Archive for November, 2018

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 by 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.


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.