Posts Tagged ‘alois hotschnig’

Ludwig’s Room

November 3, 2016

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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.

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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.”

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Leonardo’s Hands

November 16, 2014

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My first exposure to the work of Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig came when Peirene Press published Maybe This Time in 2011. Peirene are often the first to introduce a writer to an English speaking audience, but on this occasion Hotschnig had appeared once before when his third novel, Leonardo’s Hands, was translated by Peter Filkins in 1999 for the University of Nebraska Press. Leonardo’s Hands is a novel rather than a collection of short stories, but it still feels fragmented, its central experience broken into narrative pieces which the reader must put together, not inappropriate for a novel concerned with the healing process.

An indication that the reader will have to reconstruct the novel’s wholeness is that its starting point is not revealed until page 34:

“Police are still completely in the dark in their search for a driver who fled the scene of an accident. Innsbruck police know the driver was involved in the crash…claiming the lives of two people…Twenty-four-year-old Anna K is still in critical condition. Though she survived, she has not yet come out of a coma…”

As by this time we have acclimatised ourselves to the fact that the novel’s protagonist, Kurt Weyrath, is a part of an ambulance crew (or rescue worker in the terms of the translation), our initial reaction to the news report (one of a number of different texts to be found in the narrative) is that chronology is intact. It soon becomes clear, however, that Weyrath is the fleeing driver and his subsequent career change is an attempt to redeem himself. (In his introduction, Filkins tells us that Rettung, the German for ‘rescue’, also means ‘salvation’).

The news report, a device used again in the events of the novel’s conclusion, provides a context for the novel’s other voices. These include anonymous reflections on the job of rescue worker:

“Indifference was a professional tool without which it was impossible to do the job, as indispensable as the latex gloves that were always nearby.”

Also unattributed conversations, letters, and lost fragments of dialogue:

“But where are you really talking me?”

The effect of this is to imbue everything with wider significance by robbing it of a particular context, while at the same time insisting that the reader create a context if they wish to understand the novel as a narrative. That last question, which lies entirely alone, is clearly a patient inquiring, but can also be read as a plea from the reader. The earlier advice, whether Weyrath’s thoughts or generic counselling, serves to point out his weak spot. When told at a traffic accident he can stop searching, he hears Anna’s voice:

“Look further here, Kurt, you can’t drive away again, you have to be here for me, do you hear, Kurt?”

Weyrath cannot find salvation in his new role and instead takes up position at Anna’s bedside:

“Sit down next to me, Kurt, that way we’ll be together. Pick me up, why don’t you say something, grab hold of me. My eyes, look into my eyes. I’m opening my eyes.”

Eventually Anna does wake up and the novel’s second half goes on to chart their relationship. Anna has, of course, been a blank space until now; her character almost incidental. In what develops Hotschnig demonstrates the complexity, perhaps even the futility, of atonement.

Leonardo’s Hands (the title refers to Da Vinci’s Annunciation where Anna feels the message is conveyed and accepted by the angel and Mary’s hands) is a short novel (less than 150 pages) but its style means that it feels like a long journey for the characters– the reader is filling in the gaps, after all. For the same reason, despite our access to their inner lives, our understanding is only partial. When, towards the end, Anna says about their story, “We have something on our side that doesn’t really exist, we call it the truth. We will clear ourselves through inconsistencies,” she is to some extent describing Hotschnig’s approach. Filkins likens it to trying to understand a crisis by channel –hopping between interview, report, analysis. This gives the novel an invigorating urgency that is difficult to resist.

Maybe This Time

November 20, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Alois Hotschnig

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig is the latest title from Peirene Press, the final title of its second year. It specialises in publishing books less than 200 pages long(so they can be “read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD”) from European writers little known in English (Hotschnig has had one novel translated into English before this). At three books a year – you can in fact subscribe – one would hope for a high level of quality control, and, if Maybe This Time is anything to go by, that is exactly what they have achieved. The book even opens with a brief endorsement from the publisher, though any use of the word ‘Kafkaesque’ near a volume of short stories is a little worrying as it seems to be a rather slapdash shorthand for anything other than gritty realism. However, in this case the cap doff to Kafka is not entirely inappropriate both in terms of style and resonance.

Typically we find ourselves immersed immediately in the mind-set of an anonymous character: Hotschnig isn’t interested in easing us in gently with descriptions of setting, back story, or even the small details s that writers use to humanise their characters. The first story, ‘The Same Silence, the Same Noise’ begins:

“Whenever I left the house, they lay on their jetty and when I came back, hours later, they were still lying there.”

Twelve pages later we know little more about the narrator beyond his obsession with his neighbours; we know little more about his neighbours; and there has been no interaction between the narrator and his neighbours. The narrator barely exists beyond his obsession:

“The more absorbed I became with my neighbours the more my life merged into theirs, the fewer visitors I had.”

The logic of the story soon takes us to the point that the narrator swims across to his neighbours’ jetty, but here Hotschnig surprises us again:

“But I no longer felt any desire to sit on any of the chairs and I made my way home through the gardens.”

Another writer would have left it there, but in the final few paragraphs the previous owner of the narrator’s house (about whom we, again, know nothing) appears and takes on the narrator’s role as voyeur:

“He sat there in my place and I watched him from the house. I didn’t take my eyes off him.”

This sense of losing identity is common to many of the stories. In the second story, ‘Two Ways of Leaving’, Hotschnig moves from one character (‘she’) to another (‘he’) halfway through. As the story progresses we discover that they were once in a relationship which has now ended: the story’s structure mirrors the break-up which seems inexplicable even to the couple:

“One day he left, without planning and for no reason. She didn’t ask why she just let it happen.”

The story is imbued with a sense of their separation: as he waits alone in the flat where he left her he remembers both looking at her from the balcony and looking up at her from the street. Identity and separation are also evident in perhaps the creepiest story, ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’. Here the narrator, Karl, encounters an old woman with a house full of dolls. One particular doll reminds him of himself:

“The doll had my name. And now, as the woman drew my attention to the doll’s face, I noticed how much it resembled me.”

The doll allows him to access his childhood memories, but the more he returns to the doll, the more his relationships outside that room deteriorate, making the story a parable about investing too much in the past.

Perhaps the story that best illustrates this concern with identity is the final one, ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’. In it the main character loses sight of his identity entirely:

“On his front door he read the name they had called him all evening.”

It is not simply that he has forgotten who he is; his identity changes throughout the story:

“The name on his door was not the same one he had signed on letters in the office. He went into the flat. What he discovered was new, different from what he remembered had been there that morning.”

Partly Hotschnig is playing with the use of the pronoun ‘he’ as a ‘character’, but he is also questioning our sense of who we are, just as his often apparently motiveless characters make us consider our motivations. While it is difficult to judge a writer on the strength of a few short stories, this collection at least is certainly worth reading.

Danger rating: just keep checking in with your loved ones that you are still who you were when you began reading…