Archive for November, 2017

The Tobacconist

November 27, 2017

Remaining unconvinced by much of the praise piled upon Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, my decision to read The Tobacconist (an earlier novel translated by Charlotte Collins last year) was influenced by my uncertainty over whether it was the novel itself or the general interpretation of its title as suggesting approval of Egger’s life – an exemplar of resilience perhaps – which had irritated me to the point of exhaustion. It was also hinted at the time (by those who read German) that A Whole Life was not typical of Seethaler’s work. One noticeable difference is evident from the opening lines:

“One Sunday, in the late summer of 1917, an unusually violent thunderstorm swept over the mountains of the Salzkammergut. Until then, Franz Huchel’s life had trickled along fairly uneventfully, but this thunderstorm was to give it a sudden turn that had far-reaching consequences.”

The storm will drown Preininger, who has provided Franz and his mother with an income, forcing Franz to leave home and work in Vienna in a tobacconist’s; but the storm is also history, which will dictate Franz’s life over the pages of the novel. (This, it seems to me, is in contrast to Egger who seems to exist outwith history even during the Second World War). As a lady comments to Franz on his arrival in Vienna when he is overcome by the stench: “It’s not the canal that stinks…It’s the times. Rotten times, that’s what they are. Rotten, corrupt and degenerate.”

Franz begins working for Otto Trsnyek, an old friend of his mother’s, who lost a leg in the First World War. The tobacconist, in a small way, represents the civilisation that Austria will soon leave behind: note, for example, Otto’s instructions to Franz regarding the reading of newspapers:

“The correct reading of newspapers, equally extending both mind and horizon, encompassed all the newspapers on the market (and therefore also in the shop), if not from cover to cover, then at least in greater part…”

The tobacconist’s welcomes all viewpoints, and all customers, something the country no longer does. When a Communist unfurls a banner before committing suicide, the press reports “the graffiti he scrawled on it, which cannot be reproduced here, was intended to vilify our Reich, our people, and our hope-filled city.” What he had actually written was:

“Freedom of the people requires freedom of the heart. Long live freedom! Long live our people! Long live Austria!”

The tobacconist’s also suffers from the intolerance of the times, waking one morning to find JEWLOVER written on the window in pig’s blood. One of the Jewish customers in question is Sigmund Freud whom Franz quickly (and, it has to be said, improbably) befriends. Freud finds Franz exasperating but endearing, and recommends he finds a girl, answering his questions about love with the declaration that “nobody understands love” but:

“…you don’t have to understand water to jump in head first.”

Franz will pursue a relationship with a young woman, Anezka, with varying degrees of success, and occasional advice from Freud, throughout the novel. In the highs and lows of the relationship, Franz is always the innocent, his youth emphasised by her “sonny boy,” an appellation which will be ironically repeated in Franz’s final scene.

For these reasons, The Tobacconist often reads like a comic novel. Even when Otto is taken away by the police, Franz’s response is both brave and foolish, turning up at police headquarters every day to inquire after him. He remains a holy innocent until the end, resistant to both the corruptions of the world and character development. This also prevents Seethaler from developing the other characters, such as his mother or Otto, in much depth as Franz remains both the focal and view point of the novel. Even Freud’s cameos exist largely as a counterpoint to Franz. Having said that, like A Whole Life, there is an undeniable power to the narrative, which is often touching, and a similar sense that our world, sadly, is no place for innocents:

“I feel like a boat that’s lost its rudder in a storm and is now just drifting stupidly here and there.”

The Parable of the Blind

November 21, 2017

A couple of years ago I read Gert Hofmann’s The Film Explainer, winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1995, during German Literature Month, an experience which left me intrigued to explore his work further. As luck would have it, I came across a copy of The Parable of the Blind earlier this year (Hofmann’s work is largely out of print – though, unknown to me, this particular novel was reprinted by Verba Mundi in March). The novel, translated by poet Christopher Middleton (one of three Hofmann novels he translated), not only shares its title with that of a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder but seeks to describe the origins of that particular artwork, narrated entirely by the blind men who have been assembled by Bruegel to model for him.

As the novel opens the blind men are awakened by a knocking. The communal voice which narrates the novel describes a dream of burial:

“Good, it’s over now, we say, and we’ve been buried. First as far as others are concerned, then as far as we ourselves are. We’re beginning to be forgotten.”

The knocking is a summoning back to existence in the world –a world largely confirmed by sight. The initial conversation suggests that the blind men remember little of where they are or why. Once awake they must confirm their own presence as well as that of their comrades:

“Then we pass our hands over our bodies. Yes, we’re still the same people as yesterday.”

Their daily returning to being echoes the work of the painter’s more permanent creation and Hofmann is clearly interested in the irony of the painting which its models cannot see. Hofmann presents the world entirely from their viewpoint, one which is excessively focussed on dialogue. When actions do occur, for example when a child touches their faces, only what they experience is described:

“Then through the morning breeze the child’s warm hand comes and strokes our cheeks, right and left, and creeps into our ears.”

This scene also illustrates the curiosity of the villagers and the vulnerability of the blind men. After they are fed they are taken to relieve themselves, but the promised privacy is a deception:

“But when we’re crouching in the cold and tickly grass we sense that we’re not alone at all, there’s breathing and gasping and giggling in front of us and behind us.”

Throughout the novel they remain reliant on others to lead them, not always honestly or successfully, to the painter. That help is rarely offered and they must first of all discover if there is any other person there:

“But probably there’s nobody there, it’s the same as ever.”

Bruegel is famed for his powers of observation with this particular painting often being cited as evidence, not only in the detail of the clothing but in the way in which each of the men’s blindness can be seen to have its own cause. In the novel, however, the men tell the villagers a common story:

“One evening in the summertime when it was very hot they were sitting under a cherry tree and birds came. The birds sat in their shoulders and pecked their eyes out.”

The blind men themselves know this isn’t the case – one of their number, for example (Slit Man) has had his eyes removed as a punishment – yet they frequently ask if there are crows following them. Bruegel’s accuracy is a refutation of superstition, just as Hofmann’s fiction has often tackled history with a view to seeing accurately in the face of assumed narratives. Bruegel also paints so that his subjects can be seen. When the child tells the blind men that people can’t always be seen he gives this explanation:

“Because one day they die, the child says, then they can’t be seen anymore, and that’s why he paints them. And that’s why he also paints himself, so that he’ll always be seen.”

Yet if blindness is a misfortune, so is sight. Bruegel is tormented by the pictures he must paint:

“More and more often now, since the slaughter at Liege, the pictures are of people dying and dead.”

When the blind men finally arrive he asks for them to be described to him:

“No, I don’t want to look at them, the painter says after hesitating a bit, not yet. The mere sight of people like that had a devastating effect on him in his present state because he at once put himself in their place. He couldn’t see people who’ve been broken without being broken himself.”

The Parable of the Blind is an impressively sustained exercise in limited viewpoint, and also interesting simply in its portrayal of the immortalised but forgotten models of the painting. However, it can also be read as a parable itself, a tortured Pilgrim’s Progress, where we are the blind leading the blind with death hovering above us, shouting our questions into the darkness.


November 17, 2017

Euphoria begins with a group of men huddled together for warmth:

“When it’s too cold to lie down at night we remain standing. We stand close together, back to back, side to front. We turn slowly over the course of the night so that each one of us gets a turn in the middle, and from time to time each one of us has to be on the outside.”

Little do we know that this will be one of more optimistic scenes in Heinz Helle’s ironically titled, end-of-the-world novel (translated by Kari Driscoll). The next few pages reveal the scale of the disaster when they encounter a child sitting in the road next to the charred remains of a tent. That they simply leave the child (“The kid looks quite well fed. He will last another week at least”) even when they find his murdered parents lying further along the road suggests how ruthless their survival instincts have already become. As we shall see, the appearance of another human being will be a rare event.

Eventually Heinz allows us to glimpse the everyday world which lies before the burnt-out landscape of the novel’s present. The five men are friends who have rented a cabin in the mountains for a weekend break. The first sign that anything might be wrong is “thick, black smoke over the village in the valley” on the morning of their departure. At no point do they, or we, find out what has happened: the narrowness of their viewpoint, deprived of communication, is one of the most terrifying aspects of the novel. They walk in the hope of outpacing the devastation, but with no way of knowing how widespread it is:

“We see pylons with no wires between them, abandoned petrol stations, supermarkets, holiday homes, vacancy signs, here and there the burnt-out wreck of a car.”

Despite the destruction all around them, the most damaged aspect on the new world is human relationships. Where Cormac McCarthy’s The Road preserves a certain amount of balance in its presentation of the love between father and son, here the men act like a tribe, regarding outsiders as enemies. The few people they meet, like the boy, are either dismissed or attacked. When they encounter a woman, they casually rape her (“When it’s my turn, she doesn’t even raise her arms…”) leaving her unmoving, a piece of bread laid on her stomach. The world around them is portrayed in a similar fashion: they find an overturned tanker which has been forced off the road by ramps built out of logs:

“I imagine that the driver in the cab was desperate to get away, but he probably also had a broken leg, and so he had to lie and wait, and he knew what was coming.”

When one of their number, Furst, breaks his ankle, they leave him behind without debate:

“We leave him sitting in the wet grass, and we hope the night won’t be so cold that he will die in the dark. But cold enough that not long after sunset it will be over.”

Euphoria is a deeply pessimistic book. Though the friends stick together their unity is animal, to the point that there is very little dialogue in the novel. The short chapters also suggest the incoherence of their experience; although a first person narrative, there is little in the way of reflection as the basic needs of each day supplant all other thought. In comparison the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead looks positive cosy with its undamaged ecology and access to shops and vehicles. Reduced to walking and scavenging, Helle portrays human life as, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The novel’s conclusion drives the final knife into any hope we might have left, though a final chapter in which the narrator imagines “another perfectly ordinary Monday” might be read as a desperate plea to preserve what we have, characterising the novel’s incessant bleakness as a warning rather than a prediction.

Robert Louis Stevenson: An Anthology

November 13, 2017

Robert Louis Stevenson, Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares have more in common than membership of the subset of writers who use three names: both Borges and Casares were admirers of their predecessor and had included ‘Faith, Half-Faith and No Faith at All’ in Extraordinary Tales. This fable was also to be included in an anthology of Stevenson’s work which they planned and hoped to translate and publish. Unfortunately those plans never came to fruition, but now, thanks to Kevin MacNeil, we can finally read their selection, if only in English. The Anthology cannot be described as the perfect introduction to Stevenson as it contains nothing of his most famous works – neither of his bona fide classics, Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, are represented, nor is anything of his historical novels, such as Kidnapped. Instead we have a selection of his essays, one of his best known short stories (‘The Bottle Imp’), ‘The Suicide Club’ (from New Arabian Nights) and a selection of fables.

Stevenson’s non-fiction is no longer well known, yet a quick glance at what he published in his lifetime will demonstrate it formed much of his output, including several volumes of travel writing. Even more neglected are the essays, many of which were collected in his lifetime, beginning with the publication of Virginibus Puerisque in 1881 (Treasure Island did not appear until two years later). Borges and Casares have chosen twelve of these to make up the first half of the Anthology, beginning with ‘Lay Morals’ from an unfinished treatise on ethics which was only published after Stevenson’s death. This highlights the way in which Stevenson was fascinated throughout his life by moral questions yet never found an easy answer in religion (it can be helpfully partnered with ‘Faith, Half-Faith and No Faith at All’). This is followed by five further essays which might be termed ‘moral’ ranging from the cosmic (‘Pulvis et Umbra’) to the everyday (‘On the Choice of a Profession’). The former contains some extraordinary writing:

“We behold space sown with rotary islands, suns and worlds and the shards and wrecks of systems: some like the sun, still blazing; some rotting, like the earth; others, like the moon, stable in desolation.”

Stevenson crafts his sentences, and, like any other craftsman, he has his favourite tool: the semi-colon. His longest sentence in this volume (I think) also features in this essay, coming in at two hundred and twenty-nine words. This is not to suggest he is long-winded; he can as easily deploy a deceptive simplicity:

“Education, as practiced, is a form of harnessing with the friendliest intentions.”

The remaining essays focus (perhaps unsurprisingly) on the art of writing, and include his famous manifesto, ‘A Humble Remonstrance’, as well as lesser known insights such as ‘A Note on Realism.’ The latter debates the qualities of realism (Zola’s Germinal was published the year before Jekyll and Hyde) versus those of what Stevenson terms ‘idealism’ (or what might be known in post-modern terms as ‘fabulation’). Stevenson, despite what some might see as his vested interest, is able to see both sides of the critical divide:

“The immediate danger of the realist is to sacrifice the beauty and significance of the whole to local dexterity, or, in the insane pursuit of completion, to immolate his readers under facts…The danger of the idealist is, of course, to become merely null and lose all grip of fact, particularity or passion.”

The Anthology’s second half is filled with Stevenson’s fiction, from his earliest (‘The Suicide Club’ published in 1883) to his latest (‘The Bottle Imp’ from 1893). (As the dates demonstrate, Stevenson’s writing life was brief) The former is written very much as entertainment despite its dark premise, with an emphasis on breathless plotting and central characters who are self-consciously heroic. The latter, despite its supernatural premise, is more ‘believable’, Stevenson having developed his ability in ‘realism’ without losing any of his skill in constructing a story. Both noticeably, though in different ways, grapple with moral issues, as do the seven fables that follow (from the posthumously published Fables), brief stories which make a moral point, written in the style of tales or legends.

The Anthology provides a welcome reminder, not only of Stevenson’s range, but of the regard he was, and is, held in by other writers. Though his work is now widely available electronically, critical editions from respected publishers of ‘classics’ are not. If you want to buy his complete short stories you will have to buy an American edition. Luckily Robert Louis Stevenson Day provides an annual opportunity to read his work – one that everyone should take.

After Midnight

November 9, 2017

Though Irmgard Keun lived until 1982 – long enough to be appreciated as a writer for the second time – her best work is generally regarded to be those novels which describe living in Germany during the thirties: Gilgi (1931), The Artificial Silk Girl (1932) and After Midnight (1937) (alongside her exploration of exile, Child of All Nations, which was published in 1938). By After Midnight, the subjugation of all aspects of German life to National Socialism was impossible to ignore and it impresses itself on every page of the novel. Like Hans Fallada, however, Keun is interested in demonstrating the ways in which this new totalitarianism impacts on the life of ordinary men and women, particularly women.

The novel’s narrator is Susanne, or Sanna, a young woman who has already had to leave Cologne after being reported to the Gestapo by her relative, Aunt Adelheid, with whom she was staying at the time (an attempt to warn her off a developing relationship with her cousin, Franz), and now lives with her brother, Algin, and his wife, Liska, in Frankfurt. Algin is a once-successful writer who is threatened by the new regime:

“He has had another letter from the Reich Chamber of Literature. There’s going to be another purge of writers, and Algin will probably get eliminated. He might yet save himself by writing a long poem about the Fuhrer, something he has been most reluctant to do so far.”

It’s reasonable to assume Algin’s problems were also Keun’s, who was reluctant to go into exile, and later returned to Germany for the duration of the war. Keun, however, focuses the novel on the trials of the more prosaic Sanna and her friend Gerti. The novel takes place over one night, with flashbacks filling in the characters’ backgrounds, hence the title – though one can assume it also reflects a feeling that Germany has passed into a long, dark night of the soul. Sanna’s state of mind at the beginning is typical of many of the characters:

“I feel tired. Today was so eventful, such a strain. Life generally is these days. I don’t want to do anymore thinking. In fact, I can’t do anymore thinking. My brain’s all full of spots of light and darkness, circling in confusion.”

At present she is particularly concerned that Gerti will say the wrong thing – “Gerti ought not to go provoking an SA man like that” – as well as worrying about her friend’s relationship with Dieter:

“Dieter is what they call a person of mixed race, first class or maybe third class – I can never get the hang of these labels. But anyway, Gerti’s not supposed to have anything to do with him because of the race laws.”

Sanna’s confusion over ‘class’, and the informal nature of her language (’anyway’ features a lot in her vocabulary) actually highlights the ridiculousness of the prohibition. Her position as narrator, what might be termed her ‘common sense’ viewpoint, interested in individuals rather than politics, provides an effective vehicle for criticism. Anti-Semitism runs through every conversation, from Heini claiming that Breslauer, a Jewish doctor, is luckier than most (“I need my sympathy for thousands of fellow poverty-stricken emigrants”) to the claim of one visitor to the pub that he has discovered a way of divining Jews:

“You see, one can’t always tell who Jews are, straight off… But I can find him out with my rod!”

That he divulges this to Breslauer, bonded by their shared star sign, makes clear Keun’s view.

More generally, Politics is used as a weapon in petty rivalries and squabbles, as it was against Sanna by her Aunt. Franz also suffers when he attempts to set up a tobacconist’s shop with a friend to provide an income for himself and Sanna. Accused by a rival of anti-Nazi comments, by the time he is released the shop has been ransacked.

Though the pervading atmosphere of the novel is an almost unbearable tension, this is punctuated by two scenes of sudden violence which punch through any sense that life is somehow ‘carrying on’. Keun selects a day on which Hitler visits Frankfurt and we meet, among the celebrants, the young girl, Berta, who had been chosen to give him a bouquet and recite a poem. Hitler’s haste having rendered her surplus to requirements, she is performing for the benefit of the assembled drinkers when she collapses. “Bedtime for you!” her mother cries, but the girl is dead. The very unlikeliness of her death borders on comic, but this death foreshadows a later one which will provide the novel with its climax.

After Midnight is a heart-stopping evocation of Nazi Germany. Its narrow focus, both in terms of time and character, provide a snapshot of the everyday tensions, indignities and compromises faced by ordinary people whose loves and jealousies are immediately recognisable. The optimism of its ending seems slight in comparison.

You Should Have Left

November 5, 2017

I read You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann on Halloween (at just over a hundred short (literally) pages it was easy to finish in a day), ideal timing for what is, at heart, the story of a haunted house. The narrator is a writer – not unusual in the horror genre since Stephen King began to dominate – who has retired to the Alps with his wife, Susanna, and four-year-old daughter, Esther, for a working holiday (that is, they are on holiday, he has a screenplay to write, a sequel to his only successful film).

The house itself is not a typical haunted house:

“Not a musty little Alpine hut, but two storeys, new, and minimalist, with a narrow upper balcony and a large living-room window, clearly an architect-designed house.”

The views are beautiful but Kehlmann also quickly establishes its isolation – it’s a “terrible drive” to get there, along a road “with many hairpin bends and no side barriers.” Both the narrator and Susanna have difficulty coming to terms with the geography of the house:

“On the way to the bedroom we briefly got lost, because we didn’t know the house yet, and we ended up in a storeroom with a washing machine and a dryer.”

Later, having put Esther to bed, he gets lost again – “the corridor suddenly seemed longer to me.” Even a reader well-versed in the genre, however, is unlikely to take much notice as Kehlmann buries the unusual beneath layer upon layer of ordinary: the tensions of their marriage and his preoccupation with the screenplay. When the narrator visits the nearest village (again placing emphasis on the difficulty of the journey), the rural / urban disconnect is comic, items at the local shop being located one by one in a back room before appearing on the counter. This makes it easier to dismiss the store owner’s cryptic comment, “Anything happen yet?” and his even more cryptic gift, a triangle ruler (or set square). A woman who tells him, “Get away quickly,” is harder to forget, particularly when he returns home and, sitting at his desk working, looks at the reflection in the window:

“Only I don’t see myself. In the room in the reflection, there’s no-one.”

His reaction, however, is rational – to take a photo on his phone (of course, when he looks again his reflection is there) and to believe there must be an explanation:

“If I were a physicist, I’d probably know what it is, and all this wouldn’t surprise me.”

Things continue to become stranger in the house, however, for example, when the narrator goes to bath Esther:

“When I reached for the faucet, it was – how can I describe it? It was further back than it should have been.”

Although the effect is slightly spoiled by the word ‘faucet,’ which is perhaps the Americanism I find it most difficult to acclimatise myself to (to be fair to translator Ross Benjamin, he is American), this is exactly the kind of everyday eeriness with which Kehlmann begins to permeate the narrative, slowly building to a point where we feel the characters are in jeopardy without the need for any identifiably supernatural force (though it is supernatural in the strict sense that the house does not seem to follow the laws of nature).

I found You Should Have Left an excellent addition to the ‘haunted house’ genre, a horror story which might also be shelved under science fiction, but largely uses genre as a jumping off point for originality. Within the confines of the narrative, it’s true that even the narrator’s character is not fully developed, but Kehlmann builds tension superbly and never loses the reader to improbability. Though lacking the depth of his novels, it demonstrates his range and adroitness as a writer. A perfect tale for winter.

The Public Image

November 3, 2017

The Booker short-listed The Public Image was Muriel Spark’s ninth novel, appearing just before the more experimental The Driver’s Seat in 1970. Of all her pointed (or perhaps pointing) titles it is perhaps the most on point as the novel dissect the lengths to which an English actress, Annabel Christopher, will go to protect her public image, and the lengths her husband, Frederick, will go to destroy it. It has a rather tame beginning for Spark as we meet Annabel in the all but empty house she is moving into in Rome. The house, bought to bolster her reputation as a film star (as her husband’s friend, Billy, comments, “Is this all in aid of your public image?”), also echoes her public life – showy, empty and, as she comments when Billy simply walks in, lacking in privacy:

“…she had observed before that when people were in the process of moving into a new house, and until the furniture had arrived and been put in place, everyone felt they could come and go, like the workmen and the removal men, without permission.”

The pared back setting also reflects the novel as a whole, which does not feel as richly present in place as the Edinburgh of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or the London of The Girls of Slender Means. Like a stage set, the house will also be, flashbacks aside, almost the only setting.

Annabel is unapologetically presented by Spark as a very ordinary woman who has been thrust into the spotlight of stardom. The detached cruelty of the narrative voice informs us:

“…she had no mean of knowing that she was, in fact, stupid for, after all, it is the deep core of stupidity that thrives on the absence of a looking glass.”

As Frederick tells her, “You can’t act. You’re just lucky to get parts.” It is Frederick’s assumption of his intellectual superiority which leads him to believe he can ruin her by attacking her public image, but Annabel understands that he, too, is playing a part:

“…if only for effect, he had cultivated a private self-image of seriousness, and that she was a threat to it.”

In Annabel’s eyes it is just as much a “role” as the part he plays in the public image of their marriage, “impeccably formal by the light of day, voluptuously enamoured of each other under the cover of night.” In the novel, public image is not restricted to that presented to the media, but is also that we present to others, and ourselves.

Frederick’s plan to undermine the lie of her public image (their happy marriage) with another lie is the one true Sparkian touch in a novel where the satire can, at times, seem commonplace today. Having been missing for days, Annabel discovers that he has invited every friend, acquaintance and hanger-on to a house-warming party. As the guests pile in, much to Annabel’s bemusement, Frederick is meanwhile committing suicide, leaving behind a number of letters (including one to his dead mother) suggesting that he has taken his own life as a result of Annabel’s promiscuous behaviour (the word “orgy” is bandied about widely in the novel, as Spark, in typical fashion, reduces the most shocking aspect of Fredrick’s contrived scandal to amusement with repetition).

In what follows, Annabel attempts to immediately counteract Fredrick’s plot:

“I must say something to the press now, or it will be too late for the morning papers. Things like this are easily misconstrued, and I don’t want the world to get the wrong story.”

She gathers her neighbours around her in a scene we might expect an old master to paint rather than the press to photograph. Her director, Luigi, is doubtful (“Stop the orgy story? How do you stop the waves of the sea?”) but she is determined.

Spark allows Annabel a route to redemption through her baby. The fact that her son is referred to as “the baby” throughout suggests, at first, he is little more than a prop, and Annabel certainly uses him to prop up her public image and excuse herself from tiresome situations. Whether the initial cynicism is Annabel’s or the reader’s, Spark slowly reveals that, not only is her love genuine, but that it supersedes the need to retain her fame. The novel’s lyrical ending, where Annabel literally embraces her child, also acts as riposte to Frederick’s claim that she is “an empty shell”:

“Nobody recognised her as she stood, having moved the baby to rest on her hip, conscious also of the baby in a sense weightlessly and perpetually within her, as an empty shell contains, by its very structure, the echo and harking image of former and former seas.”

For all that Annabel is butt of her more obvious satire, Spark ultimately champions her against the attempts of the more ‘intelligent’ men around her to manipulate and control her life.