Category Archives: Personal canon

Dying

Dying, by Arthur Schnitzler

I’ve read two Arthur Schnitzler’s now, first his 1924 novella Fraülein Else and now his earlier 1895 novella Dying. Having read both, I’ve become something of a fan.

I wrote up Fraülein Else here, it is an extraordinary novella that pulls off the difficult trick of being written entirely in the form of a teenage girl’s stream of consciousness when she is faced with a terrible dilemma. It’s a remarkable book. Dying, written 29 years earlier, for me doesn’t have quite the sheer wow factor Fraülein Else did (which was partly a result of the sheer technical skill that later work showed), but it too is remarkable.

Dying is the story of two lovers, Felix and Marie, both young and both passionate about each other. As it opens, Marie is meeting Felix for the evening and finds him distracted and upset, he reveals that he has been diagnosed as having less than a year to live, that he will in fact be dead by next Spring. Marie, devastated, swears to die with him, a promise that will become less romantic and more burdensome as the year continues. Will she keep to her promise, will he hold her to it? Those questions add drama throughout, but the real tension comes from the ebb and flow of emotions, the strains Felix’s approaching death puts upon them, the sheer horror of their situation.

Here, Felix tries to get Marie to understand his news, the reality of his situation:

“I know it’s hard to believe, darling. At this moment I don’t believe it myself. It’s hard to grasp, isn’t it? Just think, here I am walking along beside you, speaking words out loud, words that you can hear, and in a year I’ll be lying cold in the ground, perhaps already rotting away.”
“Stop it, stop it!”
“And you’ll look as you do now. Just as you look now, perhaps still a little pale from weeping, but then another evening will come, and many more, and summer and autumn and winter, and another spring – and then I’ll have been dead and cold for a year – what’s the matter?”
She was weeping bitterly. Her tears ran over her cheeks and down her throat.
A despairing smile passed over his face, and he whispered through his teeth, hoarsely, harshly, “I’m sorry.”

At the outset, Felix sets out to be stoical, resigned, philosophical about his fate. He intends to leave a will that will be a “quiet, smiling farewell to the world over which he had triumphed.” Triumphed, because he believes that by the end he will have learned to despise it, to have become detached, to accept the inevitable with an equanimity which the common run of man never achieves.

At the outset, of course, death is still a year away and his health still good.

As the novella continues, Marie tries to bolster Felix’s spirits, and to deny the facts of the situation. She looks desperately for each of his better days, hailing it as the start of a recovery and downplaying the days where he is weaker. She seizes on any sign of hope. Felix himself tries to disdain hope, to face up to the facts, but even so fear smuggles hope in however much he knows it no longer has any place in his life.

Much of the novella deals in the play of the pair’s emotions: Marie’s desire to sacrifice herself to ensuring Felix’s survival, her fears for him, her growing concern that he may hold her to her promise and her own shame that she might not wish to be held to it, her increasing wish to just go outside and live; Felix’s desire to die with pride and dignity, to die in accordance with his sense of himself as a sophisticated and cultured man, his increasing dependence on Marie, his jealousy of her continuing health, his growing resentment of how much he must rely on her and most of all his raw anger that she will outlive him so that her mere presence becomes a constant reminder of his own extinction. Felix’s attitude to death changes as it comes nearer, it is one thing to be phlegmatic when oblivion is yet a year away, as it grows closer however the terror becomes overwhelming:

“I’ll tell you straight out, people falsify the psychology of the dying, because all the great figures of world history of whose deaths we know anything felt duty-bound to put on an act for posterity. And what about me? What am I doing? If I talk calmly to you about all kinds of things that are no longer anything to do with me, what exactly am I doing?”

“I too feel in duty bound to pretend, whereas in reality I’m prey to a boundless, raging fear of a kind that healthy people can’t imagine. They’re all afraid, and that includes the heroes and the philosophers, only they make the best play-actors.”

Part of the sheer power of this novella is its portrait of the fear of death. Not just the natural and general fear that most of us have as a matter of course, few of us want to die. Rather, Schnitzler shows the specific yet inchoate fear of death held by those for whom it is no longer an abstract, no longer something to happen on some distant future day, those for whom it is now to come within the foreseeable future.

Also powerful is the increasing hopelessness Felix feels, the pointlessness. Felix is a writer, but why write when he will likely never finish what he is writing? Why read the news, when he will not be there to see how it turns out? As he comes to question, if you are dying, why do anything at all?

As time continues, everything becomes a mockery: an evening concert is a reminder that those attending will continue while Felix will not; an evening stroll is filled with crowds of the oblivious living: and as Felix’s health declines Marie of course remains a vibrant and healthy young woman, with her own desires however she may try to suppress them:

I shan’t of course speak to how it resolves, to what choices are made at the end or their outcomes, but it is no spoiler to say that as time continues the pair go through the full gamut of emotion, including of course for Marie the (to her) shameful desire to live again, to go out and dance and see crowds and not to spend her days ministering at a sickbed. At the same time, Marie is sick with grief, worn down literally by care:

She felt miserable, unutterably miserable. She would have liked to shed tears, but her emotion had something dry and withered about it. There was no comfort to be found anywhere, even in her own pain. And she envied him, for the tears flowing down his cheeks.

The novella captures brilliantly the guilt and conflict Marie feels, because she does love Felix, she does genuinely want to care for him, but it is a terrible burden and part of her cannot help but wish to have her life back, preferably with him but if that cannot be then without:

If only it were over! Yes, over! She no longer shrank from the idea, and those treacherous words that made hypocritical pity out of the most dreadful wish of all came to her mind. “If only he were at peace!”

Dying deals in issues which are genuinely painful. Felix and Marie’s predicament is a ghastly one, made all the worse for its credibility. It is in that sense not an easy read, though in quite another sense it is an effortless read being beautifully written and, in the Pushkin Press edition I enjoyed, being ably translated by Anthea Bell.

Dying has also been the subject of excellent writeups by John Self of the Asylum here and by Lizzy Siddal of Lizzy’s Literary Life here. Lizzy also wrote up Fraulein Else at that same link. Lizzy criticises Dying for “a tendency to melodrama in some places”, which is probably fair though I think it’s only a slight flaw. She notes too though that it is never maudlin, a point I firmly agree with.

For me, Dying was a remarkable work by a novelist with genuine insight into some of the most painful emotions any human being might ever have to experience, the loss of a loved one, the shame and guilt when love is not enough to make things better, our fear of letting each other down, our fear of losing each other, the anger and pettiness that gets between us, the horror of death, the unthinking joy of life.

Dying is a novel about a terminally ill Nineteenth century Viennese man, put like that it sounds a fairly unappealing read. Pushkin Press have though, as they’ve had with other titles, my thanks for putting this back into print as it’s a work that for all the specificity of its setting and characters is human and universal. I look forward to buying and reading more of Schnitzler’s work, and of his contemporaries, and I’m delighted that Pushkin Press is bringing these writers to our attention.

Dying

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Filed under 19th Century, Austro-Hungarian fiction, Bell, Anthea (translator), Central European fiction, German, Modernist fiction, Novellas, Personal canon, Schnitzler, Arthur

a salad of despair

Thomas Pynchon has a reputation as a challenging author. I’ve just finished The Crying of Lot 49, he lives up to that reputation. This is an extraordinary work, not one that apparently Pynchon himself rates but one that I definifely do. All that said, it’s complex stuff.

Pynchon is most famous for his third novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, a book with such impact that Pynchon’s career is now divided into pre- and post-Gravity’s Rainbow phases. By all accounts, Gravity’s Rainbow is a masterpiece, a triumph of 20th Century literature, it’s also though famously dense and rather long and so perhaps a slightly amibitious entry point to Pynchon’s work. The Crying of Lot 49, by contrast, is around 110 pages or so and is thought to be one of his most straightforward and linear novels. Straightforward is relative, it is superb, but having finished it I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the plot was, or even whether there was a plot.

On the surface, it’s the tale of how Oedipa Maas is appointed executor to the estate of a rich ex-boyfriend, and as a result comes to uncover an ancient conspiracy dedicated to creating a rival postal service to the US Government one. It’s not that simple though, there may not be a conspiracy, if there is it may not be that one, there may be several conspiracies, there may just be random noise, throughout this novel meaning is always just out of grasp, never quite realisable, perhaps not there at all.

Here’s the first sentence of the novel:

One Summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsh in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or the supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous enough and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.

That’s a very characteristic sentence, dense yet clearly written and already not wholly serious. It also contains what is usually a pet hate of mine, blatantly incredible character names. Obviously in real life few people have names like Pierce Inverarity or Oedipa Maas. Generally, when novelists seek to give characters cutesy names I find it alienating, it reminds me I’m reading a book. Waugh’s Scoop was in large part ruined for me by the obviousness of the silly names given to the newspapers in it.

Here, that didn’t happen, and the reason it didn’t is that the names have a purpose. Before I get to that though, here’s a few more, a sample of some of the characters encountered in this short work:

Wendell ‘Mucho’ Maas, Dr Hilarius, Metzger who used to be a child actor named Baby Igor and who is now a lawyer (and whose life story is being made by a former lawyer who is now an actor named Manny Di Presso), Mike Fallopian, Randolph Driblette, Genghis Cohen. There’s also the wonderfully named law firm of Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus, of Los Angeles.

A lot of these names are allusions, though not necessarily ones with any actual significance to the text. Some, Genghis Cohen, are outright jokes, but most of them almost mean something. Oedipa Maas, Manny Di Presso, the references are obvious, but meaningless. Like so much of this novel, they tremble on the brink of significance, they appear important, but it’s really not clear that they mean anything at all.

As Oedipa starts to investigate Pierce’s affairs, she becomes involved with co-executor Metzger, and becomes aware of what may be a conspiracy running right through Southern California involving a centuries-old organisation dedicated to alternate means of mail delivery. She goes to see a newly staged Jacobean revenge play, which contains within it curious references to the contemporary conspiracy, she visits an inventor of a perpetual motion machine that doesn’t appear to work, and becomes alert to the symbols of the conspiracy – a line drawing of a muted trumpet, forged stamps each containing intentional and often disturbing minor errors.

Her psychiatrist, Dr Hilarius, presses her to take part in a new study using LSD for therapeutic purposes, her husband is still scarred by the psychological trauma of having worked on a used car lot and now works as a DJ but is having a crisis of faith in that calling, Manny Di Presso is being hunted by one of his clients, the hotel Oedipa books into is used for practice sessions by a mock-English band called The Paranoids who try to spy on her in the mistaken belief she is having bizarrely kinky sex. Paranoia then is everywhere, paranoia is at the heart of the novel.

Pynchon creates here a powerful sense of place, even though the place much of the story occurs in is made up, San Narcisco:

San Narcisco lay farther south, near LA. Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a group of concepts – census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access routes to its own freeway.

Throughout the novel there is a sense of 1960s Southern California, a mix of drugs, capitalism, creativity and urban sprawl. The weird is everywhere, there is a bar that only play electronic music (which to me is a form of music that originates in Germany and Britain in the late 1970s, I don’t really know what it meant back then), with live nights on Saturdays. The defence contractor Yoyodyne has its offices here, where the staff sing company songs but use their own private mail network (separate to the conspiracy) to pass contentless messages, sent to each other only to ensure the private mail network has something to deliver. There is a company that makes bone-dust cigarette filters from the bones of dead GIs. It is an an insane melting-pot of innovation and horror.

Among the chaos of Southern California, Oedipa begins to find meaning in her investigation of the conspiracy, assuming it exists that is. Is she herself descending into paranoia? Is it all some post-mortem joke of Pierce Inverarity’s? Is it in fact an ancient conspiracy, albeit a singularly pointless one? The search for meaning creates meaning, we find patterns in the noise, but whether any of it exists outside our own heads is unclear, perhaps unknowable.

And that is a large part of what this is about, for me anyway. It is a vision of paranoia, of the terror of a world in which everything makes sense, we create conspiracies though because even that is preferable to a world where things make no sense at all. They are out to get you, but at least they care enough to try. As reader, we are like Oedipa, looking for meaning in a mass of references, allusions, apparent themes, we draw conclusions on what it’s all about but who knows if we’re right? Perhaps we just want it to be about something, so we find things within it that support our expectations.

Along the way, there is some genuinely very funny comedy here, it contains for example one of the funniest, and stupidest, sex scenes I’ve ever read and there are some marvellous throwaway lines:

Despair came over her, as it will when nobody around has any sexual relevance to you.

There is also a certain beauty to the whole thing, wonderful and disturbing imagery, an exuberance bursting through the pages which seems uncontrolled but which is in fact expertly crafted. At one point Oedipa finds herself staying in a hotel which is also hosting a conference for deaf-mutes:

Back in the hotel she found the lobby full of deaf-mute delegates in party hats, copied in crêpe paper after the fur Chinese communist jobs made popular during the Korean conflict. They were every one of them drunk, and a few of the men grabbed her, thinking to bring her along to a party in the grand ballroom. She tried to struggle out of the silent, gesturing swarm, but was too weak. Her legs ached, her mouth tasted horrible.They swept her on into the ballroom, where she was seized about the waist by a handsome young man in a Harris tweed coat and waltzed round and round, through the rustling, shuffling hush, under a great unlit chandelier. Each couple on the floor danced whatever was in the fellow’s head: tango, two-step, bossa nova, slop. But how long, Oedipa thought, could it go on before collisions became a serious hindrance? There would have to be collisions. The only alternative was some unthinkable order of music, many rhythms, all keys at once, a choreography in which each couple meshed easy, predestined. Something they all heard with an extra sense atrophied in herself. She followed her partner’s lead, limp in the young mute’s clasp, waiting for the collisions to begin. But none came. She was danced for half an hour before, by mysterious consensus, everybody took a break, without having felt any touch but the touch of her partner.

Apart from the beauty and strangeness of the imagery in that passage, I can’t help but see it as an image of America itself. Everyone dancing to their own dream, somehow not colliding and the whole thing unexpectedly working. There is something both frightening and magnificent in it, it’s not the only vision of America out there (I don’t myself buy into American exceptionalism), but it’s a vision and in some ways an optimistic one. And if America is anything, it’s optimistic.

So, there are my thoughts, for now anyway. Whole books have been written on The Crying of Lot 49, books longer than the novel itself. There are essay collections about it, teacher study guides, any blog post is but a thin scraping at the surface. This book is packed with references, to Nabokov, to the Beatles, to all sorts of things, most of which I probably didn’t get. Most of which I doubt anyone gets, though we’d each likely get different ones.

I’ve not even touched here on many possible core issues of the book, communications theory and failures of communication, consumed experience, the blurring of the self, entropy, I could write 10,000 words and still not manage all of it. For me though, it connected most as a story of the search for meaning and the (perhaps?) creation of it where we don’t find it – the imposition of patterns on random data. Other readers could, many have, drawn quite different conclusions.

It’s an extraordinary achievement.

The Crying of Lot 49

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Filed under California, Novellas, Personal canon, Pynchon, Thomas

The air is like champagne

Fraülein Else, by Arthur Schnitzler

Fraülein Else is a 1924 novella by Austro-Hungarian author Arthur Schnitzler, now perhaps most famous for writing the work that would eventually become Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut.

But let’s not hold that against him (actually, I think highly of Eyes Wide Shut, but popular opinion has I think moved against me on that one), Fraülein Else is a complex psychological novella written almost entirely in the form of the stream of consciousness of a young woman of respectable family staying with her aunt at a fashionable spa. In just over a hundred pages (and small pages at that) it manages to be as gripping as many thrillers, while having much to say about sexuality, the brutal realities underpinning polite society and loss of innocence (or worse, realisation that innocence was only ever a comfortable illusion).

I read the excellent F.H. Lyon translation of Fraülein Else, published by Pushkin Press. For those unfamiliar with them, Pushkin Press is a publisher of literary fiction with particular strengths in European literature (especially, from what I have seen, mitteleuropean literature). My wife, Emma, has read a number of works published by Pushkin Press and the general quality of their choices is very high. The books are published on a smaller than usual format, clearly printed on high quality paper, and although paperback with slightly stiffish card covers. Physically, they are very attractive, easy to hold and a pleasure to read. Even if ebooks do become the norm, there will I think always be a place for books as well produced as the Pushkin range.

Going back to Fraülein Else, the essence of the story is a simple one. Else is a young woman of good but not aristocratic Viennese family, her father is a lawyer and a successful one, she is on holiday with her aunt and attractive cousin at a spa when she receives a telegram from her mother, informing her that her father faces ruin and that only 30,000 gulden can save him. Her father has already approached all those who have lent him money in the past, all that is left therefore is for Else to approach family acquaintance Herr von Dorsday who is also on holiday at the spa and ask him for the money.

We soon learn that Else’s family is not as good as it appears, her father has embezzled trust funds and this is not his first brush with possible ruin, he has needed saving before. Else has holes in her stockings that she hopes will not be noticed and, although it is clear until now she has avoided thinking too much on the subject, the telegram leaves her unable to avoid the truth that her family is not so respectable after all.

Else approaches Herr von Dorsday. In return for the money he requires that she pay an improper price. For the course of an evening Else thinks on whether or not to pay that price, and on what her alternatives may be.

And that, in its most simplistic essence, is the book. It is the stream of consciousness of a young woman, forced by family exigency to consider matters she would prefer not to and exposed to the truth that even in polite society the good manners on show merely conceal the reality that everything still has its price. Else’s innocence is lost merely by the fact of the request from her mother to approach Herr von Dorsday, his request simply cements her understanding of the crude nature of the world she inhabits, a world that until then had seemed much prettier.

The drama of the novel comes from Else’s consideration of what to do, for much of it I was genuinely uncertain how events would play out and there is a real tension as one watches her thoughts flow to acquiescence, to rebellion, to escapist fantasy, to acquiescence again and so on. More powerful though is the character of Else herself, beautifully realised (as it must be, for the novel to work at all). Schnitzel shows Else’s initial innocence, its later resurgence as she dreams of ways out of her dilemma, he shows too her new understanding of her world – which seems always to have been present but heretofore unacknowledged, her despair and her savage hope. Schnitzel paints a subtle and wholly persuasive psychological portrait which made me empathise with Else and be fascinated by her situation.

Because it’s essentially an unbroken stream of consciousness (though far easier to read than that suggests), it’s difficult to pull out particularly representative quotes. I’ve tried, with the following two passages, to give some sense though of Else’s internal monologue and the style of the work. In this first excerpt she has received the telegram and is considering how to approach Herr von Dorsday:

I must turn on the light. It’s getting chilly. Shut the window. Blind down? No need. There’s no one standing on the mountain over there with a telescope. Worse luck … ‘I’ve just had a letter, Herr von Dorsday’ … Perhaps it’ll be better to do it after dinner. One is in a lighter mood then. Dorsday will be too … I might drink a glass of wine first. But I should certainly enjoy my dinner more if I finished the whole business first. Pudding à la merveille, fromage et fruits divers. But what if Herr von Dorsday should say no? Or if he’s downright impudent? Oh no; no one has ever been impudent to me. Well, Lieutenant Brandel was, but he didn’t mean any harm. I’ve got a bit thinner again. It suits me … The twilight stares in. It stares in like a ghost – like a hundred ghosts. Ghosts are rising out of my meadow. How far off is Vienna? How long have I been away? How alone I am! I haven’t a girl friend, nor a man friend. Where are they all? Whom shall I marry? Who would marry a swindler’s daughter? …

In this second excerpt, Else is returning to the hotel after thinking matters over for some time:

He’s waiting. Herr von Dorsday is waiting. No, I won’t see him. I can’t see him any more. I won’t see anyone any more. I won’t go back to the hotel, I won’t go home. I won’t go to Vienna, I won’t go to anybody, to anyone at all, not to Father, not to Mother, not to Rudi, not to Fred, not to Bertha, not to Aunt Irene! She’s the best of them, she’d understand everything. But I’ve nothing more to do with her or with anybody else. If I were a magician, I’d be in quite another part of the world. On some splendid ship in the Mediterranean, but not alone. With Paul, perhaps. Yes, I can imagine that quite easily. Or I’d live in a villa by the sea and we’d lie on the marble steps that run down into the water, and he’d hold me tight in his arms and bite my lips, as Alfred did at the piano two years ago, the impudent wretch. No, I’d lie alone on the marble steps by the sea and wait. And at last a man would come, or several men, and I’d choose one, and the others whom I’d rejected would throw themselves into the sea in despair. Or they’d have to be patient and wait til next day. Oh, what a delicious life it would be!

Part of what impresses me here, is how easily Schnitzel captures Else’s immaturity, her flights of childish fancy, but intercuts them with her dawning realisation of her actual situation. Schnitzel is also excellent in a number of passages in bringing out Else’s own burgeoning sexuality, suppressed by societal dictat but by virtue of this situation brought (only part unwillingly) to the forefront of her mind.

Other characters in the work are seen largely through Else’s eyes, the few times Else speaks to someone during the evening it is presented in italics and rarely are the words of the conversation on their own very revealing. Despite this, Schnitzler manages to capture Else’s aunt’s concern for propriety, Herr von Dorsday’s self-interest,self-regard and essential hypocricy, the tension between Cissy Mohr – possible lover to Else’s cousin Paul – and Else herself. We see only through Else’s eyes, and she does not appear a particularly unreliable narrator, but because suddenly she sees much so too do we and the work is full of small psychological truths.

An irony with Fraülein Else, compared to other works I have written about here, is in one sense I have relatively little to say about it. It is well written, shows great insight and is both an enjoyable and rewarding read. Pushkin Press have, once again, brought to English readers a novelist whose works might otherwise go ignored, and certainly without them I wouldn’t have read this particular work. The plot however is so simple, the essential dilemma faced by Else so easily grasped, the truth of her society so depressingly familiar, that it is hard to write at length about it. I am left then saying that this is a fine piece of Austro-Hungarian literature of a sort too little now recognised, and that I am extremely grateful to Pushkin Press for publishing this translation and giving me access to it.

Fraülein Else (also available directly from the publisher here). I note that John Self over at Asylum has written up a different Arthur Schnitzel here, which may also be of interest.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Central European fiction, German, Modernist fiction, Novellas, Personal canon, Schnitzler, Arthur

Saying true things on half a page

What I Saw, by Joseph Roth

What I saw is a collection of short pieces of journalism by Joseph Roth, translated and ably introduced by Michael Hofmann, and containing Roth’s experiences of Berlin between the years 1920 and 1933 – the years of the Weimar Republic. The pieces are typically between three and five pages long, often focussing on one location or experience and drawing from it a short but memorable series of observations. It is a form of journalism not uncommon in Continental Europe, but is I think rarer in the English speaking world.

Short pieces of this kind are known as feuilletons. Roth was a master of the form, although famous now for his work as an author (I have only read his Hotel Savoy, which I recommend without reservation), Roth was a lifelong journalist with a passionate belief in the importance of newspapers. The feuilleton is a short piece, but it is not a slight piece. It is intended to amuse, but also to provoke and to enlighten. For Roth, the feuilleton was serious journalism, for all the subjects might be comic or mundane. As Roth himself said:

I don’t write “witty columns.” I paint the portrait of an age. That’s what great newspapers are there for. I’m not a reporter, I’m a journalist. I’m not an editorial writer, I’m a poet.

Today probably the most famous writer of feuilletons is Umberto Eco, who has a fondness for the form (and a talent for them, his collection How to Travel with a Salmon is essentially a collection of feuilletons for example).

Roth moved to Berlin in 1920, then to Paris in 1925, but continued to spend time in Berlin until 1933, when Hitler took power. His feuilletons of this period, collected in this volume and arranged by subject matter rather than chronology, capture then the Germany of the Weimar years, a Germany that he knew was fragile and beset with difficulties but one where the horrors of the future were of course yet unknown.

The pleasures of this collection lie in Roth’s skill as a writer, and in his keen observational eye which brings to life matters as disparate as night shelters for the homeless, department stores, a cafe frequented by intellectuals, Jewish refugees from the East, photographs of the city’s dead at police headquarters and much more. Roth was catholic in his choices of subject matter, recording the city and the lives of those within it, this collection is a fascinating record of what it was like to live in the Berlin of those times.

In the course of his columns, Roth takes us through the full range of Berliner life, including here on a journey through its late night dives:

Kirsch the burglar and Tegeler Willy and Apache Fritz are sitting at a table together, while the policeman stands and watches. At the bottom of the well-like passage , Elli’s sitting on someone’s lap, because she’s got new stockings today. If you’ve got new stockings, you’ve got to show them off. Her little blonde ringlets are combed down into her face. They hang there a little stiffly, like starched ruffles. I really think she wants nothing more from the world than to have half a kümmel inside her, and the knowledge that there is another half to come. Let her have it, please. My friend buys her some bread and butter. Now I think she’s happy beyond dreams. New stockings, a kümmel and some bread and butter. It really is an angels’ palace.

And later, in the same article:

Max says to the man in the cap: ‘I need a woman and a claw-jimmy.’ The claw-jimmy won’t be a problem. As early as tomorrow. But a woman – apparently that’s not so easy.
In case of any misunderstanding, Erna screeches: ‘I’m spoken for!’ Erna loves Franz. Erna got a gold filling a week ago, and she hasn’t stopped laughing since. She can’t just let her mouth hang open like a hungry crocodile’s! Oh, no! So if the world is to see her gold filling, Erna will just have to laugh. Erna laughs at the saddest things.

Here Roth brings not only the feel of the dives to life, but also their inhabitants, their small dreams, their vulgarity but also their humanity. Roth is a compassionate writer, it is only the harbingers of the new regime for whom he has no sympathy. Here he describes a bidder at an auction, a man who nearly comes to blows with a rival over a wood carving and a copper vat:

The man is not buying out of sentiment. He is, rather, an exemplar of the new times, in a short fur coat, cigar jammed between metal teeth, all calm and calculating: a schemer, a man working his percentages, confident of victory. God knows what his hands will make of those pots and plates and carvings, how the horrid monsters will change in his storehouses. Twentieth-century man can turn ducats out of all sorts of trash.

What is interesting with Roth’s journalism, is that although it is often full of humour, of warmth and affection, it is not frivolous. Roth was, I understand, highly paid for his pieces, certainly he himself took them very seriously (as the quote I opened this piece shows). His intent is not merely to amuse, but also to show us what he sees around him, to let us see through his eyes. As such, the humanity of his gaze is itself a part of his journalism. For Roth, journalism is not necessarily about objectivity, it is about reportage, it is about sharing a personal understanding so that we might understand too.

Frequently, his pieces while on the surface merely descriptive, contain on closer review social comment. In one piece he describes a park, talking of its benches, trees, park wardens. He describes those who use the park, few in the morning as the locals are at work then – just a handful of unemployed men, later some teenage girls, and come three in the afternoon mothers with their small children who play in the sand. It is a piece of careful observation of the inconsequential, and then we come to the following passage:

Even in Schiller Park the leaves drop from the trees in a timely fashion, in the autumn, but they are not left to lie. In the Tiergarten, for instance, a melancholy walker can positively wade through foliage. This sets up a highly poetic rustling and fills the spirit with mournfullness and a sense of transience. But in Schiller Park, the locals from the working-class district of Wedding gather up the leaves every evening, and dry them, and use them for winter fuel.
Rustling is strictly a luxury, as if poetry without central heating were a luxury.

Roth is still describing the park, the gathering of the leaves is one of the activities that occurs there, as is the children’s play or the habits of the park wardens. That said, Roth is also commenting on how poverty can destroy the sense of the aesthetic, how the appreciation of beauty can itself simply be another luxury. Roth is making an important point, in an article less than three pages long. That, in essence, is the point of a feuilleton. Similarly, in a piece on the Berlin pleasure industry in which Roth describes the various nightclubs of the city, he moves on to discuss the commercialisation of entertainment:

Yes, I had the sensation that somewhere there was some merciless force or organization — a commercial undertaking, of course — that implacably forced the whole population to nocturnal pleasures, as it were belabouring it with joys, while husbanding the raw material with extreme care, down to the very last scrap. Saxophonists who have lost their wind playing in the classy bars of the West End carry on playing to the middle class till they lose their hearing, and then they wind up in proletarian dives. Dancers start out reed thin, to slip slowly, in the fullness of time and their bodies, in accordance with a strict plan, down from the zones of prodigality to those where people keep count, to the third where people save their pennies, to the very lowest finally, where the expenditure of money is either an accident or a calamity.

Again, we move from the merely descriptive, to an analysis of wider forces, but we never leave behind how those forces impact on the lives of the people of Berlin.

Roth does not simply deal in the apparently trivial, he also engages with the Republic itself and with politics (though he treats politics with no more seriousness, nor any less, than he does the discussion of a railway junction). Roth writes pieces discussing how the city comes to a stop for the death of the president in 1925, or on the empty slogans of election campaigns. He satirises modernity, though too he celebrates it and sees something wonderful in human progress. This seems like an ambivalence, but rather I think he is a supporter of modernity when it is in service of human values, and suspicious of it when it seems to traduce those values.

The lives of our fathers’ generation were lived in such poor taste. But their children and grandchildren live in stupendously bracing conditions. Not even nature itself affords as much light and air as some of the new dwellings. For a bedroom there is a glass-walled studio. They dine in gyms. Rooms you would have sworn were tennis courts serve them as libraries and music rooms. Water whooshes in thousands of pipes. They do Swedish exercises in vast aquariums. They relax after meals on white operating tables. And in the evening concealed fluorescent tubes light the room so evenly that it is no longer illuminated, it is a pool of luminosity.

And in another piece:

Because the invention of the airplane was not a declaration of war on winged creatures, quite the opposite: It was fraternisation between man and eagle. The earliest miner did not barge his way sacrilegiously into the depths, he returned home to the womb of Mother Nature. What may have the appearance of a war against the elements is in fact union with the elements; man and nature becoming one. There is exhilaration in skyscrapers as much as on mountaintops.

Roth then is a satirist, but he is also something of a poet. Above all these things, however, he is a journalist and it is as that I think he would most have wished to be remembered.

The final piece in the collection is very different to what has gone before. Written in 1933 and titled “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind” it is a furious piece written in reaction to book burnings carried out by the newly elected Third Reich. Roth writes proudly that German writers of Jewish descent have been defeated, and with them the “banner of the European mind”. Proudly, because with defeat comes no possibilty of collaboration, proudly because what they stood for was the European ideal, the ideal of the intellectual and that the life of the mind has meaning. For Roth, the Nazis are profoundly anti-intellectual, and in expelling the Jews they expel the best of German culture for German intellectual life has been in large part the product of its Jews.

For Roth then, the coming of the Nazis is a defeat for civilisation itself, the German Jew is inseparable from German culture, and in their quest for a pure German nation the Nazis are destroying that which made Germany a country worth living in. His piece is filled with horrifically prescient imagery, poison gas is used repeatedly as a metaphor, and it contains a roll call of defeated authors, poets and playwrights “fallen on the intellect’s field of honour. All of them, in the eyes of the German murderer and arsonist, share a common fault: their Jewish blood and their European intellect.” For Roth, the Nazis were not simply attacking the Jews, they were attacking the very principles that underpin European culture itself. Roth sees no possibilty of coexistence, no means by which the intellectual and the Nazi can live together, their arrival means the death of all he stands for as a Jewish intellectual:

It is only the feeblest dilettantes who flourish in the swastika’s shadow, in the bloody glow cast by the ash heaps in which we are consumed….

Roth, more than most, understood that when you begin by burning books you end by burning people. The final essay in this collection is a passionate defence of the importance of the intellectual, of the European ideal, of the Jew as a central component of European civilisation.

Looking above, I have quoted Roth a great deal in this piece, it’s hard not to, he’s a gifted writer and eminently quotable. In keeping with that, I end with a final quote on the role of the Jew in Germany, from The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind:

Many of us served in the war, many died. We have written for Germany, we have died for Germany. We have spilled our blood for Germany in two ways: the blood that runs in our veins, and the blood with which we write. We have sung Germany, the real Germany! And that is why today we are being burned by Germany!

What I Saw

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Filed under Berlin, Hofmann, Michael (translator), Personal canon, Reportage, Roth, Joseph

God, it’s funny, being a woman!

Good Morning, Midnight, by Jean Rhys

Actually, going on Jean Rhys’s 1939 novel Good Morning, Midnight, it’s not funny at all.

Jean Rhys is a new writer to me, who I discovered through John Self’s blog The Asylum. John recommended this work as a good place to start with her work, for which he has my thanks.

Good Morning, Midnight was Rhys’s fourth novel and fifth published work (her first work was a short story collection), and in common with much of her early work is an examination of a woman struggling with depression and living a marginalised and alienated existence. I read the Penguin Modern Classics edition, which comes with an excellent introduction by AL Kennedy which for me helped illuminate the book without overcrowding it. Indeed, so good was the introduction, I now find myself more interested in reading Kennedy’s own work.

Good Morning, Midnight has only one fully realised character, it’s narrator Sophia Jansen. Jansen is a woman conscious that she is no longer young, but not yet old, who has come to Paris after a gap of some years. She is depressed, cries in public, drinks more than is socially acceptable. She is intensely fragile, hugely conscious of the judgements of strangers and both lonely and afraid of company. All other characters in the novel are seen through her eyes, and since she is mired in her own suffering and often ill-disposed to company, we see them only through a glass, darkly.

The opening paragraph of the novel sets the tone:

‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’
There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur. The wash-basic is shut off by a curtain. It is a large room, the smell of cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.
I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.

We are in the Europe of seedy rooms, of the squalor not of poverty but of never quite enough (though the squalor of poverty makes an appearance too). We are in the country of those who have not quite succeeded, and who have been cast aside as superfluous to society’s needs.

The novel is largely plotless, it is written in what is essentially a stream of consciousness, and as Jansen’s attention shifts so does that of the novel so that we find ourselves dipping into incidents years past – following the chronology of emotion rather than time. Rhys is a skilled writer, and this lack of plot is never confusing and the apparent lack of structure just that, apparent only.

In large part, the novel is an exploration of the experience of depression. Thoughts often drift off into ellipses, Jansen is prone to sudden tears, to crippling self-doubt. Frequently she simply thinks, considering her life and existence in general. At times her reflections are comic, as when she imagines the unborn fighting among themselves to avoid being next in the queue for birth, more often though her thoughts are not humorous at all:

People talk about the happy life, but that’s the happy life when you don’t care any longer if you live or die. You only get there after a long time and many misfortunes. And do you think you are left there? Never.
As soon as you have reached this heaven of indifference, you are pulled out of it. From your heaven you have to go back to hell. When you are dead to the world, the world often rescues you, if only to make a figure of fun out of you.

As a depiction of depression, the work is masterly and wholly convincing. It is a short work, 159 pages in the Penguin edition, and that brevity allows an engagement with disaffection and apathy that in a longer work could risk alienating the reader. I would not call it an easy read, even so, but it is a rewarding one.

As well as an evocation of what it is to be depressed, the novel also addresses the experience of alienation. Here though, unlike the protagonists of authors such as Patrick Hamilton or Julian Maclaren-Ross, Jansen is a woman and the alienation is all the worse by reason of that. Jansen suffers not only from the stigma of insufficient money, poorly chosen relationships and drinking more than is socially accepted, but also from the shame of being a woman for whom these things are true. Society disdains the drunk, but it disdains far more the female drunk. Jansen’s position is worsened merely by reason of her gender.

Jansen moves through Paris almost as if she were a ghost, choosing bars which have few patrons, restaurants where noone will pay attention to her. She drinks, but is ashamed of doing so, seeing in the mirror her own bedraggled state and condemning herself as much as, if not more than, others do. She whiles away her days wandering the streets, avoiding meaningful contact, lost in her own private darkness.

I go into a tabac. The woman at the bar gives me one of those looks: What do you want here, you? We don’t cater for tourists here, not our clientele. … Well, dear madame, to tell you the truth, what I want here is a drink – I rather think two, perhaps three.
It is cold and dark outside, and everything has gone out of me except misery.

Jansen does meet some others during the course of the novel, two exiled Russians who treat her kindly, an artist who does likewise, these men she avoids for in her state of self-loathing she has little time for those who are kind to her. Others, a gigolo who latches on to her under the mistaken impression that she has money, she is more drawn to, destructively attracted to men who ultimately do not care and who do not treat her well. Men for her are like drink, a means to brief oblivion, both cause and reminder of her present condition.

At times, Jansen seeks to change her lot, she has her hair done, seeks a different room, buys a new dress. None of it assists, the problems are internal, she has no idea of how to be normal or happy and is in any event ambivalent about both those things and the mass of people who are examples of them. She seeks to escape her depression, but has no belief that she can, and since what she seeks to escape is inside her she has no real prospect of success in any event.

In large part then this is a novel of despair, of an intelligent woman for whom all options seem equally barren and futile, and who however she tries cannot quite make herself fit in to what is expected of her. There are signs that she has been happy in the past, but never securely and never for long.

But, after all, those were still the days when I went into a cafe to drink coffee, when I could feel gay on half a bottle of wine, when this happened and that happened.
But they never last, the golden days. And it can be sad, the sun in the afternoon, can’t it? Yes, it can be sad, the afternoon sun, sad and frightening.

Good Morning, Midnight is a skilfully written work about a painful subject matter, about hopelessness, self-destruction and crushing apathy. It is evocative, it is remarkable in its depiction of the inner life of a woman lost in depression and the hell of poor choices, it is subtle and clever and pitched at the right length not to outstay its welcome. Having read it, I likely will read more Rhys, though given the nature of her work perhaps not too soon after this one.

As with much literary fiction, Rhys stands or falls by her prose, it seems only fair then to leave her the last words as she once again captures the experience of depression more accurately than any other writer I can personally think of:

You are walking along a road peacefully. You trip. You fall into blackness. That’s the past – or perhaps the future. And you know that there is no past, no future, there is only this blackness, changing faintly, slowly, but always the same.

Good Morning, Midnight

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Filed under Modernist fiction, Paris, Personal canon, Rhys, Jean