Judith Schalansky’s first book to appear in English was Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, its meticulous design, maps included, indicating her ownership of the book as an object (she has also published a compendium of font, Fraktur Mon Amour). Her latest novel, The Giraffe’s Neck, though more conventional in construction, also comes interspersed with illustrations. Though a designer rather than an artist, Schalansky reminds me of Alasdair Gray who similarly crafts the design and illustration of his work; indeed, Poor Things (a novel in which medicine is prominent) is full of anatomical illustrations (from Gray’s Anatomy, of course) just as The Giraffe’s Neck is littered with pictures one might expect to find in a Biology text book.
Appropriately so, as its protagonist, Inge Lohmark, is a Biology teacher. Whether Lohmark is a joke or simply a fortuitous coincidence with the English low mark, I cannot tell, but the novel itself is often very funny. Take, for example, her class seating plan, which contains such comments as “Unscrupulously ample, competition bosom”; “Unnoticeable as weeds”; and “Vacuous expression: still thoroughly stunned by nocturnal emission.” Lohmark is what might be euphemistically called an ‘old fashioned’ teacher and the novel reads at first as if she is intent on sharing her accumulated classroom wisdom:
“It just wasn’t worth it, dragging the weak ones along with you. They were nothing but millstones which held the rest back…The later you left getting rid of a failure, the more dangerous he became.”
Of course, as the novel progresses, these early pronouncements seem increasingly ironic, as does her question to the class about species threatened with extinction. In fact, she sees everything through her narrow, Biological viewpoint apart from her own position:
“No, these children really didn’t strike her as jewels in evolution’s crown. Development was something quite different from growth.”
Even the view out of the window is subjected to her subject knowledge:
“The trees had already started to change colour. Decomposed chlorophyll made way for bright leaf pigments. Carotinoids and xanthophylls.”
This is not simply a comic novel, however: Lohmark’s redundant attitudes are echoed in a school which is running out of pupils, and a town which is running out of people. (“This town here would never recover from its population dip”). These in turn exemplify an East Germany (and Communist Bloc) which has lost its evolutionary struggle with capitalism. Lohmark herself is revealed to be a deeply lonely individual, her narrative voice a shield against those feelings of isolation. In particular, she has not seen her daughter, Claudia, in twelve years (she lives in America – she has adapted in a way Lohmark has not). Their relationship is a troubled one:
“She had given birth to Claudia and fed her. She had fulfilled her duty. What else could she have done?”
Glimpses of their shared past reveal that Lohmark’s discipline is in fact an inability to relent, to relax – to adapt. Claudia’s vegetarian ‘phase’ is simply dismissed and Lohmark’s insistence on facts is also damaging:
“Claudia had once asked her if she was beautiful. What were you supposed to say to that? You look funny. Wide face, dark freckles, slight overbite.”
The novel progresses Jean Brodie like towards her downfall, and, as with Brodie, it is not for the reasons we expect, but Schalansky neatly ties in the moment when her relationship with Claudia was sundered irrevocably with the moment her career as a Biology teacher ends.
As one might expect, is a beautifully crafted novel. I enjoyed the way our view of Lohmark changes: one moment we are laughing with her, the next shocked and angered, and (again like Brodie) at times almost sympathetic. The bravado with which Schalansky uses biology to both create Lohmark’s character and explore her themes, though it may prove a little too narrow for some readers, suggests a confident writer who is worth watching.