Category Archives: German

“Put it down to the dreams, yours and mine, that they can be far more authentic than life itself.”

Mona Lisa, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia and translated by Ignat Avsey

Charming isn’t a word I get to use often enough on this blog.

I liked but didn’t love Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer and it’s fair to say that I like but don’t love Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. For me the Louvre contains far more interesting treasures. The painting has become a form of celebrity – a canvas Kardashian. Obviously it’s good, but I’ve never thought it merited its peculiar fame.

Put those views together and I’m not a natural reader for Lernet-Holenia’s novella about, in part, the Mona Lisa. That was very nearly my loss as, and here’s that word again, it’s one of the most charming books I’ve read in years.

Pushkin have done themselves particularly proud with this edition. The book itself is up to their usual exceptional standards but as well as the usual good quality paper and attractive cover they’ve also included some rather charming (there’s that word again) line illustrations by artist Neil Gower throughout the text. There’s a picture of one at Jacqui’s Wine Journal’s review (link at the end).

As the book opens King Louis XII is sending one of his marshals, Louis de la Trémoille, to the relief of his French governors in Naples who are being harried by the Spanish. The king’s orders are a small work of comic brilliance:

“And I trust, sir,” the King went on, “you will be able to acquit yourself of this commission with your customary prowess. You shall not be left wanting anything. I send you forth not only with my own blessing, but also hereby give you leave as you make your way through Rome to seek the Holy Father’s blessing. However, in case the Holy Father should refuse to anoint your arms, I give you full permission to urge His Holiness, with the help of those selfsame arms, to vouchsafe them his blessing. Furthermore, select as many of my noblemen as you deem fit to accompany you on your way. The flower of my nobility will be honoured and pleased to serve under you and personally to provide armour and equipment for you and your retainers. Also, you will have at your service a number of clerics whose upkeep and maintenance will devolve upon the Church. I shall take the sin of that upon myself. Additionally, I expect the good people of Amboise in Milan to cast the requisite number of ordnance, furnish the requisite number of ensigns, standards and trumpet banners, and supply a sufficient quantity of drums, kettledrums and trumpets. The cost of the undertaking is to be met from the municipal funds. You will of course have at your disposal as many horse and foot as you shall need, fed and nourished off the land, so help you God.”

With such assistance how could the expedition be other than a glorious success? M. de la Trémoille and such lesser noblemen as he is able to persuade to join him set off across France and into Italy.

The king also gave M. de la Trémoille orders to seize such treasure along the way as he is able. With his small and ill-equipped force M. de la Trémoille hasn’t been able to gain anything of consequence so when he reaches Florence it seems a good opportunity to pick up some local art. He takes a few companions and calls upon the famed Leonardo da Vinci, who sadly seems rather more frivolous than expected:

“My investigations,” Leonardo said, “led me, after my enquiries into the density and flow of water and air, to other things, and for a few days I was preoccupied with the weight of God.”

Leonardo seems as distractible as a child. His study shows no signs of current work and he seems to have musicians and dancers attending on him whenever the French call. However, a chance argument between Leonardo and M. de la Trémoille changes everything when one of M. de la Trémoille officers, the young Monsieur de Bougainville, is instructed to catch a fly to settle an argument between Leonardo and M. de la Trémoille as to how many legs it has.

Monsieur de Bouganville disturbs a curtain at the back of the room and behinds it catches a glimpse of glory. It is the Mona Lisa, unfinished, as yet imperfect, but already beautiful. M. de Bouganville falls instantly in love.

From there the story moves to M. de Bouganville’s attempts to discover the model for the painting. He’s told it might be based on a woman known as La Gioconda, third wife to local nobleman Francesco del Giocondo. She is said to have died some years previously of the plague but:

It struck young Bougainville as totally improbable that Leonardo would have painted a woman who was no longer alive.

M. de Bougainville convinces himself that La Gioconda must be the real model for Mona Lisa and that she remains alive. Before long he’s causing outrage; he exhumes her tomb and raids del Giocondo’s house believing her imprisoned there. He is mad. He is in love.

With another writer or perhaps even with Lernet-Holenia in a different mood this would all make quite a nice little historical thriller. Here it’s obvious that M. de Bouganville’s quest is hopeless. Leonardo insists that the picture is based on a composite of various women and there’s no reason at all not to believe him. No reason except love, which is its own reason.

Mona Lisa (the book) becomes a short comic meditation on love and art and how both can make us lose ourselves in something better than we would otherwise be. It’s a lovely little tale. Funny, fast moving, and to return to where I started this piece, utterly charming.

Other reviews

There are loads and I’m sure I’ve missed a fair few of them. The ones I had noted were from Jacqui’s Wine Journal here, which includes a nice picture of one of the illustrations; from His Futile Preoccupations here; and from 1st Reading’s blog here. Please feel free to let me know of others in the comments.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, German, Lernet-Holenia, Alexander, Novellas, Pushkin Press

You don’t belong here.

Dream Story, by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by JMQ Davies

Arthur Schnitzler is probably the best overlooked author I know. Dream Story is easily his most famous work partly through getting a release from Penguin Classics and partly through being the source material for Kubrick’s last-completed film Eyes Wide Shut.

Whatever your views on the film (reactions vary wildly) the book is well written, subtle and psychologically astute. This is my fourth Schnitzler and I’d be hard picked to choose a favourite from among them.

Dr Fridolin is an early 20th Century Viennese bourgeois. He’s happily married with a young daughter. The novella opens with the couple telling their little girl a bedtime story – a fable. After she’s gone to sleep Fridolin and his wife Albertine stay up and the conversation becomes intimate as each shares with the other their tales of times they were tempted outside the marriage.

Albertine talks of the shock of her attraction to a young officer she saw for a moment while on holiday with Fridolin. He in turn talks of his attraction to a young woman out bathing whom he briefly locked glances with. It’s an unwise conversation and it leaves Fridolin reeling. Even though their experiences are similar and neither acted on their feelings he sees Albertine as unfaithful.

The conversation is interrupted when Fridolin is called out for an urgent late night visit. A patient is dying and by the time Fridolin arrives it’s already too late. The dead man’s distraught daughter confesses her love for Fridolin and while he rebuffs her it sets him ricocheting through the night.

He meets a young prostitute and goes to her room but they only talk. He’s too conservative a man to do anything even though he’s adrift and feels betrayed. From there he meets an old friend at a café and learns that the man plays piano at secret bacchanals. One is to be held that very evening.

Fridolin convinces his friend to give him the password for entry to this strange ball and then rushes to get a costume. Again things become strange, erotically charged, as the costumier’s daughter proves to be a young woman with possible developmental issues who two other customers are trying to seduce. She flirts with Fridolin evidently welcoming the attention she’s able to provoke despite her father’s disapproval.

The evening is already bizarre and curiously intense but once Fridolin arrives at the ball it gets far more so. His friend had warned him that uninvited guests risked serious harm if they were discovered. Fridolin doesn’t believe him and doesn’t care. He turns up masked, gives the password, and passes within:

… Fridolin entered a dark, dimly lit, high-ceilinged room, draped with black silk hangings. Some sixteen to twenty masked revellers, all dressed in the ecclesiastical apparel of either monks or nuns, were strolling up and down. The softly resonant tones of the harmonium, playing an old Italian sacred tune, seemed to descend as if from on high. In one corner of the room stood a small group of people, three nuns and two monks, who had been looking round at him rather pointedly and then quickly turning away.

Although Schnitzler never goes into explicit details (this was written in 1926 and Fridolin anyway doesn’t get to stay that long) it’s quite plain that the party is an orgy. The women quickly become naked. The men dance with them in a frenzy. It’s a wet fever dream quite beyond anything in Fridolin’s worldview.

Of course he’s spotted and expelled. The guests act as if they plan to kill him, but one woman who sought to warn him of his danger offers herself in his place. He leaves tortured by the thought that she could now be suffering for his folly.

What though is real? The next day he retraces his steps but it all slips from grasp. Nothing seems certain or quite as he thought it was. Was he truly in danger? Did an unknown woman give her life for him? Or did some bored decadents stage a little play to frighten him off? How could he ever know?

If the events of the waking world are nebulous the dreams by contrast seem all too real. He returns to Albertine who tells him of a dream in which she slept with that officer she’d once seen. In the dream Fridolin remained faithful to her and was crucified by a mob while she said nothing to save him. Fridolin becomes lost in his own jealousy and his resentment at Albertine’s perceived betrayal. The parallels with Proust are I suspect quite intentional.

Fridolin has lost himself to passions he can neither understand nor control. He careens from sex to death with the two seeming inextricably linked. At his lowest point he finds himself in a morgue looking for bodies that could be the woman from the previous night. He saw her naked and alive; he sees a corpse that could be hers naked and dead; we are most distinctly in Freudian territory.

Fortunately for Fridolin, Albertine knows that all dreams however erotic or terrifying have this in common: we wake from them. She tells Fridolin:

‘… neither the reality of a single night nor even of a person’s entire life can be equated with the full truth about his innermost being.’

In a sense nothing has happened. Fridolin became lost but swam back to Albertine’s shore, or perhaps better to say that she swims out to him and brings him home. There is more to her than he ever dreamed and more to himself than he ever wanted to know. There are some doors which once opened may lead us places we never dreamt existed within us. Whether one should open those doors and whether Fridolin and Albertine should have is left for the reader to decide.

There’s more to be said and I suspect there are elements which are hard for a contemporary reader to pick up on. For example: Fridolin’s friend is recognisably Jewish (mostly by his accent) and was once subjected to anti-Semitic insult from another Jew. The incident is mentioned only in passing but seems significant. Is Fridolin Jewish? Could that be another reason his gatecrashing was so unwelcome? Honestly I don’t think these are questions I’m well equipped to explore. For a relatively brief novella Dream Story packs a lot in – far more than I could unpack in one blog post.

This is a tautly written book rich with uncertainty and meaning. It’s currently available in Penguin’s Pocket Classics range in a really nicely printed and bound edition so it’s the perfect time to pick it up. If you’re a regular reader of this blog this is very likely one for you.

Other reviews

I’d been aware of this book for ages, but it was this excellent review by Litlove that prompted me to finally read it.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, German, Schnitzler, Arthur, Vienna

language is our only home

Summer before the dark, by Volker Weidermann and translated by Carol Brown Laneway; Messages from a Lost World, by Stefan Zweig and translated by Will Stone

Pushkin Press have done marvels in restoring an entire generation of lost voices to contemporary English-language readers: Antal Szerb, Ernst Weiss, Arthur Schnitzler, Leo Perutz, Joseph Roth and of course their greatest rediscovery Stefan Zweig.

I say lost voices, but really these are voices which were deliberately silenced. It’s no coincidence that most of them are cut-off in the late 1930s to early 1940s. The Nazis sought to intimidate and destroy all art and culture that wasn’t in service of their own horrific goals. For a while they succeeded, and it’s a tragedy that so few of these writers survived to see how brief that success was and how total the Nazi’s ultimate defeat.

In his Summer Before the Dark, Volker Weidermann takes us to a moment of peace before the coming destruction: 1936 Ostend where a group of émigré writers briefly gathered. Pushkin have simultaneously published Messages from a Lost World, a collection of essays by Stefan Zweig written from the dawn of the first world war to the depths of the second.

SummerBefore ZweigMessages

I’m reviewing these together partly as Pushkin Press published them together and partly because they are such natural companion pieces. Both, as you’d expect from Pushkin, are physically lovely: well made hardbacks with high quality paper and well judged cover designs. They’d make the perfect gift for a melancholic relative…

Summer takes the reader to Ostend in 1936. It’s a rather Proustian middle-class Belgian seaside resort of the sort common before mass cheap airfare existed. The rise of the Nazis has already displaced a great many German language writers with Zweig one of the last to find himself unable to publish in his native tongue.

Over one summer Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Irmgard Keun, Arthur Koestler and many more find themselves briefly together enjoying the cafes and the culture that have always formed the backdrop to their lives. It’s civilised Europe in miniature.

Weidermann skilfully evokes both time and place. It’s easy to picture the writers having passionate arguments about how best to intervene in Franco’s Spain (Koestler is despatched as a sort of amateur-spy) while crafting new manuscripts and falling into new relationships.

The book opens with a previous visit by Zweig to Ostend in 1914. Back then he couldn’t believe war would actually happen and delayed departure, incredulous at the idea that anyone would move beyond posturing to actual conflict. On the last train back he saw cannons being moved to the front – a physical rebuttal of his belief that common interest would outweigh nationalist folly.

In 1936 Roth is again striving for optimism, though it seems to be getting harder. Zweig at this point is a literary superstar. He’s rich and his books are hugely popular and widely translated. Ostend is a haven from his recent troubles in Germany, troubles which he’s been better insulated from to date than most:

Stefan Zweig in the summer of 1936. He looks at the sea through the large window and thinks with a  mixture of pity, reticence and pleasure about the group of displaced men and women he will be rejoining shortly.

Summer reads like a novel, which is both its strength and its weakness. There are no footnotes or endnotes and there’s no references or sources cited. That raises occasional questions about how confident we can be as to its accuracy.

Take the quote above as an example. Zweig “thinks”, but how do we know what he thought? Barring temporal telepathy this is presumably based on Zweig’s letters or a diary or something similar, but letters have an intended recipient, diaries may be written with a view to later publication, neither is entirely reliable as a guide to someone’s actual thoughts.

The question of how Weidermann knows what he writes remains a nagging concern throughout the book. It’s one that the reader just has to accept – I’ve no reason to believe Weidermann hasn’t done his homework and realistically it’s not as if I would have checked the citations had he provided them. Still, it makes this a book better read to get a sense of mood and of the nature of the world that was about to vanish rather than as anything more scholarly.

Read as novelistic-history (ironically something which Zweig hated), Summer reads very well indeed. Weidermann is good at capturing his subjects. Zweig in 1936 wears a pale suit with a well-trimmed moustache and is described as “self-confident, worldly” and “like an elegant shrew in his Sunday best.” By contrast, Roth is  “hunched” and “potbellied”; his moustache is “unkempt” and he “looks like a mournful seal that has wandered accidentally onto dry land.”

RothZweig

Zweig was one of Roth’s early literary heroes, and Weidermann tells a nice anecdote of how long before Roth met Zweig he went on a literary pilgrimage to Zweig’s apartment in Vienna but sadly missed seeing him. Zweig is now a lifeline as well as friend, providing Roth with cash and ensuring that he eats and takes basic care of himself.

Roth is an advanced alcoholic. His legs and feet are badly swollen, to the point where it’s almost impossible for him to put on a pair of shoes. For year’s now he’s had to throw up every morning, sometimes for hours. He eats almost nothing. Going out to a restaurant seems to him as an eccentric waste of money, that only a rich man like Stefan Zweig would dream up. Nevertheless, Zweig tries to convince him to eat a meal day after day. This summer in Ostend it even frequently works.

Both then and now Zweig suffers from being seen (rightly in my view) as the lesser talent. Zweig is a great writer of popular fiction, but Roth is simply a great writer. Still, they usefully collaborate: at one point Zweig struggles with an ending for a novel and Roth writes one for him, leaving Zweig to adapt Roth’s ending and craft it into his own book. I thought that lovely. Zweig gives Roth useful advice too (including on Weights and Measures, which Roth finishes too quickly desperate for the cash it will generate).

It’s no surprise that amidst all the literature and politics there’s sex too. Zweig is in Ostend with his secretary and mistress, Lotte, with whom he would spend the short few remaining years of his life (they ultimately committed suicide together). Roth meets Irmgard Keun (“the only Aryan here” she quips), a writer he encourages though without reading anything she writes. She later says of her first encounter with him “My skin said ‘yes’ immediately”. A line so good that on its own it’s persuaded me to read her work.

The contrast between the two central figures here couldn’t be greater. Zweig is civilised, urbane, bourgeois. No wonder history has been (until recently) a little unkind to him. Roth by contrast is a classic art-monster. He’s arrogant, passionate, filled with crazy dreams and absurd fantasies, self-destructive and yet attractive to women. Zweig has talent; Roth genius.

And yet. While Zweig is ultimately forced to abandon Roth fearing that otherwise he’ll be sucked down with him, overall he comes across as a man who does his best to live up to his own ideals. He’s a good friend to Roth for as long as he can be, and he’s a good man if perhaps a somewhat naive one. I prefer Roth’s work to Zweig’s, but I’d rather have Zweig as a friend than Roth.

It’s perhaps unavoidable in a book like this that reading it one rather wishes one could have been there, and yet the “there” weidermann describes is a terrible place. It’s a spun-sugar fragment of culture amidst an oncoming avalanche of barbarism, and within a few years nearly everyone he writes of will be dead and they’ll mostly die believing that everything they’ve worked for is in ashes.

I read Messages after Summer, and I think that may be the best way round. Messages is a well chosen collection of essays bringing out certain of Zweig’s core concerns: of the need for Europeans to find a common identity; of the merits of cosmopolitanism and humanism over insularity and fear.

Zweig’s themes resonate with me, and remain surprisingly timely as the UK moves towards a referendum vote on whether or not to stay in the EU. I know which way Zweig would have urged us to vote. From 1916:

… some exist who believe that never can a single people, a single nation achieve what a collective of European nations has not through centuries of heroic endeavour; men who ardently believe that this monument must be brought to completion in our Europe, here where it was started, and not in foreign continents like America or Asia.

That quote shouldn’t be taken as Zweig disparaging America or Asia, but first and foremost Zweig is unashamedly a European and it’s Europe that concerns him. If he had lived to see a united Europe I’ve no doubt his ambitions would then have stretched further to a united world, but as he came to see even his little dream of a common European polity proved too much for the era he lived in.

Zweig returns repeatedly in the essays to the myth of the Tower of Babel. To him it represents a dream of human potential – first built in metaphoric stone and now in culture and civilisation. He sees the Tower as a symbol of what can be achieved when people work together and put aside their differences, and as a caution showing how disunity can prevent us reaching the heavens.

The years up to 1914 Zweig sees as a metaphorical rebuilding of the tower, with Europe becoming more than merely a collection of individual nations through a cross-continent mingling of literature and music and art and science. Now as the tide of nationalism steadily grows over the course of these essays, he sees the foundation of the tower once more in danger.

Here’s Zweig in 1939 complaining of how history is taught in schools, and of how that encourages the very nationalism he deplores:

History, which ordinarily signified the highest objectivity, was force-fed into us with the sole aim of making us fine patriots, future soldiers, obedient citizens. We had to show ourselves humble before our own state and its institutions, mistrustful of other countries and races, and we had to agree with the carefully inculcated conviction that our country was better than all the other countries, our soldiers were better than their soldiers, our generals were more courageous than their generals; that our people throughout history had always been in the right and whatever might happen we would always be right: my country,right or wrong.

He goes on to talk about how he was taught history as a sequence of important dates and figures, most of them battles and conquerors. He could have written that about my schooling. Instead he would prefer a history that focuses on the truly important dates and achievements – scientific breakthroughs, notable medical discoveries, the scientists and artists. He wrote this on the eve of a war that would swallow the world, and he knew I think that none of this would be achieved anytime soon or even in his lifetime.

There’s the (very) occasional comic moment, such as in 1931 when he writes that “… the era of the “historical novel”, the blatant falsification of our ancestors’ lives, is now over”, on which note I’m afraid I have bad news for him. Mostly however this is a passionately if impractically argued plea for us to be better than we are. In 1940 he writes of the Vienna that he loves and which is now lost to him, saying:

Art, like culture, cannot prosper without freedom, and the culture of Vienna cannot flourish if it is severed from the vital source of European civilisation.

All of which is as true of Europe as a whole now as it was of the Vienna of his youth. I said above that his pleas were impractical, and often they are, but an excess of practicality can be the enemy of progress and sometimes we need a little impracticality if we’re to make any progress at all.

Other reviews

Not so many yet on the blogosphere that I’m aware of, but Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings wrote up Summer here and Messages here and Lizzy Siddal positively gushes about Summer here (and in answer to her rhetorical question, if one can’t gush on one’s own blog where can one?). If you know of others please flag them (and feel free to link directly) in the comments.

Finally, I should just note that these were review copies sent to me by Pushkin Press. I also have a personal copy of Zweig’s World of Yesterday and having read these now makes me all the more enthusiastic to read that.

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Filed under Essays, German, Pushkin Press, Roth, Joseph, Vienna, Zweig, Stefan

One doesn’t step into anyone’s life, not even a dead man’s, without having to live it to the end.

I Was Jack Mortimer, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia and translated by Ignat Avsey

As a kid I used to love the British TV show The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. For those who haven’t seen it Perrin is a moderately senior businessman loved by his family and respected by his colleagues who decides he just can’t face his own life any more. There’s no crisis as such, no determining event, it just gets to the point where he can’t live with the tedium of the everyday.

Perrin fakes his own suicide, but discovers that escaping yourself isn’t as easy as it looks. Ferdinand Sponer would sympathise.

MortimerVertigo

Sponer is a taxi-driver in 1930s Vienna. He has a steady girlfriend and there’s an expectation they’ll marry, but there’s no urgency to it so as yet they haven’t. He finds himself attracted to a young aristocratic woman he picks up as a fare, Marisabelle von Raschitz. She’s beautiful and aloof and doesn’t notice him at all. He tracks her down hoping to make a connection and strikes up a conversation with her. He’s good-looking but he’s not remotely part of her world and while he manages to briefly impinge on her awareness she walks on dismissing him from her life as she might a cat she’d stopped to stroke in the street.

Soon Sponer has picked up another fare. This time it’s an expensively dressed young man of similar age to Sponer himself. To Sponer’s horror when he turns round to ask his fare a question the man’s dead, shot twice. Sponer realised that someone must have leaped on the running board while they were in traffic and that the noise of passing trucks must have masked the sounds of the shooting.

Sponer panics. He fears the police will blame him and so decides to dump the body, but then he realises that once the body is found it won’t take long to discover that the dead man was last seen taking a taxi, and the other drivers will describe Sponer and the police will want to know why he dumped the body. The only answer is to make sure the dead man is seen alive at his destination. Sponer has to become the dead man, check into his hotel and create a visual trail so the police won’t trace the body back to him.

Ok, that makes no sense at all, but it’s the premise of the book. The dead man is Jack Mortimer and Sponer has to assume his identity to cover up his own inadvertent part in Mortimer’s murder. If Sponer were thinking more clearly he’d have realised that people might come to the hotel looking for Mortimer and that impersonating an American tourist isn’t your best idea when you don’t actually speak much English, but if Sponer were thinking more clearly he’d have called the police in the first place and then carried on with his life.

I have a rule for books with unlikely premises – I’ll generally give them one gimme. I think most readers work much the same way. There’s no point reading a book about vampires and getting hung up on the fact there’s no such thing. You have to accept vampires or there’s no book.

Here the gimme is that Sponer decides his best bet is to become Mortimer. You just have to accept that or there’s no book. The trouble is, Lernet-Holenia spends a fair amount of time setting out Sponer’s chain of reasoning and the circumstances that push him in that direction. That makes for a slightly slow start as frankly however much justification is established it still never makes much sense, and the reality is if I weren’t already prepared to accept that outcome I wouldn’t have picked this up. Lernet-Holenia could learn here from Edgar Rice Burroughs. If your book is about the centre of the Earth, there’s really no need to waste too much time describing how everyone gets there.

Once Sponer is Mortimer the book finally kicks into gear. Sponer receives a phone call in his room from a clearly distraught woman, but she calls in English and he can’t understand her. Soon she’s in the lobby and he’s wondering quite what he’s got himself into. To make things worse he’s not considered the point that somebody wanted Mortimer dead and that when they hear Mortimer somehow made it to his hotel after all they might come back to finish the job.

The meat here isn’t whodunnit, but whoisit? As himself Sponer was a nobody, a working class joe making enough to get by but never enough for any more than that. Now he’s staying at a high-end hotel with money in his pocket, and while things start going downhill very fast he’s not just some guy anymore. Ironically, it’s by losing his own identity that he’s finally become somebody.

I Was Jack Mortimer works reasonably well as a thriller, but like a lot of crime fiction the murder and its consequences are just means to an end. Here that’s the exploration of issues of wealth, class and identity. Sponer’s journey through the Vienna night takes him from cheap late-night bars back to Marisabelle von Raschitz’ apartment and much in between and the book is at its best when conjuring up this now vanished Vienna.

Right there on the left was a slot-machine bar. He went in. It was a large, circular, dome-shaped room with slot machines around the perimeter and tables in the middle at which people were eating and drinking. A radio was blaring. He walked past the machines and studied the labels. Over one of the taps was the inscription “Sherry”. He picked up a glass, held it under the tap, and inserted a coin in the slot. The interior emitted a hollow gurgling and spluttering sound, and sherry—somewhat unappetisingly, he thought—gushed from the metal tap into the glass. There are many people who don’t enjoy the luxury of having desert wines served up elegantly. Slot-machine bars are meant for the likes of them.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is that Lernet-Holenia describes every street Sponer drives down and every location he goes into, so that my distinct impression was that if you wished you could walk around Vienna holding a copy of the book and following Sponer’s trail. It’s a classic example of a novel where the city is just as much a character as any of the people.

Where the book works less well is pacing. After that slow start I mentioned the book picks up and becomes a lot more fun, but then at around the half-way mark switches continent and characters so as to explore the background to Mortimer’s killing. Conan Doyle does something similar in A Study in Scarlet where early on the focus moves to Mormon Utah and for a large chunk of the book Holmes and Watson are accordingly nowhere to be seen, with the story returning to them only after it’s fully explored the American backstory to the London crime.

Here Lernet-Holenia does something similar, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as it did for Conan Doyle. Just as I’d really bought in to Sponer and his situation I found myself following a bunch of new characters I didn’t really care about in a setting much less interesting than 1930s Vienna. Fortunately we return to Sponer reasonably quickly and from there the book gets its momentum back, but it’s a distracting midpoint wobble.

I’m at risk by now of making it sound like this isn’t a good book, which would be unfair. It’s not a great book and it has some definite structural issues, but it’s short enough that the digressions never take too long and overall it’s a light and fun read. Sponer’s girlfriend gets involved and helpfully is both more interesting and more sympathetic than Sponer himself, and there’s genuine interest in Sponer’s transformation in the eyes of Marisabelle von Raschitz as his identities ebb and flow.

I’ll end with a final quote. Sponer is attracted to Marisabelle von Raschitz as much for what she represents as what she is. Sponer’s father was an infantry officer but died when Sponer was young, leaving his family to slide into poverty. Marisabelle is part of the world he could have had. Here he visit’s his girlfriend’s family, who live in the world he got instead:

The air in the room was stuffy and it smelt of food. On the stairs it had smelt the same, just as in the flat he rented from the Oxenbauers, and in the flats and on the stairs of the friends he had, and the acquaintances he sometimes visited. The air was stuffy and it smelt of food. Here people lived and then married, and their children in turn were brought up in flats where the air was stuffy and it smelt of food and a few other indefinable substances. Such was their life.

Faced with that, who wouldn’t be tempted to put on a dead man’s clothes?

Other reviews

I Was Jack Mortimer has been widely and well reviewed. Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings reviewed it here, Guy of His Futile Preoccupations here, Tom Cunliffe of A Common Reader’s here and Stu of Winston’sDad’sblog here. I’m sure there are others I’ve missed, and if anyone reading this has also reviewed it please feel free to include a link in the comments.

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Filed under German, Lernet-Holenia, Alexander, Pushkin Vertigo, Vienna

Never had he felt so deeply that he was an old man

Late Fame, by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by Alexander Starritt

I am, it’s fair to say, something of an Arthur Schnitzler fan. I’ve previously reviewed his Fraülein Else and his Dying, and loved both. When I heard that Pushkin Press were releasing a previously unpublished Schnitzler novella I lost no time asking for a review copy.

As a rule, I’m fairly suspicious of posthumous releases of unpublished work. All too often the result is some half-finished manuscript which the author discarded as not up to scratch but which was then slapped together after their death even though it’s perfectly evident it wouldn’t ever have been released in their life.

In this case, that suspicion would be totally unwarranted. Late Fame is quality Schnitzler, and as the excellent afterword makes plain was in fact very likely intended for publication in pretty much its current form. Pushkin Press have done both Schnitzler’s memory and his fans proud.

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Edward Saxberger is an elderly civil servant, not yet retired but comfortably settled in his department and his quietly ordered life. Years ago, in his youth, he wrote and published a small poetry collection titled Wanderings. It didn’t make much of a stir and after a little while he gave up his literary career and became the stolid and reliable civil servant that he is today.

Now (the book was written in the 1930s) a young man named Wolfgang Meier comes to Saxberger’s rooms seeking him out as the long-lost author of Wanderings. To Saxberger’s amazement Meier talks of how his artistic circle have discovered Saxberger’s work and been inspired by it; how they were delighted to learn he still lived; and that they believe the time has come for Wanderings to gain the recognition so long denied it.

Before long Saxberger is part of Meier’s set – a group of young writers and intellectuals based loosely on Schnitzler’s own similar early circle. Meier is himself a poet, but they also have a critic, a playwright, an actress and more. They all hail Saxberger as a giant come to walk among them and even more they claim him as a spiritual companion and inspiration. Saxberger finds himself replacing dinners with his long-standing friends and peers and their talk of business and politics with dazzling late night discussions of art and ambition.

Saxberger’s a sober man and his literary aspirations were long ago put to bed, and yet it wouldn’t be human not to be excited by this new attention. He’s cautious naturally, but what if he was overlooked? What if they’re right and now, after all these years, he’s finally being recognised? Who wouldn’t be tempted by such an extraordinary second chance, so unlooked for and so unexpected?

Meier and his group are organising a recital evening at which they will present various works from their movement and they want Saxberger to write new poetry for the occasion and to showcase it with them. It’s a dizzying prospect, but Saxberger finds that it’s harder than he thought to pick up his pen again, and he’s not entirely sure he understands the work his young compatriots are producing. Does he still have talent, if he ever did? Do they? Could he still be relevant? Will the audience proclaim him a lost master or will they laugh?

With his artistic dreams rewoken Saxberger finds himself caught between identities: the staid but comfortable complacency of his place among his aged peers with their careers in government or industry; the thrilling but perhaps fleeting recognition of him as an artist but only among people more than thirty years his junior. Saxberger no longer feels he fits in the world he’s come to inhabit, but he’s not a twenty-something just setting out either.

In lesser hands Late Fame could easily be a cruel novel. Schnitzler, however, walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Saxberger is a likable protagonist and his pleasure at being (re)discovered is palpable, as are the practical difficulties of his position. The young artists are passionate, deadly serious and full of their own importance as of course they would be.

They assuredly had a great deal of talent between them; work, however, was something they actually did very little of.

Here, Saxberger is in a café with them and notices them exchanging sharp glances at another very similar looking group.

“Who are those people?” asked Saxberger of Meier.

Christian, the tragedian, answered for him. “Those are the talentless ones.”

“Is that known for a fact,” Saxberger asked earnestly, “or do they call themselves that?”

“We call them that,” mocked Friedinger. “And that one there” – he gestured at one of those sitting at the other table – “is about to have a play put on.”

“Why do you call them talentless?” asked Saxberger, persevering.

“Talentless,” interjected Meier in his calm way, “is what we generally call those who sit at a different table from us.”

“Nonsense,” shrieked Stauffer, “they really are useless. Someone has to put them in their place.”

“I’m writing an article about it,” said Blink, his demeanour suggesting that this would dismiss them once and for all.

Note that in the above quote there’s a said, but before that some askeds, a mocked, an interjected and a shrieked. There’s an often quoted writing rule that you should only ever use said, not exclaimed or proclaimed or asseverated or whatever. It’s like most literary rules, fine for some kinds of writing, but far from a requirement for all as I think Schnitzler demonstrates.

Schnitzler succeeded in making me care for Saxberger, even sympathising with his growing but easily understood vanity. That empathy made this at times an oddly tense novel, since I found it difficult to imagine Saxberger suddenly being hailed as a major new discovery by anyone beyond his new circle. They title their evening Enthusiasm, and it’s easy to see him as just another enthusiasm they’ve briefly picked up and might just as lightly put down again not considering the damage they could do.

Late Fame doesn’t have the technical daring of Fraülein Else or the implacable awfulness of the situation in Dying, which I suppose could arguably make it a lesser work. Better though perhaps to see it as a gentler novel than either of those; a Sunday afternoon book to be read with a coffee and slice of strudel but still shining with Schnitzler’s characteristic psychological acuity.

Late Fame comes in a physically gorgeous hardback edition which fits neatly in hand or pocket and is just tremendously well put together. The translation is fluid and readable (though since I know no German I can’t speak to its accuracy), and the afterword is both fascinating in its description of how this manuscript was so nearly lost and yet finally came down the years to us and insightful (particularly in picking up subtle psychological elements that would I suspect be more obvious to a contemporary reader familiar with Freudian theory than a modern one for whom that’s largely historic). The whole package is a delight.

Other reviews

I’m sure I’m missing several, but the ones I have noted are from Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here and from Lizzy Siddal at Lizzy’s Literary Life here. As ever, if you know of others please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Central European fiction, German, Pushkin Press, Schnitzler, Arthur

“Things that have happened are never over and done with,”

Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz, and translated by Eric Mosbacher

Early 20th Century Vienna has to be one of the most fascinating periods and settings in literature. The end of the Austro-Hungarian empire saw an explosion in talent: Robert MusilJoseph Roth, Arthur Schnitzler, Ernst Weiss; Stefan Zweig (and that’s just the ones I’ve personally read). Vienna in particular was a hotbed of ideas: Marxism and Freudianism offered new models of society and the individual, each of them challenging established traditions and philosophies.

It’s a natural setting for a crime novel, so much so that author Frank Tallis has set a successful series there with a disciple of Freud as his detective. Long before that though there was Master of the Day of Judgment, written in 1921 by a Viennese author steeped in the passions of his time. It is, quite simply, brilliant.

Master

Baron von Yosch is a soldier and aristocrat. He is setting down, for who knows what audience, his recollection of a terrifying series of events that occurred some years previously in 1909. He insists on the accuracy of his memories, down even to remembering minor newspaper stories of the day on which everything started. He insists so strongly in fact that immediately I began to wonder, why is the Baron so keen to persuade me he has forgotten no detail no matter how small?

Among the newspaper stories that day was a bank failure. Baron von Yosch had already moved his funds, but he knew his friend Eugen Bischoff had not. The Baron could have warned Eugen of the impending collapse, but as he reflects:

… would [Bischoff] have believed me? He always regarded me as a retailer of false information. Why meddle in other people’s affairs?

The Baron seems then a somewhat cold individual. A man whose friends don’t trust him, and who cares so little for them in turn that he won’t even try to warn one of possible ruin. This is our narrator; our guide to the events that claimed several lives. The Baron’s foreword gives us a premonition that whatever happened must have been truly terrible, and I found myself briefly reminded of Perutz’ contemporary H.P. Lovecraft:

Thus the whole sinister and tragic business lasted five days only, from 26 to 30 September. The dramatic hunt for the culprit, the pursuit of an invisible enemy who was not of flesh and blood but a fearsome ghost from past centuries lasted for just five days. We found a trail of blood and followed it. A gateway to the past quietly opened. None of us suspected where it led, and it seems to me today that we groped painfully step by step down a long dark passage at the end of which a monster was waiting for us with upraised cudgel. The cudgel came down twice, three times, the last blow was meant for me, and I should have been done for and shared Eugen Bischoff’s and Solgrub’s dreadful fate had I not been snatched back to life in the nick of time.

Sometimes sheer terror seizes me and sends me to the window, feeling that the dreadful waves of that terrible light must be rushing across the sky, and I cannot grasp the fact that overhead there’s the sun, concealed in silvery mist or surrounded by purple clouds or alone in the endless blue and round me wherever I look are the old, familiar colours, those of the terrestrial world. Since that day I have never seen again that fearful trumpet red.

It sounds like a work of gothic or cosmic horror, but it’s soon apparent that it’s not quite that simple. In fact, despite coming in at comfortably under 200 pages, nothing in this novel is simple.

Eugen Bischoff is a famous actor whose best days are past. His career is sharply in decline and now he has lost his life’s savings. The morning’s newspaper has been hidden from him so as to ensure he doesn’t get the news cold, and his friends have gathered round to support him, the Baron among them.

We know of course that Bischoff will die, the Baron’s foreword listed him among the victims. What we learn quickly is that Eugen is married to the Baron’s former lover, a woman the Baron still has feelings for. It’s a source of tension, and matters worsen when the Baron accidentally makes reference to the day’s events in ways which might give the game away. Well, the Baron’s writing the story and he says it’s accidental, but everyone else present seems to think he’s toying with Bischoff and amusing himself by seeing how far he can push the frail actor.

Bischoff leaves the room, and shortly afterwards two shots are heard. The Baron rushes to the scene where he finds Bischoff dying, a mutual doctor friend present but too late to save him. Bischoff casts a final gaze at von Yosch filled with pure hatred and speaks his last words – a reference to the day of judgment.

Almost everyone concludes that the Baron followed Bischoff, told him of the bank’s failure and gloated over him until Bischoff in panic and despair took his own life. The Baron however swears on his honour that he only entered the room after Bischoff already lay dying. Only the engineer Solgrub believes the Baron, and he sets out to discover what truly led to Bischoff’s death.

There are two mysteries here. One is why Bischoff killed himself. The other is why everyone who knows the Baron is so quick to believe he could be responsible. His former lover clearly blames him for her husband’s death, and her brother Felix demands that the Baron should take his own life as payment for his crime. Whether the Baron forced Bischoff into suicide is up for debate, whether he was capable of such an act however seems to be much more clear-cut. Even he is not entirely certain, at times remembering himself in the room and then dismissing the memory as false and produced by the stress of the situation (but notably not as out of character).

Solgrub’s investigation soon leads him to suspicions of another agent in the drama, a mysterious Dr Mabuse-like figure able to force men to suicide simply by forcing his will upon theirs (interestingly the novel Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler was also published in 1921). Solgrub and Felix agree then that Bischoff’s suicide was prompted by a third party, they just differ on whether that was von Yosch or this mysterious stranger. The Baron meanwhile reckons that he can solve the mystery himself, but soon finds his investigation overlapping with Solgrub’s.

At various points this moves from being a tale of gothic horror to a locked room mystery, to an amateur detective story and back again, but in truth it’s more than all of those. It becomes like so many good Austro-Hungarian novels a tale of psychological suspense. Solgrub is racing against time as the Baron, without even consciously realising what he’s doing, begins to make preparations for his own suicide. Society’s judgment demands that the Baron satisfy the demands of honour, and Solgrub is the only man truly convinced of the Baron’s innocence.

After a young failed artist connected with Bischoff also commits suicide, Solgrub strives to find a connection between the victims and to persuade Felix that there’s a common culprit. A hypothesis emerges that the slain may have willingly risked insanity and death for artistic inspiration; that creativity and terror draw from the same deep interior wells and that their own ambitions were the cause of their destruction. Now Solgrub wants to know what the dead knew, and we know from the foreword that before the story’s out he’ll join them.

That foreword casts a shadow over the whole narrative. We know the Baron lives and Solgrub dies, but not how or why. We don’t know what that “trumpet red” that von Yosch so cryptically referred to could be, or what exactly still terrifies him years later as he writes his account. As I raced towards the end I found myself asking more and more what kind of book I was reading, whether this was supernatural horror or psychological or something else altogether.

I’ll leave that last puzzle for each of you to answer for yourselves. The journey and the destination both are too satisfying to be lightly spoiled.

Other reviews

Only one on the blogosphere that I’ve found, by David Auerbach here. The Auerbach review gives away a bit more than I have, but not remotely fatally. I’ll also caution against the review in The Independent, which while positive I think rather misses the point of the book.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, German, Perutz, Leo, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

He stood in front of the Tegel Prison gate and was free.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin

I read this book badly; much worse than it deserved. When I read it in solid chunks of fifty or a hundred pages it fizzled and raced along, forcing me to work to keep up. When, as I mostly did, I read it in ten or twenty page slices it lost me instead in a sea of disconnected images.

That’s the risk you take with Modernism. It does rather make demands of you.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Published in 1929, Berlin Alexanderplatz is the story of Franz Biberkopf, a newly released ex-convict determined to go straight. He’ll suffer three tremendous blows, is laid low, but ultimately comes to a kind of redemption, or at least a sense of meaning and self-awareness. Are these spoilers? If so blame Döblin, because the book opens with a foreword which forms part of the novel and in which Döblin sets all this forth. Like Nabokov’s much later novel in Laughter in the Dark, we know where we’re going, what’s interesting is how we get there.

That foreword is the first clue that we may not be in for a straightforward narrative here. Then again, the back of the book with its comparisons to Joyce and Dos Passos (and Dos Passos for me is easily the more relevant of those comparisons) gave that away anyway.

Franz leaves prison fearfully. He’s been institutionalised, and he doesn’t know how he’ll make it outside though he wants to do better than he did before he went in. He takes a tram into the centre, but is soon overwhelmed by the indifferent crowds, by the sights of people doing ordinary things like drinking beer and having lunch. He doesn’t know how to cope, outside the ordered environment of the prison.

A passing Jew takes pity on Franz, invites him into his home and gives him a moment’s refuge in which to find himself again. Franz, and the reader, listen to an old Jewish man tell a story, and by the end of it Franz is ready to head back into the streets and to take on the world. There won’t be many more examples of altruism in the book, and in a German book written in the late 1920s it’s hard not to see some significance in the only real act of kindness coming from Jews.

Berlin Alexanderplatz does have a plot; mostly concerning Franz’s attempt to go straight, his friends and girlfriends and how he becomes entangled against his will with crime once more. It’s actually not a bad story on that level, and it’s not a surprise it’s been made into a TV series and film because Franz’s journey is interesting in its own right.

The real interest though of Berlin Alexanderplatz is its evocation of Berlin as a city. Döblin draws heavily on film techniques of his day, with the novelist’s eye panning like a camera across scenes and with frequent use of montage. Descriptions merge with fragments of adverts, with overheard conversations, fragments of newspapers, even with street signs. Here’s an early example:

From the south the Rosenthaler Strasse runs into the square. Across the way Aschinger provides food as well as beer to drink, music, and wholesale bakery. Fish are nutritious, some are happy when they have fish, and others are unable to eat it, eat more fish, the healthy slimming dish. Ladies’ stockings, genuine artificial silk, here you have a fountain pen with a 14- carat gold point.

Genuine artificial silk, how can you resist?

Berlin is awash with politics and people trying to make a Deutschmark. They all rub against each other, live-stock dealers, thieves, communists, ex-soldiers, the revolutionary left and the far right. Among all this Franz is trying to find his own place, at one point selling gay magazines, at another necktie holders, whatever it takes to get along.

Two days later it is warmer. Franz, who has sold his overcoat and is wearing thick underwear, which Lina got him somewhere, stands on the Rosenthaler Platz in front of Fabish & Co., high class men’s tailoring to measure, excellent work and low prices are the characteristic of our products. Franz is hawking necktieholders. He reels off his patter:

‘Why does the smart man in the West End wear a bow tie when the proletarian doesn’t? Ladies and gents, right up here, you too, Fraulein, and that lady with her husband, children under age admitted without extra charge. Why doesn’t the proletarian wear bow ties? Because he can’t tie ’em. Then he has to buy a tie-holder, and after he’s bought it, it’s no good and he can’t tie his tie with it. That’s swindling. It makes the people bitter; it pushes Germany still deeper into poverty than she is already. But why don’t they wear those big tie-holders? Because nobody wants to put a dustpan around his neck. No man or woman wants that, not even the baby, if he could speak for himself. Please don’t laugh at that ladies and gents, don’t laugh, we don’t know what’s going on in that dear little child brain. Oh Lord, the dear little head, the little head and the little curls, it’s pretty, ain’t it, but when you have to pay alimony, it’s not to be laughed at, that gets a man into trouble. Go and buy yourself a tie like this at Tietz’s or Wertheim’s or, if you don’t want to buy it from Jews, get it somewhere else. I’m a Nordic, I am.’ He raises his hat, blond hair, red ears standing out, merry bull’s eyes. ‘The big shops don’t have to get me to advertise them, they can exist without me. Buy a tie like the one I have here, and then decide how you’re going to tie it tomorrow morning.’

The patter continues for another page and a half or so, often quite funny, but then that’s part of the point of patter. Notice the little dig against the Jews there, the assertion of racial purity. Later Franz changes profession again:

Franz now peddles Nationalist pro-Nordic newspapers He is not against the Jews, but he is for law and order.

Franz isn’t in fact “against the Jews”, and he knows perfectly well it was Jews who first helped him when he left prison. Franz though is not a reflective man, and if a little anti-Semitism helps pay the rent he’s not the sort to think about any wider issues that might come with that.

In Döblin’s Berlin everyone is hustling in one way or another. Crippled veterans of the Great War beg in the streets; those with jobs mostly seem to be just getting by while pimps and burglars are leading the good life. Berlin is a vast human hive, permeated by adverts, noise and bustle.

Everywhere there are building works, rents are going through the roof, empty political slogans are disgregarded while the promises of literature and philosophy are packaged and commoditised and sold in the same way as ale or life insurance. There’s an extraordinary three page section, too long to quote here, which merges all these elements and more cutting between adverts, description, court rulings, and tiny vignettes showing the marital problems of a couple running a shoe business and the tensions between a poor lawyer and his cleaning lady.

In one harrowing sequence Döblin’s gaze wanders into a slaughterhouse, where he follows cows, pigs, sheep and lambs all going to the slaughter. He observes them dispassionately, no different to how he regards the people who will later eat them. What separates us from them? Perhaps just that we can kill them, and they do not know that and cannot in any event kill us. Döblin’s gaze is not without compassion, but those he watches largely have none.

At these times the narrative wanders like a camera. When that takes you inside the slaughterhouse it’s chilling, when it enters homes and shows neighbours packed in together it’s fascinating. Here’s an example, from the end of a five and a half page passage:

At the very top a tripe butcher, where of course there’s a bad smell and also the howling of children and plenty of alcohol. Next door a baker’s apprentice with his wife, an employee in a printing shop, she has inflammation of the ovaries. Wonder what those two get out of life? Well, first of all , they get each other, then last Sunday a music-hall show and a film, then this or that social meeting and a visit to his parents. Nothing else? Well now, don’t drop dead, sir. Add to that nice weather, bad weather, country picnics, standing in front of the stove, eating breakfast and so on. And what more do you get, you, captain, general, jockey, whoever you are? Don’t fool yourself.

Here’s a slightly different illustration of how Döblin applies this technique:

Opposite, in front of the little Web Radio Store – till further notice free charging of batteries – there stands a pale young woman, her hat pulled down over her face, she seems to be thinking intensely. The driver of the big black and white taxi standing nearby thinks to himself: Is she wondering now whether she ought to take a taxi, and if she has enough with her or is she waiting for somebody? But what she does is to twist about in her velvet coat as if her body were being wrenched, then she walks on again, she’s unwell, that’s all, and has the cramps, as usual. She is about to take her teacher’s examination, today she would have liked to stay at home with a hot water bottle, she’ll be better tonight, anyway.

What this passage does is show the difference between film and literature. Film can show the outside of things, and does so much more efficiently than language can. Film though can’t show us what’s on the inside, and so Döblin uses his language-camera to show us the Berlin not just of people’s homes and streets, but of their thoughts too.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is then a challenging novel. It demands close concentration, and when I couldn’t do that the result was that I became deeply confused about who was who and what was going on. When I did pay attention though, it unpacked itself into a brutal vision of the life of a city, and showed itself as a huge accomplishment.

It’s a moral book. That’s clear from the outset of course, when we’re told that Franz will receive three setbacks on his path to self-knowledge, but it’s present too in a frequent use of the most powerful biblical language and imagery, applied to lives as far from biblical as one can imagine.

The last 150 pages or so of Berlin Alexanderplatz I read over a weekend, and it was a joy. I read while listening to early Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, to Bix Beiderbecke with Frankie Trumbauer, and to Jelly Roll Morton. They work with it, because the book itself is a form of jazz, pushing its own boundaries and veering so far on tangents you wonder how it will ever get back to the main themes and yet it does. It pulses, full of rude life and the vitality of a new century in which anything, everything, is possible.

Is it worth reading, given the challenge it represents? I think so, yes, but again like the best jazz it’s not background music to listen to while making polite dinner conversation. It’s not a book that goes down easily; it’s not tasteful. Franz Biberkopf is in many ways as unsympathetic as a protagonist can be (particularly as details of his past crimes and his propensity to violence against women become clearer), and yet he is the spirit of his age, hustling and prepared to do whatever he needs to, steeped in blood and error yet perhaps not beyond hope.

Is it still relevant? Here’s a final quote, taken from a diatribe from one of Franz’s political friends which Franz only part listens to:

Not the satisfaction of human needs, but the expectation of profit is at the hands of modern production. Every technical advance multiplies the wealth of of the possessing classes to an infinite degree, in shameless contrast to the misery of vast sections of the community.

As I write this some 83 or so years have passed since this was published. Sadly, despite that great passage of time, it remains a contemporary novel.

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Filed under Berlin, Döblin, Alfred, German, Modernist fiction

a case of chess poisoning

Chess, by Stefan Zweig and translated by Anthea Bell

I loved Stefan Zweig’s novella Burning Secret. It was melodramatic, but successfully so with Zweig painting a subtle but intense psychological portrait of obsession and desire. I agree with Michael Hofmann that Zweig’s no Arthur Schnitzler, but literature isn’t a competition.

Anthea Bell is among my favourite translators. In fact, seeing her name on a book makes me more likely to read it. She is extremely talented and chooses interesting works to translate.

Chess (also known as The Royal Game, and as Chess Story) is probably Zweig’s best known novella. It’s a study of obsession, it’s translated by Anthea Bell. It’s been generally well received in the blogosphere by bloggers whose recommendations I put a lot of weight on. What’s not to look forward to?

Well, for me the answer was the plot, psychology and characterisation none of which worked. On a more positive note the translation is of course excellent and it’s short. Brevity is generally a virtue, but it’s a particular virtue in bad books.

The narrator is a passenger on an ocean liner. He discovers that among his fellow passengers is Chess world champion Mirko Czentovic. Czentovic is a Slavonian peasant by background, utterly lacking in the slightest hint of intelligence or sophistication, but on the chessboard nobody can defeat him. Somehow this oaf has risen from remote obscurity to dominate his social and cultural superiors and to sweep all opponents before him.

For the moment he rose from the chessboard, where he was an incomparable master, Czentovic became a hopelessly grotesque and almost comic figure; despite his formal black suit, his ostentatious tie with its rather flashy tie-pin, and his carefully manicured fingers, in conduct and manner he was still the dull-witted country boy who used to sweep the priest’s living room in the village. To the amusement and annoyance of his chess-playing colleagues, he clumsily and with positively shameless impudence sought to make as much money as he could from his gift and his fame, displaying a petty and often vulgar greed.

… the knowledge that he had defeated all these clever, intellectual men, dazzling speakers and writers in their own field, and above all the tangible knowledge that he earned more than they did, turned his original insecurity into a cold and usually ostentatious pride.

What I find interesting in this passage is the extraordinary depth of snobbery it displays. I’m not immune to snobbery myself of course. My reaction might not be much different to the narrator’s (and obviously the narrator isn’t Zweig, though interestingly the text at times playfully implies it might be). Despite my own failings though the condescension is so dense here it suffocates.

As portrayed Czentovic is a peasant lacking any great abilities in life save one. Is it so blameworthy that he should seek to profit from that sole gift? Is it so praiseworthy that his socially superior opponents are more disdainful of money, a resource which unlike Czentovic they were born with? Czentovic’s real crime here is his “shameful impudence” in defeating men the narrator clearly considers his betters. The problem isn’t chess, it’s class.

The narrator is an amateur chessplayer himself and has an interest in obsessive personality types. He decides he wants to meet Czentovic, better yet play chess with him. Czentovic though only plays for money, his rates are high and he has no interest in small talk.

Luck strikes when the narrator discovers that he’s not the only one keen to see Czentovic play. In particular he meets a self-confident American engineer who wants to test his own ability against a master. A group of passengers forms, with the American paying Czentovic’s price, and a game is arranged.

On the one side then Czentovic, and on the other an alliance of players funded by the American and banded together to defeat this brute from Central Europe who scorns all values save victory. Obviously I’m not drawing any parallels here.

It’s no spoiler to say that Czentovic at first sweeps the board with them. The only obstacle to his relentless rise to domination comes from advice given to the allies by an onlooker who can’t hold himself back from commenting. When the allies follow this stranger’s suggestions they stop Czentovic’s advance and suddenly the allies have a fighting chance of holding him.

The onlooker is described in the text as Dr B, but who is he? How did he become so able at Chess that he can force a grandmaster to a draw, perhaps even defeat him, and yet nobody has heard of him? Can it be true this is the first time he has played in 20 years? These questions are the real book, to which all else so far has been just preparation. The narrator seeks out this anonymous master and discovers the terrible story of how he gained such extraordinary ability.

The line between terrible and silly can be a thin one. Here Dr B’s story involves confinement by Nazis, torture by way of sensory deprivation and chess as a means of intellectual escape. I won’t say more as to explain too much would risk damaging a future reader’s enjoyment of the book. I can say that it allows some nice ironies where chess with its constrained space comprised of set dimensions and permitted moves becomes a limitless domain of pure mind quite separate to the imprisoned self.

Zweig died in 1942. Chess was published posthumously. At the time of writing then he didn’t know that Hitler would be defeated. If one remembers that, this becomes a work of fevered despair. Czentovic is unstoppable, except by a man who is a psychological wreck. Dr B is in a sense the European intellectual (perhaps even more specifically the Jewish intellectual), able to outwit Czentovic but fragile against his stolid cruelty. That’s a lot of weight for a slight story though.

The parable is clever, but it hangs off the story, which rapidly becomes ludicrous. Dr B’s backstory seems initially improbable (were the Gestapo really so prone to subtly undermining their prisoners’ sense of self, rather than simply brutalising them?) and swiftly becomes quite incredible as chess becomes both linchpin and threat to Dr B’s sanity. Zweig’s writing depends heavily on both plot and characterisation, and I didn’t believe in Dr B and I didn’t believe in what happened to him.

That leaves just the writing. Zweig certainly can write, but this feels not quite finished and I wonder if he’d have polished it further had he lived. Certainly it would have helped avoid sentences like this: “And now, for the first time, such a phenomenon, such a strange genius, or such an enigmatic fool, was physically close to me for the first time …”

I’m in a distinct minority on this one. John Self of The Asylum liked it and found the plot ultimately plausible. Trevor of themookseandthegripes was taken by it, and so was Will of Just William’s Luck. Tom of A Common Reader liked it too (both Will and Tom’s reviews are particularly worth reading for their discussion of symbolic elements of the novella). The only blog I’ve found so far (though I’m sure I’ve missed some) that shared my concerns was Sarah’s at A Rat in the Book Pile. Links in this paragraph are to the various reviews mentioned.

So, Chess. It’s very short, most readers love it and you may do so too. For me though it crosses the line from tragedy to comedy, without being funny. If you disagree, and if you’ve read it you probably do from what I’ve seen of other reviews, I’d be delighted to hear why I’m wrong.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Bell, Anthea (translator), German, Novellas, Zweig, Stefan

We thought he would enter from the right…

Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson and translated by Damion Searls

The trouble with realism in fiction is that reality is often distinctly undramatic, and indifferent to the importance of consistent theme and genre. A cop show aiming for realism will usually be gritty, but life isn’t just grit. A war novel aiming for realism may focus on mud, pain and random death, but rarely on cleaning duties and dirty jokes.

Enter Hans Keilson, and Comedy in a Minor Key. This isn’t a realist novel. It’s far too real for that.

Isn’t that a marvellous cover by the way? Hesperus Press, which for me is pretty much a badge of quality in publishing.

Wim and Marie are a young Dutch couple living on the outskirts of Amsterdam. It’s World War II and each night the British planes fly overhead on their way to bomb Germany. The Netherlands are occupied, and in a small act of resistance Wim and Marie have hidden Nico, a Jew, in their home. The trouble is Nico’s just died of natural causes. Now Wim and Marie have a corpse in their house.

What follows is an exceptionally light and subtle novella. In just over a 100 pages Keilson explores the psychology of everyone involved (including Nico, much of the book looks back to what led them all to their current situation). It’s funny, in places, but the danger is very real. Nico’s death is anticlimactic for Wim and Marie, and inconvenient, but they can’t be found with a dead Jew any more than they could with a living one.

As Wim makes arrangements with the family doctor to dispose of Nico’s corpse under a nearby park bench, Marie looks through the dead man’s few possessions. She realises how difficult it must have been for Nico, condemned to living silently in a single room, and the narrative slips back to Nico’s own perspective. In the face of everyday tedium how long can one feel grateful to people, even if they have saved your life?

When he came here, to this house, he would have happily taken a place on a pile of coal in a barn and been satisfied. Now he slept in a bed, ate at a table, was treated as a human being.
But the longer it lasted, the greater his demands grew. Since he couldn’t demand anything of the outer world – what he did receive was freely offered, almost a gift – his demands turned inward and more and more excessive. But people were helping him, they were helping him, didn’t that mean anything? Yes, it meant a lot. But also nothing. He was turning into nothing. It was unbearable. It meant his annihilation, his human annihilation, even if it – maybe – saved his life. The little thorn that grows invisibly in anyone who lives on the help and pity of others grew to gigantic proportions, became a javelin lodged deep in his flesh and hurting terribly.

“The little thorn that grows invisibly in anyone who lives on the help and pity of others”. Beautiful. It’s that kind of quiet yet precise observation that makes this book so good.

In hiding a fugitive Wim and Marie are doing something brave, in a sense heroic, but nothing is ever purely from one motive. Their resistance contact, Jop, appeals to each household he wants to place someone with in a slightly different way. With Wim he appeals to patriotic duty, with someone else to their Christian charity, to another he portrays it as a “purely humane act”. We all sometimes need a little push, to help us do the right thing. There’s vanity too, of course, and the need to feel part of things:

She had secretly imagined what it would be like on liberation day, the three of them arm in arm walking out of their house. Everyone would see right away what he was from his pale face, the colour of a shut-in, which his appearance only emphasised even more. How the neighbours and everyone in the street would look when he suddenly walked out of their house and strolled up and down the street with them. It would give them a little sense of satisfaction, and everyone who makes a sacrifice needs a little sense of satisfaction. And then you’d feel that you, you personally, even if only just a little bit, had won the war.

Keilson takes familiar themes and stories, war, resistance, the tension of living in secrecy, but then gives them a light and human tweak which makes them fresh and powerful. The doctor, standing over Nico’s body, asks Wim and Marie what Nico did for a living. Nico, Nicodemus, wasn’t that the name of one of the ancient rabbis he asks? Nico though wasn’t a rabbi, he was just a perfume salesman. A rabbi would have been more romantic, more dramatically fitting perhaps, but perfume salesmen need saving too.

It was like a comedy where you expect the hero to emerge onstage, bringing resolution, from the right. And out he comes from the left. Later, though, the audience members go home surprised, delighted, and a little bit wiser for the experience. They feel that the play did turn out a bit sad after all, at the very end. We thought he would enter from the right…

Hans Keilson has received a reasonable amount of attention to the blogosphere. I first heard of him with John Self’s review, here, but it was Will Rycroft at Just William’s Luck here who really sold me and persuaded me to read this. Both have my thanks. I’m pretty sure that other bloggers I follow have also covered this, but can’t now recall which. Apologies to anyone whose review I’ve not linked to and if I have missed you please let me know in the comments and I’ll correct that.

On a slightly related note, since writing the first draft of this I’ve noticed that I picked almost exactly the same quotes as Will did. For some reason I always find that slightly reassuring. Validation that if I’ve utterly missed the point at least I’ve missed it in company I suppose.

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Filed under German, Keilson, Hans, Novellas

all the more human

Flypaper, by Robert Musil and translated by Peter Wortsman

Robert Musil is famous (being a bit generous with that word there for a moment) for his unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities. By all accounts it’s an incredible work. I’m too fond of editors to ever welcome the idea of reading an interrupted book – one that not even the author finished polishing – but I’ve been told that for Musil I should put that prejudice to one side.

Fair enough, but The Man Without Qualities has another barrier besides being incomplete. It’s nearly 700 pages long. That’s a lot to launch into with an author I don’t know.

Enter Penguin Modern Classics with their pocket editions each coming in at around the 60 page mark. Flypaper is a collection of fueilletons, short essays, by Robert Musil. There’s nine of them in this tiny collection, and as an introduction to Musil it’s about as good as it could be. That’s the joy of these little Penguin editions. They cost almost nothing, they’re concise and they’re a tremendous way to try out an author who for one reason or another you might be unsure about investing in.

Each of the nine little pieces in this collection is a small marvel of mercilessly precise observation. The title narrative, Flypaper, consists of a description of a piece of flypaper and the slow death of the flies that land on it. It’s at times hard to read. Partly I admit because I had nightmares about flypaper as a child (someone unwisely left some above my bed at a relatives home, meaning I had a front line view of exactly what Musil describes here. Whether that caused the peculiar horror I still have of the sight of dying insects or whether that fear already existed and so made the flypaper terrible I have no way of knowing). Partly though because Musil takes something as insignificant as the death of a fly and by not looking away invests it with majesty and with a more universal significance.

Here’s Flypaper’s first paragraph, after which it gets much more disquieting:

Tangle-foot flypaper is approximately fourteen inches long and eight inches wide; it is coated with a yellow poison paste and comes from Canada. When a fly lands on it – not so eagerly, more out of convention, because so many others are already there – it gets stuck at first by only the outermost joints of all its legs. A very quiet, disconcerting sensation, as though while walking in the dark we were to step on something with our naked soles, nothing more than a soft, warm unavoidable obstruction, and yet something into which little by little the awesome human essence flows, recognised as a hand that just happens to be lying there, and with five ever more decipherable fingers holds us tight.

Musil then explores the flies ever tiring attempts to free themselves, each miring them more firmly to the paper. He talks of moments of furious struggle, of sudden exhaustion, of the slow despair and futility of a fight against inevitable disability (as wings and limbs become stuck fast) and death.

There is real empathy here, and it is the empathy which makes it so awful. The next, Monkey Island, examines a small island in the heart of Rome. A wide and deep ditch separates the island from the land around it, and on it is a tree and a colony of monkeys none of whom can quite jump or climb that ditch.

This then is the monkeys’ kingdom. Musil’s gaze sweeps over it, from the strongest monkeys who form the royal family of the island to the outcasts who live within the ditch itself. It is a microcosm of us, a point Musil has no need to underline but which cannot be avoided as he shows the social and literal gulf dividing those monkeys who have from those who feed from fallen crumbs.

I won’t describe each essay. They are superbly written. Some, like those first two, draw out uncomfortable truths about our own existence. Some, such as The Painstpreader or It’s Lovely Here are satires, of artistic mediocrity on the one hand and of tourists’ desire to encounter “something that is acknowledged by experts as beautiful” on the other.

The briefest piece, titled Sarcophagus Cover, is a touching description of two ancient Roman sarcophagi that have on them a couple still gazing affectionately at each other through the long centuries. The last, The Blackbird, is a sort of fable different in nature from all that has gone before. Not so much an essay as an example of his fiction, but no less finely crafted. Musil has range.

This next quote is an entire piece, albeit a very short one. I hesitated to quote it, since after discussing Flypaper and Monkey Island there’s a risk of giving the impression that Musil only focuses on the cruel. That’s not true of course. What Musil focuses on is the world.

Fishermen on the Baltic

On the beach they’ve dug out a little pit with their hands, and from a sack of black earth they’re pouring in fat earthworms, the loose black earth and the mass of worms make for an obscure, moldy, enticing ugliness in the clean white sand. Beside this they place a very tidy looking wooden chest. It looks like a long, not particularly wide drawer or counting board, and is full of clean yarn; and on the other side of the pit another such, but empty, drawer is placed.

The hundred hooks attached to the yarn in the one drawer are neatly arranged on the end of a small iron pole and are now being unfastened one after the other and laid in the empty drawer, the bottom of which is filled with nothing but clean wet sand. A very tidy operation. In the meantime, however, four long, lean and strong hands oversee the process as carefully as nurses to make sure that each hook gets a worm.

The men who do this crouch two by two on knees and heels, with mighty, bony backs, long, kindly faces, and pipes in their mouths. They exchange incomprehensible words that flow forth as softly as the motion of their hands. One of them takes up a fat earthworm with two fingers, tears it into three pieces with the same two fingers of the other hand, as easily and exactly as a shoemaker snips off the paper band after he’s taken the measurement; the other one then presses these squirming pieces calmly and carefully onto each hook. This having been accomplished, the worms are then doused with water and laid in neat, little beds, one next to the other, in the drawer with the soft sand, where they can die without immediately losing their freshness.

It is a quiet, delicate activity, whereby the coarse fishermen’s fingers step softly as on tiptoes. You have to pay close attention. In fair weather the dark blue sky arches above, and the seagulls circle high over the land like white swallows.

The phrases there. “A very tidy operation.” The fishermen with their “kindly faces” impaling the worms. The transition from fat life to “squirming pieces” and the tidy convenience of the sand-filled drawers. The fingers that “step softly as on tiptoes”. Marvellous imagery culminating in that final vision of freedom and beauty and utter indifference. To the fishermen the worms are no different to the hooks or the drawers; the gulls are part of their scenery, as they are to the gulls.

I’ve not commented on the translation. Obviously I’m not familiar enough with German to read the original (or I would have), so I can’t say how faithful this is. I can’t say that of any translation really. Still, the language is spare and precise and beautiful and I can’t believe but that Wortsman has done an excellent job here.

The point, as I understand it anyway, of the Penguin pocket editions is to tempt readers to try new writers. For me it’s worked. I’ve tried Musil, who I knew about but was daunted by, and I’m no longer daunted. I plan now to pick up a copy of his short novel The Confusions of Young Torless and that going well I think The Man Without Qualities is looking a lot more enticing than it once did. Well done Penguin.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Central European fiction, Fueilletons, German, Modernist fiction, Musil, Robert