Archive for November, 2021

Women in a River Landscape

November 30, 2021

Heinrich Boll completed Women in a River Landscape shortly before his death in 1985, with an English translation by David McClintock appearing in 1988. Whether he knew it would be his final novel or not, there is a directness about it, largely created by the absence of a mediating narrator, which suggests the urgency of its message. Boll describes it as ‘a novel in dialogues and soliloquies’ and, on the page, it appears very like a drama script, though there is little in the way of action, and the dialogue is not naturalistic. Its focus, as with so much of Boll’s work, is the corruption of post-war Germany, and the continuing power and influence of individuals and institutions that have escaped justice or, at the very least, shame.

These hidden pasts are evident throughout the novel. In the opening conversation between Wuber and his wife Erika, she refers back to the days when he and his circle of friends were coming into power:

“I saw you drive out to dump the Klossow documents in the lake.”

This disposal takes pace at the behest of Chundt, a powerbroker who continues to appoint ministers (“Chundt always frightened me with his boundless ambition to control heaven and earth”), and also to remove them when they are no longer of any use:

“Plukanski couldn’t be supported any longer: an old wartime story has just emerged.”

These secrets are used within the ‘gang’ to ensure obedience; Chundt threatens Blaukramer:

“And you’d better keep quiet: I now have a few photos in my dossier… The photos show you ordering the men to fire on the poor swine who were trying to escape from a concentration camp…””

Erika has kept these secrets, but other wives have found this harder. Blaukramer’s wife, Elisabeth’s, refusal to keep quiet has led to her incarceration in an institution, “where all the discarded wives live – in a high-class prison”:

“They go there to have their – what’s the expression? – to have their memories corrected.”

Plottinger’s wife, on the other hand, drowned herself in the Rhine – a river that is used throughout as a symbol of all that is hidden away:

“To think of all the different objects that jostle one another down there in the green slime: SS skull and crossbones, and swords with black, white and red tassels…”

The river landscape is also a reminder of the past: the owner of a dilapidated building on the bank refuses to sell as his father was killed in a concentration camp, leaving it instead as a “monument to shame”.

The story itself has a few key points: Erika overhearing the “voice that used to make us all tremble” in her home when the ‘gang’ are meeting, the voice, we assume, of some Nazi with a new identity, the same voice Elisabeth claimed to have heard before being put away. This prompts her to refuse to go to a public event where she is expected with her husband, and also causes some soul-searching on his part. Later it will be Erika who finds that Elisabeth has hanged herself; Plukanski, too, dies from the shock of his dismissal (and a girl dies from an attempted abortion – Chundt is the father – as if to demonstrate how cheap life is to the group). Characters talk of escape – to Cuba, to Chile – particularly the younger generation. Both Church and culture are seen as corrupt – the Church as useful “window-dressing”.  Someone is dismantling the grand pianos of bankers, following the example of Karl, who kept only the castors which he is now using to make a buggy for his son. It is a novel, then, in which symbolism runs deep, and the country is fixed with an accusatory eye. Politicians are blamed (“politics is a dirty business”) but Boll is well aware of the power behind the politicians:

“We politicians collaborate in producing all the shit, and then clearing it all away, so that they can do the dusting without getting any dirt on themselves.”

The fixation with the Church and aristocracy may seem a little dated at times, but we might just as easily recognise the behaviour of contemporary politicians and powerbrokers – Plukanski, for example, has been used because “there wasn’t the slightest trace of spiritual dimension in his make-up.”

Women in a River Landscape is an appropriately elegiac novel, as ageing characters discuss their pasts, their hunger and desperation, and the compromises they have made. Despite Boll’s anger and condemnation, his approach is nuanced, his characters both created by and reacting to circumstances. It is not his easiest, or best, novel, but it has the hypnotic power of a confession.

The Assistant

November 25, 2021

The Assistant was one of four novels that Robert Walser wrote in the early 1900s, between The Tanners (1906) and Jakob von Gunten (1909). (The fourth, now lost, was a second novel also called The Assistant – “fantastical,” according to translator Susan Bernosky, “where the others are psychological and domestic.”) It is at least partly drawn from life as in 1903 Walser worked as secretary to an inventor in Wadenswil near Zurich – the names of the inventor’s four children remain unchanged in the novel, though the inventor himself undergoes a minor transformation from Carl Dubler to Carl Tobler. The novel opens with the arrival of Tobler’s new assistant, Joseph Marti, sent to the inventor’s villa by an employment agency. (Later we will meet the previous assistant, Wirsich, whose cyclical behaviour of drunkenness and remorse has eventually led to his dismissal). Joseph could not be more pleased with his position, which is in contrast to the poverty he has previously known:

“He took second helpings of each dish on the table. It’s true, he had arrived here from the lower depths of society, from the shadowy, barren, still crannies of the metropolis. It had been months now since he had eaten as well.”

The conversational “it’s true” is typical of Walser’s style, as the narrative flits in and out of Joseph’s point of view both indirectly and directly, with Joseph’s speech frequently accompanied by his thoughts. He is throughout a sympathetic character: lacking in confidence (“Will I be good enough?” he wonders) and perhaps too aware of his flaws (“I have always had trouble comprehending new and unfamiliar things”). The position as assistant is a new start for him, as we can see when he writes to his to his previous landlady:

“Do you still remember how often you had to shake me out of my dull, hermit-like existence and all my wicked habits?”

The letter itself suggests Joseph’s loneliness, and the reason he enjoys feeling part of Tobler’s family, lodging, as he is, in Tobler’s house. Thus he develops a relationship not only with Tobler but with the rest of his family, a relationship which changes when Tobler is away:

“The entire house was a different one when the master was absent. Frau Tobler, too, seemed to be a quite different woman, and as for the children – particularly the two boys – their relief at the absence strict father was visible at quite some distance.”

Joseph regards himself as a part of the Tobler household, particularly when it comes to his sympathy for the youngest daughter, Silvi, a “beaten down, slovenly little creature” with whom he can, perhaps, identify, who is regularly punished for wetting the bed:

“As an employee of the Tobler household, I am obligated to put in a word for Silvi, for Silvi too is a member of this household whose interests I am supposed to represent.”

Though generally meek, Joseph can at times stand up to others, telling Tobler, for example, when he is reprimanded for being a little late that “a few minutes one way or another made little difference.” Despite his love of his position, he seems untroubled by Tobler’s furious response, and he generally retains a calm demeanour in the face of emotion:

“This remark was smashing success! For one thing, Joseph was treated to the sight of a livid face…”

Tobler’s anger, we suspect, partly originates in the fact he has invested money he has inherited into developing his inventions and has yet to see any reward. Much is expected of the Advertising Clock – a clock on which adverts can be displayed. Joseph describes the clock in less business-like terms:

“It’s like as small or large child this clock… like a headstrong child that requires constant self-sacrificing, care and doesn’t even thank one for watching over it. And is this enterprise flourishing, is the child growing? Little progress can be seen.”

In fact, the Tobler household is running out of money, and Joseph’s job becomes increasingly focused on keeping creditors at bay as Tobler tries to raise further money from various sources. This creates some tension in the narrative both for Tobler, threatened with the failure of his enterprise, and Joseph, who may lose his job, but it will not be a surprise to learn Walser is not plot-driven and has plenty of time for detours, including a spell in prison for Joseph as a result of failing to present himself for military service which enters the story rather unannounced. The meandering tale feels like a commentary on Tobler’s capitalist dream: Walser gives us a glimpse into the early days of entrepreneurs, but through the eyes of a man who offers a very different perspective. Far from being driven by future plans, Joseph tends to take each day as it comes. Though lonely, he cares for others – even offering his predecessor, Wirsich, money when he falls on hard times. Joseph is a gentle character who at times seems not of this world, and certainly at odds with the cut-throat world of business. Yet, by the end, we might think he is all the better for it.


November 18, 2021

Though many of Gert Hofmann’s novels explore the Nazism which for any German writer born in 1931 must have felt both important and urgent – whether its rise (The Film Explainer), its dominance (Veilchenfeld) or its aftermath (Before the Rainy Season) – others, such as The Parable of the Blind, demonstrate a writer capable of embracing a variety of topics. Luck is another such novel which turns away from the 30s and 40s to pursue a solidly domestic focus, the divorce of a couple with two young children. Luck, like the recently published in English Veilchenfeld, is translated by the author’s son, Michael Hofmann, and is also from the character of the son’s point of view. One difference, however, is the extensive presence of the other characters in the narrative through direct speech, particularly the Father. We are told at the beginning:

“As he didn’t know how things would develop with Mother, he often assembled us in his study when he wanted to talk to us, and locked the door.”

The father’s tendency to speechifying is a characteristic of his profession (“Being a writer of a kind, he was given to poetic tuns of phrase, so we often couldn’t understand him”) and his preference for talk over action. One of his most treasured possession is a postcard from Thomas Mann, but, he explains, the correspondence ended there as he never got around to replying. Faced with the prospect of divorce, his reaction is inaction:

“For days now, Father had been crouched in his corner wondering: What am I going to take with me into my new life?”

The novel opens on the day he will leave, taking his son with him and leaving his daughter behind. His wife, we learn, has already found a replacement in Herr Herkenrath. Yet there is so little urgency in his manner the reader might begin to doubt whether this will happen, particularly as Hofmann is also in no hurry with the narrative – in almost 300 pages we will not go beyond these 24 hours. Little will happen but our understanding of the characters will deepen, and our sympathies may change. Initially the Mother appears cruel and unfeeling – it’s clear that she is the force behind the Father’s expulsion, and Herr Herkenrath’s imminent arrival (the same day – with a planned crossover where they can have tea together!). When she is heard laughing, the son tells us:

“She was making fun of him and his plight as a writer.”

His loyalty, and to some extent the younger sister’s, seems to be with the Father. Yet, as the novel progresses, the Father’s faults become clearer. Hofmann does not portray him as an artist down on his luck, but as a man whose ambitions far outrun his capabilities. He is writer who rarely writes, and produces little in the way of income (he tutors as a side-line, but at times will ignore his pupils when they arrive at the door). He also has a tendency to self-pity: when asked why he thinks no-one will read his articles, he replies, “Because the world is against me,” and later:

“That was the last thing I’ll ever write…I’m through with writing!”

Rather than packing he takes the time to walk around ten time telling those he meets that he is separating for his wife, although on each occasion suggesting that he is heading for a different place. He compulsion to stray from the truth is not new as his son is well aware, worrying when he points to a mourning ribbon he is wearing that he “was about to fabricate some lie about it,” and stating baldly:

“I’m writing something at the moment, he lied.”

The son also has his own farewells to make, particular to his friend Hutsche. The friendship has homo-erotic undertones, with an emphasis on physical intimacy such as, “That day, we brushed against each other many times,” and:

“I opened my mouth as wide as could, and Hutsche stuck a piece of chocolate between my lips.”

Given that he must now leave, there is not time to develop this relationship, either for Hofmann or for the narrator, and that is surely the point: the Father is so absorbed in what he might lose he gives no consideration to what his son might be leaving behind. Similarly, the Mother’s focus on what she hopes to gain blinds her to the damage she may be causing her children. His bad luck, her good luck is, for the children, simply luck – chance, events over which they have no control.

Luck is another example of Hofmann’s skill with child narrators, and his great empathy for child characters (not only the son but his sister too). It also shows that he does not need the grand drama of history in the background to write a novel which possesses the same tension, albeit in a domestic setting. But then, Hofmann’s work frequently focuses on the small personal tragedies no matter what the wider circumstances as he casts a dispassionate eye over humanity with all its flaws.

Six Scottish Novellas

November 12, 2021

The Marionette (1927)

Edwin Muir is best known as a poet, and as the translator (alongside his wife Willa) of Franz Kafka, but his repertoire extended to autobiography, travel (Scottish Journey), literary criticism, and fiction. His first venture into the latter was a novella, The Marionette, inspired by time spent living in Salzburg and published in 1927. It is, it has to be said, a rather strange book. It tells the story of a boy, Hans, whose mother dies giving birth to him, whose father, Martin, largely ignores him, and who is regarded as “feeble-minded”. Only when he turns fourteen does his father show any interest in him, taking him into the city for the first time. (That the journey unsettles him may be related to Muir’s own journey from Orkney to Glasgow as a child). Seeing his son’s love of a doll he possesses, Martin takes him to a puppet theatre, and their visits soon become regular, with Hans transfixed by what he sees on stage until an accident leads to one of the marionettes (Gretchen from Faust) being damaged in front of him. Martin asks for the puppet to be repaired and given to Hans as the theatre closes for the summer. Though symbolism is clearly in use, the novella is not schematic, and both Martin and Hans (and perhaps Muir) seem to feeling their way to some resolution which will allow them to bond, and Hans to live his life more fully. The work itself feels east European rather than Scottish and the border between Hans’ dreams and reality is not always visible.

(The Marionette was last published by Hogarth Press in 1987)

Travel Light (1952)

Naomi Mitchison was a prolific writer who refused to be confined to any genre, writing a series of autobiographies alongside essays, journalism, three biographies, a history of Africa, and numerous novels. Her fiction, too, was restless – her most famous books ranging from historical novels to science fiction. Travel Light is perhaps best described as fantasy (Mitchison was a friend of Tolkien) – the Virago edition from 1985 has a unicorn on the cover and the main character, Halla, is brought up by bears before being adopted by dragons. For Halla, ‘heroes’ are the enemy, and she repeatedly turns down an invitation to join the Valkyries. In the novel’s second part we enter a more recognisable historical setting and a more political plotline as Halla joins a group of men who have travelled from their home to plead with the Emperor to remove the cruel governor of their province. When, in need of money, they take to betting, it helps that Hallla can talk to the horses. As with much of Mitchison’s work, she showcases strong female characters, and Halla is able to ‘travel light’ because she has no need of men: this is not a romance, and better for it. Mitchison is also able to tap into older stories to give her tale a mythic resonance (as she does in much greater depth in what is often regarded as her bets novel, The Corn King and the Spring Queen) creating an entertaining and illuminating fable.

(Travel Light was published in Kennedy & Boyd’s Naomi Mitchison Library in 2009)

The Hermit (1977)

Iain Crichton Smith’s novella The Hermit can be found in his collection The Hermit and Other Stories but was originally published in Gaelic the year before. Written from the point of view of a retired Headteacher (like Smith) on a Scottish island (presumably Lewis where Smith lived much of his life), it tells of the arrival of a hermit who settles in an abandoned RAF hut. The hermit unsettles the villagers, refusing to talk to anyone even when he is buying groceries. The narrator feels a kind of kinship for him, having lived alone since his wife died. (He confesses to having taken up fishing in the past simply as a way to enjoy some isolation). At the same time, he becomes infatuated by an eighteen-year-old girl, Janet, who passes his house every morning and arranges for her to bring fresh milk to him from her family’s farm, forcing him to face the fact he is becoming old. He is not alone in being affected by the hermit’s arrival: an elderly neighbour leaves his wife intending to return to the life at sea he knew as a young man; even the Minister finds himself unable to speak his sermon. What begins as a light-hearted tale of small-minded, suspicious villagers, takes a darker tone, though without ever losing the dry humour typical of Smith’s work. The narrator decides he must “save the village” by making the hermit leave. Beyond the story of the hermit, however, Smith populates the village with a rich cast of characters and brings depth to the narrator through his relationships (with his wife and his parents) and regrets, his dreams and desires. A master of the short story and author of classic novel Consider the Lilies, The Hermit demonstrates Smith’s skills in both genres combined.

(The Hermit can be found in The Black Halo: The Complete English Stories 1977-98 published by Birlinn in 2001)

Gentlemen of the West (1984)

As well as numerous short stories, Agnes Owens wrote six novellas (they are definitely novellas as they can all be found in her Collected Novellas) beginning with Gentlemen of the West in1984. Originally written as a series of short stories it is rather episodic for a novella, but is united by its narrator, a young bricklayer called Mac who lives with his mother (the “auld wife”) and a recurring cast of drunken ne-er-do-wells who gather in the local pub. Paddy MacDonald, who lives in a rundown bothy with rabbits in the oven and pigeons in a cage in the bedroom, makes frequent appearances. A typical story involves Paddy being found stone cold on the ground and presumed dead and Mac attempting to pay his respects at the local Catholic church (“For the next half hour we were up and down like yo-yos”) only to bump into Paddy immediately afterwards (annoyed at being “carted off tae hospital.”). For all the humour, Owens gives us an unapologetic insight into the lives of the ‘gentlemen of the west’, not only the drunkenness and violence but life on the building site, a chapter where we return to Mac’s childhood, and another where he escapes to the countryside and (grudgingly) befriends a German tourist. And in the final story Owens provides the progression we might expected from the longer form in a genuinely moving manner. Rightly described by Alasdair Gray as “the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors”.

(Gentlemen of the West can be found in The Complete Novellas reissued by Birlinn in 2020)

The Golden Bird (1987)

George Mackay Brown famously lived in Stromness on Orkney for most of his life – only leaving for a ten-year spell in the 1950s and early 60s – and from there he wrote his poetry, novels, short stories and, of course, novellas. The Golden Bird is one of two novellas in the book of the same name (the other is The Life and Death of John Voe), a book which won the James Tait Memorial Prize for fiction. The Golden Bird begins with a quarrel between two women whose husbands fish together. The quarrel is about very little but escalates quickly and irreparably, creating a rift between the families which will last many years. It is those years which are Mackay Brown’s real subject – time itself: “The years gathered and fell, like waves, like cut corn.” The story carries us through three generations, as three schoolteachers, the third being a contemporary of the feuding families’ sons rumoured to have been carried off by an eagle as a baby, and, just as surprisingly, having left the island to go to Aberdeen University. Despite its relative brevity, we meet numerous characters among the inhabitants of the valley, but Mackay Brown needs only a few words to sketch their personalities and relationships. His wide lens has the contradictory effect of making humanity’s concerns (such as the quarrel) seem trivial but humanity itself feel important and profound.

(The Golden Bird was reissued by Polygon in 2019)

Mavis Belfrage (1996)

Alasdair Gray’s most famous novel may be almost six hundred pages long, but the novella has been a form he has returned to again and again (though largely as a result of adapting his radio plays into prose) with The Fall of Kelvin Walker in 1985 and McGrotty and Ludmilla in 1990. The book jacket of Mavis Belfrage (likely written by the author) describes the titular novella as Gray’s “only straight novel about love” (it is accompanied by five other stories, each shorter than the one before, until we reach the accurately named ‘The Shortest Tale’). Like Gray’s preceding novellas, Mavis Belfrage might be described as a comedy of manners. Colin Kerr, like Kelvin Walker the son of a shopkeeper, returns to Glasgow with a degree from Cambridge to train teachers; he is, as his student Mavis tells him, an “uninspiring individ- … -lecturer” as he has neither an opinion nor an original idea, which is why he fails Mavis for not memorising the chapters he has assigned but rather thinking about her answers. A dinner date, however, soon leads to her (and her eight-year-old son, Bill) moving in with Colin and his father despite the fact she warns Colin she is “a bad bitch”. What follows is a love story between a weak man and strong woman, told with Gray’s usual wit and pinpoint phrasing, culminating in a disastrous dinner party. An enormous fortress Colin has been building out of Lego is also put to symbolic use. Like all his novellas, Mavis Belfrage is minor Gray, but minor Gray can be the most fun.

(Mavis Belfrage can be found in Every Short Story published by Canongate in paperback in 2014)

Baron Bagge

November 8, 2021

Last year New Directions reissued Alexander Lernt-Holenia’s novel Count Luna, originally published in 1955 and translated into English a year later. That 1956 publication also included the earlier novella Baron Bagge (1936), translated by Richard and Clara Wilson, with the subheading ‘Two Tales of the Real and the Unreal’. Both were reprinted in the Eridanos Library edition of 1988. The novella begins with the Baron being challenged to a duel, a challenge resulting from a rumour that two women have killed themselves after falling in love with him. The story which follows is his explanation of why he cannot marry – because, though no-one has seen his wife, “I am already married.”

It begins in the midst of the First World War when the Baron is a Lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army. His commanding officer, Semler, is “a temperamental, unpredictable character”, and when the squadron are sent on a reconnaissance mission, his recklessness sees them riding on in the dark, and planning an attack on a bridge even though they should not be engaging with the enemy unless absolutely necessary. All Bagge and his fellow officers can do is ask Semler for his orders given that “the likelihood is that within half an hour you will be lying on the ground, and probably not you alone but most of us.” The attack takes place and Bagge is surprised to find that, not only has he survived, but the enemy is routed:

“Suddenly I found myself stopping in the middle of the village and was conscious of a tremendous astonishment at still being alive. A cavalry attack against infantry is normally doomed to fail. But this one had succeeded.”

Shortly after they advance to Nagy Mihaly, as their orders instruct them, a town where Bagge’s mother has friends:

“…she had remarked there was a girl I might well marry one of these days; she was already a pretty young thing and would come into no mean fortune.”

When they arrive at Nagy Mihaly, Bagge is surprised by the sheer number of people – “every single family was extraordinarily large” – but decides that “all of them had thronged into the town because of the presence of the Russians.” Bagge meets the young lady mentioned by his mother, Charlotte, and is surprised to find her already in love with him:

“You have simply become for me the person of whom I have dreamed.”

Soon, however, Semler decides that they must move on in search of Russians (“Semler seems to think he can’t live without the damned enemy”) and so Bagge and Charlotte are hastily married, Charlotte telling him:

“If you go… you will not come back.”

If the story sounds a rather ordinary one of love and war, that is because it centres on a twist which you may or may not see coming (and if you do not want to know, read no further, though the introduction to the Eridanos edition reveals it), which is that, although Bagge is still alive, Semler and his comrades died in the attack, and he has somehow crossed over with them into the land of death. Lernet-Holenia does, of course, provide numerous clues before this is revealed, from the moment after the attack when Bagge notices Semler is ‘transformed’ – “quite unlike himself in manner, completely calm and composed.” When, shortly after, Bagge comments to his fellow officers how lucky they were in the battle “the two of them suddenly averred in an impatient, rather sullen manner that it had not been so extraordinary at all; they at any rate had guessed long ago that it would turn out as it had.” Our attention also is drawn to the possibility that the town is inhabited by ghosts ironically when Bagge comments on the ‘excessive’ population of Nagy Mihaly: “It was as if nobody died here.” Of course, the opposite is true, as the landscape around the town suggests:

“The plain lay before us utterly lifeless, and the bank of clouds that veiled the sky was unusually low-lying, gloomy and oppressive… The rest of the population had completely vanished… Even the stables appeared to be empty.”

Charlotte, too, is dead, and when Bagge leaves and returns to the land of the living, crossing a bridge “covered with sheets of metal that gleamed like gold”, he will never see her again. Despite this, he still regards himself as married, hence the disappointed lovers. Baron Bagge is a wonderful example of a novella: a story which would feel diluted by greater length, but rather thrown away if it were any shorter. It utilises many of the skills Lernet-Holenia demonstrates in his novels – the atmosphere of war, the constant tension, and the sympathetic narrator – and manages its twist expertly with neither too many nor too few hints stitched into the narrative. Now difficult to find, it would make an excellent beginning to a collection of his shorter fiction.

Pigeons on the Grass

November 3, 2021

Last German Literature Month I read Wolfgang Koeppen’s first novel, A Sad Affair, the story of a tempestuous relationship between an infatuated young man and a woman who seems incapable of loving, originally published in 1934. In 1935 he published a second novel, Die Mauer schwankt (The Wall is Swaying / Fluctuating – I suspect the English title, should it be translated, would be different!) about a master builder which he seems to have later disregarded, perhaps because elements of it were nationalistic. In 1951 his third novel, Pigeons on the Grass, finally appeared, a portrait of Munich, where he had settled in 1943, in the aftermath of the war. Originally translated into English in 1988 by David Ward, it appeared in a new translation by Michael Hofmann (who had already translated the two following novels which form a loose trilogy) last year.

Pigeons on the Grass is, quite simply, a tour de force. A novel set in one city over the course of one day, it owes something to both Berlin Alexanderplatz and Ulysses, yet, in one sense, goes further, having no central character, no still point for the reader in the heart of the hurricane. The novel opens with planes overhead, their bomb bays “still empty”, immediately raising one of Koeppen’s key questions: has the end of war brought peace, or, like the First World War, will it simply lead to further conflict? No one looks up, however:

“The people had forgotten their sirens, had forgotten their bunkers, the collapsing houses, the men were no longer thinking of the yell of their sergeants, pitching them into the dirt of the barracks yard, the trenches, the field dressing stations, drum fire, encirclement, retreat…”

Richard, an American soldier with a German father, wonders, “So what was it that had been destroyed here?”

“A few old buildings had fallen down. Well, it was probably high time.”

The novel contains a number of American characters. Richard, searching for relatives, worries about “sinking into the swamp of origin.” Two of the most important American characters have no such fear, both being black. Odysseus Cotton arrives as the novel opens with “the victor’s aura”. Like all Americans he is assumed to be rich:

“The Yanks were rich. Their automobiles glided along like ships, like Columbus’s caravels back from the New World.”

Odysseus is, one assumes, a nod to Ulysses; he travels around the city carrying a radio, the familiar voice keeping “him warm when he was in foreign lands.” Or rather, Josef, an elderly porter, carries his case and follows him from pub (where he outwits some Greeks!) to church tower, to the Black American soldiers’ club. The second black American is Washington Price who, in contrast to Odysseus, is settled in Munich, with a woman he loves, Carla, who is expecting his child. Even so, he knows that being a rich American is important to the relationship:

“Carla would have faith in the colour of his money.”

Carla is less keen on the baby she is expecting, “a little black creature stirring in her belly.” In the course of the day, she is arranging to have an abortion, and Washington is attempting to stop her. Washington remains a hopeful character (as represented by his “sky blue limousine”), with a dream to open a bar in France where all are welcome. (Koeppen seems to see racial discrimination seems as an echo of anti-Semitism).

In contrast to the optimism of the Americans, the German characters often seem defeated. Emilia, “the rag princess”, spends the day trying to sell what valuable belongings she has left after losing her family’s wealth in the war:

“She wanted to forget the worthless stock, the expropriated rights, the Reich treasury bonds on deposit, paper, all paper, so much paper, forget the crumbing real estate, the mortgaged stone of the walls she wasn’t allowed to sell…”

Her husband, Philipp is a writer who is unable to write, or take up any other opportunity he is given to make money, describing himself as “incompetent, cowardly superfluous.” Their doctor, Behude, who we first meet selling his blood, wonders, “What am I trying to heal them of?” The contrast between Americans and Germans is perhaps best articulated by Philipp when he meets a young American school teacher, Kay:

“She had the sort of youth that didn’t seem to exist yet in Germany.”

Other characters abound – a visiting poet, an actor, and his “nymphomaniac wife”, numerous children, a dog. Koeppen cuts between them, using links of various types. For example, a section describing the poet, Edwin’s, arrival in the Consul’s limousine ends with the car brushing a cyclist – “Oh dear, he’s going to fall, he’s wobbling…” The next section begins with Dr Behude on his bike (presumably the cyclist), “He kept his balance.” At other points the sections are linked by a word: “He needed money. Now-” – “Now hop off the 6 onto the 11.” And at others it is an idea that joins them, for example “he melted out of the shop” is followed by “- like snow on their lips”, a reference to the froth of the beer Odysseus and Josef are drinking. This creates an enormous energy in the narrative, an unstoppable flow, and is one of a number of reasons why the novel is so compulsively readable despite its complexity. The novel ends as the day ends:

“A day is over. A page of the calendar is torn off. Next, please.”

The novel’s title comes from Gertrude Stein and suggests both the possibilities of randomness and pattern (like the novel itself). It returns us to the question of ‘What next?’ by questioning whether even the present or the past can be understood:

“The birds are here by chance, we are here by chance, and maybe the Nazis were here by chance, Hitler was a chance, his politics were a dreadful and stupid chance, maybe the world is a dreadful and stupid chance of God’s, no one knows why we are here, the birds will fly off and we will walk on.”

Koeppen cannot offer us an answer, but what he does provide is an exceptional novel capturing a moment in time in all its hope and despair.