Lost Books – Hospital of the Transfiguration

June 16, 2019

Hospital of the Transfiguration was Stanislaw Lem’s first novel, written in 1948 but only later published in his native Poland. Its English translation, by William Brand, did not appear until 1988. Though Lem is best known as a writer of science fiction, Hospital of the Transfiguration is set in Poland shortly after the German invasion of 1939. Lem signposts this immediately when its central character, Stefan, arrives at Nieczawy for a family funeral to discovers a memorial to Poland’s ‘Sons’, “Faithful to Her Until the Hour of Their Death” with a September 1939 date. He thinks of this again later when the family gather for a meal after the burial:

“The memory was triggered because unanimity in the family was rare, usually forthcoming only after funerals, and although nobody had died last Christmas, the intensity of shared sorrow had been similar – the occasion was the burial of the fatherland.”

This is perhaps one reason why, when he meets Staszek, whom he knows from their time in medical school together, he gives some consideration to the idea that he might join him on the staff of the asylum where he works:

“It’s like being outside the Occupation, in fact it’s even like being outside the world!”

It is the fact he is unable to board the overflowing train back home, however, which finally makes up his mind to join Staszek on his “tiny island in a really weird sea.”

Much of the novel goes on to describe life in the asylum. Stefan, unsurprisingly, finds this unsettling at first, especially when he is initially placed on the women’s wing. Lem is particularly good at illustrating the erratic behaviour of the inhabitants which Stefan finds difficult to interpret:

“The naked woman inside was throwing her body against the padded walls as if it were a sack. Her eyes met Stefan’s and she froze. For an instant she was a normal human being. “

“The nurses,” according to Staszek, “are completely unqualified, so they are a little callous, a little brutal. In fact, they do some pretty rotten things.” The staff too – as is traditional in any novel set in an asylum – have their own versions of ‘normal’, and there are also complex internal politics at play:

“Webs of intrigue were spread throughout the hospital, discreetly awaiting any newcomer’s first misstep.”

Lem was, of course, a doctor (though he did not, to my knowledge, work in an asylum) and the hospital scenes are vivid to the point of grotesque, particularly one of an operation to remove a brain tumour:

“He was drawing a needle across the cortex. The brain was deeply open and there was more and more necrotic mass, fusing with the spirals and convolutions. Stefan looked at the wound, which gaped like an open mouth.”

For conversation, Stefan is increasingly drawn to Sekulowski, an inmate who suffers from literature rather than madness. It seems highly likely that Sekulowski is, to some, extent, a mouthpiece for Lem, producing a series of wonderful aphorisms regarding writing, for example:

“The only writers who have any peace of mind are the ones who don’t write.”


“For the reader it is an attempt at escape. For the creator, an attempt at redemption.”

The Occupation is not entirely forgotten as Stefan befriends a couple of workers at a nearby power station who are rumoured to be hiding weapons. One in particular, Woch, he fails to warn when he fears he may be in danger, and we have an early indication of the threat the Germans pose:

“He figured he had the German all wrapped up, but the German is a fox, too, and came at night and took him away like a chicken.”

Eventually the Germans (with Ukrainian troops) come to the asylum with their own solution to the psychological problems of the patients:

“Every nation is like an organism. Sometimes the body’s sick cells need to be excised.”

The moral problem this creates for the doctors might remind us that Stefan was earlier reading Lord Jim.

Hospital of the Transfiguration is, of course, an interesting curio for Lem’s admirers (at one point, for example, Sekulowski tells Stefan, “I’ve been dreaming of writing the history of the world from the point of view of another planetary system”) but it also an accomplished novel in itself. It demonstrates our powerlessness in the face of insanity, both inside and outside the asylum; in that sense it is as relevant as ever.


Lost Books – Positions

June 4, 2019

Although The Years did not win the Man Booker International Prize, its short-listing is one example of the rapturous response which Ernaux’s work has recently received in the UK, a reception which has already seen her begin to return to print. Though the scope of The Years is very different to what she has written before, the method is not entirely new, and something she touches on in Positions when she decides to write about her father’s life:

“If I wish to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach, or attempt to produce something ‘moving’ or ‘gripping’.”

Positions, translated by Tanya Leslie, was published by Quartet Books in 1991, its title varying from the same translation in the US where A Man’s Place was chosen to convey the French original, La Place. The variation is interesting as, whereas the American publishers placed the focus on gender (and perhaps also as a counterpoint to A Woman’s Story), in the UK the emphasis is on class (presumably the French title conveys both). The word appears only once (meaning social class) in reference to the customers of her father’s café:

“It was a café of regulars, habitual drinkers who dropped in before or after work, whose place was sacred: gangs from the building site, as well as a few customers whose position meant they could have chosen a less proletarian establishment.”

Social class is, however, at the book’s heart. It begins as Ernaux qualifies as a teacher, perhaps the point at which she feels her class has irrevocably changed. When her father dies shortly after, even the funeral is described in terms of class:

“In distinguished society grief at the loss of a loved one is expressed by tears, silence and dignity. The social conventions observed by my mother, and for that matter the rest of the neighbourhood, had nothing to do with dignity.”

Unlike Edouard Louis, who escaped his poverty in one bound, Ernaux’s parents’ act, to some extent, as bridge between their working-class origins and her middle class existence. From working-class origins they rise to run their own business, a shop and café, leaving her father “both worker and shop keeper.” This leaves them to some extent alienated from both the class they have left and the class they have not yet entered:

“Behind their backs, they were referred to as the rich, which was the worst possible insult.”

It also leaves them with a fear of returning to poverty, “afraid they would lose everything and lapse back into working-class poverty.” Her father’s greatest fear, however, is of embarrassment:

“He was always afraid of being ashamed or out of place.”

Ernaux reports, “One day he said to me proudly: ‘I have never given you cause for shame.’” One area of possible ‘shame’ is language:

“My father saw patois as something old and ugly, a sign of inferiority. He was proud to have stopped using certain idioms.”

This was something I immediately recognised from my own childhood, where the language my father used at work was different to the one my mother taught us to speak at home (and then was surprised later when there were words or expressions I didn’t know which she knew from her own parents). Ernaux goes as far as to say “anything to do with language was a source of resentment, far more than the subject of money.” It’s an important reminder that class is not simply a matter of income but a more subtle sense of confidence and agency – one reason why, on meeting Ernaux’s future husband, “all they asked from the boy was that he had good manners.” Ernaux understands the difficulty of escaping from the class one is born into:

“Now I often say ‘we’ because I shared his way of thinking for a long time and I can’t remember when I stopped doing so.”

Again, I recognise the difficulty (which she, as a successful writer has managed much better than I) as I still don’t entirely feel I belong in middle class settings (such as, ironically, book festivals). She also admits to the difficulty class creates in writing about her past:

“As I write, I try to steer a middle course between rehabilitating a lifestyle generally considered to be inferior, and denouncing the feelings of estrangement it brings with it… I am constantly wavering between the two.”

It is Ernaux’s ability to analyse her own responses, as well as penetrate the thoughts and motivations of the characters she writes about, that make her such a rewarding writer, somehow both subjective and objective, both emotional and analytical, at the same time – exactly those qualities which made The Years such a success.

Lost Books – Emily L

June 1, 2019

How good a writer was Marguerite Duras? Certainly good enough to have most of her work translated into English, but, twenty-three years after her death, very little of that remains in print, with only The Lover apparently impervious to fashion. Of course, she wrote so much and for so long, mainly novellas, slight and intense, and, I suspect, repetitive. There is perhaps a clue to her process, and therefore her legacy, at the end of Emily L, a late novel from 1987 which was quickly translated by Barbara Bray:

“…one ought to write without making corrections, not necessarily at full tilt, no, but at one’s own pace and in accordance with what one is experiencing at the time; one ought to eject what one writes, manhandle it almost, yes, treat it roughly, not try to trim profusion but let it be part of the whole, and not tone down anything either, whether its speed or its slowness, just leave everything as it is when it appears.”

That the novel ends at this point reminds us that it is as much about writing as anything else. Its narrator, we assume, is Duras herself, sitting with her lover (addressed as ‘you’ throughout) in a bar overlooking the Seine. “One day,” he tells her, “it’ll all be in a book – the square, the heat, the river,” and she acknowledges:

“I was going to write the story of the affair we’d had together, the one that was still there and taking forever to die.”

Instead they watch another couple in the bar, an English couple (much of their dialogue is in English in the original) who have arrived by boat. He is quickly designated the Captain, and she, later, Emily L. The narrator observes that their relationship, too, is coming to an end:

“It was clear it was all over, and at the same time she was still there.”

This idea becoming conflated with another ending, death:

“And they’re at the end of the last voyage, the end of life.”

Emily, in particular, is seen as a living momento mori:

“Her body, hidden before, is now visible. Visible in its mortality. Her body is dressed like a girl’s, in the worn-out clothes of youth; on her fingers the diamonds and gold of her people in Devon. But under the dresses and the skin, death is naked…”

Already the narrator is reading her story into what she sees and, as the novel progresses, she will create Emily’s narrative from her observation, which will also be her own story, having decided “to write it all directly – no, that’s all over, I couldn’t do it now.” Emily, too, we are told, was once a writer, writing poetry – an act which the Captain finds unbearable:

“The Captain suffered. Suffered tortures. As if she’d betrayed him, as if she’d led another life at the same time as the one he thought she’d been living in the apartment over the boathouse. A life that was secret, hidden, incomprehensible, perhaps even shameful, and more painful to him than if she’d been unfaithful to him with her body.”

It is the first poem she begins writing after she has lost a child which the Captain destroys; when she cannot find her unfinished work she does not write again. It is at this point that they begin to travel: “All other uses for their love were rejected.”

This ends the first part of Emily’s story, but the narrator begins it again, introducing the character of the caretaker of Emily’s family home for whom Emily has an unfulfilled longing, something the narrator’s lover immediately connects to her:

“…you wanted to have one absolute perfect love, and at the same time to have another, to help out.”

The divergence in their lives is that the narrator has continued to write, an activity which allows her some control:

“…when it takes possession of your whole life long… It’s as if it protected you from some kind of fear.”

In contrast she wonders whether Emily “every evening of every day…with the languishing gentleness, the incredible tact of the English, she’d asked to be allowed to die.” The narrator’s own fear is referenced in the novel’s opening line – “It began with the fear” – and strangely represented by a group of Koreans.

In the retelling it seems very much as if one character (the narrator) is telling the story of another character (Emily), but the novel is far more subtle than this, with the stories bleeding into each other, not only in their parallels but in their telling, and, of course, Emily existing in the world of the narrator. This makes for an enigmatic narrative (sometimes too enigmatic: “They were so alone in the world, they’d forgotten what solitude was”) which focuses on seeing (“We must have looked at them first without seeing them, and then all of a sudden have seen them”) with the suspicion that in looking too closely we see only ourselves, or, closer still, “under the dresses and the skin, death is naked…” A novel of so many surfaces we can no longer tell the depth.

The Governesses

May 27, 2019

Anne Serre’s The Governesses, her first novel to be translated into English, begins with a description of two of the three title characters walking towards the large country house where they are employed. It will be one of many instances where the narrative acts like a camera focused on the governesses, like the telescope of the elderly gentleman across the way who watches them intently. The detailed description suggests a primness which is restraining some diabolic energy underneath, from the “hair held firmly in place by black hairnets” to “the ten pearl buttons which keep the sleeves of her blouse stretched tightly about her wrists.” This hidden primal force is literally revealed in flashes:

“A gleam from her yellow leather ankle-boots lashes the grass by the path, then jumps up like a startled hare.”

The governesses – Laura, Eleonore and Ines – all have a past, but one which been expunged in coming to work for Monsieur and Madame Austeur:

“Where are they from? It’s hard to say. But it’s safe to assume that, in spite of their young age, they had experienced some sort of tragedy in their life, at least once.”

Eleonore – we are told – “lived with Tom for six years, Laura had seven love affairs and Ines a similar number.” Now, though, their behaviour, in the most conventional of settings, is stripped of convention, and their character of antecedents:

“The governesses are like those clockwork toys that start walking when you wind a key in their backs.”

In questioning what control the governesses have over their actions, the novel asks more generally, “who can be said to possess free will?” In particular, the governesses are slaves to their physical desires. These they assuage by hunting strangers in the grounds of the house:

“They’re not going to let him vanish like that… He can’t be far. Over there is a patch of green darting between the leaves. The hunt begins.”

Once caught, they make use of him until he has “been bled dry, his handsome, open hands lying lifeless beside his body.” For all their grace (they are frequently compared to the Three Graces), the governesses’ instincts are animal, though something of both is suggested in comparisons to butterflies and swallows, a description ultimately centred on their sex. Lying naked in the sun, they “surrender to the dragonflies who have begun their assault on their gleaming fleeces;” the same “gleaming thatch of hair where pale yellow butterflies alight.” Continuing the same association, the strangers “walk into the silky trap that was the secret of his own desire” and “being tucked up in their silky soft cocoons is a homecoming.” (Being placed together these images may seem rather forced, but in the novel such connections have to be teased out, and indicate how beautifully Mark Hutchinson has translated Serre’s work).

Cumulatively these images suggest something fairy-like about the governesses, but for all their power, the governesses are also limited by, for example, the house itself, seemingly unable to leave the grounds:

“All three are wearing yellow dresses as they stand pressed up against the garden gates at dusk.”

Men are attracted to them as they stand there, like moths to a flame one might say, except they are the butterflies drawn to the male gaze:

“Sometimes he cries, so they offer him a bottom or a breast, a mouth, a few hands.”

The male gaze also makes itself felt in the novel in the form of the little boys who, when the governesses strip naked:

“…gaze at them in silence, petrified. For the rest of their lives, they will love only governesses naked in a soft green meadow.”

Above all, the elderly gentleman with his telescope keeps a constant watch on the governesses, something they seem fully aware of:

“…all of a sudden he’ll see her staring back at him, opening her mouth to poke a snake-like tongue at him.”

If we were uncertain before, the novel’s conclusion suggests that the power which the governesses gain from their unrestrained sexuality is still contained within a masculine world, a reading consistent with Monsieur Austeur’s role:

“By noon, Monsieur Austeur had turned back into a man, and the house once more had a centre – wherever Monsieur Austeur happened to be located.”

The Governesses is a strange, unsettling tale, at times comic, at others disturbing. By dressing in the well-worn fictional costume of the nineteenth century, only with everything at a different angle, it shocks and provokes the reader, creating something entirely new.


May 22, 2019

The greatest danger in Ali Smith’s project to write a novel a year for four years, each using as a different season as its starting point, is that it becomes a comfort to her readers. Once again we find the echoes of a Dickens’ novel (Hard Times) in the opening lines (“Now what we don’t want is Facts”) introducing a bravura exercise in found language, a prose poem polemic:

“What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth.”

Then, in a second prelude, we have the voice of Spring herself, a trick which Smith pulls off with her usual panache and puns:

“The winter’s a nothing to me.
“Do you think I don’t know about power? You think I was born green?”

Only then do we meet our first character, Richard Lease, “the TV and film director…I mean you’re bound to have seen something he did if you’ve lived long enough…” standing on a train platform in Kingussie. Why?

“That’s the wrong kind of question. It implies there’s story. There’s no story. He’s had it with story.”

Smith, on the other hand, continues to demonstrate her own mastery of story and story-telling: a hundred pages later we will leave Richard and meet Brittany, “a DCO at one of the IRCs employed by the private security firm SA4A”(another example of the way Smith captures the language of the moment). A hundred pages after that Richard and Brittany will meet and both their lives will be changed by a twelve-year-old girl called, of course, Florence.

And then there is the comfort of art itself: Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke are prominent (“They break the mould. They’re modern.”), as is the artist Tacita Dean who works mainly in film. And, as with the previous two novels, another of Shakespeare’s late plays (Pericles) resonates throughout, from wordplay (Richard when asked by his friend Paddy, “who do you think you are, bloody Pericles of Tyre,” answers “Pericles of Tired”) to the character of Florence, whose ability to make others act nobly may remind us of Marina, who manages to remain a virgin while working in a brothel by convincing men to think of their better selves. As one of her colleagues tells Brit, the:

“…age of miracles isn’t past, some schoolkid got into the centre and – you won’t believe it. I still can’t. She got management to clean up the toilets.”

Florence is the springboard for the novel, taking Brit from her job to the Highlands of Scotland simply because Brit feels compelled to help her. Once there her first action is to save Richard’s life. She puts her ability to go places seemingly unhindered to the fact that “sometimes I am invisible” (a neat reversal of invisibility of refugees locked up out of sight) but she also makes other feel visible. On their train journey together Brit realises:

“She has never been happier on a Monday afternoon than she is right now… Who has given a fuck about Brit’s favourite anything for more than ten seconds in the last ten years?”

Florence is the novel’s hope, as children so often are in Smith’s work, but though she is at the heart of the story she is also, in a sense, outside of the story, a reminder to the characters, and the reader, to be better. She is also a reminder of change and the future, in the same way as the frequent references to mountains are a reminder of nature and what endures.

There is much, then, in the novel to be comforted by: Richard “giddy with afterlife”, nicknamed Doubledick by Paddy after a Dickens’ character who “lets go of the bitterness;” Brit, so carefully named, escaping rather than imprisoning; and Florence “sending the thinnest of green shoots through the rock so the rock starts to split.” But literature should not be a blanket to snuggle under and neither is this novel. Rilke, we are told, was inspired by a postcard of a renaissance painting to write about Orpheus, and Smith seems to suggest our task is much the same. “Fuck compassion fatigue,” Paddy tells Richard, “That’s people walking about with dead souls.” The detention centre where Brit works is

“…like a kind of underworld she thought. Place of the living dead.”

In ensuring the novel shakes as well as comforts us, much depends on Brit. When Autumn was first published I expressed some disquiet about the way working class characters, like Brit (“she wanted college but they couldn’t afford it now”) were portrayed, particularly when in low paid, functionary jobs with little control over their actions or even language. Here Brit is freed from all that but, in what might initially seem like a betrayal (look away now if you don’t want to know how her story ends), only temporarily. If it is a betrayal, it is not Smith’s – in fact, it is the novel’s bravest decision, as Brit, abandoned by Florence, realises:

“She was just an extra in it. She was the hired help.”

This, for me, was the novel’s saddest line, closely followed by (in both senses):

“It felt like being bullied did, back when she was at school and had to pretend she wasn’t clever.”

It is here that Smith pinpoints on an individual level where our country has failed. While Richard is rejuvenated with a new film project, Brit retreats into her old life, only slighter more chastened and bitter than before. And with that, what was merely brilliant, becomes vital.

The Memoirs of a Survivor

May 18, 2019

Doris Lessing’s 1974 novel The Memoirs of a Survivor follows directly from The Summer Before the Dark and shares many of the same preoccupations, particularly of the previous novel’s second half when Kate is living in London with Maureen. Here, too, Lessing explores the ‘generation gap’, a term first used in the previous decade, by placing an older narrator with a girl, Emily, whose transition from child to young woman is explicitly discussed. (It’s interesting that in both cases Lessing chooses mother and daughter figures who are not actually mother and daughter placing the emphasis on generational rather than family relationships). Kate’s dreams in The Summer Before the Dark are replaced by the more mysterious life beyond the wall which similarly echoes events in the real world.

The Memoirs of a Survivor also has a claim as Lessing’s first science fiction novel, a genre she had used elements of towards the end of her Children of Violence series and in Briefing for a Descent into Hell. Here, though, we have, from the beginning, a dystopian vision of a future Britain. The picture she paints is of a country which is slowly deteriorating into anarchy while at the same time presenting a facade of life as it was:

“I played the game of complicity like everyone else. I renewed my lease during this period and it was for seven years: of course I knew that we didn’t have anything like that time left.”

Yet at the same time the narrator is well aware that the rules of property, as with the other rules that held the society she is used to together, no longer apply as they once did:

“What it amounted to was that a flat, a house, belonged to the people who had the enterprise to move into it.”

Behind this lies the knowledge that eventually she will have to leave the city. The reason for this is never explained: Lessing is more interested in the shared sense of ‘it’ (as she calls it) not as a rational cause but as a feeling:

“I’m sure that ever since there were men on earth ‘it’ has been talked of in this way precisely in times of crisis since it is in crisis ‘it’ becomes visible… ‘it’ can be, or has been, pestilence, a war, the alteration of climate, a tyranny that twists mean’s minds, the savagery of a religion.”

The dilemma of when to leave is complicated when the narrator is brought a twelve-year-old child, by a man she does not know, to look after, a situation she accepts having “abandoned all expectations of the ordinary.” Emily comes with little but her pet, Hugo, “shaped more like a dog than a cat, but its face was that of a cat.” Emily is also described as being between, “in that halfway place where she would soon be a girl”, ‘girl’ being used to signify the time after childhood when she will become visibly female. (Lessing avoids the use of ‘adolescent’ or ‘teenager’, though, as we shall see, in a changed society there is little space between childhood and adulthood).

Much of the novel charts Emily’s growth, as witnessed by the narrator. We see her attempt to be accepted by the roaming gangs of young people that come through the city from time to time, and initially rejected. We see her establish a variety of identities using her clothing, and also her body shape: “chrysalis after chrysalis was outgrown,” the narrator tells us, until eventually:

“She came back with some secondhand clothes that in one giant’s step took her from being a child with fantastic visons of herself to being a girl – a woman, rather.”

This includes Emily, now thirteen, falling in love, a relationship which is both “the ‘first love’ of tradition” but also complicated by changing social rules:

“But these young people’s lives were communal, and mating was far from being the focus or pivot of a relationship when they chose each other.”

(The use of ‘mating’ rather giving away Lessing’s tendency towards anthropology). Her boyfriend, Gerald, attempts to establish a commune but struggles both to overcome some aspects of human relationships (“It’s impossible not to have a pecking order”) and the increasingly feral nature of children left to fend for themselves.

The dystopian narrative is only one facet of the novel, however, as from the opening the narrator finds herself able to move through the wall of her flat into another place:

“I looked at the glow and the pulse of the yellow, looked as if I were listening, thinking how, as the seasons changed, so did the shape and extent and position of this patch of morning light – and then I was through the wall and I knew what was there.”

What she sees in the house which lies behind the wall seems to connect to her life on the other side. When she first goes there – before Emily arrives – she finds the rooms are empty and have been disused for years. Later a family move in and she is soon certain that “the small child was of course the Emily who had been given into my care.” During the turbulent period when Emily is attempting to establish her identity beyond childhood, the narrator finds the rooms “disordered or damaged”. There are also echoes of Emily’s relationship with Gerald in the child Emily’s relationship with her father.

The Memoirs of a Survivor is an unsettling book: its picture of a society disintegrating slowly and uncertainly, but unassailably, is echoed in the powerlessness of adults before the next generation. The room beyond the wall remains ambiguous: does it represent hope for the future or simply a retreat into the past? Another reminder that Lessing is a writer who will always offer us more questions than answers.

You Would Have Missed Me

May 12, 2019

Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, from 2013, remains one of my favourite Peirene publications – it is, in fact, the Peirene novel I most frequently recommend to others. Peirene policy, however, has largely focused on bringing authors who have not been translated before to an English-reading audience, and therefore to publish only one work from each author. 2019 sees this ‘rule’ broken as Jamie Bulloch offers us a second Vanderbeke novella, You Would Have Missed Me, originally published in 2016. It, too, centres on a family with a powerful male figure at the centre, and is similarly narrated by a child, a seven-year-old daughter isolated not only by the absence of siblings, but by her fractured relationship with her mother.

As with The Mussel Feast, You Would Have Missed Me has a conceit in which the story takes place during one particular day, in this case the narrator’s seventh birthday. It begins as she waits for her birthday gifts, accepting once again that she will not get the kitten she desires:

“You get used to disappointments, but in the long term they make you feel cold and empty inside.”

The birthday song, begun on page 34, is not completed until page 78. In the meantime, her thoughts range across her brief life so far, the family’s escape from East Germany to the West and their time in a refugee camp. Her mother, it is revealed, comes from a wealthy family, but one that sympathised with the Nazis, as (her husband points out) did that of her fiancé, who was killed during the war:

“…everything his family owned would have been expropriated after the war, and then life wouldn’t have been quite so rosy, even if they hadn’t been Nazis, but because they were Nazis, like all land-owners and fat cats, I don’t suppose they would have had much to laugh about under the Russians.”

Her husband, Osch (though I’m not certain this is his name – we’re told more than once he doesn’t like it – or simply a Flemish sigh) feels exempt from Germany’s loss (“May I also point out that you lost the war?”) as he arrived in Germany as a child from Belgium:

“My father was a foreigner because his mother had brought him to Germany from Belgium when he was very small and the war had already begun.”

The war, and her fiancé’s death, ends the mother’s first dream, but the West, the “Promised Land” as the narrator calls it, becomes her second. In a novel which opens with the narrator’s disappointment of not receiving her dream present, the disappointment of adults is also to the fore. This is perhaps best exemplified in the teak furniture that was her mother’s first acquisition in the West:

“Before we came to the West my mother had always dreamed of teak furniture, but of course she didn’t know you had to polish teak all the time because she’d only ever dreamed of it and had never owned any.”

The marriage and move to the West was, in itself, a dream of her mother’s:

“The moment a dream of a husband and child and another life had been planted inside my mother’s head, long after her landowner fiancé was out of the picture and she could have let the matter rest – at that moment everything stared to get complicated an descend into chaos.”

Osch’s dreams are different, harking back to his “East German student life with the Western cinemas and girlfriends”:

“As far as my father was concerned there was nothing promising about this land.”

As for the narrator, “I wasn’t exactly the child they’d dreamed of,” disappointment being the corollary of dreaming:

“Dreaming, however, was absolutely fine in the Promised Land. The wonderful thing about this country was that as soon as my mother had acquired the teak furniture… and was disappointed because they weren’t exactly what she had been dreaming of, she could immediately start dreaming of larch furniture…”

Initially the mother’s lack of affection, and attempts to isolate the narrator with prohibitions of who she can associate with, seems to be the greatest hurt the child suffers, but we slowly become aware of the threat of the father. A visit to a doctor reveals “a few broken bones that hadn’t fused back together very well” which the mother denies any knowledge of, and frequent references to the father’s hands (often clenched in his pockets in anger) prove to be prophetic.

But, just as with The Mussel Feast, the novel offers hope when the narrator frees herself from the present with the aid of a globe she receives as a birthday present (along with a prescient copy of The Time Machine):

“I’d done it. At the ripe time, I’d shot myself into the future…”

From there the narrator literally discovers her own voice:

“Ever since I’d heard my voice, I’d been saying things I’d never have dared say before.”

You Would Have Missed Me is another complex, provoking fable from Vanderbeke, exploring numerous themes – the twisted relationship of an abusive marriage, the attractions and disappointments of a consumer economy, the shifting status of the refugee, the power of the imagination – through the eyes, and voice, of a child. It, too, now belongs among my favourite Peirene publications.

The Train Was on Time

May 7, 2019

The latest in Penguin’s wonderful European Writers series feature perhaps the most famous neglected writer yet, Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Boll. While Boll’s novel The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum has remained stubbornly in print, most of his other work has not. The Train Was on Time is Boll’s first novel, originally published in 1949, and here in a translation by Leila Vennewitz from 1970 with a new introduction by Anna Funder, author of Stasiland.

The novel has a simple but powerful premise: a young German soldier, Andreas, sets off in a train to the Eastern front believing that he will die. “I don’t want to die,” he shouts to his friend as the train pulls out of the station:

“I don’t want to die, but the terrible thing is that I’m going to die…soon!”

This belief becomes engrained – “the word soon entered him like a bullet” – and he can think of little else. Initially the fear is a vague one:

“This Soon compresses the future, shrinks it, offers no certainty, no certainty whatever, it stands for absolute uncertainty.”

It is perhaps for this reason that, as his journey progresses, he becomes steadily convinced he knows the time and place of his death:

“Soon was no longer quite so blurred, he had already groped his way up to this Soon, circled it and sniffed it, and already he knew that he was going to die during the night of Saturday to Sunday between Lvov and Cernauti…in Galicia.”

The train journey, therefore, becomes a journey towards death, “every turn of the wheels tears off a piece of my life”:

“My life is now nothing but a specific number of miles, a section of railway line.”

The intensity with which Boll explores this conviction is gripping, but the novel is much more than one man’s journey: not only does Boll reveal Andreas’ experience of war, distilled to one particular moment, but he does the same for his other characters, Andreas’ companions in the railway carriage, an unshaven soldier (later Willi when he has shaved) and a blonde soldier. Among Andreas’ few positive memories are that of a woman he saw in France:

“For a tenth of a second our eyes held each other’s, maybe even less than a tenth of a second, and I can’t forget her eyes. For three and a half years I’ve had to think about them and haven’t been able to forget them.”

His sight of the woman is cut short when an aircraft crashes nearby, and when he returns to find her he cannot even discover who she was: “maybe it was a whore,” a man tells him, or “a madwoman from the asylum.” This sentimentality is entirely in keeping with Andreas’ youth and emphasises his innocence. Willi has had a more positive experience of war having made some money selling cars made from the salvageable parts of bombed army vehicles, but he, too, assumes he will die, deciding to spend all the money he has save to pay off the loan on his house:

“The mortgage, the whole Lvov mortgage is ours!”

The blonde soldier confides in Andreas his own terrible war story during six weeks in an isolated gun emplacement:

“The sergeant major was like an animal… so he seduced us, what else is there to say? We were all like that…except one. He refused. He was an old fellow, married with a family…”

The soldier who refuses is shot by the sergeant major and the blonde soldier conspires in the cover-up, telling Andreas, “After that I never enjoyed anything again, and I never will.” Andreas believes their fatalism unites them:

“Willi also knows he is going to die, and the blond fellow is ready to die too, their lives are over.”

In this way the novel does not simply exemplify the horror of war through Andreas’ experience, but also through the trauma of “the blond fellow” and Willi’s cheerful pessimism. Finally, when the three soldiers visit a brothel, we also see the effects on the civilian population in the shape of Olina, a Polish woman of Andreas’ age who was once a pianist. She reveals to Andreas that she (and, she says, all of Poland) works for the Polish resistance, but has her own epiphany in the hours she spends with him:

“And when I saw you standing over there by the window… it came to me for the first time that we also only murder the innocent.”

Despite its brevity, The Train Was on Time provides a detailed picture of war, as Boll selects his subjects like a skilled documentarian, noticing what others would prefer not to see. Its focus on a deeply felt central character and its relentless countdown lend it an emotional power like a pounding engine which advances from page to page towards the inevitable final scene.

The Artificial Silk Girl

May 4, 2019

When Penguin Classics commissioned its own translation of Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations (by Michael Hoffmann) in 2008, it was to be hoped that further novels would appear. Now, finally, the patience of UK readers is rewarded with the publication of The Artificial Silk Girl in Kathie von Ankum’s 2002 translation for Other Press, with Gigli, One of Us to follow in December.

The Artificial Silk Girl, Keun’s second novel, is a vibrant picture of a young woman, Dora, in 1930s Germany seeking to carve out a place for herself in the world. Dora is also our narrator, recording her daily life in the conviction that she is headed towards fame and fortune:

“I think it will be a good thing is I write everything down, because I’m an unusual person. I don’t mean a diary – that’s ridiculous for a trendy girl like me. But I want to write like a movie, because my life is like that and it’s going to become even more so.”

Her story is one which takes her from man to man, stepping stones which are often precarious and, more than once, see her plunge into the cold waters of poverty. Her attitude towards men is at once cynical and sentimental, displayed not only on her written asides but in comments to her friend Therese. She is, for example, able to judge a man’s intention by the cost of the cigarettes he orders (“when they order those at eight [marks] you know immediately what’s on their mind”) and generally knows to dismiss any grand claims they make:

“It’s a male sickness to tell every girl that they are the top executive of a film studio or at least that they have great connections.”

Yet at the same time she tells Therese, “There has to be some love involved. Otherwise, what about our ideals?” This contradiction is both evidenced and exacerbated by her first relationship, at sixteen, with Hubert, a student in his twenties from a better family, whom she describes as “the only one…whom I’ve ever loved”. Hubert makes no attempt to seduce Dora, “not,” she says, “for moral reasons, but because he was a coward, because he was thinking that he would be indebted to me, an innocent girl.” It is Dora, therefore, who takes the initiative:

“But I think getting a girl all worked up is the same thing as doing the other thing, and then I was thinking, there has to be a first time and it was important to me that it would be the real thing, and I was in love with him, with my head, my mouth, and further down.”

When Hubert finishes his studies he leaves Dora, returning home to marry, but not before telling her that “when a man marries, he wants a virgin.” This formative experience reveals Dora’s natural acceptance of desire, and can be seen as the origin of her cynicism towards men, though her sentimentality is evident in the love she still feels for Hubert.

Dora loses her job as a secretary when she realises that her attempts to charm her boss have led him to believe that she is genuinely attracted to him (and therefore feels no need to shower her with gifts):

“How can a highly educated man like yourself be so dumb as to think that a pretty young girl like myself would be crazy about him?”

A spell in the theatre follows where she demonstrates her cunning both by spreading the rumour that she is sleeping with director, and by locking a rival actress in the bathroom so she can steal her line (“And that one sentence caused as much of a stir as a loaf of bread during a famine”). Soon Dora feels she must flee to Berlin, though not before stealing the fur coat which will become a symbol of the life she wishes to lead:

“It spoke comfort to me, a guardian angel, protection from heaven.”

In Berlin her life is one of greater extremes, as seen, for example, when, within two pages, she moves from “What a life! What a life!” having moved in with a wealthy man, to “Always the same. Always the same,” when his wife returns unexpectedly. After this she is, for a time, homeless:

“And then I spent a winter night half-asleep in Tiergarten on a park bench.”

During this time she stays in the same building as Hulla, a prostitute who is badly beaten by her pimp. Her instinctive reaction, “that’s how low you can sink,” originates partly from fear of her own future. The novel’s final scenes, in which she once again finds a male protector, are perhaps the most moving, and demonstrate that for all her cynicism, she is not the heartless manipulator that the reader may have feared she was becoming, a retention of conscience which is the cause of both hope and despair. The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderfully vivid and affecting coming-of-age story which ranks among the best of a genre overflowing with male examples.


May 1, 2019

Ariana Harwicz’s Feebleminded, the second in an “involuntary trilogy” of novels which began with Die, My Love, and will be completed by Precocious (already available in Spanish), tells a story we have heard many times before: a young woman falls in love with a married man but, whatever the strength of her feelings, he will not leave his wife. What marks Feebleminded out from previous versions of this staple drama is the way it is told (and also, it had to be said, the role of the young woman’s mother, mother and daughter relationships forming the basis of the trilogy). If Die, My Love pushed the boundaries of what we might expect in the description of Harwicz’s characters’ internal turmoil, Feebleminded has simply left the boundaries behind.

Harwicz’s central focus is her narrator’s desire: “Degenerate desire. Damaging desire. Demented desire.” This desire is so overpowering it impairs her faculties, diminishes her ability to reason, leaving her ‘feebleminded’:

“This epileptic desire, this deformed desire, a drooling lustful crip who needs two people to lift him and carry him so he can fuck on the soft mattress.”

When her lover speaks to her after sex the narrator listens “with the reverential astonishment of a feebleminded woman”, and, later, she says, “I lose everything from the neck up.” Like Sylvia Plath describing her emotional pain in terms of the Holocaust, Harwicz is unafraid to offend in pinpointing her character’s delirium. Desire is the only thing which can lift the narrator out of her dull existence:

“I quiver, I shake, my fingers are my morphine and for that brief moment everything’s fine.”

Without it she has, and perhaps is, nothing:

“A whole life spent in the gloom of a shop, the iron keyring, the fuse box, the stairs to the storeroom. The tiny bathroom. The cleaning products and polishing the shelves. A whole life.”

This is not to say she is unaware of the danger – the way in which the rawness of her feelings exposes her – and Harwicz frequently uses knife imagery to convey this point, both to describe her lover’s approach (“And kissing was a steady advance, knife raised”) and his departure (“He’s getting further away and it feels like a knife thrust in my gut”), as if to emphasise that she cannot win. Something similar exists in her relationship with her mother, with whom she talks about the “knife experiment” at one point:

“You have to test your impulses: take the knife by the handle, bring it slowly towards her chest and see for yourself that you won’t really stick it in. What a weird method, right mum? I was this close to slicing you open.”

We are given the impression that her mother (no father is mentioned; it is a household of women) has little time for her as a child (“Like when mum and grandma couldn’t find me at the campsite and I had to spend all night sleeping among the lambs”) and is relieved when she reaches puberty:

“Mum delighted when my back’s finally strapped by my very first bra and already I’m talking dirty.”

Later, her mother will show a prurient interest in the narrator’s sex life (“Surprised your mother slept around too?”) just as then narrator will think about her own conception:

“I think about my mum’s sex and the man’s screwed together, turning me into a little girl. I think about our hairy sexes inventing sons and daughters.”

Both mother and daughter are frequently portrayed as animalistic:

“Mum will be feeding on pants, munching them down one by one, her mouth never empty.”

Animals are scattered throughout the narrative, and the two characters are often (together and alone) in the woods. Early on we are told:

“We’re both in heat from the scalp down, two abandoned sows.”

All in all, Feebleminded sounds like a novel that’s ‘not for everyone’, yet many – perhaps most – will have experienced the madness of desire, and, if you haven’t, it is clearly an aspect of the human condition which should not be ignored. If that is not enough to convince you, then the novel is worth reading for the language alone, thanks in part to the incredible work of translators Annie McDermott and Caroline Orloff. Take, for example:

“The sixty minutes before I see him are beautifully sordid, like diving head-first into a ravine.”


“Falling in love is the downpour under an electrified roof.”

In fact, line after line bursts from the page in vivid, complex, terrifying images. The final volume cannot come soon enough.