Archive for July, 2009
Here I partake in the wonderful enterprise that is bookbabble. In episode 38 you can hear me, as I enter a discussion led by the ineffable Donny, sparkly Renée and gorgeous Gem, and dumb it down. Click here to hear someone with a truly terrible command of English stumble through awkward sentences.
Jirgl, Reinhard (1998), Abschied von den Feinden, dtv
Abschied von den Feinden (Goodbye to the Enemies), not yet translated into English, is Reinhard Jirgl’s breakthrough novel. Published in 1995, it won two of the most important German literary prizes and established its author as one of the major and original voices of contemporary German literature. His work has three distinct and important predecessors in German language literature, each of which can be held accountable for one very important aspect of Jirgl’s dark and violent work. Those three are Thomas Bernhard, Uwe Johnson and Arno Schmidt; some of them more obviously influential for Jirgl’s oeuvre than others. This is not to say that Jirgl draws only from these three sources; of course he doesn’t, a writer who wields his language as deftly and powerfully as Jirgl does often draws from a multitude of sources, and not only from German sources at that. Chief, perhaps, among the Anglo-Saxon strand of influence, for example, are William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett, but among modern writers writing in German, I would place the three aforementioned novelists at the fore. We’ll return to that. Jirgl’s themes are restricted to a few areas of interest, like German history and the violence that people assault each other with, openly or in a less open manner. His 2000 novel Die Atlantische Mauer (The Atlantic Wall) for example, contains one of the most harrowing, most well-written depictions of rape I have ever had the displeasure to read, as well as a frighteningly precise outsider’s account of the workings of a bureaucracy.
Typically for Jirgl, it’s hard to grapple with the book, Jirgl is a slippery writer, offering several conflicting angles, down to a fundamental level. Abschied von den Feinden is a book deeply and explicitly invested in history, in questions of historical continuity and guilt; at the same time, it’s a textual machine. By cutting all the names from the text, reducing every character to a function, and every function to schematics, in combination with his typography and orthography, Jirgl suggests reading the book not as a historically involved book but as a textual artifact, as a book whose only level is exclusively textual, with history as one of many other textual elements, a game, in short, without responsibilities. These two levels are not coexisting, unconnected. Jirgl’s powerful use of language, his easy access to direct, even violent expression provides a strong link. Indeed, instead of subjugating history to a literary game, to a careless romp through the shelves, Jirgl goes the other way, he reconnects textuality to the gritty outside of history; his intense fiddling with words, typography and other gadgets serves just that purpose by locating the roots of the, often disturbing, acts he describes in the language they are described in. There are a few great writers who manage to create that link, one of those is Thomas Bernhard. Like Bernhard, Jirgl is an obsessive, like Bernhard, Jirgl creates a set of signs and topics and uses his work to explore them. Bernhard’s work can be put on a chart so that we see how certain topics are refined, developed, and how this is reflected in the language he uses to do this. As I said, the same applies to Jirgl.
Abschied von den Feinden traces a few characters through just over 40 years of German history; basically, we are looking at the lifespan of the German Democratic Republic, the socialist state on German soil, taken over by the other German state, the BRD, in 1990. Jirgl focuses on two inimical brothers and a woman both brothers courted at one time. The two brothers were left by their father, who fled into West Germany. Their mother was raped by government agents who wanted information from her about her supposed contacts to the imperialistic West, her kids taken away, practically orphaned. One of the most impressive sections of the book deals with the younger brother’s time in the orphanage. These sections are constructed with the imagery and language of German modernism, most significantly perhaps that of Hans Henny Jahnn, whose inestimable influence on German post-war avant-garde prose is traceable through major writers like Rolf-Dieter Brinkmann and Hubert Fichte, both of whom, in turn, have left their marks on Jirgl’s work. This may sound like namedropping but it’s actually a desperate attempt to render understandable the insane wealth of literary sources and references that are scattered through this amazing book. His writing is such that the literate reader automatically connects words, phrases and images with other books and texts. A metaphor containing an “Aster” calls to mind Benn’s famous early poem, just as, mentioning a “Tarnkappe” (magic cap or cloak of invisibility), to me, is almost as good as mentioning Christoph Meckel’s poem with the same title, and there’s innumerable smaller and larger ways in which texts surface and add depth to the book; just as in most cases of intertextuality, Jirgl, too, can be said to outsource meanings into the web of text he places his novel in. The specific context of Benn’s early poems, “set” in Germany before the first world war, is interesting to consider in relation to the modern history Jirgl looks at. I have absolutely no idea how the references, this incessant sounding for literary depths, this integral part of the novel would make it into a translation. I guess I’m lucky to speak the language.
To return to the two brothers. After a short time in the orphanage, they are taken in and raised by a pair of refugees, who were chased from what used to be German territories in the east, as people are wont to be chased in the turmoils of history. Since all this review stuff is created from memory (and my memory is awful), I will go ahead and admit I may be mixing the brothers up with another pair of orphans, who, however, only enter the story in its fringes. Structurally, the novel utilizes repetition a lot, thus, years after the father, leaving the two brothers’ mother, another man, the older brother, leaves a mother of two boys. Just like his father, he absconds to West Germany. We do not learn much about what happens to the two brothers once they are grown up. These years are regarded, for the most part, through the eyes of the woman I just mentioned. The two brothers appear, but as minor characters in the larger context of her life. The older brother is the quiet, shadowy presence in the West, whom she writes letters, partly as a defiance of the GDR establishment, the younger brother falls in love with her in the East, sleeps with her and is generally obsessed with her. That is about all that can be said about their history. The brothers are more important as narrative elements than as actual characters. The book is told via a complex arrangement of letters and monologues, and the two brothers’ voices provide the main tonal dynamic.
As to the woman, she is the person who sets everything in motion, who links all the characters, leading the story down from the environs of Rostock, a big city on the northeast coast of Germany, to East Berlin and back again. The story starts in a small town near Rostock (a very specific historical reference suggests this), the same town where the two brothers were raised by the elderly emigrant couple. There a woman’s dead body was found and an injured man who threw himself off a cliff. In a way, Abschied von den Feinden is about retracing the steps that led to her murder, about illuminating that homicide. Since this necessitates illuminating her background, Jirgl embarks on presenting a very memorable life to us, the life of a woman who did not fit the mold of GDR society. This very specific kind of misfit is a very well known part of GDR literature and life. There are literary characters all over the map such as Christa Wolf’s “Christa” from Nachdenken über Christa T. (translated into English; my review here), and the eponymous protagonist from Brigitte Reimann’s marvelous classic Franziska Linkerhand (not translated). Life in the GDR was beset, in a very un-communist manner, by all kinds of bourgeois prudery. Former citizens of the GDR pride themselves today on the easygoing manner with nakedness, for instance, that people in that country displayed, but below that was a strong and strict bourgeois moral code, especially as far as sexuality and more specifically, as far as promiscuity on the part of women was concerned. Very un-communistic, as I said. The woman in Jirgl’s book took what she needed, she slept with many men, especially after the older brother left her, she went to dances and took men home regularly. When a rich doctor, head of a government clinic, takes her home one night, she takes up with him and becomes his wife. She uses him, not in the way that cliché would have it, a woman marrying a rich man for money to live comfortably off the rest of her (married) life. She wants to study and to have the leisure and support to do it. Within the next years she proceeds to write a dissertation; it is in that process, however, that she has a falling-out with her husband.
For various reasons that I need not disclose here, he discards her and when she protests he has her thrown into a psychiatric ward, a punishment that will follow her for the rest of her life, because once pronounced, she finds it to be impossible to cleanse her name from something like that, even if those who pronounced the judgment have been discredited since. It is a general topic in Jirgl’s work but especially in Abschied von den Feinden: once you have been pronounced as outside of reasonable society, you tend to have trouble finding your way back in. Jirgl depicts madness as a classification created as a deposit of the irregular; she is thrown into the asylum not for medical but for private reasons, yet in a way, her punishment fits the institution; the fact that the judgment is upheld after 1990, with the threat of being put away continuously hanging above her, underscores this. Jirgl most effectively explores the inside/outside active in any society by giving a voice to the mob. This novel crawls with sounds and voices, and one of them, the most scathing and revealingly political, is that of the mob.
In the first chapter of E.P. Thompson’s seminal study The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson talks about the rise of the English working class as a political force, as a change from those times
when ‘the Mob’ did not organize itself in pursuit of its own ends but was called into spasmodic action by a faction […] to strengthen itself.
The mob in Abschied von den Feinden, the population of the small northeastern village, is hateful. Not in any special way, but in a way that anyone even fleetingly acquainted with German history will recognize. I’m sure it’s like this in every country, but this is my home turf, so excuse my myopia. These past 60something years we have expended a lot of time and energy convincing the world that we were called into action by some fringe faction instead of acknowledging that we took action, whoever represented us, politically. Once every dozen years something happens, however, that raises the specter of what happened then, that shows how we behave when we find the courage to behave as we really want to. After 1990, the signal event was when, in 1992, a mob burned the houses of asylum seekers in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, and many more citizens, up to 2000, stood nearby, watching the foreigners burn and flee, attacking the police, too. Because it’s not about obedience. It’s about doing the right thing, and, c’mon, we know someone needs to pay, Jews, foreigners, take your pick. It is this event that is recalled in the first of many instances that Jirgl lends a voice to the people, to the neighbors of the brothers, their adoptive parents and, at the end, to the woman.
Mentioning Lichtenhagen (alluding to it, rather, names are absent here, as I said) does not actually touch any of these people. There are no foreigners in the village, none of the protagonists is a foreigner. The Lichtenhagen incident is only meant to underscore a certain kind of thinking, a historical continuity, in East and West Germany. The most important German novelist writing on that topic is probably the magnificent Uwe Johnson. He, frequently called “Dichter beider Deutschland” (‘Both Germany’s Poet’), produced a couple of incredible novels about the exigencies of life in one half of Germany. He wasn’t just a superb writer, he was also an excellent reporter both on the mentality triggered by the insane bureaucracy in the GDR and on continuities in German culture. The people and characters that crowd Abschied von den Feinden could come straight from one of Johnson’s major novels. And like him, Jirgl clearly doesn’t like what he sees. The story of the woman and the two brothers drips with anger, venom, even. He pursues his subject with a dedication and an energy that is engaging and harrowing, which would not work half as well were Jirgl not the amazingly great writer that he is. In his actual writing, he demonstrates quite a few similarities to Arno Schmidt, the solitary literary hermit, who is perhaps best known for his experiments with typography and orthography. I will review one or two Schmidt novels within the next month so I wouldn’t want to shoot my load right now, but one of many tricks Schmidt pulls is dismembering words and phrases in a hunt for etymological roots and clues to meanings hidden in the weeds and the undergrowth of language. This is where Jirgl picks up. In a note that precedes Abschied von den Feinden, he warns his reader that he will encounter difficult and different kinds of typography and orthography to add further layers of signification. For example, he does not just use the word “und” (and), he also substitutes it variously by “u:”, “&”, “+” and others. He does not end an exclamation sentence with an exclamation mark, he starts it with it, not just that, he also inserts exclamation marks in the middle of them, for special emphasis. Jirgl uses punctuation as a tool to use not as a rule to obey.
In Abschied von den Feinden, unlike, for example, in the later novel Die Atlantische Mauer, Jirgl proceeds to explain himself. Any of these changes are lucid and self-explanatory, but Jirgl insists upon saddling the book with a four page discussion of the deeper meanings that some symbols add. Perusing this you’ll find that each change, for example the decision to represent the indefinite article “ein” (which doubles as a numeral) sometimes with the actual number “1”, is motivated and can be read as significant. The incredible thing here is that it doesn’t feel annoying and self-important as in Ander Monson’s novel; on the contrary. Yes, Jirgl’s additional notes do not help you read the novel if you read it for the first time. This is why they are in the back not in the front. Jirgl invites us to reread his book in the light of his notes. To see where he tells us that someone is, for instance “thin” and small details like this. Jirgl’s actual use of words, gadgets aside is impressive, astonishing, praiseworthy, and he does not need the tricks and these small experimental thingies, but what’s great about him is that he makes it look worth your while. Nothing looks extraneous or eccentric. Jirgl has made it a part of his work and what a magnificent, wonderful work it is. Much of his later work is contained in this dense book. There is Hundsnächte, of course, which is basically a sequel, but, as I said above, Jirgl is a man with obsessions and Abschied von den Feinden is his first utterly perfect result from his encounter with these obsessions. His writing will stay with you, his characters, phrases and scenes will haunt you. Reinhard Jirgl is a great writer.
I gotta say, though, it must be a nightmare to translate. He works so much from within his language and culture, building this vibrant, raw bell-tower of sounds, that I have trouble seeing how that would be possible to translate. A translation would need a Jirgl (i.e. someone with Jirgl’s abilities) on the other side as well, for this to work. Yes, I like that. Jirgl as an enigma machine. But do read that book if you have the opportunity to do so. Or something else by Jirgl. He published a new novel this year. Pick him up now and when he wins the Nobel you can gloat.
by Christoph Meckel
Da ich mich in den Nächten verlor,
Samt meinem kalten Tod, meiner unsteten Spur,
Meutert mein riesiger Schatten, er kann mich nicht finden,
Raunt mein lautloser Schatten, er möchte mich küssen,
Murmelt mein schwarzer Schatten, er möchte mich verdunkeln,
Ich soll zu ihm unter die Tarnkappe kommen.
Doch geborgen unter dem Schirm verfinsterter Monde
Geh ich auf Abenteuer und habe viel zu tun,
Ich muß mit meinem Namen leben lernen
Und mit meinem Alter hausieren gehn,
Ich muß für mein leeres Zimmer Blumen stehlen,
Denn mein Schutzengel kommt zu mir zum Abendessen.
Brecht, Bertolt (1994), Kriegsfibel, Eulenspiegelverlag
“Here, Kunert, look at this, see whether it’s publishable…”, Bertolt Brecht, the titan of modern German drama asked a young acolyte of his. That acolyte was Günter Kunert, a major GDR poet, and he recalls the request and the manuscript in question in a memorable chapter in his great autobiography, Erwachsenenspiele (Games for Grownups), which is still one of the best books about the life of writers in the GDR. The manuscript were a few cardboard pages on which pictures and poems were pasted by hand. These are what later became the Kriegsfibel, published in 1955/56. It has been translated by John Willet as War Primer. Since you might know that I am wary of any poetry translations, I cannot vouch for this one, especially since I’ve never seen it. The German book, though, is one of my very favorite books. It’s a huge black chunk of a book, and I have never moved without it, it’s really a book that affects me like few others do, and this is kind of surprising since it’s a rather simple affair. It consists of 69-85 (depending on the edition) newspaper cutouts, usually photographs with the caption that the newspaper provided. There is a picture of an American soldier cradling a dead Japanese soldier, and a picture of actress Jane Wyman, her crotch hung with military medals, and pictures of German helmets and many more. Brecht assembled those in his years in exile, mostly while he lived in the US. The history of his sojourn in the US is well known, I assume.
Each newspaper cutout was accompanied by a brief poem, four lines, basically two couplets, truly Brechtian in diction, rhythm and music. Brecht was a prolific writer, he wrote countless poems, there’s much in his work that doesn’t withstand closer scrutiny, but Brecht can be powerful, and he frequently is. He is a writer who fuses bawdy and political issues within single poems, he writes complex yet accessible tracts about political situations. The poems in the Kriegsfibel show him at his best. These are angry poems, funny poems, bawdy poems, almost all of Brecht’s range is in there, reduced to simple couplets. These are poems against the war, but they try not to make people oppose war by telling sob stories, by trying to make them feel sorry for the victims of war. Brecht shouts at you, in a musical, elegant, funny way, but he does shout, because what he has to say is important, it needs to be said. He tells people to consider the consequences of their actions. He tells us that a group of soldiers did not lose the war when their helmets were shot off their heads but when they put them on. Simple truths, truisms perhaps, simplistic truths, even, but Brecht is not trying to be an authority, he’s not trying to force us to understand His Truth. Brecht wants to make us think. To make us more aware of our actions. Of things.
In his autobiography, Kunert tells us of his enthusiasm for Brecht’s manuscript and of the trouble that Brecht had publishing it. It was too dirty, too pacifistic and other things, to go over well with those in power. This was, after all, after June 1953. Brecht assembled and pushed it through to publication and the world is richer for it. Kriegsfibel is a book that can set you right. It’s a masterful work of art and a burning black meteor of a book. It will always be with me.
Giordano, Paolo (2009), The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Doubleday
[Translated by Shaun Whiteside]
I’d really rather write a review of a book that I loved than of a book that I hated or felt indifferent to. I really don’t like to write negative reviews so I’ll try to keep this one here as short as possible. Paolo Giordano is the great young star of Italian letters. He won the Premio Strega for his debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers, the youngest winner of Italy’s most prestigious prize ever. He’s garnered praise from all kinds of writers and publications. So, I’m probably wrong, as with my resistance to Other Electricities. The book has been translated by Shaun Whiteside, but, my Italian being crappy, I can hardly judge the merits of his translation; I have no idea how certain stylistic quirks and peculiarities looked and sounded in the original Italian, so anything I may say about style may not reflect badly upon Giordano at all, but on Whiteside. The writing is, if we try to look at the positive side of it, clean and efficient, as is the whole book. The whole book, and this is certainly part of the intended effect, smells whitewashed, stinks of disinfectant and cleanliness. I’d almost expect an echo to return to me were I to shout at the book, it’s like a huge tiled room, words arranged nicely and in an orderly fashion, a few characters, picked for their symbolic and emotional possibilities, stacked neatly in a corner, and ideas for a few episodes in another. On the floor a few tidy schematics to make sense of it all.
Small wonder, then, that Paolo Giordano’s a physicist in his day job. Clean and precise work is what he spends his days with, writing is just a hobby, and according to Italian wiki he did not really publish before he put out his novel, so it basically represents the first full statement of his artistic vision and apparently he doesn’t have much of one. Giordano’s not a storyteller, the whole book is one long lifeless construction. Much of this may appear to be interesting, but rest assured, it’s not, his is a very dully old-fashioned idea of how a book should work. The Solitude of Prime Numbers is structured into seven chapters that chart the development of two somewhat disturbed individuals through their adolescence and the early years of their adulthood. Each chapter is basically dedicated to one or two events; the first is set in 1983, the last in 2007. The chapters are of uneven length, shortest in the beginning, where Giordano tries to win us over with a few vignettes that clearly strive for effect. As he gets into his characters, the chapters get longer (with a one or two very short chapters remaining) until the final chapter which is the longest, by far.
The structure is clearly meant to create an impression of loneliness, of discontinuity, and it reinforces a main theme of the book which is hinted at in the title. This is about
pairs of prime numbers that are close to one another, almost neighbors, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from really touching. […] If you have the patience to go on counting you’ll discover that these pairs gradually become rarer. You encounter increasingly isolated primes, lost in that silent, measured space made only of numbers, and you become aware of the distressing sense that the pairs encountered up until that point were an accidental fact, that their true fate is to remain alone […]. Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another.
So, you see, the chapters exemplify this central mathematical idea that helps power the book. I’m actually pretty sure that you can draw up a scheme that makes sense of how the chapters and episodes are arranged by aligning this with one mathematical idea or another. Most elements of the book strike me as readable in such a way and usually, I’m game for this kind of silliness but this time I just didn’t care. The book doesn’t make you care, really. The Solitude of Prime Numbers is one of those books that talk down to you, that bellow at you: feel this! It’s clever in such an obvious way that it takes all the fun out of checking up on its clever tricks. Everything is calculated for effect, there is not an ounce of superfluous fat on its bones, and reading should provide food, nourishment, it should carry weight of a sort, but there’s really nothing here. A clever boy’s clever games which, and this is probably among the worst things about this book, would not need to be a novel. This could equally well be a movie or something of that sort. Giordano uses words almost reluctantly, trying to get it all over with as soon as possible. The writing is impossibly flat in most places; unless Shaun Whiteside has bungled the translation, Giordano doesn’t much think about choice of words, if he finds a sentence that works on the level of direct denotation, he sticks with it, regardless of how it sounds etc. So the writing makes it hard to care, but the characters carry most of the load when it comes to the singular dullness of The Solitude of Prime Numbers.
The thing is, I generally choose my books well, the time I have to read books is limited, so most books I read are rather good. This explains why I have not read a book with such an amount of cliché ridden characters as The Solitude of Prime Numbers contains in many months. It’s really the book’s major weakness and downright appalling, in places. Where do we start with this? Why not with Alice, one of the two protagonists of the book. In the first chapter, Alice shits herself while skiing, tries to hide her shame, and, subsequently, has a skiing accident. Both protagonists represent a portion of the typical problems and prevalent illnesses of the typical teenager, with just the right bit of exaggeration to make the two characters exceptional and representative at the same time. Alice, for instance, is deeply ashamed of her body, since she’s scarred and disfigured by that accident; in response to her unease, she then becomes anorexic. Due to her eating disorder, she’s also incapable of bearing children which is a strain on her marriage later in her life. Her eating disorder is not about gaining control, as far as I see it. I think her character is built upon shame, a shame that manifests itself in her body, even the miscalculated shit in the first chapter is part of this theme. Her disorder is her way of combating that shame, re-making herself into someone acceptable. The book is really expertly built, all of Alice’s episodes are full of this topic, including tropes of rising and falling, of mobility. It’s not just general body image problems. She’s handicapped (this is the appropriate word, really, in the context of the novel), and this, as deviation, as loss, as aberration, is also reflected in much of the book, including the small chapter that describes how the accident came about. All of this, acquired in a freak accident, is projected into the character, made a key property of it. It’s weirdly reductionistic, but, unless we look, by way of contrast, at Mattia, the other protagonist, not distasteful yet.
Mattia’s main theme can be said to be guilt. His body is not often thematized. As a teenager, he takes to autoaggression, but, in a drastic feat of exaggeration, instead of cutting himself, savoring the pain, he rams sharp objects right through his hand. By this, he is not really handicapped, his is a life of the mind, he is a brilliant child who grows up to be a gifted, successful mathematician. The guilt arises first in his inability to save his sister, who is a bit slower than others, strange, possibly a bit autistic. A reviewer from the Independent called her “retarded” which, regardless of the questionable choice of word there, I don’t think she is, but the thing about the book is that it invites such readings, it’s really what the sister is for, she’s a foil to make Mattia’s decision plausible to leave her behind on a bench near a lake when he attends a party; a mistake as it turns out, because she apparently subsequently drowns in that lake. From then on Mattia sees plenty things to feel guilty and protective about, most important among those is probably Alice. But here’s the thing about the characters. They are such incredible clichés that you can reduce them to a higher level of abstraction and the story makes just as much sense. Mattia is a man, and Alice is a woman.
No, hear me out, I’m not saying this is a parable on anything (it probably is, but let’s not go there), but it certainly spreads actions and attributes according to well worn and deservedly old-fashioned attitudes. Gender appears to be the single most determining factor in the decision how to construct each character, and I’m not even talking about the anorectic girl. No, even as basic decisions as having the woman be the one whose problems are problems of the body and the man the one whose problems are problems of the mind, are clearly gender stereotyping. The woman’s career takes the back burner to her marriage, while the man is successful in his career, yet is dragged into the everyday reality by women. Women need counseling and help, men help. Men give sensible advice (eat more, so you’ll be able to bear children) women are too irrationally disturbed to listen to reason. See? And I had to scrape none of this off from some deeper meanings, this is basic surface stuff, in plain sight. This is how the book works. The author’s essentialist leanings, as far as gender is concerned, forms a peculiar alliance with the essentialist tendencies in his dealings with disorder, which he, in the ingenuous structure of the novel, has withdrawn from simple cause/effect scenarios. As a whole, it clearly uses minority characters for their minority value.
The Solitude of Prime Numbers is like a freak show, and Giordano’s its director and if Mattia’s character works better, is more believable than Alice, it’s because being a woman makes her more of a freak. Paolo Giordano hammers his points home, with little subtlety in the actual language used, but with great deftness as far as the construction of the book is concerned. Much of this book revolves around order, traditional order, narrative order, and for what it is, it is well wrought, but what it is is nothing that I consider commendable. Do not read this book. Do not buy it as a present.
Haas, Wolf (2008), Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, dtv
There is a German TV show called “Wetten dass“, which is one of the most successful shows in Europe, I think. The principle is quite simple. Ordinary people come on and propose outrageous bets, do strange things like drag a car through the room while balancing an egg. Oddities like this. A celebrity then bets on the outcome (will the contestant manage to do what he proposes to do?), and agrees to do something silly in case of losing that bet. In Wolf Haas’ latest novel, published in 2006, Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren (The Weather 15 Years Ago) a man appears on the show who bets he can remember the weather in a remote mountain village in Austria during the last fifteen years; that is: he bets he can remember how on every single day during those fifteen years the weather was. The host, Thomas Gottschalk, then picks five random days and the contestant really comes through, guessing all five correctly.
That miraculous contestant is called Vittorio Kowalski. The delicious incongruity of that name may not be immediately apparent to someone who doesn’t speak the language, but in German, the name Kowalski, though it is of Polish origin, connotes a grimily working-class background, someone who comes from a very particular area in Germany, the so-called Ruhrpott, one of Germany’s most active and traditional coal mining regions. The contrast to the Italian scent that is exuded from “Vittorio” couldn’t be stronger. It is from this character and his odd bet, that this book’s involving plot is spun. An engaging story about love and death, thwarted desire and crime unfolds in its pages. Ah, but wait. You don’t yet know the strangest thing about the novel. It’s an interview.
No, really, it is. The whole book is written as an interview: an anonymous critic, known only by the term Literaturbeilage (which basically means “Book Supplement”) and Wolf Haas discuss his latest book, “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren,” not to be confused with Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, the book that I actually read. It looks exactly like an interview (or a play, for that matter), and the fictionality of it all is the only difference to an actual, journalistic interview. It’s a mammoth, in-depth interview that takes place over several days. The book they discuss doesn’t really exist, but in their discussions of minutiae from the non-existing novel, they recreate it for the reader (as much as you can “recreate” something that doesn’t exist), or a simulation of it. The critic takes it slowly, discussing the fictitious book bit by bit, not summing up events, not fast-forwarding. Thus, as far as pace and structure of the plot is concerned, the interview behaves like a novel, but through a dark and strange looking-glass.
We happen upon ‘quotes’, complete with a discussion of word choice and implication, we are told why Wolf Haas (or should that come with quotation marks, “Wolf Haas”? I think it should) chose to tell the story as he did, what his intention was in using certain symbols and allusions, and so on. The light banter between the critic and “Wolf Haas” is great fun to read, as is the whole book. If you have ever read another book by Haas, that should not come as a surprise. Wolf Haas is an Austrian writer, who became famous as a writer of crime novels centered around an inspector called Brenner. These books are smart, funny and very readable; what’s more, he got started as a writer of humorous radio dialogues, in a way, he returns to his literary origins. What did surprise me, however, was that the whole construct actually works. As we read on, we are really getting caught up in the story, in the tumultuous final events and may even be moved by its conclusion.
Although we are told right at the beginning that the story will end with the kiss that Kowalski waited 15 years for, the end does affect (and may even delight) you. I called this surprising, and it is, because the book seems so clever, so self-involved with its gadgets and tricks, but the story, that’s scattered all over that lively interview, is a good yarn, a truly entertaining tale of passion. And to Wolf Haas’ credit, although his fictitious alter ego and the critic do reflect upon the story a lot, and joke about many parts of it, he does not caricature the genre, I think. He does not take cheap potshots, or not very often. That story is affecting and it’s framed as being affecting as well, and the author may poke fun at many things, but the story isn’t one of them. Both the general method of the book and the very genre that the fictitious novel is written in (a genre which borders on caricature anyway) invite a certain danger of satirizing the book.
Haas has evaded this by imbuing the fictitious novel with an air of authenticity. Within the confines of Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” is based on an actual contestant, it’s the fictional nonfiction account of Kowalski’s exploits, and “Haas” himself has been part of these events, as an observer. Haas has himself a great time with the whole idea of authenticity, throughout the book. Additionally to what has already been mentioned, Haas presents “Haas” as a writer who’s open to others’ interpretations, who would not want to claim sole ownership of a book’s meaning. “Haas” may have a personal reading of the novel, but he does not necessarily accord it a special status. But in the actual book, Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, we only get “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” as read by the critic and “Haas”, we only, so to say, get his side of the story.
It’s a neat reversal: early in the novel we learn that “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” had been written from Kowalski’s perspective, so that many aspects that concern only him are not raised. As Wittgenstein said, you can’t see your own eyeballs. Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, in contrast, is written from Haas’ perspective so we only get his reading of the story. The aspects he selects to make the fictitious novel palpable, are those that his individual critical mind would consider relevant. The discussion of the limitations of Kowalski’s point of view are allusions to this. Thus, the book becomes a Chinese box of poetological reflections. All kinds of sections refer to all other kinds of sections, and any aspect must be read with reference to the particular filter you’re using. Are we talking about the real events that “Haas” witnessed, the childhood events that “Haas” can only guess at, the fictitious novel or the actual novel that you can read in the actual world. The ease with which Haas handles these levels puts many other, more serious writers to shame. And this despite the fact that the whole business of levels is but a background issue.
The two most important themes of the book are the story on the one hand, and the ongoing discussion about the limits of authorial control over their material which may be the most dominant part of the interview. “Haas” is frequently confronted with lewd readings of passages that he considered proper and not sexual at all, he is struggling both with those parts of “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” that are fiction, and with those that are nonfiction. “Haas” bases much that he has not observed himself on interviews with Kowalski (see, different levels, iterations again) that he himself had conducted. All this is, as I said, great fun, moving, smart and much more. The only downside to this is the actual writing. Having written an interview, Haas has had to use a language that sounds colloquial, that recreates the authenticity of an actual interview. But a whole book of artificially blanded language can be taxing, and does reduce the enjoyment of this book to an extent. It’s a good thing then that it’s so clever, even on the level of language. Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren may be somewhat bland, but it also contains the occasional pun and intriguing observations about characteristics of the Austrian variety of German. If anyone who reads this has any pull with translators: do translate it. I cannot imagine Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren to be less than terrific in French or English. It’s simply a good book, one of the few books I know that is a complex, genuinely experimental novel, and at the same time a quick, fun, light read. That’s why it both became a bestseller and won a prestigious literary prize. Highly recommended.
Spiotta, Dana (2008), Eat the Document, Picador
One of James Merrill’s best and most affecting poems is “18 West 11th Street“, a poem where he mourns the destruction of the townhouse in New York where he once lived as a kid. His family moved away and eventually the house came to belong to a family called Wilkerson. Unfortunately for that family and the house, their daughter, Cathlyn Wilkerson, was a member of the Weather Underground (or just: Weathermen), an organization of the American radical left and used the house to gather and build bombs. The Weathermen specialized in bombing buildings and statues without harming people. On march 6, 1970, they accidentally blew up themselves; three of the Weathermen died. Reading scholarship on Merrill’s poetry can be quite amusing with regard to this specific poem, with eminent scholars such as Stephen Yenser misreading the text in order to extract a condemnation of the Weathermen from it. Yenser is such a profound reader of Merrill’s work, why the gaffe here? The simple answer is that left wing terrorism is still divisive, causing people to react strongly, revealing their convictions and biases in the process. And books dealing with the period are no exception. In Germany, the past year had seen a wave of contentious books about 1968, some praising, some damning the movements of the time. In English speaking countries, too, the amount of recent books consecrated to that time is remarkable. Three novels in particular stand out. Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self, which I’ve yet to read, Hari Kunzru’s remarkable My Revolutions and Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2006.
This upfront: for much of the book I was thoroughly bored. The first fifth and the last are very readable, but the book is at least a hundred pages too long. That said, this is not a bad book. Eat the Document is the tale of two terrorists, Bobby and Mary, lovers, who, after a bombing designed to destroy an empty house kills someone, go underground, zigzag across the states, and finally assume new identities, living for years undisturbed. The bombing itself is not described until the end of the book, which is largely concerned with the aftermath of the revolutionary violence. Eat the Document is set in two distinct periods. One part of the book takes place in the present, which is 1998-2000, the other charts Mary’s getaway and her attempts at constructing a new identity for herself. These two building blocks are interlaced, so that actions and events in the present reflect on and are in turn illuminated by events and actions in the past. This structure means that the author does not need to directly comment upon the ideologies that led to the bombings and the destruction of the lives of the two terrorists, she can leave it to the events in the present. This sort of device recurs a few times in this novel which is too clever for its own sake. It frequently mistakes cleverness for smartness, without having a writer deft enough to make all the subterfuges and mirrors work. I may mention some of them subsequently. Some are subtle, some are more heavy handed; the two time levels is one of the latter.
In the chapters dealing with Mary’s odyssey through the 1970s and 1980s, Spiotta spreads before us a compelling portrait of a left underground that is rife with conflict, with jealousies, with hopes and fears. Fear, especially, seems to be a commanding factor. Since all this is channeled through a personal narrator which means, in this case, through Mary’s point of view, the fear could be Mary’s, but there’s no indication within the narrative that this would be the case. Instead, Spiotta delivers a few convincing, if slightly satiric characterizations of people active in different leftist communities, spinning the aura of fear from their personal anxieties. This has been done before and probably better. What’s really worth noting here is that this portrait is of a female left. It’s no accident that Spiotta has chosen to follow Mary rather than Bobby. The left project has always been one of emancipation, one of giving voice and lending power to the voice and powerless; it’s failures can often be charted on this exact point. The extent to which left movements have failed to live up to their intentions and ideals are numerous.
Spiotta spends quite some time showing us these ideals. She doesn’t explore anything, in-depth, since she drags her protagonist out of these situations soon enough but through the aforementioned juxtapositions and her miniature portraits she does manage to demonstrate to the reader a landscape of female utopias. What is most striking, and most damning about the communities depicted, is to what extent they are dominated by authoritarian figures and structures, nipping true equalities in the bud and reinforcing harmful tendencies of the larger society around them; also, the dependency on the monied establishment, by having much of it funded and supported by daughters with rich parents (Ms. Wilkerson comes to mind), undermines claims for autonomy and illustrates the dependency on the vilified US society. As standalone chapters, these parts of the book would read like harsh, and sometimes unfair criticism of what was, after all, a movement with enormous potential; unfair because it’s done with hindsight, it’s the typical criticism of the comfortable writer in the 00′s, looking back on a movement that failed in its larger designs, using that failure to attack the designs themselves.
The fact is, however, that these are not standalone chapters, that they are interspersed with sections that deal with the present. The present is divvied up between four (later: five) persons, who alternate in telling their story. One of these characters is Nash, a left-over leftist from the 1970s, who heads an ‘alternative’ bookstore, where he allows and encourages local kids to hold rebellious or subversive meetings. In his chapters we get to know how the present day left scene works, how young rebels think and work in the present, and suddenly, the 1970s chapters begin to glow. Suddenly, the perseverance of many women portrayed in these sections becomes admirable, and suddenly, too, having coherent, forceful ideals is something that is valuable instead of ridiculous. All this is interesting yet it is all done rather heavy-handedly. These points are made through very simple parallelisms (which do make an interesting, further point about psychogeography, but I can’t go into that here). To Spiotta’s credit, she doesn’t usually smack her readers about the head with the points she makes. Frequently she hands him an interesting chunk of something and leaves him to draw conclusions. This is the case with Jason. Jason is the son of Louise (who is another of the contemporary voices), a suburban widow, who is calm, friendly and boring. Jason’s chapters are the only ones narrated in the first person singular; they are different in other ways, too, most significantly: they are sections from his journal. Expressly written accounts.
These chapters, headed “Jason’s Journal” represent the core of the book, in two ways. The most simple one is this: Jason starts to hunt down all knowledge he can get at of Bobby and Mary’s whereabouts. His frantic search brings about the eventful climax and finale of the book, he is the catalyst that helps bringing together the two time levels at the end. He is probably the least political person of the whole book, mostly what he represents most is a narrative device. Not just in terms of plot. The novel has not been called Eat the Document on a whim or because that phrase sounded so nice. “Eat the Document” is the name of a 1966 movie about Bob Dylan’s UK tour with the Hawks, shot by D.A. Pennebaker, capturing, as Pennebaker’s infinitely more famous “Don’t Look Back” movie does, a pivotal moment in Dylan’s career as Dylan moved from acoustic to electric guitar, from performing alone on the stage with his guitar, to being backed by a full band. “Eat the Document” is a rarity, a so-called bootleg, circulating among fans, without seeing official publication. Bootlegs are interesting, in that they are part of the knowledge created by a society, but the means of diffusion are different; bootlegs are usually deviations, that sometimes but not always or most of the time violate some important aesthetic or political norm. I think the central issue here is decentrality, deviation. Bootlegs circle the center of knowledge, I think, most of the time they do not contradict or attack the norm that structures or dominates the center, they rather reproduce it with slight variations. The deviation is important not because of the content, but because of what that means for the diffusion. A deviation opens up spaces for opposition, and underground channels of diffusion of knowledge, while not necessarily transporting oppositional content, open up the opportunity to do so, create space for voices where none before existed.
Jason is addicted to bootlegs, even those where the bootlegged music is redundant and worse than what was officially released. It’s the aura of bootlegged music and films that draws him in, and his desire to collect everything that can be collected of a given artist’s works. He’s a collector, and in a further sense, an archivist, who assembles a library of odds and ends; I said that bootlegs are not part of an alternative knowledge but that they are paraphernalia of the main body of knowledge, providing not a different lens but contributing to and refining the dominant lens. And true to this, it is Jason’s archive that helps him uncover the present identities of Mary Wittaker and Bobby Desoto, the terrorists. But Spiotta’s project goes further, I think. By presenting an American culture that functions as a set of iterations, of repetitions with subtle and not so subtle deviations, she textualizes her history, stressing textual mechanisms such as narrative. Thus, Spiotta emphasizes, I think, history both as something made and as something picked up, found on byways and in dark alleys. Like “Eat the Document”, Dylan’s slightly jarring movie, Eat the Document provides an account of a tour that catches a country and a culture as it changes, as it grows up, shedding illusions. This passage near the end is illustrative of how much has changed:
A commune and a corporate community are not all that different. A corporation is merely a commune with different vales. But like a commune, everything is organized around a collusion of interests. It creates an inside and an outside. And let’s not forget, all communities are exclusive. By definition you exclude all that is outside the community. A corporation has rights and privileges that are distinct from its individual owners’, just as a commune has collective interests that supersede each individual’s interests.
And there are many more mirrors and tricks in the book. There’s a discussion of cultural memory that runs through it, of Jungian ideas, of punishment and guilt. But you never get the feeling that Spiotta’s heart is in it, and her writing is not good enough to balance all that coldly clever structure. A blurb on the back of my book compares her to Delillo, but here’s where they differ. I hold Delillo to be a consummate writer, a bit too caught up in his obsessions, so that he falls into self-parody now and then, but generally, he has the language he needs to make his cleverness work, at least for me. Spiotta doesn’t, and what’s worse, in her attempts to lend feeling, authenticity and power to her book, she frequently lapses into sentimentality. As I said before, this book reminded me a lot of Hari Kunzru’s stunning 2008 novel My Revolutions (which I herewith recommend to any- and everyone). Kunzru gives his protagonist quite a lot of leeway to speak and worry, as well. It frequently borders on sentimentality, as well. But Kunzru focuses on commitments. Kunzru politicizes sentimentality, he points out how people can be driven to action, how one’s experience of a society, everyday, embodied experience, can rally a person, can make concepts make sense. Kunzru defends political action and political commitment. He does not accept anger and action as a given, he shows where that may come from, how it might work, and the sentimentality is instrumental here, in order not to lapse into cold analysis, into anatomy, which My Revolutions isn’t doing.
Dana Spiotta, however, is different. She cuts out the personal commitment, her discussion of revolutionary ideals stays on a general, anatomical level as outlined earlier. Basically, she de-politicizes the movement, using sentimentality as a way to just show human frailty (blah), human troubles, human hopes, dreams and fears. To do that she indulges in short phrases and sentences and effectual ends to chapters and paragraphs. As one, where an old man tells his younger lover-to-be: “Be careful”, goes on to mention a possible interpretation of that sentence and ends the paragraph like this: “But what he meant was be careful with me. Please. Please.” The italics are Spiotta’s. In a way, Spiotta is an archivist like Jason, she’s as removed from the revolutionary fervor powering groups like the Weathermen as he is from the experience of hearing “Pet Sounds” when it appeared. He listens to it as a curiosity, and this is how he treats his bootlegs, too. And the feelings are just odds and ends found in the archives, as well. It’s a bit like that poet (clearly meant to be Merrill) in a novel by Edmund White, who “forgets” to put some feeling in his poem, heads upstairs and then writes a truly moving passage. Only Spiotta does not have the chops to make this work. Frequently the book drags with dreary conventionality, and quite often it is slow-going, and this despite all the clever tricks of the book. It’s her writing that makes it so dull (see, like this review is dulled by my writing), which is a disappointment in a book that is clearly full of good thinking.
In the end, the simple act of choosing a name, that is part of the novel’s interest in texts and textual gadgets, may be one of the most significant acts of the book. Eat the Document is to a large extent about identity, and while not as committed, as My Revolutions, it takes its topic seriously. Whatever you think of Spiotta’s writing, her characters stand by their convictions and they say it aloud. Even when you’re in hiding, sometimes you just need to bare yourself, when you can’t bear the subterfuge any longer. Like you real name. This is one of the best passages in the book:
“Cheryl,” she said aloud. No, never. Orange soda. “Natalie.” You had to say them aloud, get your mouth to shape the sound and push breath through it. Every name sounded queer when she did this. “Sylvia.” A movie star name, too fake-sounding. Too unusual. People might actually hear it. Notice it, ask about it. “Agnes.” Too old. “Mary,” she said very quietly. But that was her real name, or her original name. She just needed to say it.
I don’t have a problem with death. No more than anyone else has. My problem is living. [...] I look at my dead friend and all I want to do is understand why, if his death is so absolute, my life can’t be absolute, too. I want to know why I can’t be wholly living. Christ, it would take so little, so fucking little to do it, to let me be here properly. [...] And don’t say that I should not look for contentment outside myself. Don’t fucking say it, because no one who fucking suggests that knows the first fucking thing about being lonely. A human fucking being cannot do everything entirely fucking alone, we’re not made to be sealed units, we’re meant to look outside ourselves, we’re meant to find joy in that, If there’s agod, he fucking made us that way. And don’t even start to tell me that was a loving act.
from A. L. Kennedy’s amazing novel Everything You Need.
I’m German and I live in Germany and read German newspapers and German book reviews. I wish I didn’t. Reading reviews can be so much fun, like a silent conversation with vaguely like-minded people about books we like or even love. German reviews, however, are something else. Oh, German critics in action, what a sad spectacle. I’m not sure who allowed them to write and publish reviews and who pays these fools money hand over fist, but someone did and they should be punished. Generally speaking, German reviewers have no taste. None. And you can point to all sorts of evidence for this. You can point to truly atrocious writers like Pascal Mercier, whose day job is to be a mediocre Swiss philosopher who goes by the name of Peter Bieri. Mercier writes terribly sentimental books about Important issues and Big emotions and he does that with the language of a tired teenager. But his books never fail to garner praise in the German press. Or take Ingo Schulze, that curly haired hack. Ah, but we’ll return to Schulze.
Let me point out first that this sort of tastelessness is not just an unpleasant fact of German culture. There are a few unpleasant facts, why get all hot and bothered about this one? Well, it can be harmful. One instance are translations. Writers like Philip Roth who, like him or not, wield a deft and elegant pen, are translated into a German that Mercier would be embarrassed to use. Clunky, full of Americanisms and cheap idioms, the German Roth nary resembles the original. Complaints from the reviewers? Au contraire. They tend to praise all kinds of questionable decisions. Like Inés Koebel, who is probably the most celebrated German translator at the moment; she is currently translating the complete works, it seems, of Fernando Pessoa. I don’t speak Portuguese, but apparently, she takes great liberties in rendering his poetry. German reviewers recognized it and heaped praise on her for that, especially for clearing up passages that were obscure in the original. Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen! The German reviewer tells his readers that a translator has to produce a good text, clearly, he need not care much about the source text. German reviewers could do much to amend the sorry state of German translations but they won’t. Instead they praise a German translation of and English translation of a Bengal novel, because, apparently, it is a much better and lighter read than the original. There are countless examples like that. Nobody who has read a decent amount of books in translation can deny that in Germany, you can tell from the goddamn language what the original language was. Give me a page, purged of names, and I can tell you with 80% accuracy from which language it was translated. German translations resemble sloppy interlinear translations more than anything else. Unless critics are deaf and blind, they have noticed this. And this will never change. Unless reviewers, who have a certain clout, step up and complain about crap, nothing will change. Because the reading public sure as hell doesn’t care. The crap they buy, the crap that’s flying off the shelves, it’s beyond comprehension.
So, yes, on the negative side, reviewers could use their influence to clean up the mess that German translations (with a few notable exceptions!) are, but they don’t. On the other hand, they could use positive pushes to promote good literature. In Germany there are many literary prizes and some, like the Döblinpreis and the Büchnerpreis keep being awarded to worthy writers and exceptional books, maybe because the reviewers’ influence is not as strong as in other important prizes. One of those is the newly established Deutscher Buchpreis, an award which has consistently shown itself to be a joke. Julia Franck wins in the year that Köhlmeier, Menasse and Düffel are nominated? Really? Marcel Beyer may be one of the five most brilliant German novelists, but Schulze is a scourge. His language and characters are consistently flat and clichéd; he attempts by turn to be hip and pensive, he fails on both accounts. Schulze is awful in so many ways – but he’s a darling of German book sections. Why? Because German critics don’t care how a book is written: if they can empathize with it, it’s good. If it sounds Important, it’s good.
This was never as clear as when the other major prize was decided this year: the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. This one is awarded for short prose, either short stories or excerpts from novels; the nominees read their submissions publicly, not just before an audience but the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize is televised, as well, and all the texts can be read online here; is remarkable in that not just the texts are public, but that the jury debates the text in question in public, too. We hear them discuss the merits and demerits of the text, and can see on what their final decision will be based, even though the final deliberations are not public. And it is revealing every time. When I heard this year’s winner, Jens Petersen, read his text, an excerpt from an upcoming novel, a Swiss, 33 year old writer who has already published a novel, Die Haushälterin, in 2005 (longlisted for the deutscher Buchpreis), I groaned. His text (read it here) is written solely for effect, he attempts to squeeze the utmost sentimental feeling from his material, bashing the reader over the head with faux-archaic vocabulary, overused, overly symbolic images, but without the verbal staying power that is needed to make these set pieces work as part of a larger whole, as part of a text that works as a text and not as a statement of intention. The text is about someone dying, and embeds its characters and events in a dire wasteland that makes McCarthy seem subtle. The protagonist’s voice was fittingly, predictably disaffected and jaded.
The jurors immediately praised the text, declared that it had lots of symbols and a landscape that expressed the inner landscape of the protagonist. They pointed out that the author was a doctor and surmised that he must have come into contact with lots of people in dire straits. One single critic resisted, Paul Jandl. He said that all this was well and good, but the actual writing was terrible, the actual writing was “kitschig”, i.e. cheesy, chintzy, corny, but his voice was drowned out by all the other critics who were so very moved by what evidently was a harsh life and a difficult situation. All of those fools could have been talking about a movie or a picture, even. These are the people our newspapers pay to review books. And when I heard, the next day, that Petersen won, I didn’t even get mad. It was just as expected, really. Business as usual. German critics in action.
Morrison, Grant; Paul Dini, Peter Milligan et al. (2008), Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, DC Comics
I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: I am not well read as far as graphic novels are concerned, and I find the vast universe of DC and Marvel to be somewhat confusing. However, a few of my favorite writers in comics have written for DC and Marvel, and worked with some of the most famous characters, so I keep dipping into their books. The fact that the major characters have a history that is decades old, can be among the most confusing parts. While reading Mark Millar’s two excellent Ultimates books, I constantly felt left out, suspecting hints and allusions that were totally lost on me (which is why my review on these books is still on hold…) everywhere. I met many characters which were clearly not new to the universe for the first time in Millar’s story, trying to keep up as best as I could. This, at least, is not a problem in Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, which contains a short list of nine of the most important characters with a brief sketch of their recent history and main characteristics. Wikipedia provides further help. This feature is nice in that it allows the reader to just let yourself fall into the supple folds of this story that is so action packed that I had to read parts of it on the edge of my seat. It presents good writing, an engrossing story, huge amounts of kick-ass, and even some great artwork. I greatly enjoyed it and will definitely read more of Grant Morrison’s work on Bob Kane’s leather-clad icon. At the same time, it was my least favorite of all the graphic novels I read this year, possibly because I expected so much more of it.
One thing I expected, when I bought the book, was that it would actually be written by Grant Morrison and Paul Dini, two excellent writers in the genre. The cover, bearing both writers’ names boldly, may have misled me there. Now, I know that what I buy as a book continues several thinner issues that were published separately and collected into the book I hold in my hand. And I know that a story arc contains stories written by other writers. But Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul contains three ‘preludes’ and seven more ‘proper’ chapters, ten all told. Of those, only two were written by Grant Morrison, two by Paul Dini. The rest is divided among Peter Milligan, who penned three chapters, Fabian Nicieza, responsible for two, and Keith Champagne, who wrote one. That means less than half of the chapters were written by Morrison and Dini. Yes, they are pivotal, important chapters, but it’s a fairly long book as far as this genre goes, and all these authors make for very uneven reading. There are dozens of recent Batman titles out, if I wanted a title written by a staff writer of some kind, I could have bought one. I wanted a book by Morrison because I’ve long admired his work. Incidentally, if you ever wondered why some comics writers become superstars and others don’t, you might want to pick up a book like this one, which contains some stunning chapters and some, let’s say: less stunning ones. Grant Morrison’s writing is always great, and Paul Dini’s is good as well, but the others are a mixed bag, to be honest. Most annoying and ultimately disappointing was Peter Milligan.
I do know that Peter Milligan has done some courageous and well-received work in the past, from what I know; he’s done work with Marvel’s controversial X-Force, and he’s garnered a certain fame with mid-1990s graphic novels such as Enigma. So, no, he’s not an unknown, even for me, but, from the evidence provided in Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, he’s clearly a second-rate writer, competent but not more than that. His chapters were originally published in issues of Robin, and they contain a focus on Tim Drake, the current Robin. Drake is a teenager and Milligan, by way of red thought-boxes, lets us know that Drake’s an annoying teen, to boot. This is very well done, and Milligan does have a way of driving the story forward, creating tensions between some central characters. Apart from that, his writing is stiff, especially the dialogue which is almost always awkward and badly written. At times, Milligan even appears to be attempting a parody of the much-maligned dialogue of early superhero comics, except that there’s not a trace of humor in his chapters. No, his chapters are just a huge let-down, although the extent of my disappointment varied greatly depending on the artist he worked with. For his worst chapter he worked with David Baldéon; the result is the most annoying chapter in the whole book and a huge waste of time and space and ink, and what’s worse, it does a great disservice to the marvelous story.
In Batman and Son, one of the story arcs that directly preceded The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, Grant Morrison presented to us Damien (I know), Batman’s son with Talia, the daughter of Batman’s sworn enemy, Ra’s Al-Ghul. In a different story arc, Batman killed Ra’s Al-Ghul. Talia and his son now lead a band of evil ninjas, working together with an old assistant and loyal follower of Ra’s, who only goes by the name of White Ghost. This is where the story sets in. Apparently, Ra’s’ spirit has survived but he needs a new body to live on. Ra’s uses a mysterious reservoir with a green liquid, the so-called Lazarus Pit, but it is not enough, this time. This time he needs a full body, and it can’t be anyone else but a male relative, which means: Damien. Early in the book, Talia saves Damien from his grandfather’s greedy clutches and sends him to Gotham City for Batman to take care of him. That doesn’t quite work, as Batman has suspected that his adversary might have survived and follows up hints that lead him straight to Ra’s Al-Ghul’s den. Meanwhile, Damien arrives at Bruce Wayne’s manor where Batman’s friends try to keep him safe. Those friends are Dick Grayson, who used to be Robin but is called Nightwing now that he’s grown up, and the new Robin, Tim Drake. If all these names and titles sound confusing, they are a bit, but what the book does is take a few of them and lend them a voice, thus imbuing the characters with a life all their own. Thus, apart from Milligan’s two Robin chapters, we also get two Nightwing chapters written by Fabian Nicieza, and a most wonderful Damien chapter written by Keith Champagne.
How is all of this significant, you may ask, bewildered. Well, the book is basically a series of chases, of people being hunted, caught and saved, it takes place on several continents and several actions take place at the same time. One writer and one basic point of view may not have done justice to the scope of this book. What’s more, in between the non-stop action (someone is always fighting someone else), the writers manage to fit a surprising amount of thoughtful scenes and difficult decisions. The fact that I needed to look up on Wikipedia why Robin’s not Robin anymore and ephemera like that did not stop me, for example, from feeling Tim Drake’s torment as he is handed the opportunity to bring his dead family back to life. This is no mean success in a book that appears to be mainly about fighting ninjas. But, much more than its more highbrow brethren, even those that work within the DC/Marvel canon, Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul demonstrates the basic strengths of a genre that is among the oldest and strongest of modern literature. It needs to provide thrills and action in order for people to buy copies of the original issues that appeared in publications such as Detective Comics # 838 and Batman Annual #26. And it succeeds marvelously (no pun intended) in that area. At the same time, comics always had an educational, moral aspect to it, something that, in a way, justified their existence. Rather than scoff at the high brow literature that it was always contrasted with, it kept borrowing from that, paying homage to it, and, in some cases creating works that have since been accepted into the ivory towers all around the country. You can expect a collection of this length to raise a few weighty questions about memory, about death, but mostly, in this case, about family.
The basic team of crimefighters that Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul focuses on, Bruce Wayne/Batman, Dick Grayson/Nightwing and Tim Drake/Robin, they are all orphans, they are all victims of disasters and they are drawn to each other, creating a new family, the identity of which is not determined by blood or tradition, but by what they do. It’s a modern identity, full of potential and change, especially within the narrow frame works of their society. In his relationship to his society, Batman, as the book frequently assures us, is a detective, someone who keeps up the basic order of his society, who looks for solutions within a given framework and who has no intent of widening that (China Miéville has a lot of fun with these conventions in his incredible novel The City & The City). In his dealings with the larger society, Batman is bound to the nation state and other conventions. Thus, in his person, he unites both an almost violent traditionalism and an interesting potential for change, or at least subversion. The same can be said about Ra’s Al-Ghul, the book’s villain, except that his angle is completely different. His insistence on blood relation, his need, even, for keeping up family relationships structured by blood bonds, is in stark contrast with Batman. Although both Batman and Ra’s have a strictly hierarchical family, with leaders and followers, Batman’s is built on free association, on free will, as the book makes unmistakeably clear. Ra’s Al-Ghul’s family, in contrast, seems to work like a feudal society, and you cannot disagree with the head of the family except by fighting the whole family and leaving it completely. But whereas Batman is a child of his nation, and bound and pledged to it, Ra’s has lived for too long to be bothered by that. By way of the Lazarus Pits he has kept himself alive for centuries. He has had already centuries of experience when the nation state rose and may have even influenced that process, as we learn in a few flashbacks at the beginning of the book.
These complexities make for good reading, but they are largely inherent in the material, the writers have just competently executed it, which is quite decent, often enough, especially when you have the art to match that. However, if you find five writers a bit much for one novel, brace yourself for the fact that the book is pencilled by seven different artists. These are, however, much better than many of the writers. The book’s art shines. Tony S. Daniel, for example, who also collaborated with Grant Morrison on Batman and Son, does a fine job, but I have to confess I particularly enjoyed Ryan Benjamin’s pencils and Jason Pearson’s art.
Ryan Benjamin, for me, is a discovery. The way he renders action scenes, finds just the right angle, the right spot, focus and light to make a scene work, to squeeze the most effect out of a single panel is astonishing. All other fight scenes in the book are by contrast completely static, boring, wasted panels. I’ve sometimes flicked through chapters illustrated by one of the other guys and wished that they’d been done by Benjamin. I’ve never before heard of the man, but I’m sure keeping my eyes open now. His pencils are really excellent, the raw instinct he brings to basic elements of comics is stunning (you can check out recent work, including the excellent webcomic Pancratia, at his site here).
For his chapter (which was written by Keith Champagne), Jason Pearson, of Body Bags fame, did both pencils and ink. Pearson’s work stands out, his art is less intent on details and more on the power of broad swathes of color, idiosyncratic rendering of facial expressions and other moods. Keith Champagne’s brief prelude does not directly tie into the main story; Champagne and Pearson took the resultant liberty to create a short ghost story that is creepy, exciting and the only convincing exploration of Damien’s character in the whole book.
Much, really, is excellent here, and the whole of Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul is a great read, but it is not on a par with many of the other books I have recently reviewed or read, not even with Brian Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man series. Much of that is due to the inclusion of second rate writers, much also to the relentless barrage of fight and other action scenes. After the fifth time that the good guys get attacked by a horde of ninjas, you just want to get it over with. The end is less than satisfactorily, mostly because Grant Morrison’s pivotal chapter is in the middle and is clearly the culmination of much of the book, which makes much of the rest read like an afterthought. The final showdown somehow fizzles away and then, suddenly, everything is over. However, you have to think of this book as one among an ongoing project of Morrison’s. Not only was this novel preceded by Batman and Son, it was followed by Batman: The Black Glove and two of the most highly anticipated stories of the past decade: Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis. For various reasons, mostly financial, I will have to skip Batman R.I.P., but I do own Final Crisis and look forward to reading it. I know this review was a bit taxing, after all it was too long, too digressive and too boring, but here’s the thing: I do recommend Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul if what you want is a great, fun Silver Age read, especially if you like ninjas and the occasional Great Question thrown at you.
For further information, go here.
Codex Sinaiticus is one of the most important books in the world. Handwritten well over 1600 years ago, the manuscript contains the Christian Bible in Greek, including the oldest complete copy of the New Testament. Its heavily corrected text is of outstanding importance for the history of the Bible and the manuscript – the oldest substantial book to survive Antiquity – is of supreme importance for the history of the bo
Kennedy, A.L. (1998), Original Bliss, Vintage
A.L. Kennedy is one of my favorite writers, quite possibly my favorite living prose writer, but that ranking of writers is a shadowy business at best, anyway. I have been an avid and admiring reader of Kennedy’s work for years now, and my favorites among her books continue to shift. As a new collection of stories is about to be published, I took the opportunity of rereading one of her old ones. While Indelible Acts is my favorite collection of short stories of hers, Original Bliss, published in 1996, s not far behind. As much of Kennedy’s work, this book, too, explores the alleys and byways of human relationships; this time, she stresses the role of sex in all of this, the things we do, the lengths we go to in order to attain and maintain physical relationships with another human being, as well as the ways that our own psychological state influences and indeed often determines our performance in the arena of sexuality. Performance here does not, of course, mean the quality of one’s participation in the sexual act, the sexual prowess, so to say. No, it’s rather question as how much, for example, the sexual act has to do with intimacy, what physical contact with a different human being means to you. The answers that Original Bliss suggests to these questions are sometimes moving, sometimes disturbing or at least irritating. A.L. Kennedy has an uncanny knack for exploring the cracks in people’s perceptions of themselves and others. Although quite a lot happens in Original Bliss, perception is the true pivot for her masterful stories.
In Kennedy’s work, there are certain constants, obsessions, images that recur. She is a very funny writer, and she keeps writing about fundamentally dire situations or setups, but she never abandons her characters there. Her work is imbued by a warmth, a light; Kennedy understands her characters, she doesn’t present us their stories as anomalies to stare at: she gives her characters an opportunity to raise their voices. In my favorite novel of hers (keep in mind, as of today, I haven’t read Day yet), the wondrous, marvelous Everything You Need, this principle becomes the major topic of the book, which is as much about writing, that is: about finding and losing your voice, as it is about father-daughter relationships and other connections between friends, family and total strangers. Kennedy almost always opts for a personal narrator, because that offers her the opportunity to let her characters speak for themselves and not letting the whole thing veer off into confessional sob stories. The skill with which Kennedy navigates between objectivity or rather: restraint, on the one hand and subjectivity on the other, is remarkable. And you can’t usually tie her down to one mood or technique. As a writer of short prose, she’s extraordinarily inventive (within the constraints of what she considers worth telling). Her story collections usually glitter with moods and formal games, as well. In this sense, Original Bliss is very different. The whole book has a strongly claustrophobic feel to it, it is very concentrated upon its issue and its manifestations in different situations. It’s also Kennedy’s longest collection of short fiction so far, mostly because it not only contains ten short stories but also a novella (“Original Bliss”). Take care: the American edition of Original Bliss (and the German translation Gleissendes Glück) contains only the novella, for whatever barmy reason.
The ten stories function, intentionally or not, as a preparation of sorts for the novella which is uncharacteristically dark for a book of Kennedy’s. The first story, “Rockaway and the Draw” introduces many of the novella’s topics, but with a humorous twist, a lighter tone, which becomes obvious in passages such as this one:
At other times and in another country, that space had been her cunt. Ben called it his beaver. She supposed beaver was a nicer word than cunt. Ben’s beaver. She didn’t mind it being a beaver, she only found it odd that it wasn’t hers. Ben’s own genitals were quite attractive, but nothing on which she would stake a claim.
Suzanne, the story’s protagonist, keeps having dreams and visions of “a place called Rockaway where there is nothing but an old gas station and a man who waits.” For Suzanne, the sexual act does not mean or cause intimacy, it’s a “mutually agreeable overhaul”, actually well done on the part of Ben, who appears to do everything right that a partner should. He’s sensitive, intelligent, he listens to her and “[e]very single thing she liked: he remembered them all.” None of this, however, translates into intimacy for Suzanne, whose dreams and visions are often violent, and are marked by a desire to be elsewhere. We see how she’s, in her relations with Ben, alienated, distanced. Neither sexual acts nor what is commonly accepted as communication are helpful. Ben fails to break through to her inside, into her thinking process. Worried, he tells her “You think more than anyone I know” and she answers “I really can’t help it. That’s how I am.” Sexuality as immediate experience is juxtaposed with thinking and dreaming; her behavior as learn-able, perceivable, in other words: her performance is in conflict with her inner truth. Suzanne suffers from a divide between spiritual and carnal needs, which is at heart a split into two truths, none of which is privileged over the other; that conflict creates the unhappiness that pervades this collection. Most of the stories that follow and the novella, as well, evoke these two areas and place their characters’ needs and problems on one of them.
Suzanne’s lack of intimacy despite being physically intimate with someone is iterated in the next story, “Animal” which is about a TV actor who drops out of his TV show. The story shows him talking to the woman who’s responsible for wardrobe and make-up, talking to her for the last time, minutes before his last appearance on the set of the show. The animal of the title is the TV show and the apparatus that powers it:
I always think it looks as if the booms and cranes and cameras are all part of…I don’t know…an animal and sometimes it lets people inside amongst itself so they can play. It’s very beautiful.
Playing, assuming roles, performing, these are wildly important elements of human interaction as we know, and in Kennedy’s stories, these actions are tied up with sexual performance (or the lack of it). Thus, she can make pertinent observations about a very specific aspect of our everyday lives, without getting caught up in the nooks and crannies of sex. In “Rockaway and the Draw”, Ben, Suzanne’s beau, can only react to her visible performance, but her perception of her own self, which manifests itself in her dreams, is hidden from Ben and, presumably, from the rest of the world. This closes her off to intimacy, as I maintained earlier. Mark, the actor in “Animal”, is similarly hiding from the world; he, too, presents a performance of himself; a false one that does not correspond to his self-perception. He does not have any sex, but this is not the problem. Just like Suzanne he cannot really open his truth to others, he’s somehow closed off. In a way, his onscreen sex as Dr. Barber (that’s what his role is called) is the equivalent to Suzanne’s competent but ultimately empty sex life. Between these two stories, Kennedy has shifted the particulars by making the performance part an actual performance, but has kept the basic parameters without creating cliché characters. Both Mark and Suzanne are highly believable characters, thanks to her masterful use of their voices.
We witness a complete change in a different story, which is called “Groucho’s Moustache”, the story of an extremely gullible woman, who admits to her flaw without resentment. It’s just who she is. She cannot see through other people’s truths, for her, the performance is all there is. She appears to be incapable of seeing a role as a role, a lie as a lie; at the same time, this devalues truth for her, because she is well aware of her problem. She knows that what she thinks is a truth might well be a lie, even a transparent lie. Her distance is the opposite of Suzanne’s – it’s the spiritual side of things that’s somewhat shady, as far as she’s concerned; while Suzanne tries to get closer to her spiritual truths through her dreams and visions, the main character in “Groucho’s Moustache” needs the fixed, touchable truths of physical contacts. As she becomes enmeshed in an affair, she tells the man she’s with, “I want”,
And for one complete moment, ‘I want’ was the absolute truth.
And she’s far from being the only one in Original Bliss who hunts for physical truths. In “Breaking Sugar”, arguably the single most tender and beautiful story in the collection, breaking a sugar cube with a hammer in the darkness, in order to release a violet burst of light, is used as a metaphor for sex, for reasonably violent physical contact, which releases a different kind of truth than the standard, spiritual, kind. In the story that moved me most, “Far Gone”, a man travels to New York to pursue a woman he loves. He travels to NY in order to have sex with her. As the story progresses we learn that she’s taken, married, even, but he persists, he knows about her husband but he still comes over. He has absolute, complete faith in their future as a couple, there’s not a second of doubt; at the same time, he has already projected the anticipated sex act as a full success, which, in turn casts doubt upon his ‘knowledge’ of their future. His is a hunt for physical truths because he looks for sex to close the deal, to disperse her doubts, or to even convert her, so to say. He wants sex to transmit to her that which he holds to be true, his inner truth, sex is his means of opening up, of performing that inner truth; but here’s the kick: within the story, he never actually has sex, we just follow him on his journey, we don’t follow him to his destination, thus everything that pertains to the physical aspect remains within the realm of dreams, of his inner truth, including his resolve to really proposition her once he arrives.
I could go on this way for ages, since there are a few more stories I haven’t even mentioned. Kennedy’s nuanced and complex writing merits more than the quick readings, heavy on catchphrases, I have just offered. I cannot, however, talk about the book and not talk about the novella. As I said, the stories, in many more ways than I sketched above, feel like preparation for the novella, or rather: the novella appears to sum up many themes in the preceding stories and provide, at the book’s end, a kind of synthesis. The plot is as simple as it is weird. Mrs Brindle, a housewife, thoroughly unhappy at home, loses her ‘Original Bliss’, her ability to believe in God; this loss hits her like the loss of a close relative would. Devastated, in mourning, she comes upon the self-help books of Edward E. Gluck, a self-help guru, who tours the world, sells millions of books and may even be in the running for the Nobel prize. On a whim she travels to Stuttgart, where he’s having a talk. Their complicated relationship that develops from this is the topic of the novella. These two are both, in a way, in search of spiritual and bodily fulfillment, but they come from different situations. Bodily contact helps her free repressed portions of her self (à la Reich!), whereas contact with her spirit helps Gluck tackle his porno addiction. Gluck is completely desensitized, he’s thoroughly in thrall of the vices and temptations of the physical world.
These two strange characters subsequently attempt to help each other; the novella charts their successes and failures in this undertaking. It’s mostly dark, and powerful, full of twists and turns; all its events are basically pushed forward by the woman’s quest for happiness, or rather: bliss. It chronicles is a quest for regaining her capacities of belief, her original bliss. Kennedy’s spare writing and her wry humor do their utmost to convey the urgency of Mrs Brindle’s search. Neither Mrs Brindle nor A.L. Kennedy opt for easy solutions, which is one of the many strengths of Original Bliss. Kennedy creates completely believable characters in strange situations; unhappy characters who sometimes opt for strange solutions to their problems. Many of them just want to believe. In love, in friendship, in God. They crave that original bliss, that Urvertrauen. So they enter their respective stage, trying to find a role that works for them. Some manage, some don’t. Original Bliss, which offers us their stories and voices, always manages to find the right pitch, the right phrase, to make their stories work. If it is more claustrophobic than her other collections of stories, it’s because its even more coherent thematically than her already very coherent and rounded other collections, more passionately pursuing answers to basic questions, focusing on one aspect rather than on a buffet of human melancholy. Who are we? Why do we love? Who are we when we love? This is an extraordinary book.
Finishing a novel by Iris Murdoch always leaves me breathless, swooning with happiness. My first encounter with Dame Iris Murdoch was The Sea, The Sea and then The Book and the Brotherhood. I do not re-read books if, for one reason or another, I do not have to, but both novels are high on the list of novels I’ll reread given enough time. With both novels it’s hard to point to what exactly makes them so great. An obvious answer is that the mind at work in both books is a wonderful and brilliant one. Iris Murdoch isn’t content with writing one kind of novel, her books are always several things at once, and all of them fully formed, complete. But it’s strangely hard to pin down. Novels like The Book and the Brotherhood are hardly dazzling linguistically. The writing is good, of course, but more on the elegant side of things than anything else, it’s put into service by the story and the ideas. The writing does draw you in, her language is warm, direct, emotional yet at the same time almost arch, a controlled writing, but what keeps you reading are the stories. And fuck yeah what stories these are. And The Book and the Brotherhood contains several kinds of stories.
One of these is a story about a group of academics and their involvement with Marxism. The story charts their youthful dreams and their subsequent falling-out with communism and communist doctrine. We don’t get many flashbacks, in a way what we see is how the story has been inscribed on the backs and faces and souls of the dozens of characters that populate the book. What we are not told, in Murdoch’s masterful dialogues (it needs to be said that Murdoch would’ve been an excellent playwright), we can infer from the obsessions and pathological problems of those we meet in the pages of The Book and the Brotherhood. And yes, most of what we glean of that story is negative; there isn’t a happy ending to that youthful enthusiasm for communism. In a way, it seems, at least initially, as if that particular storyline illustrated the infamous bonmot of George Bernard Shaw’s that “any man who is not a communist at the age of twenty is a fool. Any man who is still a communist at the age of thirty is an even bigger fool.” The surviving theorists are straight pessimists like Professor Levquist:
“All thought which is not pessimistic is now false.”
“But you would say it has always been?”
“Yes. Only now it is forced upon all thinking people, it is the only possible conception. Courage, endurance, truthfulness, these are the virtues. And to recognize that of all things we are the most miserable that creep between the earth and sky.”
“But this cheers you up, sir!” said Gerard.
As usual with Iris Murdoch, the case is, naturally, less clear. The book turns out to be a complex meditation on the assumptions hiding behind sayings such as G.B. Shaw’s. I admit: I feel somewhat overwhelmed by the task to go into details on Murdoch’s treatment of its ideas. Murdoch does three things. She engages a handful of her characters in a direct discussion of pertinent topics and ideas. Throughout the book these characters meet and debate, directly, issues like Communism, the revolution, hope and the like. Many writers do that. They may even do the second thing she does, which is create a story that exemplifies certain elements of that debate. What they don’t manage, though, or very rarely, is create a story that works perfectly as a story. The condescension of many writers of novels of ideas, who try to cheat the readers out of a great stories by making ideas paramount and characters merely puppets, to use that old expression, in the hands of a writer who fancies himself far more than novelist: he’s a philosopher now, don’t you know. And the word philosopher is instrumental here.
This is not about creating a story, often allegorical, to support an idea, it’s about telling the reader, often, explicitly, in the most annoying manner often, what your philosophical ideas are and then slapping a story in between the breathing gaps, a story which doesn’t deserve that name. See, the explicit philosophical lecturing is important, because in those instances, the writer gives his game away. In the hands of such a writer, awareness often drops by the wayside. Novelists such as Paolo Giordano (review of The Solitude of Prime Numbers forthcoming) scrub their texts until the norm disappears, hides behind eccentric characters; often illness, as the Other of ‘normal’ health, exemplifies a pathological emotional state. Or women. There is a disregard for your fellow man hidden in many of these stories. Iris Murdoch’s work shows us how a story, the writing and construction of a story, can buffer this effect. Murdoch’s work is multi-layered, it’s constantly shifting, it’s basically a mechanism which creates awareness, although that last phrase may sound barmy. A story creates its own momentum, the deconstructionists were not the first to find out about this, and in Murdoch’s novels, even in as slim ones as A Severed Head, different kinds of these thrusts created by stories, are colliding, producing contradictory effects.
This deft handling of the stories endows Murdoch with the liberty to throw raw chunks of thinking at us, and these are different ones in each book. As to The Book and the Brotherhood, it’s about some of the grand questions of left thinking, questions that are, today, in mainstream literature, raised in an at best ironic tone, if not downright derisory. Incidentally, it’s this state of things that made Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions (2007) such a pleasant, even delightful surprise. Kunzru’s sidesteps the defensive attitude of many old-school Marxists today, not engaging in that discourse, because it’s of course the wrong categories. Murdoch does something similar but in a more hidden way. She does present us figures of the defensive debate, tropes and phrases that have been and still are part of many attack/defense rituals. Ultimately, however, she presents (and answers?) other questions, non-defensive ones. How and why do we adjust to the regime? And we’re including democratic regimes here, I’m just stumped for a better word, we’re living in and why do we subscribe to opinions and attitudes we attacked ardently in our youth? How does society reassert its grip on our minds? Not if, but how. The right presuppositions are already in place.
Both the futility of theory and -at the same time- the necessity for it and both the entrancing beauty of serious thought and, oh, let’s just call it: inconvenience of said thought, these are all important in the narrative. Thought is merciless. Brutal. Conclusions are temporary, and likely, merely by virtue of being conclusions, wrong. Here are two particularly salient passages that relate to this issue:
“I don’t know whether Crimond is “really” a Marxist, or what that means now, they don’t know themselves. I suppose he’s a sort of maverick Marxist, as their best thinkers are. The only good Marxist is a mad Marxist. It’s not enough to be a revisionist, you’ve got to be a bit mad too – to be able to see the present world, to imagine the magnitude of what’s happening.”
“You think of yourself as an open-minded pluralist – but you’ve got a single compact little philosophy of life, all unified, all tied up comfortably together, a few soothing ideas which let you off thinking! But we must think – and that’s what’s such hell, philosophy is hell, it’s contrary to nature, it hurts so, one must make a shot at the whole thing and that means failing too, not really being able to connect, and not pretending that things fit when they don’t – and keeping hold of the things that don’t fit, keeping them whole and clear in their almost-fittingness – oh God, it’s so hard -”
Apropos of “God”, I should mention another thing: faith is another important and central topic. Murdoch is a deeply generous writer. You will not find her attacking, with a red face and hoarse lungs beliefs that other people may find important, not least because it’s clearly important for Murdoch to respect her characters and the strata of human life they stand for. There are people falling off the Christian faith, there are people entering it. As she did in The Sea, the Sea, Murdoch, although she’s clearly capable of scrutinizing all kinds of ideas and topics, places faith on the periphery of rational inquiry, perception. It’s never ludicrous, as so many cruel and stupid people would paint it. Instead, she creates two roles for it. One is faith as something mystical, something vaguely incomprehensible to the uninitiated, something that needs to be experienced in order to understand it. Murdoch doesn’t attempt, as a novelist, to follow Locke’s doomed example to demonstrate The Reasonableness of Religion. Instead, she shows us religion as mystical, as beyond the reductive grasp of anatomy and reason. In a way, she reads religion on its own terms, gives it breathing space on its own turf. The second role of faith is as an element of social cohesion, or private solace, as something that can provide some persons with strength, resolve (There is an extraordinary novella by A.L. Kennedy, Original Bliss, that explores a similar topic. Review up soon). Murdoch privileges neither role, and does not present either as exoticism. On the contrary, she frequently suggests that many of our preoccupations may tie in with faith, not just by association, even causally.
However, I did say earlier there were several kinds of stories. The other major strand, apart from the ideas just mentioned, is love (and death). This one, it’s melodrama. A group of friends, some in love with others, some becoming pregnant, some dying, some married, some divorcing. A smorgasbord of relationships. Like a soap-opera, honestly. The Book and the Brotherhood’s a long book, 600 pages, full of life. That part of it isn’t remarkable yet. What’s remarkable is the attention to small personal detail and the amazing gift Iris has for imbuing her characters with life. After a few dozen pages, these characters get into your head. Even now, thinking back on the book, it’s like a complex world I feel I could slip back into at any given time. That’s the strange thing. The story is so well done, so much developed through these complex characters that it feels real. Like a novelized documentary. I never got a feeling of getting fed a formula. Any addition felt like the writer honing the picture, knowing all the while where she needed to go. In a way that I have rarely read before. I haven’t read a novelist who is this interested in people in ages. Not people. Her brothers and sisters. We are all family, and Murdoch understands this, accords all of us the respect we deserve. The storytelling is always compassionate, engaging, and moving. Iris Murdoch is an amazing, amazing writer and one of my very favorite novelists. ISBN
(If parts of this review sound familiar to you, its because I based it on notes that I took for an older review that I posted more than a year ago, but which apparently got lost when I moved to wordpress. I was in no shape to write a new review today, but an update/rewrite, yep, that works. From how I remember the old review, this one’s a bit longer, and is more digressive. Sorry. That also explains the unevenness. Sorry, again. I was out drinking with a few friends.)
Braun, Volker (2000), Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals, Suhrkamp
Volker Braun is a master. He has written plays, poems and prose, and has excelled in every medium. His voice is recognizably his but at the same he’s part of the great generation of writers like Thomas Brasch and Christoph Meckel, all of whom were (are) successful in different kinds of media. Volker Braun’s still active and still an incredible writer. Like many great GDR writers, he was influenced by Ernst Bloch and his multivolume manifesto to utopian hope; like many great GDR writers, the attractiveness of socialist hope and the problems of the everyday reality of the socialist state they lived in (I talked a bit about that stuff here) provided two important parameters of his work. In a way, they still do. Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals is a good example of this and it’s a whopping great read at the same time. As for the edition I read: The book on my desk (see bibliographical info above) has been published in 2000 (after Braun won the prestigious Büchnerpreis that year, I guess, which is still the most significant prize for German language literature). Two parts of it have already been published under the title Der Wendehals in 1995. For this paperback edition, a third part, written at the same time as the other two and sharing common concerns and characters, has been added.
Now, to clear up that strange long title: “Trotzdestonichts” is not an existing German word, it’s a neologism, derived by switching around the elements of the word “nichtsdestotrotz” which, roughly, means “nonetheless” in English. You might translate it with “lessthenone”, I guess. A “Wendehals” is a “turncoat”. Thus, the title might be translated as “Lessthenone, or The Turncoat”, but, of course, a few things would be lost in that translation. Volker Braun is, first and foremost, a poet. His language, playful yet precise, is testament to that. In a light and cumpulsively readable manner, Braun, especially in the middle section, which is titled “Der Wendehals”, piles on puns, jokes and the like, with such ease and slight of hand that it made me repeatedly squeal with glee. The word “Wendehals” is made up of the words “Hals”, meaning “neck” and “Wende”, which means “turnabout”, “turn” or “reversal”. There is, however, one specific historical meaning that the word carries: it can refer to the end of the GDR and the takeover by West Germany (BRD). And so we have, in the title, a pun that contains in nuce, already, the theme of the book. How people were affected by that specific historical “turnabout”, how some became turncoats, how it overturned and switched around meanings for people living there, how even everyday life had to be read anew, how old readings of one’s own history had to be reversed etc. But I make the book sound more serious and heavy-going than it is, really.
There have been many books written about the Wende, some good, some less so. My favorite is Günter Grass’ miraculous Far Afield (Original German title: Ein Weites Feld), that was panned by many critics when it was published but remains one of my favorite Grass novels, and it’s certainly one of the best books dealing with that period. Grass’ book is, as usual, a grotesque, heavy with pathos and symbolism. Grass blends the life of German canonized literary giant Theodor Fontane with the life of a bumbling GDR man, nicknamed Fonty. This allows Grass to spread countless layers of German cultural references, literary and political, over the events in 1989 and 1990. Every action taken, every sentence uttered thus takes on a special (double) significance. There is a lot of humor, too, but it’s Grass’ variety of humor, which I always find hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t read the man. Grass is almost never witty, in his best moments he’s either funny or ponderous, in his worst, well, let’s just pass over that. The difference to Braun’s book, which is infinitely witty and light couldn’t be more striking yet Braun’s take on that period is astonishingly good, too. The three texts, written in 1992/1993 make the best possible use of hindsight, they provide an assessment that still holds up today, 14 years after the book was first published, which is no mean feat.
As I said, Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals consists of three parts, not of equal length. The first section, the aforementioned newcomer in this edition, is the shortest. It’s called “Das Nichtgelebte” (roughly “The Unlived”) and relates to us the events of that day in November 1989 as experienced by a character named Georg. We learn that he experiences the Wende as an end, in a way, of time, an end to life as he knew it. Early in his story, he tells us that he is a punctual man, who doesn’t have an appointment to go to, which is intensely alienating to him. He had, in the waning days of the GDR, an affair with a younger woman, which fails to take off; mostly, we suspect, because he isn’t able to warm up to her, he keeps a distance. In one memorable scene, he watches her sleep, slips into bed beside her, and keeps a distance from her, exactly the lenth of his erect penis’. He tells himself that it’s better that way: “He had only guarded her sleep, and this thought evoked a tenderness in him that he carried away from the cave like robbed goods.” (crap translation mine). In the final pages of “Das Nichtgelebte” we find out that this reserve of his is a national problem. As the GDR, the great hope of so many, crumbles around him, he has a few insights, among them this: “We did not want it, he mumbled. We did not want it, we did not want it. We were not serious about it. We had time enough.” (again, my translation) Time enough indeed. Now it’s all over, West Germany takes over the country and incorporates it into its own structures. The “unlived” of the title does not just refer to the chances George missed in his private life by being an anal reticent pedant. It also refers to the chances the whole country missed by not following up on Bloch’s Prinzip Hoffnung. Imagine there’s a revolution and the people bungle it, and the reaction takes up the remains. This is tragic, and the section, though replete with a quiet humor, does full justice to that feeling.
Of all the sections, “Das Nichtgelebte” is the most poetic, the one with the most arresting images and moving formulations. It also introduces Schaber, a former high ranking supervisor of some kind, who has now become a turncoat, working for a financial conglomerate in the West. He is the principal character of the second section, which is called “Der Wendehals oder Trotzdestonichts”. The second section is the longest one, at a hundred pages roughly four times as long as the other two. It’s basically a dialogue between “Ich” (I) and “Er” (He). These two characters could be Georg and Schaber, the author and Schaber etc. It doesn’t really matter, because what they really are, is Hinze and Kunze. Hinze and Kunze are the protagonists of Braun’s most famous novel (Hinze-Kunze-Roman) and most famous play. Hinze is a citizen of the GDR who manages to see through the faults and problems and structural issues of his society. He engages a bureaucrat, Kunze, in a discussion, which leads to dialogues that possess the precision of Plato’s dialogues and the concerns and humor of Brecht’s Keuner stories. The same happens here, but the parameters have changed. Kunze/Schaber now doesn’t have a bureaucracy to defend, or a country. He defends himself. After all, this is a new country, individualism is valued highly here. Schaber is a cynical opportunist who praises his own actions and the advantages of this new life. Hinze/”Ich” is a man whose hopes have been dashed, who is almost as cynical as his opponent, but his cynicism is born from disappointment.
As the two talk, the discussion picks up speed, the two opponents bouncing words, puns and phrases off each other. It’s quick, funny and makes countless excellent points about democracy, about the peculiar (West) German attitudes to work (in German, the employer “gives” you work; literally, the German word for employer means “Workgiver” and the word for employee means literally “Worktaker”. This is partly due to an ambiguity in the word “Arbeit” (Word), but it’s also telling as far as the German attitude towards employers is concerned), about emergent racism, about consumerism and about “thoughtcowardlyness” (Braun uses a neologism here as well). At the same time, the plot of this section involves an odyssey through Berlin at night, full of surreal scenes and images, most strangely, a stampede of prostitutes. In another scene, in a library, “Ich” throws volumes of Lenin at volumes of Stalin, in the middle of a discussion that touches on Marx, Engels, the two bearded Soviets and Hegel. It’s marvelously structured, very well thought and divinely well written. At the end of that section we notice a few catchphrases from the first section reappear, but turned, cold, opportunistic. The wasted life that Georg complains about, which means a committed life, reappears now as a zest for life, but in the sense of carpe diem, Just do it!, like many of these slogans completely divested of commitment. Commitment means accepting failure, not thinking in terms of success but in terms of process. In the turned version, this facet has vanished in favor of a far more sparkly: Don’t talk so much, live!. Watch out for opportunities and grab them!
Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals, it turns out, provides a wide array of emotions, depending how you read the book. The last section more or less wraps things up. It consists of several very short prose pieces that focus on different aspects. It doesn’t add much more to the book in terms of idea, but it’s necessary in that it fleshes the book out a bit, broadening its message, and clarifying many hints and implications. There’s much to delight in, and the writing vacillates wildly between the poetical style of the first and the ribald style of the second function. So what about the book as a whole? It’s certainly a joy to read, but as for its ideas, for me, Braun was preaching to the choir, basically. I have no idea how the book appeals to people with different convictions. The thinking behind it is certainly lively and powerful, but as a whole the book seems a bit thin. Turns out, I could have used some more Grass here, to provide a punch. The execution of the text, as it is, is masterful. Braun’s immense gifts as a poet are in full display here, as Braun bends the language to his will, more unobtrusive than fellow magicians like Schmidt, Jelinek and Jirgl but with no less verbal energy and inventiveness. Nothing slips from his grasp, except for one thing. The whole comedy could have made the book a cold, distanced satire. It is part of Braun’s prowess, though, that he knows when to give the reins some slack. Now and then, the mask slips and we see hurt and disappointment and we are touched, moved, and saddened. And as the book ends on a note of hope, we close it smiling. Thinking, but smiling.
Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals is not a masterpiece, maybe, whatever that means, but it is a delight, from the first to the last page. In 1989 and 1990, half of Germany was turned on its head, and for the second time, German citizens had to renege their beliefs and adapt to a new society. The GDR has left scars upon the German consciousness, partly, certainly, because of all the disappointed hopes and dreams that were invested into that country. Books like Braun’s provide an insight into the hurt and resentment of many former citizens of that strange country, who were told that everything they believed in was a wrong and flawed as the dictatorial bureaucracy that used to govern them and that the West German system was the only way to go. Volker Braun, evidently, doesn’t believe that, which leaves him in an intellectual state of inbetweenness and which makes this book so readable.