One of the best aspects of Peirene Press’ powerful novellas is the way in which they introduce new writers to an English-reading audience; an unfortunate downside of this is that frequently no other work is available in translation leading to the frustration of discovering a writer you love but with no way of accessing their writing (short pf learning a new language). Alois Hotschnig, whose short story collection, Maybe Next Time, Peirene published in 2011, is a rare exception, with a previous novel, Leonardo’s Hands (which I reviewed for German Literature Month in 2014) already available, and a second, Ludwig’s Room, appearing in 2014 from Seagull Books translated, like Maybe Next Time, by Tess Lewis.
Ludwig’s Room is an unsettling, suffocating narrative, greeting us in the guise of a ghost story. From the very first line we feel we are entering haunted house territory:
“I should never have accepted the inheritance, that’s when it all began. The house had made others unhappy before me.”
And, in case we are under the mistaken impression this might be down to persistent drafts and dodgy plumbing, we are told, “The previous owners had all died but hadn’t yet left.” As in any classic haunted house story, the locals don’t take to incomers, and the latest inhabitant of the house, Kurt Weber, is soon warned, “you have to protect yourself from people here.”
Weber has been to the house before as a child, a process that was designed to select the next heir, and remembers a room that he was never allowed to enter. When he knocks on the door and asks if he can come in, his Uncle Georg replies, “Not as long as I live.” There is a rumour that another Uncle, Paul, hanged himself in the room, which is also known as Ludwig’s room, though no-one will say who Ludwig is.
The novel’s ominous and enigmatic first half includes the visit to the house of an elderly woman who is soon a regular presence, having been forbidden by her son to enter while the previous inhabitants lived; she tells him:
“Maybe this one’s different… after all, he isn’t guilty, not from the beginning.”
Merging into the first person narrative we find Weber’s dreams, not always initially distinguished from reality, and the stories of others, as direct speech is never indicated. Death is all around, from the body Weber sees being dragged out of the lake (“Every year one of them washes up here, at least one”) to the coffin being carried out when he first meets another neighbour, Mr Gartner. Weber’s memories of his relatives frequently focus on their deaths:
“The lake was Georg’s deathbed. He went out in his boat one night and never came back.”
As his aunt, from whom he inherited the house, once told him:
“You’re only truly at home when you’ve got someone in the graveyard.”
It won’t surprise anyone who recalls that this is a German (or, at least, an Austrian) book (or anyone who has read the blurb) that the answer to this mystery lies in the Second World War:
“The Security Service had its training camp on that mountain. Their surveillance, the terror, began there. From their outpost up there, they monitored the lake and the surrounding area. And this house.”
In the novel’s second half it becomes an exorcism, an exorcism which begins with Weber clearing the wood around the house, but continues with his search for the truth. The inheritance Weber refers to in the opening sentence is not simply the house, but the guilt associated with the house, a guilt which previous occupants have attempted to keep locked in a room.
I initially found Ludwig’s Room dense and opaque – it reminded me of trying to find a way through the typically foggy surroundings of a haunted house. Ostensibly a first person narrative, it is, in fact, a web of voices, living and dead, as complex as the truth it uncovers. Weber is a character often at the mercy of his own unease, both awake and asleep. However, he persists, and so should the reader, the novel’s difficulty and confusion enhancing the emotional pay-off at the end.
“The dead linger for a long time but eventually they do leave.”