centrepiece of the story but de Maupassant echoes it in his ending. Though a little stranger than I was expecting, ‘Femme Fatale’ is an excellent short story and leaves me wondering why I have not read de Maupassant before.

Death of a Nobody

December 2, 2016

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My second advent story is Georges Simenon’s Death of a Nobody, a title which offers little in the way of Yuletide cheer despite originating in the collection Maigret’s Christmas. In fact there’s not a bauble in sight, with Simenon going out of his way to tell us it was a hot August day (clearly the Trades Description Act was not in force in 1976 when it was first translated by Jean Stewart). It is, though, the bleak mid-summer with Simenon outdoing himself to emphasise the depressing nature of the murdered man’s life. Take, for example, his wife:

“…her air of desolation was not due to the tragedy. Even on the portrait she wore a weary resigned look, as though she bore all the weight of the world on her shoulders.”

Maigret sums it up:

“’Poor beggar.’
Not because he was dead but because he had lived!”

(Simenon is often cagey about revealing Maigret’s thoughts, but he is a master at using the exclamation mark to do so). As the title reveals, the central question is why a man so unassuming and unimportant should be murdered at all. That he has been shot from anther building, apparently by an experienced marksman, only adds to the mystery.

Of course there’s more to the victim than first meets the eye but interestingly, given that the story is only a third of the length of Simenon’s already short novels, Maigret’s discovery of what happened relies on patience as much as action.

Death of a Nobody includes a second story which also showcases Maigret’s patience, ‘The Man in the Street’. Here Simenon cleverly creates a thrilling story by removing almost all action. Identifying a suspect, Maigret begins to tail him, a game of cat and mouse which continues for days, with the man he is following fully aware of Maigret’s presence.

Penguin is currently publishing the entire series of Maigret novels in order. Hopefully this will include the short stories.

The Lottery

December 1, 2016

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This year I decided to create my own short story advent calendar by choosing twenty-four of the pocket Penguins which I have collected like whisky miniatures over the years but (like the contents of those tiny bottles) never tasted. The selection each day will be random, so it can only be serendipitous that the first out the bag (literally – a fortuitous discovery of brown paper pokes with a Santa emblazoned on the front having saved me the tedious task of wrapping each one) is Maria Edgeworth’s The Lottery. (Rather unfairly, this was not published by Penguin but by Orion Books in imitation; it’s easily available online should you wish to try it).

Edgeworth is yet another prolific and previously famous writer whose work has been gradually removed from the literary consciousness. While contemporary Jane Austen has gone on to a successful film career, Edgeworth has been relegated to one-hit-wonder status with her first novel Castle Rackrent. (Having said that, Sort Of Books has mounted a recent comeback campaign with the strapline ‘Jane Austen’s best-selling rival,’ having reissued Helen and Patronage).

Edgeworth began as a children’s writer and the finger-pointing morality that is acceptable for the development of young minds is unfortunately still in evidence wagging away in her later work, of which The Lottery is no exception. She’s a little like those Primary teachers that cannot adjust to talking to adults and continue in the same sing-song tone. The lottery, by the way is bad, as the voice of virtue, William explains:

“But what is gaming but trusting ones money, or somewhat, to luck or hap-hazard?”

Unfortunately his friend, Maurice, is so brow-beaten by his cousin Mrs Dolly that he succumbs anyway, selling a cow to buy a ticket in the worse bovine exchange since Jack and those magic beans. With Jack’s luck, however, he wins five thousand pounds thereby proving that lotteries are worthwhile after all…

Or not, because Edgeworth’s real moral is that money has to be earned, which is of course what all those who are born into wealth think. There are entertainingly tense decisions to be made about what to do with the money with Mrs Dolly favouring a coach and Maurice’s wife, Ellen, suggesting they set up a shop to provide a steady income. Most importantly their son, George, is able to avoid becoming a drunkard, despite his aunt’s insistence he should, like her, spend his leisure time pouring alcohol down his throat, a resistance that wins him a rich friend (always useful for happy denouements). Any pleasure at George’s sobriety is taken from them (and us), however, when we discover that Maurice (whose absence from the narrative I had put down to weak characterisation) was, in fact, gambling away all their money.

The Lottery is an entertaining tale but, as Edgeworth herself said, “I have been reproached for making my moral in some stories too prominent,” and that was before I even had a chance to reproach her. Repentance or painful death awaits those who have acted immorally, while those who have not will be rewarded, cash in hand.

The Clown

November 29, 2016

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Heinrich Boll is a writer who (in English at least) has come to be largely defined by one book, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Once widely published by Penguin, he is now largely out of print in the UK, though Melville House recently reissued a number of his books, including The Clown. (The Marion Boyars edition I have was translated by Leila Vennewitz in 1965, two years after the novel’s German publication, but this is the same translation Melville House has used). It is perhaps for this reason that I had little idea what to expect from The Clown, which I found surprisingly readable despite the critique of German post-war Catholicism which was clearly central to Boll’s intentions.

Its readability lies largely in the novel’s voice, that of its titular clown, Hans Schnier. Though the novel covers much of Schnier’s life (albeit he is still young, in his early twenties) we only spend a matter of hours with him, the novel consisting of an extended cry of anguish against his present circumstances. In particular he is angered and upset by the fact that his partner (though I’m using this word anachronistically, it accurately reflects Schnier’s feelings: living together, he regards their relationship as akin to marriage), Marie, has left him to marry another man. Her departure coincides with the (self-inflicted) collapse of his career as a clown:

“After three weeks there were already no more flowers in my room, by the middle of the second month I no longer had a room with a bath, and by the beginning of the third month the distance from the station was already seven marks, while my fee had shrunk to a third. Instead of cognac, gin, instead of vaudeville theatres, curious clubs which met in gloomy halls…”

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Schnier now finds himself with barely a mark to his name, and, on his return to Bonn, he lists all those he might ask for money. Though his family are wealthy he has little to do with them. He blames his mother in particular for the death of his sister Henrietta, who was allowed, and even encouraged, to volunteer for anti-aircraft duty towards the end of the war when she was sixteen years old. His mother’s support for the Nazi regime is encapsulated in her comment at the time, “You do see, don’t you, that everyone must do his bit to drive the Jewish Yankees from our sacred German soil?” When Schnier phones her during the course of the novel he cannot resist introducing himself as:

“…a delegate of the Executive committee of Jewish Yankees just passing through – may I please speak to your daughter?”

This anger at his mother is part of a general anger at those who supported the Nazis but now prosper in post-war Germany. Talking to his mother reminds him of Schnitzler, one of a number of artistic hangers-on his mother indulged, who encouraged his mother to enrol Schnier in the Hitler Youth, and is now working in the Foreign Office:

“A hypocrite like that doesn’t even have to tell lies to always be on the right side of the fence.”

Schnier’s choice of clowning as a career seems, at least in part, directed towards all the writers and artists his mother fawned on – he frequently refers to it as an art while knowing his mother will never regard it as seriously.

Schnier and Marie’s relationship founders because he cannot agree to have their children raised as Catholics. We learn that Marie has had miscarriages in their time together, though later it is hinted that, unbeknownst to Schnier, they might be abortions. This reflects a more general sense that the Catholics in the novel only take their Catholicism seriously as it suits them. (At one point Schnier is told, regarding priests and hunting, “There are certain rules, Schnier, but there are also exceptions.”) Schnier says he is by nature monogamous, and that Marie is putting her soul in danger:

“When she marries Zupfner, then she will really be sinning. That much I have grasped of your metaphysics: what she is doing is fornication and adultery…”

Schnier, then, has something of the holy fool about him; though not religious he is innocent in a way those who are religious either dislike or misunderstand. This innocence (as with Holden Caulfield) is often mistaken for rebellion. As his father says to him:

“…do you know what’s the matter with you? You lack the very thing that makes a man a man: the ability to accept a situation.”

Clowning is a refusal to accept the seriousness of life, even if it originates from despair. Acceptance leads to tyranny; dictatorships hate humour. Schnier goes as far as to refuse to accept his success as a clown. He refuses his father’s offer of financial help, then phones his father’s mistress to see if she will intercede on his behalf – his rebellion is not a matter of principal but an innate reaction. It is for this reason that, although The Clown is clearly a critique of post-war Germany (the nuances of which will always escape me), it is equally a coruscating response to the threats of complacency and amnesia.

Unformed Landscape

November 25, 2016

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Having read Peter Stamm’s last three books to be published in English (Seven Years, We’re Flying and All Days Are Night) the time had come to delve into his back catalogue (Stamm has been well served over the years by his translator Michael Hofmann). Fellow Stamm fan Tony Malone recommended Unformed Landscape as a good place to start, and German Literature Month seemed a good time to read it.

Unformed Landscape is a relatively short novel in which a lot seems to happen. The novel opens one particular Saturday with Kathrine heading out across country on her skis:

“Finally, after perhaps an hour, she moved away from that last landmark at a sharp angle, and glided out into the limitless white of the fjeld.”

The “limitless white”, as we shall discover, is the first hint of the unformed landscape of her life. Stamm, however, moves quickly from this particular morning to more general summary of Kathrine’s life:

“Kathrine had married Helge, she had had a child, she had divorced Helge.”

Soon the two methods of narration are transposed:

“After work she went to her mother’s. The three of them would eat supper together, later Kathrine would pick up the child and go home. Eventually, the child learned to walk, and she didn’t have to carry him anymore. That was in summer. Then the days grew shorter, autumn came, the first snow, and then winter.”

This sense of time passing quickly suggests Kathrine feels her life slipping away. She looks to others to change that, for example a visiting Dane, Christian, who is installing new machinery at the fish factory: “Kathrine waited for him to kiss her, but he didn’t kiss her.” Alexander, a Russian ship’s captain she befriends in her job at customs, tells her:

“You expect too much from other people. You’re responsible for your own life.”

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Kathrine, however, still looks to others to change her life, marrying again. Her attraction to Thomas is perhaps best summed up in the sentence, “His life was going somewhere.” That marriage, too, falls apart – his controlling family accuse her of infidelity (by sending a letter to everyone she knows) and Thomas moves out of the flat they were sharing while waiting to move into his family home. Typical of the way the story is told, we learn of this before we hear much about the marriage itself. Clearly Thomas has attempted, and Kathrine has allowed him, to imprint himself upon her life, as can be seen from the furniture in their flat:

“He had been generous, and bought expensive, new things. He hadn’t liked her furniture, he had mocked her collection of books…And every time they tidied up…she noticed that something disappeared, until there was hardly anything left.”

It is at this point that Kathrine decides to become responsible for her own life, leaving her village, her job and her son, and setting out to find Christian in Aarhus. This may be the first time she has seized control of her destiny in such a way, but this does not man she has transformed into a different person overnight; the haphazard still plays a large part in her life. She stays with the sea captain who took her across the Arctic Circle for a few days, and when she reaches Aarhus Christian is not there; neither is she entirely clear why she wishes to see him, except that he represents a chance of escape she didn’t take.

The novel questions how far Kathrine can take control of her own life. She represents the many people who remain largely where they were born, not because they choose to stay there but because they do not choose to move away. She is aware she is not entirely happy, and is not afraid to walk away from that unhappiness, but is less certain about where to walk towards. She searches for the (male) catalyst which will transform her life only to be disappointed, but not disheartened.

This makes Unformed Landscape an unusual novel: Kathrine is neither powerless in face of its plot, nor the power behind it. Like most people, her life is a confused combination of choices and chance. It is this that gives the novel both its depth and its resonance; her very ordinariness makes her extraordinary. It is certainly the best of Stamm’s novels that I have read so far.

Thumbprint

November 19, 2016

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Though Friedrich Glauser is described as the ‘Swiss Simenon,’ his life most resembles that of German writer Hans Fallada: an opium and morphine addict, he spent much of his time either in jail or insane asylums, though he did manage to fit in two years in the Foreign Legion. Thumbprint is the first of his Sergeant Studer novels, all five of which have been translated into English by Mike Mitchell and published by Bitter Lemon Press (Glauser died at the age of forty-two and therefore certainly did not match Simenon for productivity) Even in this first novel, Studer is old for his rank having lost his position in another force for what are hinted to be political reasons, creating an impression he is both a maverick and incorruptible.

Initially we are invited to consider that the murder in Thumbprint is

“…an open and shut case. Wendelin Witschi, travelling salesman, had been found on Wednesday morning lying on his front in a wood not far from Gerzenstein with a bullet hole behind his right ear. His pockets were empty but the murdered man’s wife claimed her husband had three hundred francs on him… And on Wednesday evening Schlumpf had paid for a few drinks in the Bear with a hundred-franc note.”

The novel begins, however, with Studer saving Schlumpf’s life, returning, having arrested him that morning, to find him hanging by his belt:

“Why? Because he had never had a son of his own? Because the man had kept protesting his innocence during the journey here? No. They were all innocent. But Schlumpf’s protestations had sounded genuine.”

Studer decides (of course) to follow his gut feeling that “there was something not quite right about the whole business” and persuades the examining magistrate on the case to allow him to investigate further.

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Once in Gerzenstein, the case appears more open than shut, with a steady procession of suspicious characters parading in front of Studer: Witschi’s daughter, Sonja, who was also Schlumpf’s fiancée; his son, Armin, generally to be found in a local bar flirting with the waitress; Schlumpf’s boss, Ellenberger, who habitually employs ex-cons (thus, at a stroke, creating even more suspects); and Aeschbacher, the mayor, and Witschi’s brother-in-law. Witschi, naturally, has money troubles, but suicide is ruled out by the absence of powder burns and the angle of the wound – at least at first. A gun and bullet cases are found – but not in the same place, and pointing towards entirely different theories as to why Witschi died.

Glauser not only shares his intricate plotting with Simenon, with its feints and false turns, but Studer, like Maigret, is an instinctive detective who takes things at his own pace:

“It was never a good idea to plunge straight into a case, like a pig at the trough.”

Similarly, the reader is only allowed occasional glimpses into his thought process if he discusses the case. Meanwhile he sometimes befriends, and at others provokes the various witnesses and suspects. Frequently he simply watches:

“He squinted across at Armin’s table. Something seemed to be going on.”

Glauser is particularly adept at adding twist upon twist to the narrative without ever losing credibility. The possibility that Witshci may have committed suicide, for example, is juxtaposed with Schlumpf’s confession. Adding to the jeopardy is Studer’s worsening health as the novel progresses:

“Studer shivered. The stabbing pain in his chest was back. He broke out in a cold sweat.”

Yet even a visit to a doctor simply provides him with an opportunity to use his microscope to examine evidence.

Thumbprint is an excellent crime novel, one I can’t imagine any connoisseur of the genre being disappointed in. My only disappointment is that there are no more than four others to look forward to.

Back

November 15, 2016

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This year has been characterised by some great readalongs – Virginia Woolf in January, Jean Giono’s Hill in May and Jean Rhys in September. When Mookse and Gripes suggested Henry Green’s Back for November it seemed another chance to experience a writer whom I hadn’t read before in good company. All I knew about Green was that he was published by Harvill in the 1980s (certainly a recommendation) and that all his novels seem to have one word titles (at the very least to be admired for consistency – and one would imagine a certain bloody-mindedness in the face of publishers). Even better, although the readalong was ostensibly to tie in with the reprinting of his work by the New York Review of Books Classics imprint, I was aware that his novels had also been reprinted this year in the UK by Vintage Classics in budget three volume versions which made buying yet another book seem like a money-saving venture.

Back was Green’s seventh novel, originally published in 1946, and, as its title suggests, its central character, Charley, has just returned from the war, having lost a leg and spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp. The novel opens with a visit to a graveyard – while he has been away the woman he loved, Rose, has died:

“For Rose had died while he was in France, he said over and over under his breath. She was dead and he did not hear until he was a prisoner. She had died, and this sort of sad garden was where they had put her without him…”

This neat reversal (not only of soldier grieving civilian, but the reversing of the experience, so common in war, of not seeing the body) is further complicated by the fact that Rose was married to another man, James, whom Charley meets as he leaves the graveyard. He also visits Rose’s parents, his “rather not speak of it” when asked about the prison camp typical of the reticence which runs through the novel – we learn almost nothing of his wartime experience. Rose’s father gives him an address where, he says, “you’ll find someone who knew Rose…

“She’s just the age Rose was, maybe a month or two younger. She wants to meet you. She’s a widow.”

The expectation that Charley is looking for a woman, whether for sex or marriage, is a common thread in almost every conversation. His landlady, Mrs Frazier, tells him:

“I can’t make up my kind why you don’t go out more often…At the age you are as well, and after what you’ve been in. Find a young lady I mean.”

When he doesn’t visit the address immediately, a fellow returnee, Middlewitch, comments, “then you must be getting your oats, right enough.” At work it is quickly assumed that he must be sleeping with his female assistant, Dorothy, and he goes as far as taking her on a visit to James with no particular feelings for her but under the weight of that expectation, only for James to visit her room at night in his stead.

When he does eventually visit the address which Rose’s father gave him he is met with an unexpected sight:

“She opened, almost at once. He looked. He sagged. Then something went inside. It was as though the frightful starts his heart was giving had burst a vein. He pitched forward in a dead faint, because there she stood alive, so close that he could touch, and breathing, the dead spit, the living image, herself, Rose in person.”

Here we see Green’s skill as a writer. Superficially rather ordinary – there are few flowery phrases – but capturing the essence of his character’s experience, from the short, shocked sentences which open to the final, repetitive incredulity; the clever pairing of ‘dead’ and ‘living’ to mean the same thing, and placing of ‘herself’ before ‘Rose’, but without, as a lesser writer might have done, leaving it the final word. Charley becomes convinced that the woman is Rose, living under a different name. Her denials only inflame his certainty, and at one point he even takes James to see her. (There are echoes of this in his conviction that there is something of himself in Rose and James’ son, as if the world is not what is presented to him anymore).

Back presents a perfect snapshot of England towards the end of the war. Green has fun with the fact that “everything’s initials these days” and acronyms scattered across every page. There are countless conversations about food which is, of course, in short supply. The war itself is rarely referred to in more than an elliptical and euphemistic way. Here, for example, are James and Charley on the subject of Charley’s lost limb:

“’Yes, well there you are,’ James said.
‘There it is,’ Charley agreed.

Charley’s grief for Rose is surely also for the loss of the life he had before, however; his need to heal related as much to his war-time experience as her death. As a character study it is, just like the times it presents, restrained, but beautifully observed. Luckily there is much more Green to come.

The Ebb-Tide

November 13, 2016

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Ebb-Tide, set in the South Seas where he was resident, was the last of his novels to be published in his lifetime (in September 1894; Stevenson died in December). Though written in collaboration with his stepson, Lloyd Osborne, the final version is thought to be largely Stevenson’s work. Stevenson described the novel as a “dreadful, grimy business” and, indeed, its characters have few redeeming features. When the novel opens we find them – Herrick (a Cambridge-educated gentleman fallen on hard times), Davis, (a disgraced ship’s captain), and Huish, (a Cockney clerk and petty criminal) – sleeping rough:

“In the telling South Sea phrase, these men were on the beach. Common calamity had brought them acquainted, as the three most miserable English-speaking creatures in Tahiti.”

Stevenson is particularly good on the men’s low state: a tattered copy Virgil which Herrick carries around only remaining in his position because he cannot sell it; Davis adopting a ridiculous dance on the quay so they might eat. At the end of the first chapter they are described as:

“…one wet mass…shivering and dozing off, and continually reawakened to wretchedness by the coughing of the clerk.”

A chance of escape arises when Davis is given the opportunity to captain the schooner Farallone, with its cargo of champagne, to Sydney, smallpox having taken its toll on the original crew, and with no-one else willing to take up the task. Davis invites Herrick and Huish to join him despite their lack of sea-going experience, revealing that, far from taking the cargo to its intended port, he plans to sail for Peru and sell it, before taking the schooner for himself. Herrick is reluctant (“I’ve not fallen as low as that”) but eventually agrees.

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Stevenson skilfully uses the changing dynamics of the trio’s relationship to keep tensions high throughout the novel. Davis puts his proposal to Herrick before inviting Huish and appoints him First Mate, but, once on board, Huish decides to begin drinking the champagne and Davis soon joins him in permanent drunkenness leaving Herrick isolated. In moral terms (and Stevenson is always a moral writer), Herrick’s conscience continues to bother him, Huish’s bothers him not at all, and Davis vacillates between the two.

For various reasons the flight to Peru is abandoned and, when they encounter an unmapped, but inhabited, island they hatch a new plot. The island introduces a fourth white character, Attwater, educated like Herrick, presenting himself as a Christian, but entirely ruthless. Discussing how he managed to get the labour for his settlement, Davis comments, “you must be a holy terror!”

“…one way or another, one got it into their head that they must work, and they did…”

His personal island, and the calm manner in which he discusses his brutality, make him seem like a prototype Bond villain. In the end, Herrick must choose between Attwater and Davis, a choice which is almost literally between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The Ebb-Tide has the adventure of Treasure Island but without the heroism. Instead we see the moral complexity which characterises Stevenson’s most memorable creations, Silver, and, of course, Jekyll and Hyde. Our colonial adventurers are portrayed as, at best morally confused, at worst, morally bankrupt. “Don’t think me a philanthropist,” Attwater tells Herrick, “I dislike men, and hate women.” It is difficult not to see the disease which permeates the novel (Attwater’s island has also lots most of its inhabitants to smallpox) as representative of colonialism.

Certain aspects date the novel – a comprehensive understanding of the vocabulary of sailing is likely to be less common among readers for one. The Kanakas (a word used to describe the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands) are largely silent, though a conversation between Herrick and one of the sailors is a key moment in the story. Often they are used a moral barometer to allow us to judge the European characters. Stevenson’s use of phonetic speech further distances them from the narrative, though he does the same for Huish, and, interestingly, seems to have been aware of the problem:

“It is a dreadful, grimy business in the third person where the strain between a vilely realistic dialogue and a narrative style pitched about (in phrase) “four notes higher” than it should have been has sown my head with gray hairs.”

However, The Ebb-Tide with its (to quote Stevenson again) “ugliness and pessimism” also seems one of his most modern works, and a sad reminder of what he might have gone on to produce.

Mine-Haha

November 8, 2016

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Frank Wedekind was a German-American writer, best known as a dramatist for plays such as Spring Awakening and the ‘Lulu’ plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. It would be fair to say that his work, and his life, was very much taken up with sex. Writing towards the end of the nineteenth century his work can be seen as a rejection of what he regarded as an artificial, socially-constructed morality, which was anyway hypocritical. Spring Awakening (as the title suggests) explores the developing sexuality of teenagers at odds with a society which wishes to keep them ignorant and to associate desire with guilt. In the course its three acts, the play features masturbation, rape, sado-masochism and homosexuality. Mine-Haha, you may be pleased (or disappointed) to hear is less explicit, but the same tensions between desire and morality lie at its heart.

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The novella is presented as an autobiographical manuscript given to the author by an elderly woman, Helene Engel, a few weeks before she commits suicide. It tells of her unusual upbringing, with no mention of parents, and with the focus very much, as the subtitle suggests, on ‘The Bodily Education of Young Girls’. Initially in mixed sex groups, this education involves learning how to move: running, skipping, walking. All the girls are dressed in the same way, in short white dresses:

“We had to gather up our dresses and clasp them in our hands firmly over our hips. Then we set off marching so slowly that between each step one could have run once round the house.”

This sets the tone for much of what is described in the novella: activities which are superficially innocent (the white dresses are clearly designed to suggest purity), especially to the participants, but which have a sexual or erotic undertone.

Once the narrator, known as Hidalla at this point, reaches a certain age (though still pre-pubescent) the sexes are separated and she sent to an all-girls school; taken for her bed naked she is placed inside a box and delivered to her new life. This ceremony represents both a death and rebirth, but with the suggestion of the body as an object to be packaged and posted. In this new institution her education continues much as before:

“From the very first day they put me to task and made me walk on my hands. Two of the girls held me up by the legs. My hair hung down to the ground, the dress fell from my belt down to the back of my neck.”

The school is funded by shows which the girls put on in a theatre when they are older (from around the age of twelve). Wedekind describes one of these shows in some detail; s with the activities we have already witnessed they are performed in innocence by the girls but intended to give erotic pleasure to the audience, from whom the dancers are kept quite separate:

“A grille from floor to ceiling separated us from the tiers of seats, which rose on all sides as in an amphitheatre, and it was dark beyond that so we could not even discern whether the seats were occupied or not.”

After this period in their life is over, the girls are put on an underground train and reunited with the boys; Hidalla’s hand is taken by a particular boy and she is led through a crowd of people as the story ends.

As translator Philip Ward points out in his introduction, “Mine-Haha can be read a dozen ways.” It’s tempting to think of it as a lurid fantasy, or perhaps a misogynistic fable. What makes these readings less plausible, however, is the sheer lack of sexual content. Though the body is fetishized throughout, physical contact, even among the girls, is frowned upon. Similarly, though Hidalla finds the bodies of others attractive, even as she enters her teenage years there is no sense of desire. Instead we have a dystopia disguised as a utopia. The girls’ lives may appear idealised – the white dresses, the beautiful surroundings of the school, the focus on music and dance – but in fact they are confined, kept away from the opposite sex, and kept ignorant about many aspects of live, including sex. In other words, their life is not dissimilar to a (middle class) girl of that time.

Mine-Haha is certainly an unusual, and at times unsettling, tale. Despite its rather measured style, it still has the potential to shock. A recent film adaptation (Innocence directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović in 2004) suggests that the uncomfortable mirror it holds up to our view of female sexuality is not entirely dated.

Ludwig’s Room

November 3, 2016

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One of the best aspects of Peirene Press’ powerful novellas is the way in which they introduce new writers to an English-reading audience; an unfortunate downside of this is that frequently no other work is available in translation leading to the frustration of discovering a writer you love but with no way of accessing their writing (short pf learning a new language). Alois Hotschnig, whose short story collection, Maybe Next Time, Peirene published in 2011, is a rare exception, with a previous novel, Leonardo’s Hands (which I reviewed for German Literature Month in 2014) already available, and a second, Ludwig’s Room, appearing in 2014 from Seagull Books translated, like Maybe Next Time, by Tess Lewis.

Ludwig’s Room is an unsettling, suffocating narrative, greeting us in the guise of a ghost story. From the very first line we feel we are entering haunted house territory:

“I should never have accepted the inheritance, that’s when it all began. The house had made others unhappy before me.”

And, in case we are under the mistaken impression this might be down to persistent drafts and dodgy plumbing, we are told, “The previous owners had all died but hadn’t yet left.” As in any classic haunted house story, the locals don’t take to incomers, and the latest inhabitant of the house, Kurt Weber, is soon warned, “you have to protect yourself from people here.”

Weber has been to the house before as a child, a process that was designed to select the next heir, and remembers a room that he was never allowed to enter. When he knocks on the door and asks if he can come in, his Uncle Georg replies, “Not as long as I live.” There is a rumour that another Uncle, Paul, hanged himself in the room, which is also known as Ludwig’s room, though no-one will say who Ludwig is.

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The novel’s ominous and enigmatic first half includes the visit to the house of an elderly woman who is soon a regular presence, having been forbidden by her son to enter while the previous inhabitants lived; she tells him:

“Maybe this one’s different… after all, he isn’t guilty, not from the beginning.”

Merging into the first person narrative we find Weber’s dreams, not always initially distinguished from reality, and the stories of others, as direct speech is never indicated. Death is all around, from the body Weber sees being dragged out of the lake (“Every year one of them washes up here, at least one”) to the coffin being carried out when he first meets another neighbour, Mr Gartner. Weber’s memories of his relatives frequently focus on their deaths:

“The lake was Georg’s deathbed. He went out in his boat one night and never came back.”

As his aunt, from whom he inherited the house, once told him:

“You’re only truly at home when you’ve got someone in the graveyard.”

It won’t surprise anyone who recalls that this is a German (or, at least, an Austrian) book (or anyone who has read the blurb) that the answer to this mystery lies in the Second World War:

“The Security Service had its training camp on that mountain. Their surveillance, the terror, began there. From their outpost up there, they monitored the lake and the surrounding area. And this house.”

In the novel’s second half it becomes an exorcism, an exorcism which begins with Weber clearing the wood around the house, but continues with his search for the truth. The inheritance Weber refers to in the opening sentence is not simply the house, but the guilt associated with the house, a guilt which previous occupants have attempted to keep locked in a room.

I initially found Ludwig’s Room dense and opaque – it reminded me of trying to find a way through the typically foggy surroundings of a haunted house. Ostensibly a first person narrative, it is, in fact, a web of voices, living and dead, as complex as the truth it uncovers. Weber is a character often at the mercy of his own unease, both awake and asleep. However, he persists, and so should the reader, the novel’s difficulty and confusion enhancing the emotional pay-off at the end.

“The dead linger for a long time but eventually they do leave.”