Kind people have given me presents for Christmas, several of which have made me quite happy. Have you had good holidays?
A chain of fortunate circumstances has led to a very brief essay of mine being published in a new guide to the work of Theodore Roethke, among august company like Jay Parini, Frank Kearful and Camille Paglia. You can find the book here, and, one assumes, at your favorite online retailer.
Merry Christmas everyone. I hope you are having a nice holiday. I’m spending Christmas Eve entirely without my family, who is pandemically spread around their own little hearths all over Germany, but it is what it is. This too shall pass. Take care of yourselves.
I’m aware of how fortunate I am – I’m in good health as always, I have a home and people who love me, and a family similarly untouched by Covid. I’m very worried about some of my friends, including a couple in London, who are very close to my heart and have been on my mind throughout this whole horrible time.
So you have seen me announce my TDDL coverage and then nothing happened? Apologies, did NOT have a good week. Anyway, yesterday the awards were voted on by the jurors, and I thought that’s a solid opportunity to summarize the past 3 days of readings for you.
I split my summary into three parts: the writers I did not like, or didn’t like enough, my favorites, and then a third about the actual results. Here is part 1: The Bad, which you should read first.
My favorites are, in this order:
Egon Christian Leitner
Audience Award: Hanna Herbst
In the first summary I grouped the writers by similarities rather than by chronological order or preference. I would like to continue doing it here, and there are two obvious groups. The odd woman out is Laura Freudenthaler. I’ll begin with an admission: I listened to the story and was bored, looked at the text and was a bit nonplussed by some elements of the style and was ready to dismiss it, until one of the readers I value most suggested I have another look (because of that reader I had another look at Lisa Krusche too, but that did not help. More on Lisa Krusche at the very end of Part 1). And I was wrong. Freudenthaler’s story is an extraordinary achievement. Structurally it moves like a melody, with a devastating, literally explosive ending – and it’s a testament to her skill that a big, devastating, fiery end, after only 8 pages of story, feels earned, and not like a gimmick. Freudenthaler, like Ally Klein at TDDL 2018, does a remarkable job of making anxiety feel real. Moreover, she excels at using real scientific facts about the developments of peat fires or other phenomena of spontaneous underground combustion organically, as a way to illuminate the knowledge we have about her story. As a writer, Freudenthaler has a knack for the curious detail – like the sound of a burning fire, sucking in oxygen, and its similarity to the sound of an asthmatic person having an attack. Freudenthaler connects insides and outsides, a personal violent episode leads us into the story and a massive conflagration leads us out. It touches on political concerns, but indirectly, trusting the protagonist’s anxiety to carry us over.
Much more overtly political are Egon Christian Leitner and Lydia Haider. Both of them extraordinarily Austrian in their talk and both of them explicitly, directly and forthrightly political. Neither of them really helped their texts by reading them aloud. Egon Christian Leitner has a large body of work of largely fragmentary or rather: episodic prose about life on the margins. Unlike exploitative texts, like Bachmann participants Neft and Schutti, Leitner is always empathetic and clear about his own speaking position. The language evades simple emotive tendencies, it doesn’t try to manipulate the reader, it grounds marginalized people in the details of their own realities. Despite the clarity of the language, it’s not plain or journalistic, instead Leitner’s tone is deliberate and clean. His reading, regrettably, was offered in a monotone that emphasized some of the structural repetitions, but undersold his skills at deploying sarcasm and other forms of pointed humor. Leitner stood out, and is one of my favorites because his work felt genuinely unique – not filled with the phraseology of Bachmanntexts past, or leaning on the imagery of 1990s fiction or nonfiction, it felt almost sui generis, though particularly 1970s Austrian literature can offer further examples of work written in Leitner’s style. A similar mixture of sui generis with echoes of brilliant texts in the Austrian tradition is found in Lydia Haider’s text. Where Leitner’s text was dominated by the reasoned speaker’s voice, Haider’s story teems with voices. A text about contemporary politics, violence and right wing rhetoric, it borrows from a completely different Austrian tradition, most famously Jelinek, whose later novels and plays interrogate the violence inherent in common and popular phrases. I will admit, I am not as well read in other examples of that tradition. At the end of her presentation, Haider reads from a copy of plays by Werner Schwab, furnishing us further venues of reference and interpretation. The text is dense, and Haider’s intensely dramatic reading regrettably covered up its details – revisiting it quietly, its well-turned language reveals a skilled writer, with an urgency that’s equal part literary and political. Much of it is flashy, clearly, but the unusual language, the thoughtful engagement with a tradition, and the examination of contemporary issues lift it beyond all the texts discussed in the previous section. Both Leitner and Haider’s texts are unthinkable without assuming that these writers see themselves, as Otoo noted, as citizens as well as writers, and they present us also with an answer to some of the lazy reactions to Otoo’s speech, such as irritated (and irritating) complaint, Otoo were expecting us to learn a bibliography before or instead of engaging with the issues. What Otoo did instead, with several examples early in her speech, is ask for a literature that’s thought- and careful, that considers questions of solidarity, and that brings empathy to not just its characters, but its readers, as well. The jury could have noted any of that or other links to Otoo’s speech, which would have been especially apropos in Leitner’s case, but they decided to ignore it instead.
And finally, my favorite writer of the competition – she was my favorite before everything started and consistently my pick to win it all: Helga Schubert. Helga Schubert and Hanna Herbst presented texts about parents, and they did so one after the other. Of all the writers in this post, Hanna Herbst is the weakest, and on the level of writing, she does not reach some of Lisa Krusche’s heights. At the same time, her texts also do not evince some of the downsides to Krusche’s text. Herbst is not, as far as I can tell, primarily a literary writer – and this text, though it may become part of something larger, feels specific to a moment. Herbst’s text is gimmicky – a remembrance of a father that’s filled with small bits and bobs, frequently unpleasantly precious. If you’ll think of the music of Belle & Sebastian, the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Silvain Chomet, you can guess at the tone. Through it all, the text, however, retains a genuine, a moving core, and unlike other texts in the previous section, never reproduces racism. In fact, it’s the rare text that feels carefully crafted even though it’s sometimes overrun with unexamined common phraseology. There’s a sense of a kind of writing that came out of creative writing departments in the early 2000s, like Paul Harding’s Tinkers. One episode had the father ask his daughter to bring her three favorite books to him, only to burn them without explanation, a story that Hanna Herbst manages to invest with a sense of connection and mystery – everything seems polyvalent, resonating with different energies, a good text. Its biggest disadvantage was to be presented immediately after Helga Schubert gave us a story about remembering a mother. Schubert’s text swings wildly, it can be tender, cruel, warm, violent, personal, political – it’s a rich text by a writer who has been ignored by the literary establishment for a long, long time. A psychoanalyst by training, the prose she published in the 1980s is at times staggering in its use of economy. The story “Schöne Reise,” collected in the collection of the same name, reads like Carver after Lish was through with him. And Schubert preserved this quality. Politically, Schubert had always been complicated, I recommend reading a conversation she had with Rita Süssmuth, published as Gehen die Frauen in die Knie? in 1990, where Schubert evades expectations of feminist assumptions, harshly critical of GDR society and politics. The politics of the story she presented at TDDL were similarly complicated, but ultimately overshadowed by the portrait of a difficult mother – a mother who tells her daughter on her dying bed that she wasn’t wanted, and that she wants acknowledgment for giving birth to her despite that. It’s part of the power of Schubert’s story, that she ends up outside of the hospital, giving her mother that gratitude, without rancor, or damaging resentment. And though it’s tempting to retell bits and pieces of the story which can move the attentive reader to tears, what truly sets it apart is Schubert’s stylistic sharpness. Take sentence length for example – the normal sentence here is short, but not remarkably so; yet when she expands her sentences, they immediately fill up with detail and direction. Strangely, the story never feels like Schubert had to fight to get it into this shape – she’s just this skilled. I feel obligated to state that the story is not as good as some of the 1980s work, but it’s more generous and expansive than that work.
My next post discusses the actual awards (spoiler: I’m not unhappy).
So you have seen me announce my TDDL coverage – and then nothing happened? Apologies, did NOT have a good week. Anyway, today the awards are voted on by the jurors, and I thought that’s a solid opportunity to summarize the past 3 days of readings for you.
And boy did we have some readings. There were no truly excellent texts on the first day, balanced out by some odd walks on the Caucasian side, and then there were two to three spectacular readings on the second day, and a solid third day. I’m not going to go through them chronologically, so as not to needlessly repeat myself. Writing about everything at once allows me to be slightly less vitriolic than I usually am – seeing the arc of a year’s crop of invitations is intriguing.
One of the most significant developments was the dialogue that the texts had with Sharon Dodua Otoo’s speech that introduced the events. Otoo’s speech very calmly discussed the role of race in German literature – she spoke clearly and eloquently about solidarity, lived experience, about the room to write yourself in a white society when you’re Black, when you’re Othered, by readers, publishers, other authors. What does representation mean to Black artists? The most urgent question, regarding this year’s competition, surfaces early in the speech: do some white writers write the way they do because they imagine their readership exclusively white? What are the expectations regarding literary “speech” – Otoo cites Chinua Achebe, who declared that “writers are not only writers, they are also citizens.”
And so to these three days of readings, with one (1) writer with Egyptian roots and one (1) writer with Kosovan roots, and everybody else with less complex backgrounds. How did these writers rise to the challenge of being “not only writers, [but] also citizens?” Poorly, for the most part.
I’m splitting the post into the writers I did not like, on the one hand, and a second post about my favorites, and then a third about the actual results.
My favorites are, in this order:
Egon Christian Leitner
Audience Award: Hanna Herbst
This post, however, is about the others.
Let’s begin with the interesting, inoffensive, but banal – Meral Kureyshi and Jasmin Ramadan offered light texts that were written with skill and invested with some intriguing energy, but fell flat, ultimately. Both concerned with questions of gender, they differed in tone – Kureyshi read us a soft, pensive monologue about a woman’s love life. There isn’t one bad sentence in the whole story, on the contrary, it contains several striking observations and comments, but it lacks, ultimately, something to draw the reader through it. The opposite is true for Jasmin Ramadan. Author of several novels, her story is punchy – a sharp look at modern gender dynamics, written in a light, quick style, which, for this kind of award and environment, was a bit too light. Acknowledging the difficulties of calling something “literary” without qualifying the precariousness of that judgment, this text still fell short of what is considered literary, at least in this context. And there are certainly questions here, questions I would have liked the judges to ask, about representation of female writing, and of writers of color, and what the limits of our idea of literary writing mean for this kind of writer, particularly because Ramadan consistently works with the most fascinating notions of representation in her literary work. Hers was the first text, and a fantastic opportunity to tie a discussion of the text into the Rede zur Literatur, which supposedly frames the whole week. Spoiler alert: the judges did not refer back to Otoo’s speech a single time. Not that first day, nor any day thereafter. Not surprised, but still disappointed. It feels off, slotting Kureyshi and Ramadan somewhere into the middle of the field, but it is what it is.
Similarly in the middle, but for entirely different reasons, is another pair of writers, Jörg Piringer and Levin Westermann. Every year, there’s at least one poet – and it is remarkably often that poet who wins an award. Nora Gomringer won the main award, for example. Poets writing prose can be exciting. Unexpectedly, this year, we were offered poets writing poetry. And not just text that is written in short lines. In their readings, both Piringer and Westermann emphasized the structural qualities of poetry. Jörg Piringer offered a history of our current reality, connected to a metaphor from martial arts. He worked in free rhythms, but scrupulously emphasized the ends of lines, forming the poem as much orally as he did on the page. The reading was more rhythmic than the writing – a veteran of the digital poetry scene, indeed, often considered a pioneer, Piringer’s reading was impressively sharp, powerful enough to make readers read past many of the less than sharp observations of history and the present. The martial arts metaphor sits uncomfortably in the middle of a text which does not in any way reflect on the patriarchal nature of historiography, written for an implied audience that does not particularly need that kind of reflection: white, tech-savvy men. The masculine obsession with martial arts fits this pattern too well, not to mention the pronounced performance of the whole text. Still, until I reread Lydia Haider’s remarkable text quietly tonight, I considered Piringer’s poem one of the four best texts of the competition. I was never in danger of considering Levin Westermann’s text one of those. Westermann is an accomplished, widely published poet – and in his text, he shows himself to also be widely read. An early quote from a Matthew Zapruder poem cannot but make us think of Zapruder’s recent, mildly controversial book Why Poetry, a defense of poetry, which may as well serve as an explanation of why Westermann offered up this text. Other writers cited in the text include Rilke, Dillard and Jorie Graham. The text itself consists of rhythmic but irregularly metered and highly irregularly rhymed lines, making strong use of repetition and other kinds of form to produce a formally dense text, which has next to nothing to say that cannot be found in Zapruder’s text. The occasional political notes struck are bland, and drown in the incessant formal games that Westermann, unlike some late Graham, never convincingly connects to something that matters. The effect is strangely masturbatory, a display (sound, fury etc.).
Speaking of masturbatory – male writers tend to come to Klagenfurt with texts celebrating, well, themselves, in one way or another, and it’s never the stylistically brilliant ones either. Last year, an award was handed out to a navel-gazing story of a writer writing about his day walking through his city, picking up groceries (details may vary), having a series of extremely minor epiphanies, presented in the flattest prose imaginable. And the streak continues, unabated, with the next pair. Leonard Hieronymi and Matthias Senkel offered badly written stories that were largely pointless literary exercises with the sole purpose of centering the writers in question, though, superficially, their stories appear to be different. Matthias Senkel presented a story about a mystery, about an archaeological dig, written like a mosaic, composed of sections set in different periods. It tries to use scientific vocabulary to make the story discursively complex, with notes of Richard Powers and similar writers, but he entirely lacks a broader view or any sense of style. His is not the worst written story of the competition, but it’s also not too far off. His goal is one of faking layers of complexity to catfish readers into overlooking the blandness of the actual writing on the page. Some of the dialogue is downright risible, the information in the story closer to wiki-sourced infodumps than to well-digested and productively used knowledge, and the various attempts to play or toy with the reader a transparent ploy to engage in dialogue with a very specific (white, male) readership, which is curiously popular in German literature, as attested to by the popularity of the Barons of Blandness Thomas Glavinic and Georg Klein, both of whom have made a career of papering over poor writing with various kinds of metafictional games, in the case of Glavinic with some additional limp masculinity. Speaking of which: Leonard Hieronymi entered a story into the competition that read like a carbon copy of the travel stories written by Christian Kracht and friends in the earlyy and mid-1990s. It’s almost not worth discussing. Hieronymi, member of a group called “The Rich Kids of Literature” (it’s an English-language title, because of course it is), writes about getting horribly drunk, then taking a trip to the Romanian city of Constanta by the Black Sea, meeting famed Romanian poet Mircea Dinescu. There, he evokes Ovid and his exile, which he wrote about in the beautiful Tristia. In between all this he offers observations of Romania that switch between the banal and the offensive, and in the end he returns, having learned nothing. The expectations inscribed in books like this, the sense of who writes, who reads and who gets written about is stark, but at least, let me say that, Hieronymi comes close to making his politics explicit.
That’s not true for the next group of writers, Katja Schönherr, Lisa Krusche and Carolina Schutti. Let me start with Schutti, because I have very little to say about her story that I hadn’t said about her novels before. To quote my pre-Bachmann review:
Carolina Schutti has a tonal consistency that is admirable, if maddening. In her very first book she zeroes in on a style that seems derivative, but really isn’t epigonal in any typical sense. She doesn’t echo specific writers as much as a general tone. As a concert pianist she has said in an interview that she always writes for listeners as well – and indeed, from the first line you can hear the voice in these books. And you know, eerily, what this voice is? It’s the typical note struck by the average reader at the Bachmannpreis – this measured pronunciation that situates texts right between light and somber, investing pauses and turns with meaning that they don’t have on the page.
these books are… specific cultural performances, with a specific audience in mind. Schutti, from page one, line one of her first novel, immediately seizes on a tone and style and never abandons it. Open any page at random, and you can hear it spoken slowly into a microphone in Klagenfurt. And honestly, they probably make for great analyses by scholars and judges, just not for particularly good literature. The expectation behind this style is what’s truly remarkable – it’s an inherent expectation of importance, an arrogance of whiteness that is at times breathtaking.
I also note the sense of exploitation of marginality. All of this is exactly true for the story she presented. Tone, style, exploitation, all there. Again, someone on the margins, again, someone struggling with language. And like other Bachmann-writers in previous years, for example Stephan Lohse, she doesn’t shy away from indirectly using Blackness as a way to feed and expand her already dubious narratives of marginality. Her protagonist, in a moment of crisis, sees a documentary about Africa on TV, exclaiming “Ich bin in Afrika.” Schutti’s text is a paint-by-numbers Klagenfurt text, in the worst way. Her books sound like they should be read at TDDL, so did her story, which she read exactly this way, and she uses the same tropes of marginality to elevate her text into a borrowed relevancy. At least, one is tempted to say, Katja Schönherr’s protagonist isn’t marginalized. Just a regular white female character. But Schönherr also, almost aggressively, makes it clear that she has a very specific implicit audience. I’ll admit, it’s bad luck that her story came out when we are all so much more aware of the necessity of elevating marginalized voices, when people march to protest the disregard for Black and trans lives. Let me tell you what Schönherr’s story is about in the least judgy vocabulary: a (white) woman goes to the Zoo with husband and daughter, struggling with her life, worried she might die (she’s not ill). She sees an orangutan who picks up a sign (we are never told which) and holds it up. A conversation between various onlookers ensues, as they debate whether the apparent demonstration by the ape is right-, or leftwing, or neutral. Complaints arise that the demonstration isn’t narrowly tailored to ape-relevant concerns, and the protagonist slowly comes around to feeling solidarity with the orangutan, who, she feels, should be allowed to have its say. After the sign is abandoned, she acquires orangutan costumes and goes to the zoo with her daughter, costume-clad, with the sign, to continue the protest, until she gets kicked out. To cite Otoo, as the judges have conspicuously not done: who is this for? Who is this about? Who is included, who is not? If every writer is a citizen, and if we are to look at who the writer’s empathy is for, how do we read texts like Schönherr’s? Using the figure of public protest merely as a mirror for a white woman’s ennui and an a fear of death is deeply strange and unpleasant – and shows a profound disengagement with the reasons for such public protests, not to mention other…issues with the story. Similar problems of disengagement are displayed in the text by Lisa Krusche. Of the three in this final group, it is by far the most well written. I admit, I had to read it multiple times to engage with the tone and the writing, but there you are. That said, her story about disaffected youth, a sense of connection with an environment that in Krusche’s pen turns even the inorganic organic, and virtual spaces suffers from the exact same problem as Schönherr’s story. The same questions apply – though she masks it better than Schönherr’s plain offering. The central theoretical text for Krusche’s story is Donna Haraway’s late-career book Staying with the Trouble, in which Haraway completes a disengagement with real, tangible change, with a connection to intersectional feminist issues, in favor of a loose examination of kinship and inter-species solidarity that was a long time coming in her work. This excellent essay by Sophie Lewis explains in detail where the problems with Haraway’s book are. Krusche’s story would have been tonally off in any year of the competition, but it sounds a particularly discordant tone this year, particularly. It’s not just that the police as an institution is noted and dismissed as “maybe inherently humorous,” which, I have no words. The use of virtual spaces in narratives is especially fraught. There are copious essays noting why texts like Ready Player Go are structurally racist, and what the imagination of whiteness in virtual spaces really means. Afrofuturism has offered much pushback to these imagined spaces, and clarified why there are no real neutral visions of the future. Krusche does not engage any of these questions and offers, at the end, a general pessimism, a view of revolution that is colorblind in the worst way. It’s an unpleasant text, masked by a sometimes stunningly beautiful sense of reality, borrowed straight from JG Ballard’s unpleasant dystopias of white distress. Sophie Lewis makes it abundantly clear that Haraway’s avoidance of empathetic solutions to patriarchal and racist violence (in fact, she specifically reproduces racism in the book) isn’t a byproduct, but an essential structural component of elevating oddkins and “kinnovations” over families and the masses of humans. The same is true, though less focused, of Lisa Krusche’s text. To connect the text to Sharon Otoo’s speech: who is its audience? Who do we have empathy for? Krusche’s text is about whiteness in multiple problematic ways. Nam Le, in his sticky book-length essay on David Malouf, notes the role of the bush, the untamed wilderness, in the imagination of colonial settler writing. He writes that for immigrants, “whiteness is our bush” – for Lisa Krusche, the old oppositions are active. The bush is still the bush, dystopian, wild, decaying. The contrast even to writers like Vandermeer, with all his flaws, is instructive. A text inspired by a past that we should be learning to read critically instead.
More on the writers I wanted to win in the next post.
If you follow me on twitter,you’ll see a deluge of tweets this week from Thursday to Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain.
I will be live-tweeting the strangest of events from my little book cave. Read on for Details on the event in general, what happened in the past years and what’s happening this year. Here are some anticipatory remarks from earlier in the week.
So what is happening?
Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4-5 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.
This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are usually more or less young writers (but they don’t have to be).
This year there’s a Coronavirus-related shift online. Only the moderator is in Klagenfurt, Austria. Everybody else joins via video. The readings are pre-recorded, while the judging happens on live video. Since everything is on a three-ish second delay, this might get messy.
So what happened in the past years?
The 2016 winner was British expat writer Sharon Dodua Otoo (here’s my review of some of her fiction), who read a text that was heads and shoulders above the sometimes lamentable competition. And you are fortunate – you can now purchase it in a bilingual edition here and I *urge* you to get a copy. Incidentally, the German judges were still slightly upset about Otoo’s win the following year, which explains why 2017’s best writer by a country mile, John Wray, didn’t win. It’s the revenge of the Bratwurst. The 2017 winner, Ferdinand Schmalz, was…solid. A good example of the performance based nature of the event – having one effective text can win you the pot. It was overall not, you know, ideal.
Given the issues with race in 2016 and 2017, it was interesting that the 2018 lineup skewed even whiter and much more German. It was thus no surprise that the best text, a brilliant reckoning with Germany’s post-reunification history of violence, Özlem Dündar’s text in four voices, did not win, but she did win second place. But the overall winner, Tanja Maljartschuk, a Ukrainian novelist, produced a very good text, and was a very deserving winner. And Raphaela Edelbauer (whose brilliant book Entdecker I reviewed here) also won an award. Three out of five ain’t bad folks, particular with people like Michael Wiederstein in the jury. So of course, 2019 went even worse. None of the adjudicated awards went to someone challenging the order of things. Here is my summary from 2019. It was depressing.
So what’s happening this year?
Somehow, the organizers came up with a brilliant idea. Each year, a writer introduces the events with a so-called “Rede zur Literatur” – a State of the Literature speech. This year, they gave Sharon Dodua Otoo the reins, who delivered a brilliant speech on Wednesday night (read/see it here) that managed to be trenchant and measured and relevant all at the same time. She ended it by mentioning some important Black German writers – none of whom have been invited this year, or last year, or the year before. Because of course not.
As for this year’s field – it’s…interesting. Not for diversity reasons, that’s still clearly off the table – except for Jasmin Ramadan, a writer with Egyptian roots, and Meral Kureyshi, born in Prizren, it’s as white as you’d think. That said, there are two writers this year who count among classic writers in their or any field. Most important: Helga Schubert. Schubert has been an important writer for all my life. She wrote a bona fide classic nonfiction book about female complicity in the Third Reich, the still-powerful Judasfrauen. She also writes short stories which are so unbelievably well made, I cannot help but have the highest expectations for this year. The other is Jörg Piringer, who is an important figure in early digital poetry. I have written reviews of the work of Meral Kureyshi (which is good) and Carolina Schutti (which is not), linked below.
I have misgivings about the field! And yet…I cannot help but be excited. Follow along! There’s a livestream! You can also read the texts during the competition here. So here’s the full list, which I posted below, sorted by reading days/slots.
10.00 Uhr Jasmin Ramadan
11.00 Uhr Lisa Krusche
12.00 Uhr Leonhard Hieronymi
13.30 Uhr Carolina Schutti
14.30 Uhr Jörg Piringer
10.00 Uhr Helga Schubert
11.00 Uhr Hanna Herbst
12.00 Uhr Egon Christian Leitner
13.30 Uhr Matthias Senkel
14.30 Uhr Levin Westermann
10.00 Uhr Lydia Haider
11.00 Uhr Laura Freudenthaler
12.30 Uhr Katja Schönherr
13.30 Uhr Meral Kureyshi
Schutti, Carolina (2010), wer getragen wird, braucht keine schuhe, Otto Müller
Schutti, Carolina (2012), einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein, Otto Müller
As has become tradition on this blog, as the Bachmannpreis rears its head, I’m reviewing some books by writers invited to perform there, though I never really get around to reviewing all that many. I already reviewed a novel by invitee Meral Kureyshi (click here), a while ago, actually, and here now is a review of two novels by Carolina Schutti. Schutti is a writer with a truly impressive track record. Not only does she have a PhD in German literature (she wrote a dissertation on Elias Canetti), but she’s also won a plethora of awards for her books – novels, novellas and other texts. And yet – to say I felt let down by the two novels under review is to understate how grueling the experience of reading these short books really was. I’ll say this for her: Carolina Schutti has a tonal consistency that is admirable, if maddening. In her very first book she zeroes in on a style that seems derivative, but really isn’t epigonal in any typical sense. She doesn’t echo specific writers as much as a general tone. As a concert pianist she has said in an interview that she always writes for listeners as well – and indeed, from the first line you can hear the voice in these books. And you know, eerily, what this voice is? It’s the typical note struck by the average reader at the Bachmannpreis – this measured pronunciation that situates texts right between light and somber, investing pauses and turns with meaning that they don’t have on the page. Both books use language to tell the story of people who struggle with it – who struggle with telling a story of themselves, and as a result, it is deplorable that Schutti declines to give them that voice. Instead she sets them up with a boilerplate reservoir of phrases that are all too common in books like this. And there are so many books like this. There’s an unpleasant lure to characters who are at the margins of language and society – not the truly aphasic, but the reticent ones, the ones who live between languages, or the ones with mental illnesses that make for dramatic performances.
And so her debut novel, wer getragen wird, braucht keine schuhe, (those who are carried have no need of shoes) focuses on an 18 year old girl who struggles with communication. She manages to work from a limited set of phrases in her work as a server, but once she meets a man and her life opens up, that language is no longer sufficient. There is a sudden turn, as a walk through the woods leads to a confession on the part of the protagonist, and eventually, a complete collapse. It is language, at every turn, that leads her astray, language, that condemns her, and language, at the end, that helps her pull herself together – or apart, depending on your reading. This tendency, to present a text that is primarily about language and not as much about actual lived experience, is a Bachmann cliché, and in some ways, last year’sline-up and results were a confirmation of this tendency, with Ronya Othmann’s autofictional text sidelined, and Sarah Wipauer’s rich, but not myopically self-centered text entirely ignored. It is difficult not to read these texts about mentally marginalized people by those in academia with some suspicion, as an exercise in tone and form. But even formally, this is upsettingly thin. It seems to strive for a switch from a certain simplicity in the early chapters to a much richer set of poeticisms in the last chapter, but nothing in the early chapters is actually simple, per se. These seem like the most mathematically average sentence length, with the typical number of adjectives for books written in German in the 21st century. And while there are more poeticisms towards the end, they veer sharply into Lifetime Movie sententiousness. As a comparison, for simplicity and formal mastery, take fellow 2020 Bachmann invitee Helga Schubert. In her story “Schöne Reise” we find truly reduced sentences, which bloom in extremely specific spots. The narrative, of a state-sanctioned Black Sea holiday, is tense, a story like a tightly wound spring, begging to be read and re-read. There is not a single sentence in Helga Schubert’s story that you don’t feel is crafted for this story specifically, and there’s no immediate comparison, except with her peers among the best writers of her generation. Not a whiff of epigonality.
This has, necessarily, to do with what I consider the most difficult mode of writing: simplicity. Everyday details and sparse language is the most difficult combination to pull off very well. Schutti’s attempts, at least in the two novels I read, from another problem that seems to me particularly German – the overuse of useless detail, particularly around food. The amount of times we are treated to individual bites of food in between thoughts or dialogue, intended to show the banality of passing time, in contemporary German literature is an absolute mystery to me. In the debut novel there’s a whole paragraph involving the serving of soup. Is this the German variety of show, not tell? Who did this to you? It is so pervasive, and such a sign of thoughtless paragraph writing – writing, that is, that’s concerned with what a paragraph is about more than about the individual sentences constructing the paragraph. Not to overuse Helga Schubert as a reference, but after all, she IS invited to this same competition, and her collection Schöne Reise, which contains the abovementioned story, is full of people cooking or eating, and there isn’t a single “biss in sein Brötchen” type of paragraph structure. I’m fine knowing you’re eating your food, carbs and all – do not list individual bites for me. It does not enhance anything.
Another issue with these books about people struggling with language is that the writers of those books tend to be especially highly educated – and so they offer observations that are incredibly complex but are couched in simple situations. Like Schutti, when her protagonist looks yearningly at the windows of rich people and observes that the people inside, unafraid to be robbed, “send out some of their light, it falls hard upon the asphalt, right in front of her. She cannot pick up this light, though she can climb inside, or step over it.” etc. This is highly poetic, if not particularly good, and entirely out of place with the much plainer and banal observations in the immediately preceding sentences. Somehow, and I think we can blame this on writers like Peter Handke, the margins of language have become a playground for these poeticisms toying with the perception of reality. In books like Schutti’s debut, however, it just feels exploitative. Talking about people who are really, genuinely marginalized, and coating their lives with self-serving language games seems dubious. When it’s this badly executed, its worse. There’s also often a racial component to it, and that Schutti’s second novel, einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein, “I must have walked across soft Grass once,” is about immigration and the learning and unlearning of language, and uses many of the same tools and tricks of the first book, confirms this theory. Now, the book is autobiographically inspired. Its protagonist is a woman who has lost the ability to speak the language of the place she came from as a child, Belorussian. Schutti herself is the child of immigrants and has lost the ability to speak their language, Polish. Immediately, these references, and connecting the struggles with language to learning or failing to learn a language gives the typical spiel more heft. The execution though is no better than in the debut novel. The immediate comparisons that come to mind, including Aglaja Veteranji’s brilliant novels, or Melinda Nadj Abonji’s underrated debut novel Im Schaufenster im Frühling, all serve to emphasize how flat, in the end, Schutti’s constructions end up being.
To be clear – these books are both exceptionally competent – but not as novels. They are specific cultural performances, with a specific audience in mind. Schutti, from page one, line one of her first novel, immediately seizes on a tone and style and never abandons it. It’s inconsistent, yes, but consistently so. Open any page at random, and you can hear it spoken slowly into a microphone in Klagenfurt. And honestly, they probably make for great analyses by scholars and judges, just not for particularly good literature. The expectation behind this style is what’s truly remarkable – it’s an inherent expectation of importance, an arrogance of whiteness that is at times breathtaking. An unbelievably fitting writer for Klagenfurt, then. It’s a surprise it has taken so long.
This is less like a full post and more a note – I know this blog has been mostly dormant these past weeks, but the annual deluge of posts regarding the Bachmannpreis is about to hit the blog. The Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur (TDDL – the days of german-language literature) are about to begin.
This year is different in multiple ways. Due to Coronavirus, the event is largely online – there is no audience, and the writers and judges are not crammed into a sweaty tent in Klagenfurt this year.
Another change – each year the readings are inaugurated by a longer speech, the Rede zur Literatur. Last year, we were offered a narratological note involving Wrestling metaphors. That year’s speaker was Clemens Setz. This year’s speaker is Sharon Dodua Otoo. You know what I think about her. There was always heightened significance to her choice, particularly given the extraordinarily privilege-blind judgments in the past several years, which increasingly sidelined interesting and/or non-white writers in favor of an insular view of what good and praiseworthy literature can and should be. Here’s my commentary on last year’s results.
So giving Sharon Otoo the reins to, in a way, define the framework for this year’s discussion, was always going to be interesting and necessary, particularly given some of the publicly uttered resentment towards her. However, if anything, this year’s long overdue discussions of the role of race in policing, public policy and health care, not just in the US, but also in Germany and Austria, have further emphasized the pivotal role of this year’s speaker. The field of writers (more on that Wednesday-ish) this year is barely more diverse than last year’s, with some really dubious choices, politically and literarily.
At the same time, in publishing, some truly amazing books have come out (or are about to come out) which challenge the narrow idea of literature propagated by the #tddl judges. Cemile Sahin’s Taxi and Olivia Wenzel’s 1000 Serpentinen Angst, for example, are two of the best German-language debuts to come out in years and years, and books like Deniz Ohde’s Streulicht are on the horizon.
Who knows, maybe this is the year when the Bachmannpreis judges truly reckon with the diverse realities of writing and living in Germany, and do not retire to their bleached, boring, insular view of literature and culture.
Since Twitter is about to embark on a big group read of William Gaddis’ two first novels, what with NYRB reprinting them, I wanted to share my favorite quote from The Recognitions, which, together with JR, ranks among my favorite novels – though I do think A Frolic of His Own is Gaddis’s most underrated book. Not as easy to read as Carpenter’s Gothic, not as Bernhardian as Agape, Agape, and not as spectacular as the first two. And yet, it is very good. That said, below, three quotes from The Recognitions, a masterpiece. If you feel intimidated by its heft and erudition – Gaddis worked as a researcher before he published this book – Steven Moore’s excellent and extensive “Reader’s Guide” is worth bookmarking. In fact, I recommend it. I’m sure there isn’t a greater expert on William Gaddis on earth. I’m not a huge fan of these “group reads” – but if that is what gets you into these two novels, then so be it. The Recognitions was an absolutely eye-opening reading experience, which was among the small handful of books that set me on the path of reading that I am on to this day, hurtling after books, trying not to drown.
“Something like writing is very private, isn’t it? How…how fragile situations are. […] Delicate, that’s why they keep breaking, they must break and you must get the pieces together and show it before it breaks again […]. That’s why most writing now, if you read it they go on one two three four and tell you what happened like newspaper accounts, no adjectives, no long sentences, no tricks they pretend, and they finally believe that they really believe that the way they saw it is the way it is, when really…why, what happened when they opened Mary Stuart’s coffin? They found she’s taken two strokes of the blade, one slashed the nape of her neck and the second one took the head. But did any of the eye-witness accounts mention two strokes? No. […] They write for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them. […] Why, all this around us is for people who can keep their balance only in the light, where they move as though nothing were fragile, nothing tempered by possibility and all of a sudden bang! something breaks. Then you have to stop and put the pieces together again. But you never can put them back together quite the same way. You stop when you can and expose things, and leave them within reach, and others come on by themselves, and they break, and even then you may put the pieces aside just out of reach until you can bring them back and show them, put together slightly different, maybe a little more enduring, until you’ve broken it and picked up the pieces enough times, and you have the whole thing in all it’s dimensions. But the discipline, the detail, it’s just…sometimes the accumulation is too much to bear.”
“Do you know what it was? That everything was so afraid, so uncertain God saw it, that it insisted on vanity in His eyes? Fear, fear, pessimism and fear and depression everywhere, the way it is today, that’s why your [Flemish Master’s] paintings are so cluttered with detail, this terror of emptiness, this absolute terror of space. Because God isn’t watching. Maybe he doesn’t see. Oh, this pious cult of the Middle Ages!”
“What did you want from [this poet] that you didn’t get from his work? […] This passion for wanting to meet the latest poet, shake hands with the latest novelist, get hold of the latest painter, devour…what is it? What is it they want from a man that they did´n’t get from his work? What do they expect? What is there left of him when he’s done his work? What’s any artist but the dregs of his work? […] What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology.”
Among my birthday presents, arriving through the mail as I am between homes and houses, was the enormous two volume edition of A.R. Ammons complete poems. The astonishment, first, that it exists. His name had slipped to the back rows, the less than notables, the – if not forgotten ones, then the ones, whose names start to slip our mind. Transcendentalism in American poetry, wasn’t there this guy, what was his name again…? And beyond this astonishment, a small surprise at the size of this, his hefty, large oeuvre, coming, of course, with a preface by Helen Vendler, who else, maybe this is mainly for her, maybe she lost track too, as books somehow started to accrue.
How do I read Ammons? We’ll see – I own some Ammons and have read all of that, but it is dwarfed by the reality of his output, the voluminous lack of restraint of a poetic masculinity that I am not sad to see leaving the stage. I will likely find the books I know and adore, and see what comes before and after, how much context and words and air surrounds the Ammons I know. I have gone straight to some of my favorite Ammons and already, I have changed while Ammons hasn’t, he hasn’t even left the protective awning of Helen Vendler’s critical support. In “Garbage,” Ammons derides an unnamed female poet, citing her words: “if I’m in / touch […] then I’ve got an edge: what / the hell kind of talk is that,” offering instead a calculated ethics of writing and rewriting, echoing the praxis of poets like Lowell, of whom his friend Kathleen Spivac remarked: “I’ve never […] seen a poet rewrite his poems so much.”
Looking at these volumes, over 900 pages each, at first I wondered whether this might not be the right poet for our searching, environmentally sensitive times, particularly poems like “Garbage” – but Ammons is difficult, he uses his voice not always to shine a light – often he uses it to hear himself proclaim. His Homeric gestures in “Tape for the New Year,” written to the background noise of drums and an imagined chorus, have echoes in the self-importance of some male Beat poets; they, too, are difficult to read today.
Reading my way through Ammons’s poetry is a daunting task, but the work’s voice, and the poet’s awareness of form and material, of the warp and woof of textures and melodies, is worth persevering, I think.
Glanz, Berit (2019), Pixeltänzer, Schöffling
I have reviewed a brilliant recent German novel for World Literature Today. It’s an inventive novel that pushes the envelope creatively but it holds back on the political implications of her story. It is by far one of last year’s best novels by a German author. It should be translated as soon as possible. You can read the whole (too short) review here.
This blog has been semi-dormant in the past year. So I’ll start by uploading, in vaguely reverse chronological order, some of the things I have been doing in the past months (not a lot, no worries, I didn’t suddenly succeed at something). In December I published three poems in Ben Mazer’s Art & Letters journal.
“There are four young friends wandering about in an underground world full of the debris of the past. One of the young people is called Donatello. The story involves a delivery to an unknown address. It is centered on a father figure. What is the text? Both the movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Marble Faun. (…) Like the film, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel (…) is a Darwinian-Ovidian tale of a creature halfway between man and animal”
– Barbara Johnson
Green, Anne Katharine (2010 ), The Leavenworth Case, Penguin
Anne Katherine Green is widely seen as a precursor to modern mystery novels – or one of the first modern mystery novels, depending on how you want to judge eras. Michael Sims’s introduction makes clear how much writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and especially Agatha Christie owe to Green’s work and to her 1878 debut novel The Leavenworth Case in particular. This book’s portly detective, who breaks his case by inviting all suspects into a room and explaining the facts of the case to them is clearly what Christie based her chubby Belgian detective Poirot on. In my experience, many of these “precursor” novels are interesting, often better literature than their more generic offspring, but also sometimes more dull, less concentrated and shaped. If there’s no genre conventions to use and work with, sometimes there’s a bit of Victorian shapelessness to some books, excuse my frank language. But the case of Anne Katherine Green is interesting.
With crime novels, what I as a reader particularly enjoy is reading the environment outside of the plot – issues like class, race, culture, and their reflection in the objects surrounding the plot and characters. Because mystery novels are often epistemologically locked rooms, we as readers enter them as a detective enters a locked room where a murder has happened. We examine the interior, the paneling etc. And while the world of the mystery may seem to roam across broader landscapes, in reality, for the reader, they are all locked rooms, and we enter them suspiciously. This has interesting effects. The author’s implicit biases become part of the narrative and furniture. In influential books like Dorothy Sayers’s debut Whose Body?, the author’s antisemitism becomes part of the structure, part of how we read and understand that novel. I’m not saying anything new, McHale’s disquisition on postmodernism has already sufficiently explained how detective fiction and modernism are connected.
But I found it necessary to explain because of how extraordinarily well made Green’s debut is, and how it appears to address these critiques and ideas. The book is narrated by a Watson type character, a smart person who comes close enough to the mystery’s solution at various points that the resolution can be genuinely surprising. He travels, interviews suspects, collects, saves and presents evidence – and the tone of the novel is extraordinarily melodramatic, designed for the reader to follow this proto-Watson through New York and into the heart of a complex family intrigue. But he never gets a real grip on the solution – that is reserved for the detective. His name is Mr. Gryce and he is introduced like this:
And here let me say that Mr. Gryce, the detective, was not the thin, wiry individual with the piercing eye you are doubtless expecting to see. On the contrary, Mr. Gryce was a portly, comfortable personage with an eye that never pierced, that did not even rest on you. If it rested anywhere, it was always on some insignificant object in the vicinity, some vase, ink-stand, book, or button. These things he would seem to take into his confidence, make the repositories of his conclusions; but as for you—you might as well be the steeple on Trinity Church, for all connection you ever appeared to have with him or his thoughts. At present, then, Mr. Gryce was, as I have already suggested, on intimate terms with the door-knob.
The first sentence, as Sims notes, is a reference to Wilkie Collins’s detective Sergeant Cuff from the 1868 novel The Moonstone, who is described as having eyes which “had a very disconcerting trick, when they encountered your eyes, of looking as if they expected something more from you than you were aware of yourself.” The psychologist detective is its own tradition, but the detective who reads and interprets his environment is a different – and much more interesting – one, in my opinion. Green’s Mr. Gryce is almost a parody of these characters, but appearing long before them – his obsession of not looking into your eyes but carefully observing objects, things, appearances, is stressed more than once in the novel.
This makes him the perfect foil for the protagonist and his melodrama which is almost exclusively focused on psychology, on talking to people, trying to understand them, trying to intuit them. Detective fiction has more than once served as an analog for literary criticism, but this novel, curiously, long before the advent of academic literary New Criticism, offers a powerful and convincing rejection of speculative psychology. What matters are facts – and context, and plausibility. From Peter Szondi, we learn that an interpretation needs to be consistent, and so Mr. Gryce solves his case because he notes that of all the evidence he found, “the chain was complete, the links were fastened, but one link was of a different size and material from the rest and in this argued a break in the chain.” So he ends up offering a Poirot-esque confrontation that leads to a confession.
Mr. Gryce is not an unfathomable genius like Sherlock Holmes – and maybe in this the voice of a female writer becomes clearer. There’s no fetish of masculine genius here – Gryce is led by the facts and the quality of his analysis against his intuitions, and is in the end surprised by the confession. Usually the Watson character is the reader analog – he is our representation in the story. We’re smart but not that smart, observant, but not that observant. But The Leavenworth Case recalibrates this – the Watson character is there to show us the world, but our real analog is Mr. Gryce. We feel with Green’s Watson-like character, and we follow him on his adventure, but as readers thinking through the story, we are more like Mr. Gryce. We create a chain of evidence, and we don’t get all the way there – but neither does Mr. Gryce. The unpleasant celebration of the inexplicable, beautiful genius of Sherlock Holmes, sometimes offered with evidence that was not visible to us as readers, is undercut here. He is encouraging: when the narrator finds a piece of evidence, Gryce tells him: “don’t show it to me. Study it yourself and tell me what you think of it.”
Anne Katherine Greene wrote this novel over several years, pushing herself to finish it, publishing it finally to great success. She married a younger man and actor who later became a famous designer, but she was the primary breadwinner. It would seem counterintuitive then that Green was not a feminist, and in fact spoke out against suffrage in 1917, but here, as with writers like Mary McCarthy, the work itself is more complex. “[G]etting a wife,” we learn, is “the same as (…) acquiring any other species of property.” But in the novel, it is the female characters who plot, who shift things around, who cloud the waters, and men who have to try to hang on to this wild ride. In fact that quote is from a conversation where a man is trying to hang on to the facts of a contract in a situation where life has long made other plans. There is a malleability to this world, a kindness and a depth to its objects that justifies looking at them closer – and though many aspects of The Leavenworth Case became formative for the genre of modern mystery novels, one feels a bit miffed that Sherlock Holmes, who first turned up ten whole years later, has had so much influence on mystery fiction. Everybody in Greene’s novel loves, admires, fears and thinks – Sherlock just sneers. I can’t help but feel we need more of the former and less of the latter.
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Crouch, Blake (2016), Dark Matter, Pan
I’ve said it before, on this blog and elsewhere – the power of science fiction is to make familiar things less so, to expand the way we read, both texts as well as the world that surrounds us. That doesn’t mean that all texts have to be Dhalgren, but they don’t also have to be Crichton light. It is particularly odd when basic structures of our world as we know it, are lazily reinforced in fiction that would not need to be tied to them. Some books are under-girded by sexist stereotyping but are otherwise well meaning and expansive in other ways. None of that is true for Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter the most disappointing book I can remember reading in a long time. Not the worst, mind you, there are a lot of bad books out there and I do read epic fantasy. But the most disappointing. A book I was told was, to quote a blurb, “mind-bending,” when, in the end, there wasn’t as much bending as settling. My god what a boring book Dark Matter turned out to be. A book about the multiverse, about identity, reality, about who we are, or at least that is what it could have been. Instead, Dark Matter is about one man’s quest to get back the woman he feels he owns. It’s utterly baffling that anyone who has ever read a good science fiction novel would look at this godawful mess and think, yes, this is good, I have no notes for the author. To be clear – this is not about the prose. With genre, I am willing to make compromises. Not everybody is Brian Evenson. So yes, the prose is absurdly bad. It’s not overwritten purple prose. It’s merely plain, and banal, and utterly unaware and directionless, with its writer having invested as much effort into crafting interesting sentences as he has into the structure of the novel as a whole.
The main effort, clearly, went into researching the science behind it all. The whole book has a massive masculinity problem, as has the odd modern obsession with science over philosophy (Neil Degrasse Tyson is a particularly noxious example) and general forms of thought. Science fiction has always attracted scientists and sometimes they have not been the greatest stylists. But writers like Asimov and Clarke are considered classic writers because they use their background to dig deeper into the soft flesh of the world, to grope for possibilities, for pushing our understanding. There is none of that here, or in the current fascination with science, or rather, engineering, as an answer to all our problems. Fittingly, the book has a blurb by Andy Weir, whose Martian had also disappointed me, a book unwilling or unable to imagine anything beyond an engineering problem. But Dark Matter even undercuts the Martian on the marketplace of ideas. And it’s such a bummer, because as always, the science is truly fascinating and begs for someone to find the right literary approach. What’s worst is that the book isn’t even any fun. I have a big heart and soft spot for genre books that may not enlarge the language or possibilities but are greatly enjoyable. That’s not the case here. There is no difference between the incessant, dour, seemingly unending monologue of Crouch’s protagonist and all the many thousands poor, put-upon white men all over mainstream fiction who walk through their cities, their banal, unfair worlds, eager to stick it to the lesser people around them, and to stick it into a woman, any woman, ideally a woman that somehow belongs to them. These are worlds that give the lie to Galileo – the earth doesn’t revolve around the sun, it revolves around the taint of mediocre white men who think they are geniuses in disguise.
Only in this case, Crouch constructs a fictional universe that does revolve around his unbelievably unbearable protagonist. He gives up the game real early – his protagonist used to be a brilliant scientist, and teaches at a second rate college now, because he gave up his career to raise a child with a woman who’s an artist. Yes, this is the same gender split as in Charlie Jane Anders’s reactionary novel. But what’s worse is that he makes the woman such a wooden regurgitator of the praise he feels is owed to the protagonist.
I move to the cabinet beside the sink, open it, and start hunting for a box of fettuccine.
Daniela turns to Charlie, says, “Your father could have won the Nobel.”
I laugh. “That’s possibly an exaggeration.”
“Charlie, don’t be fooled. He’s a genius.”
“You’re sweet,” I say. “And a little drunk.”
“It’s true, and you know it. Science is less advanced because you love your family.”
I can only smile. When Daniela drinks, three things happen: her native accent begins to bleed through, she becomes belligerently kind, and she tends toward hyperbole.
Who is he talking to here? This last condescending remark – who is he arguing against? Do men have to explain their silly wives, even when they are fictional? Don’t mind her, after a few drinks, you know how she gets. And also – “hyperbole”? This misplaced modesty is both unpleasant and typical. We know, from the rest of the book, that it’s true, that the protagonist has indeed made a spectacular discovery. He made it largely on his own, which is not how big scientific discoveries are made, but coming up with a team of scientists would have complicated Crouch’s shitty narrative, so it’s one man, one theory, and, crucially for the plot, once that man vanishes, nobody can reconstruct what happened, not even with all notebooks and data intact. I mean, he’s a real genius, and somewhere in Crouch’s infested mind, this is how geniuses work in science.
So what happens in the book is this (spoilers, spoilers, etc): a version of our protagonist, who didn’t abandon his career for a baby, creates a machine that allows people to access the infinite other selves that exist in the multiverse. You have to take a drug, and hop into a kind of time machine, which is half TARDIS, half HG Wells. Now, that scientist visits our protagonist, takes him and basically does an exchange of hostages, takes over his happy family life. Our protagonist, meanwhile wakes to a world where he is a successful scientist who has made a pact with a ruthless billionaire. Chaos ensues. Eventually, the protagonist decides to get back to his original “world” and reverse the exchange. He takes with him a female scientist who, of course, is a psychologist, because GOD forbid there are female physicists in Crouch’s dick-shaped worldview.
Now, due to complications and an equal amount of stupidity on the part of the so-called genius that’s our protagonist and the so-called “mind-bending” nitwit who wrote him, a proliferation of versions of the protagonist, a multitude of selves, descends on this original world, and in the end, after some chases, some gun- and knife-fights, the protagonist escapes with his wife and child, into the multiverse. If this sounds like a stupid plot, it is. But the most bizarre thing is that the idea isn’t necessarily bad? Crouch is aware that his scientific research gives him no firm ground to stand on, ontologically. Differences between the multiverses are minute, the same applies to the different versions of the protagonist. At no point does this lead Crouch to introduce the idea of undecidability, of ambiguity, into the book. Everything in the book is always exactly clear, exactly nailed down. We know that the world he lands in last is the original world, because he can tell, of course. And what’s more important, because we always follow his voice, we are never shaken in our faith that the person we’re listening to is the original one, the real one, the one who “deserves” to get the wife.
If anything’s mind-bending, it’s the author’s utter gall to write a novel based on a science of ambiguity, and undecidability, and make it absolutely, boringly immobile. Nothing changes, nothing is odd or unexpected. We are always where we need to be. It’s always clear what’s real and what’s not, who’s real and who’s not. And added to that, we are let into the mind of our protagonist, who needs his wife back – not any old version of her, but the one he met and fucked. I mention that part, because that part is particularly important to him. He’s obsessed whether the self that replaced him temporarily fucked his wife better than he did. It’s constantly on his mind, and once he re-acquires his wife, it is one of only a handful questions he asks, and she, of course, answers in detail. And symbolically, she only becomes fully his (and comes fully on board with this multiverse story he tells her) after they have sex and he re-asserts his territorial importance.
This is a story about two things: about identity and how fractured it is in a multiverse, and about love. But this is a diseased, greedy, kind of love where the woman is a mere bit player. And the question of identity? We are never, not for one moment, shaken in our sense of who we follow, who is where, and it feels like taunting when Crouch has his stodgy, surprisingly stupid protagonist say: “My understanding of identity has been shattered – I am one facet of an infinitely faceted being who has made very possible choice and lived every life imaginable. I can’t help thinking that we’re more than the sum total of our choices, that all the paths we might have taken factor somehow into the math of our identity.” But of course, he has to say it, absolutely HAS to, because the novel doesn’t fucking say it anywhere in the way it’s made. And as if to affirm all this, the very next sentence is “but none of the other Jasons matter. I don’t want their lives. I want mine.” I thought these facets are inseparable? They are not? Who’d a thunk it.
Dark Matter has already been optioned for the screen and it will make a passable movie, maybe even a good one. The writing already reads like explanations for the screen. As far as thrillers go I have read worse. But this is mainly disappointing, because of what it could have become, instead of what it is, a spoonful of spunk after 300 pages of masturbatory, uninspired middle-of-the-road thriller fare. Sad.
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So one year ago, not exactly one year, but more or less, God don’t start counting the days, ok it was early May 2018, 9th, or 10th, I don’t know – anyway, Scottish musician Scott Hutchison died a year ago by his own hand, or by his own volition anyway, he was found, after people looked for him for a while, floating in the River Forth, the latter being a river near/in Stirling, Scotland, and he was found there, dead, after a well documented struggle with depression, his band’s fifth album having come out recently, anyway, so they were doing a tenth anniversary tour of their album The Midnight Organ, and song #13 on that album is called Floating in the Forth, and is about suicide, let me quote it: “And fully clothed, I float away / (I’ll float away) / Down the Forth, into the sea / I think I’ll save suicide for another day” (oh yeah that worked out a-ok), I mean, if you’re thinking I used the word “floating” in describing his suicide because of the song, you’re not wrong, you know, but what else was I going to say: he was found drowned, puffed up, buoyant, drifting, bobbing, I mean of course I am going to say “floating” – it is the most fitting word here given the musical antecedent and this is always creepy, right, like an announcement, then again, ten years is a long time for an announcement, so maybe the anniversary tour was a reminder, sometimes we really don’t need reminders of our worst instincts, and anyway so I was looking at my first collection of poetry, because, you know, I don’t write poems like that any more really, I’m working on distance and structure more, but there is a lot of very direct unvarnished depression in my first book and I was looking at it and wondering whether if something happens to me and I am the miscreant who had done the happening, whether someone could look at the book and think, huh, lookit this poem this sounds a lot like what happened and what would it mean I mean I don’t think i am that person any more, but maybe at the end of the day that person is like Schwartz’s heavy bear who walks with me and I will never get rid of them and then some day, someone will look at the book and say, huh, will you look at this, he predicted it, I mean what if I suicide Nostradamus, you know.
Here is a picture of me reading in late May on my trip to Boston. This is Cambridge at the “Poetry Readings at Outpost 186” series of readings with Andrew Singer’s art all around me. Picture by Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright. Among the texts I read was a brand new poem about my grandfather who has died in June.
So, man what a bummer this day was. Yesterday I wrote “what’s notable about today’s writers is just a continuation of things I already noted. This is the first time that the selection and treatment of writers seems so cohesive – and not in a good way. Following along in real time is like looking at a thesis statement, of a thesis you do not particularly care about.”
This absolutely continued in the award voting. In my German language commentary I wrote a 1000 word mini-essay on how these awards exemplify the typical Bachmann-text and I cannot summon the energy to do it a second time. But the main thing to understand is this: there are always typical Bachmann texts, and texts that are different. If your text is good enough, it will make it onto the awards list even if it doesn’t fit the mold.
There was no room for exceptions this year. The special kind of voting leads to every award coming down to a two-text runoff ballot, so for four awards you can have up to 8 texts competing – and since the shortlist (voted on before the beginning of the public awards voting) consists only of 7 texts, you’d assume all texts get a look-in. Not so. Each of the four runoff votes involved Yannic Han Biao Federer’s text, until it won the fourth award. The winner is Birgit Birnbacher’s text – excellent and fitting for Klagenfurt. Leander Fischer’s and Yannic Federer’s catnip won second and fourth place respectively, and Julia Jost won third place. The only other text that made it into the runoff election was, bizarrely, Daniel Heitzler’s absurdly bad story. Although both Sarah Wipauer and Ronya Othmann had made it to the shortlist, neither of which even received runoff consideration, not to mention an award, which is enduringly strange.
It felt like a circling of the wagons around the cultural capital that is amassed by the gatekeepers represented by the Bachmannpreis-jury and the whole unsavoury theoatre surrounding it. “We are important and the texts we like are important” seems to be the message. As all people of privilege in Germany and Europe and the world are circling the wagons, whether it is men, or white people or the financially dominant class, afraid of losing that privilege, this group of critics, professors and academics replicates a process that is happening everywhere, shutting the door hard on difference. But what today’s awards also make clear is that a solid portion of the public is no longer behind them. In this small microcosm, this is represented by the public vote – which went to Ronya Othmann’s important, excellent text, who thus won the fifth, public award. This tension, the closing of doors by the gatekeepers is regrettable, but what’s most remarkable that the two best writers of the competition are two young women, who have not even published one book of prose – and thus represent an exciting future.
Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:
If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the 2019 event) so here is a brief summary of how day three (of three) went. The writers who read today* were, in this order: Ines Birkhan, Leander Fischer, Lukas Meschik, Martin Beyer. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined. For my account of day one click here. For my account of day two click here. For a German summary of the whole thing, which I also wrote, for Faustkultur, click here.
If yesterday’s post was a bit on the long side, today*’s summary is likely to be more brief. That’s not just because the Saturday slate of writers, as every year, is one writer shorter than the other days, but also because in many ways, what’s notable about today’s writers is just a continuation of things I already noted. This is the first time that the selection and treatment of writers seems so cohesive – and not in a good way. Following along in real time is like looking at a thesis statement, of a thesis you do not particularly care about.
The big exception was Ines Birkhan, the first reader of the day. Now, to be entirely honest, I went into this, intrigued but not expecting a lot. I had read her debut novel before, which was entirely unique, but not necessarily in a good way. Chrysalis read like a quickly written piece of fan fiction, you know the kind – it’s always a bit too long because the writer does not have the mot juste, like, ever, but also lacks the literary training to have easy access to cliché. So yesterday we had two different kinds of exact descriptions in the Federer and Birnbacher text. Federer spread out the vast microscopic observable detail and had absolutely no wish or ability to cut to down to an exact, resonating image or phrase, and he used literary clichés judiciously. Birnbacher was extraordinarily good at the good, exact observation, and tough on cliché. Birkhan’s novel somehow turns up in a third space. There are no clichés in it, but every description, and half the accounts of what happens read like someone had to paraphrase a text in an extraordinary hurry. It seemed very bad, but at the same time very original. So, originality, but at what cost? The second book was better written, with a Jelinek-inspired use of sexuality and a very political surrealism, about contemporary events. The story she read on Saturday, an excerpt from a forthcoming third novel, was much better than each. Gone was the awkwardness of descriptions, everything was much better. She was on similar conceptual ground as the very first reader of the competition, Katharina Schultens. Both offered a spec fic that drew on human transformation, and both had a bit of a vague sense of place. But where Schultens missteps both linguistically and literarily in her treatment of plot and structure, Birkhan’s text is tight, moves the reader forward. She integrates the descriptions of animals and morphology much better, an absolutely solid text, one of the best of the competition. You’d think a jury that had been kind even to the crappiest of stories (Gerster, Heitzler) would reflect this, as well. Instead, what happened was that two thirds of the jury absolutely savaged the text, to the point where the person who had invited it, Nora Gomringer, was constantly forced into a corner. The leader of the pack, Insa Wilke rose to a spectacular furor that was so strong, she kept coming back to the text and her hatred of it even in later discussions. It’s an absolute mystery to me why the jury reacted like that, especially since they had been so kind in the previous days. It is my personal theory that the similarity (but obvious deficiencies, compared to Birkhan) of Schultens’s text which had been invited by Wilke, and some other kind of resentment had played a role in it. Who knows. What I can say is that the hostility was so overwhelming that the critics ended up forcing Birkhan to defend her text, something that had not happened in a long, long time. Birkhan’s reply was elegant and smart. She pointed to the literary influence of Konrad Bayer, and briefly sketched some details of how the text was made. What a spectacle, what an undignified treatment of a text and its author, and fellow members of the jury. And what a dignified author.
The rift in the jury was quickly mended with the second writer of the day. If my statement about Federer yesterday was that he appealed to the jury, especially biographically, the same applied tenfold to the second text. Leander Fischer’s story was Bachmannpreis-catnip. Clever, well written, playful. Entirely devoid of relevance, but at the same time extraordinarily well made in the exact way the jury likes. There is no way this text dents the top three of Wipauer, Othmann or Birnbacher, or at least it should not, but it reads and sounds like a text that should do well. I don’t have much more to say, as I was neither interested nor intrigued by the text, though I can at least appreciate and laud the skill involved.
That skill was, confusingly, absent with the third text. i say “confusingly” because Lukas Meschik, despite his young age, is already a seasoned novelist, who writes novels at a rapid clip, some of them quite ambitious and voluminous. So when he turned up with an autofiction about his father’s burial that was among the dullest texts ever presented in Klagenfurt, it did make my head turn. This text is a kind and generous text about a father that appears neither ambitious not ambiguous. It is entirely unclear why a prolific and seasoned writer would turn up with a text like this. Some in the jury were similarly puzzled, at least one of the judges suggested the same inversion they had all suggested applied to Daniel Heitzler. To be honest, i was surprised this opinion wasn’t more widely adopted since Meschik was more deserving of reasonable doubt than Heitzler – there is something to be said about routine and work ethic in writing. It produces, as we could see from Federer’s text, a certain consistency. This apparent break here, in favor of uncomplicated sentimentality is at least unexpected.
The final text of the day, however, was a real humdinger. If you thought that Silvia Tschui’s text from day one upset me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. For context, for day one’s anger and this, maybe you need to understand that what’s happening in many countries, the rise of the radical right to insitutional power or at least coming real darn close to it, is happening in Germany too. What we also have is a kind of revisionist overton window that keeps moving to the right. The wave of texts about Germany-as-victim, jumpstarted by Günter Grass’s very bad but very explicably very popular late-career novel about the sinking of the Gustloff, Crabwalk (for my take on Grass and his career go here), were the beginning, but once we look at Germans as victims of Soviet aggression and Allied bombing (ignoring why it happened, who and what the populace had supported for how long), then it’s not that much of a leap to also look at the German officers and soldiers and the straight Nazis and ask how bad they were, really. A TV movie event called Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter took this and ran with it, with the barely concealed subtext being “sure they all say we were bad, but look we were like you, but look at the Polish people, much worse!” It is quite something that there was so much room to move to the right, given the insane amount of former Nazis whitewashed after the war and leading the country. Baden Württemberg, one of Germany’s most properous and largest states had a former Nazi judge as governor, and Chancellor Kiesinger was an NSDAP member, not to mention all the writers and professors and judges and the vast majority of the new country’s Foreign Office, and much of the new party FDP and on and on and on. But there was always bit of shame, a bit of underhandedness. They weren’t really members, not really Nazis, etc. etc. This is slowly starting to fall away which should terrify everyone living in this country. It is in this atmosphere, then, that Martin Beyer presented his text, a short story about the execution of the Scholl siblings. The Scholl siblings were genuinely part of the resistance against Nazi Germany. Principled, generous, forthright young people though what they did would barely make a dent in the resistance stories of other countries. They, like the Edelweißpiraten, wrote leaflets to the population. There was no real, active, armed, broad resistance in Germany, compared to France, or Poland or most other countries (for reasons I do not need to spell out), so the actions of Hans and Sophie Scholl truly stood out. They are unquestioned heroes in German history and culture. A story dealing with their execution thus has to deal with an exceptional amount of weight, and requires an exceptional amount of moral clarity and literary skill and investment. NONE of which is found in Beyer’s story, which focuses, of all things, on the executioner. Now, the actual executioner is a fascinating figure. The Nazis had their special #1 executioner shipped in, Johann Reichhart. He is an infamous murderer, but also, after the war, he was employed by both the Allies and the Bavarian state. His son, burdened by the pressure of being Johann freakin Reichhart’s son, committed suicide, I mean there is clearly a story there, also setting him in opposition to these famously principled young people. None of which is exploited by Beyer in any way. He makes an unknown, one time assistant to Reichhart his focal point. Why does he do this unpleasant job? Oh, to make money. Oh, because he is a victim of the war. Oh, because he has lost a brother in the war. Oh, of course his family HATES Hitler. This claim to OF COURSE have hated Hitler is such a well trod path in the history of Germans lying to themselves. It is particularly interesting that it came up this time of year since a group of scholars have just found out that the supposedly authentic diary A Woman in Berlin, about a woman in Spring/Summer 1945, which focuses on rapes by Soviet soldiers. As it turns out numerous passages had been added by the author to the text, specifically focusing on her supposed resistance to or dislike for the Nazis. I mean it’s such a remarkable lie to include in a story – and not undercut it in any way. The text is written in the most unambitious 19th century style, with no contrasts, no critique. There are small inserts to make us realize the poor man’s war trauma (what a poor widdle Nazi!), which contain some odd misogyny. It’s not that Beyer calls his protagonist a hero, in fact, he suggests his protagonist may be a bit of a psychopath, but that, too works as a kind of defense. The Scholl siblings barely make a dent in this story, which has the primary function, intentional or not, to make the protagonist relateable. A bad text, in most ways, and for once, the jury largely let the writer have it. Although, to be fair, with nowhere near the hostility they treated Birkhan with earlier this morning, still a mystery to me.
So at the end of a mostly bad day, nothing changed in who I think should win the awards, i.e. Wipauer, Othmann, Birnbacker and Jost. But I would advocate for the fifth award, the public vote, to go to Birkhan.
Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:
*this post is about a week late, let’s pretend it IS “today”
If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the 2019 event) so here is a brief summary of how day two (of three) went. The writers who read today* were, in this order: Yannic Han Biao Federer, Ronya Othmann, Birgit Birnbacher, Daniel Heitzler, Tom Kummer. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined. For day one click here. For a German summary of the whole thing, which I also wrote, for Faustkultur, click here.
There was a strong sense on Tuesday of what the gatekeepers of culture want to be written and published and what they would rather wasn’t. Yesterday had two excellent texts, Sarah Wipauer’s story, which is clearly top of the class this year, and Julia Jost’s. There was one mediocre story by Andrea Gerster, as well as one badly executed, but interesting story by a very talented writer and then, there was a mess of historical revisionism, with a dose of literary cliché. There was no clear sense, as there often is during Bachmannpreis-competitions of texts that fit a mold and texts that don’t. Day two had it in spades.
The first text was written by Yannic Han Biao Federer, a writer with a perfect biography, who has won several literary awards, and has very quickly become part of the cultural gatekeepers himself with his work at the Literaturhaus Köln. Biographically, he appears to be straght from central casting: academical background. work in journalism, work in cultural institutions, awarded some key prizes, and debut novel with one of the leading literary publishers in Germany. No wonder his story, taking almost no risks, offers such a flat take on personal narrative. There are small metafictional twists, slow, detailed observations, and just enough relevance to save the story from utter blandness. It’s not that Federer’s text is bad – it is not. It reads like a chapter from his novel (review likely forthcoming here) – a consistency which points to strong literary control and skill. The blandness is not accidental: Federer’s story is carefully, and skillfully designed to be bland. One is tempted to read the story and the environment its read in in terms of Bourdieu’s theory of practice, in that the (sub-)field of Bachmannpreis is a very specific field. The judges, as well as the audience consists of people of varied background. Academics, successful writers, journalists, people who have or are working as gatekeepers in various cultural institutions. It’s a big field, but also narrow in that they all share a similar sense of references. They have all read this kind of text before. This is like New Yorker poetry, where, dependent on who is editor of the poetry section, the kind of poetry that gets published almost becomes its own genre which you then can see turn up in all kinds of other journals and places. Reading and rereading Federer’s story, it becomes clear that its very specific kind of dullness – it’s a kind of writing that develops when you write a lot of submissions for places, and have to be aware of word count. There is no description that is wrappped in one, two fitting phrases, it’s all extended to the point of maximum ennui. Despite the author’s Asian heritage, which is also mentioned in the story, there’s also a sense of whiteness about the whole thing – or rather: privilege. This was highlighted by two things: the enormous praise by the judges, and by the next story to be read.
Ronya Othmann was on the mound next and immediately hit us right between the eyes with a fastball. A story that couldn’t be more different. Not drowning in descriptions, she used the names of places and people to carry a lot of the descriptive weight, it is a story about how a young yazidic woman who lives in Germany comes to terms with the genocide committed against her people by the IS. Othmann, trained in an MFA, uses this training to make sharp observations about what temporal and geographic distance means. What language means. How do you speak about something that has never been widely or fairly represented in the media of the languages you use to speak or write. The violence against the Yazidis has often been framed in terms of a broader war against the IS – the complicity of the Turkish government, clearly stated by Othmann, never really plays a role in these narratives. What’s more, there is an obsession with particularized, sexualized violence in the media – what does this mean for a young woman, whose family is only alive due to a quirk of personal history. Without being able to migrate (or having a car), her family would have suffered the same fate as all teh murdered and raped people of her ethnicity who stayed behind. Witnessing survival has a long and harrowing literary history, and has perhaps been best described by Primo Levi. There are many survivors of the Shoah who did not really survive – they stayed alive, until they couldn’t any more. People have been writing about this for decades and it is remarkable and laudable that Othmann found new and fresh literary ways to examine this same issue. She discusses quite specifically the question of how to comprehend the fact that she and her family are alive. Are they alive or have they merely survived? Othmann struggles with the binary language between life and death. It is not an accident that one of the best and clearest books on suicide, which attacks the morally freighted binary of life and death has been written by a survivor of the Shoah, Jean Améry. Whereas Federer’s text turned on a metafictional chuckle of bourgeois life in Cologne, Othmann’s text turned on the question of identity. Othmann uses several layers of writing: there is the typing up of recorded conversations, journal entries, and of real actual travels. The story ends with the narrator seemingly shedding the ambiguity of language, coming up right against questions of reality and speech. A remarkable story – not without flaws, but executed with enormous skill. The first sign that Othmann might be in trouble was the Twitter commentary. The twitterati, among them people with some cultural influence, reacted – oddly. There was a worry (yes, worry) that one would be guilted into…what? praise? attention? I feel that if you read a story about genocide and your primary comment is – “Oh no, I’m being morally blackmailed” – I feel I cannot help you. What is this “blackmail” you speak of? Blackmailed into caring? That’s such a remarkably white statement – and it was sort of echoed by the judges. Hildegard Keller felt she couldn’t properly criticise the text’s deficient grammar with a Yazidi survivor sitting right there. I mean, how dare she just turn up and tell a story that is unpleasant. What happened to the long meandering descriptions of mint-colored walls? I mean, the nerve! Other judges decided to re-open the very well trod paths of debates on witnessing and fiction, on truth and literature. There are literally hundreds of thousands of books on the topic. Frankfurt, for example, has a whole frigging professorship dedicated to the topic. What’s the need to re-legislate the topic? I mean literally yesterday, for inexplicable reasons, a judge decided to use Imre Kertesz’s searing work as a comparison for Silvia Tschui’s German nonsense – Imre Kertesz addresses the topic in his work! To be honest, I am not sure it’s plausible NONE of them were aware of this. The longer this discussion went on, the more it seemed like they needed an excuse not to engage with the text. The unwillingness to have a literary discussion about a text, which is written with such excellent literary skill (if anything, one of its flaws is that you can see the MFA training a bit too clearly in it) struck an unpleasant note this fine Friday morning.
The final text this morning combined two things: being palatable to the judges and exquisitely written. A absurdist-but-relatable story about a woman who’s relatively poor, struggles with a life that is less than she and others hoped for. She takes smaller jobs to not preclude the possibility of writing A Novel, but what sounds like depression, family struggles and other issues prevent her from giving her life a shape that she would be satisfied with. It’s a ramshackle, unfinished, unformed life, like many people still lead it today. Suddenly, a cabinet appears mysteriously. Birgit Birnbacher, already one novel under her belt, writes this story with enormous skill – it is much funnier than I made it seem, it is cleverly structured, addressing racial, gender and other concerns, even metaphysical ones, without ever having to strain. It’s not quite as flawless as Wipauer’s tale, but that’s in part because where Wipauer sticks the landing perfectly, Birnbacher stumbles in the last sentence. If this was a poem, every reader would tell her to just strike it and be done with the whole thing. That seems like a minor flaw in a major, excellent story, and it is. Birnbacher joins Wipauer and Othmann among the favorites to win it all. The judges, meanwhile, agreed. Praise was unanimous and detailed. There was no sense of “we have a thirty-something woman in front of us, how can we discuss a story about a thirtysomething woman,” meanwhile. One wonders why.
Birnbacher’s story concluded the morning readings and the good portion of the event. The two afternoon readings – hoo boy. The first, a story by Daniel Heitzler, is hard to talk about. I mean you’ve all heard of Poe’s Law, right (definition here) – this was a perfect literary equivalent. On the surface, this is just a very bad story. A very bad story, structured badly, drowning in adjectives and adverbs, mindlessly run through a thesaurus, like that high school essay we’ve all seen (“Students: Stop. Halt. Discontinue. Terminate. Cut it out with all the thesaurused smart-person words in your essays.”). I remember, on a literary forum that I’m not entirely sure still exists, someone once explained to me that Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending wasn’t a cliché-riddled mess, but specifically invoked the clichés involved in talking about death. There was nothing in the text that suggested that, except that forum member’s goodwill. I mean, the books Barnes has published since have disproved that theory, but as an approach, it stuck with me. It’s a literary Poe’s Law: an awful literary text is indistinguishable from a very good parody of an awful literary text, if there’s no wink in the parody. Sometimes the sheer skill involved provides the wink: Robert Coover is probably the best example: his parody and homage to Louis L’Amour-style WEesterns, Ghost Town, or his homage to Noir novels in, uh, Noir, are written with enormous skill. On the “wink” side of things is maybe John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, which is hilarious. Not his best book, but Barth incorporates winks into the style he parodies. There is nothing, nothing of the sort in Daniel Heitzler’s story. The best we get is a comment in the intoductory video that he’s a fan of American postmodern literature, especially Beat and David Foster Wallace. Sure, nothing bad has happened with young devotees to DFW’s work. Sure. You know I was once at a meeting of the DFW society at a conference where they had a roundtable dedicated to salvaging the bad reputation of DFW’s work, created by his acolytes and the unsavory facts that had come out about DFW’s own misogyny. So faced with a young man, essentially subscribed to a problematic literary tradition, the judges decided that the text could not possibly be this bad – it had to have been done on purpose. i have thought long and hard on the fact that all the judges except one insisted on reading the text this way and I think this goes back to the assumption, shaken by Otoo’s nonchalant interview after her win: “we are smart and important people. A writer wouldn’t dare come here with a text this bad. Ergo, it has to be good.” That this judgment appears to be solely a creation of the subfield of Bachmannpreis thinking becomes clear once you look at the unanimous rejection of the text on Twitter.- there wasn’t a torn opinion. Nobody read the text and thought: oh this is intentional. Personally, I have limited patience for intentionally bad writing anyway. If you make me read ten pages of bad prose that you artfully and cleverly shaped to be this friggin bad, I still have to read ten pages of bad prose. There’s a masturbatory quality to this kind of writing, and let me tell you, I have never seen it practiced by female writers. I feel that says something right there.
I don’t know what to say about the final story that I didn’t already suggest even before he read. Read my original TDDL post for notes on who Tom Kummer is. Kummer is a kind of inverted mirror of Federer, the first guy to read today. Kummer is also a production of gatekeepers’ goodwill, but not by following all the rules and pleasing all the right people. He did it by projecting an image of being “the last Gonzo writer” (snort), a literal quote. The bad boy of literature. He turned up, and read a story in a kind of faux-Clint Eastwood drawl that sounded sleazy and unpleasant. His story, about a limousine driver was unpleasant and bad. For someone, who became infamous faking exciting interviews with celebrities, his dialogue was dragging and boring. The story was entirely without ambiguity or tension. Everything was stated plainly and then, for the people in the back, re-stated. The story is unpleasant start to finish, from some lazy racism to literary and explicit misogyny, as well as the weirdest description of a father caressing the naked body of his child i have ever seen. The protagonist’s dead wife re-appears as an octopus-like monster, the only other woman, an accomplished researcher, is, wait for it, an antifeminist who produces a drug to further male sexual enjoyment, because, no kidding, we have too long been interested only in female lust and pleasure – which, I mean, she has never seen any porn or TV or movies, I assume? Or commercials? I mean, what? And for some reason, this turns the protagonist on to the point of considering sexually assaulting his passenger, a thought that he discards after a long struggle. There are no, zero, zilch redeeming qualities in this story, but its invitation shines a light on what’s acceptable and what’s not. Writing a story about genocide gets the judges to equivocate and stay distant. Writing indirectly about rape, on the other hand, raises no red flags. Tom Kummer and Yannic Federer, each in their own way, offer a take on what privilege means in German-language literary culture.
So it’s a day where two of the competitions two best texts so far get sandwiched by an odd duo. At the end of the day, the four best texts are, in this order. Sarah Wipauer, Ronya Othmann, Birgit Birnbacher and Julia Jost.
Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:
*this post is about a week late, let’s pretend it IS “today”
If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the 2019 event) so here is a brief summary of how day one (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Katharina Schultens, Sarah Wipauer, Silvia Tschui, Julia Jost, and Andrea Gerster. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined.
Ah, what a day, what a day! Five women, two science fiction stories, murder, Nazis, and divorce proceedings. I’m telling you, things were on fire! Well, maybe not so much on fire as occasionally slightly warm. Tepid maybe? Look, honest to God, a clear favorite emerged today, reading a story without any recognizable flaws, and a runner up turned up as well, also very well executed, mostly, and the rest, well, tbf, there are five slots to fill every day, not everyone can be a winner.
The first reader was Katharina Schultens. Schultens is an exquisite poet, and what’s more, a poet of the kind that should be easily transferable to prose – long, looping sentences, complex rhythms, all of that. What’s more, there is a strong vision behind the text she read. Not everything became clear – it is an excerpt from a novel, but it appears that the text is a Ballardesque vision of a future (it is set two hundred years after 1984) after some ecological collapse. Regrettably, one would have, given the very real ecological threats today, hoped for a more relevant kind of catastrophe, say, speaking of Ballard, something like The Drought; instead her vision veers towards the post-human, with Vandermeeresque landscapes threatening deformed or changed descendants of humanity. She’s not just somewhat apolitical regarding our very real ecological crisis, which is a bit problematic – but in addition, completely (apparently) randomly, she uses the heat of Africa as a metaphor, which seems a bit tone deaf given that any ecological disaster would hit countries in Africa harder than, say, Germany, so if you are steering clear of politics, maybe not lean into the Africa-as-metaphor too much, yes? I mean, it’s white blindness, I suppose. And then there is the confusion and dullness of some of the fiction. Speculative fiction that takes such a big leap needs a proper story telling backbone – which this text, very specifically, does not have. There are great, meaty descriptions of situations and things, and there are rail-thin, meandering sections of what you’d have to call plot? It is very odd, how strong talent and strong vision somehow leads to a mediocre text.
The second reader was Sarah Wipauer. Wipauer’s text, almost irritatingly, has no flaws that I can see. Last year, a hole was discovered in the ISS – seemingly drilled from the inside though it wasn’t clear who drilled it and why – it necessitated an unscheduled spacewalk to plug it from the outside. As far as I can tell, it is still entirely unclear what happened. As a writer, Wipauer is intrigued by space stories, and by the quirks and oddities of small news stories, and she took this event and turned it into a ghost story set in Austria. There’s everything in it that you could possibly fit – provincial history, medical oddities, and Wipauer appears to be able to manipulate syntax at will to fit the story and the individual voices in it haunting these events. Towards the end the story tightens even further, including social pressures regarding class and gender. There is not one word too much, and the story wraps up beautifully. No matter what the rest of the days bring – this has to be one of the five best texts.
It is with text three that things started going off the rails. The author, Silvia Tschui, appeared to present at first a bucolic story (an excerpt from a novel), written with tight craftsmanship – oh how I was mistaken. It became clear real fast that #1, she pursued a kitsch kind of writing, offering a cliché depiction of a childhood on a farm, with mild doses of violence, lessons, and the kind of dialogues that someone who grew up in the city assumes are spoken in the countryside. So far so dull, but then the story took a bad turn. I mean, excuse me, for not immediately assuming the worst – but it’s true: bucolic clichés have a special function in literature, especially German literature. Farmers are often used to show a nation’s real backbone, and attacks on farmers are the way the political right tends to frame foreigner invasions. In Germany, the so-called conservative revolution was particularly enamored with that figure – the work of Hermann Löns – in particular the 1910 Wehrwolf – was used as inspiration (Löns died in 1914), and many books in the 20s, and particular 30s, repeated and enlarged these motifs. In the early-to-late oughts, German literature added another trope, that of Germans-as-victims. The Germans in today’s Poland and the Czech Republic and Hungary fled the approaching Soviet army and often lost everything. Tschui’s text connects the bucolic motif with those revisionist stories of victimization. They are all the rage in German TV shows and movies. In Tschui’s text there are German farm boys scared of an Enemy who is sudden, cruel, mean, and is connected, in the broader narrative of the novel, to a East European mythical figure, that the Germanic boys have been told to be afraid. The (post)colonial aspects of German/Prussian occupation of Poland have not been discussed as broadly as they should have, but this text reads exceptionally exploitative, with an almost archetypical and racialized sense of an Other. As a result, the text was both literarily bland and politically dubious. Did this come across in jury discussions? Except for Hubert Winkels’s fairly clear words, the other judges steered fairly clear of the text’s issues. Honestly, what would you expect?
The afternoon readings were less eventful overall – the first story, a story from the Austrian countryside by Julia Jost, was very well done – mostly. A story about an Austian childhood, with pedophile priests, knives, Nazi heritage and more. The story is written with enormous energy and humor, clearly, CLEARLY the second-best story of the day, magnificent in many ways – though the ending is a bit of a dud – the writer had to tie up all her plot points so it becomes plodding real fast.
And finally, the final story – a banal tale of child custody and motherhood – the story itself isn’t necessarily banal – we are quick to label women’s stories as banal because they don’t conform to masculine hero narratives. And indeed, there are issues in the story here and there that piqued my interest – but the story is told with no literary energy, no skill beyond the routine of a prolific novelist. She needs to get from one end of the story to the other – and by Jove, she will get there. Choice of words seemed almost random in its banality.
On Friday the readers will be
10.00 Yannic Han Biao Federer
11.00 Ronya Othmann
12.00 Birgit Birnbacher
13.30 Daniel Heitzler
14.30 Tom Kummer
Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:
I will be live-tweeting the strangest of events from my little book cave. Read on for Details on the event in general, what happened in the past years and what’s happening this year. CLICK here if you want to read a summary of Day One.
So what is happening?
Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4-5 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.
This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are usually more or less young writers (but they don’t have to be).
So what happened in the past years?
The 2016 winner was British expat writer Sharon Dodua Otoo (here’s my review of some of her fiction), who read a text that was heads and shoulders above the sometimes lamentable competition. And you know what, the German judges were still slightly upset about it the following year, which explains why 2017’s best writer by a country mile, John Wray, didn’t win. It’s the revenge of the Bratwurst. The 2017 winner, Ferdinand Schmalz, was…solid. A good example of the performance based nature of the event – having one effective text can win you the pot. It was overall not, you know, ideal.
Given the issues with race in 2016 and 2017, it was interesting that the 2018 lineup skewed even whiter and much more German. It was thus no surprise that the best text, a brilliant reckoning with Germany’s post-reunification history of violence, Özlem Dündar’s text in four voices, did not win. But the overall winner, Tanja Maljartschuk, a Ukrainian novelist, produced a very good text, and was a very deserving winner. And Raphaela Edelbauer (whose brilliant book Entdecker I reviewed here) also won an award. Three out of five ain’t bad folks, particular with people like Michael Wiederstein in the jury.
So what’s happening this year?
Michael Wiederstein is a bit of a caricature, it seems to me. I noted his invitee Verena Dürr and the dubious discussion of her text back in 2017 (go read it here), and this year he really, REALLY brought his F game. In the most dubious field of writers since I started writing about the award, he made the…ah, just the most exquisitely bad choice of all. His invitee, Tom Kummer is famous. Now and then there’s a famous writer – John Wray is an example. Tom Kummer isn’t famous for being a good writer. Tom Kummer is famous for being a plagiarist. Caught not once, but multiple times. For falsifying interviews first. For cobbling together texts from his own and others’ older texts. For falsifying quotes and using incorrect details. He was given chance after chance after chance.
German and Swiss tastemakers have decreed: this man deserves more chances. He is precious. He is our gonzo hero. The usually very good Philip Theisohn called Kummer’s elegy to his deceased wife – like all of his work of questionable originality – “moving.” What it is, most of all, is fucking awfully written. There’s a bad tendency in German literature to look at some American writers – Thompson, Salter, Hemingway – and see their simplicity as simple. All of this is facilitated by translation, of course. I love Hunter Thompson’s work. Thompson was a fantastic writer. Not always, not in all of his texts, but his stylistic sharpness and moral clarity are rare in literature. Philip Theisohn cites Kummer’s admiration of Thompson in writing that “Kummer, the last real gonzo, was led by the conviction that a world of lies doesn’t deserve truth either, only more lies, which led to his infamous fake interviews in Hollywood.” – #1 there are still New Journalist writers out there, and the masculinist veneration of “Gonzo” has always been suspect to begin with. and #2, if you ever read Thompson with dedication and care – he primarily cares about the truth. Post 1974-Thompson is a bit complicated in his approach to the self in his work, but the use of fictionalized self, and using your own perspective as a distortion to better see the truth has a profoundly moral impetus with Thompson, whatever other faults he had (he had a lot) – there’s none of that in Kummer, and even Theisohn knows better than to claim otherwise. Kummer, his deceptions, his toying with truth and originality never had a goal beyond the celebration of one Tom Kummer. This navelgazing white masculinity is all too common in literature, and at least half of the TDDL field often suffers from that; and Michael Wiederstein, the juror, is the perfect embodiment of this white male navelgazing element in German literary culture. Da wächst zusammen was zusammen gehört.
The rest of the field is also a bit dubious. Among the writers I have read in preparation, Ines Birkhan is very original but very bad, Andrea Gerster and Yannic Han Biao Federer seem flat and dull. Lukas Meschik is prolific, somewhat interesting, but boring. And then there are the three writers I have the highest hopes for. Ronya Othmann and Katharina Schultens are very good poets – Othmann in particular writes exceedingly well and should be immediately seen as a favorite, based on potential. And there’s Sarah Wipauer, who has not published very widely, but she has a blog here which contains short, exquisite prose, and I have read texts unpublished on- or offline, which are similarly exquisite. Wipauer, Othmann and Schultens, in my opinion, lead the field here, by quite a solid margin.
I have misgivings about the field! And yet…I cannot help but be excited. Follow along! There’s a livestream! You can also read the texts during the competition here. So here’s the full list, which I posted below, sorted by reading days/slots. You’ll see the whole thing kicks off with two of my favorites on day one, in the two first slots.
10.00 Katharina Schultens
11.00 Sarah Wipauer
12.00 Silvia Tschui
13.30 Julia Jost
14.30 Andrea Gerster
10.00 Yannic Han Biao Federer
11.00 Ronya Othmann
12.00 Birgit Birnbacher
13.30 Daniel Heitzler
14.30 Tom Kummer
10.00 Ines Birkhan
11.00 Leander Fischer
12.30 Lukas Meschik
13.30 Martin Beyer
Below is my list of all my posts about this year’s award:
I had some collection by Frank Bidart on my shelf for what felt like almost a decade before I even looked at it. It was In the Western Night. I do not remember why or when I bought it. One night, desperate to find words to tide me over to the next day, I took it off the shelf. I was 23 and alone, marooned in a life I had not chosen and a body that had just appeared around me. Frank Bidart spoke of bodies, of fathers, of the unreality of one’s own face in the mirrors. In a new poem, Bidart speaks of learning American history from a Lowell poem. In these earlier Bidart poems that I found on my shelf, the Bostonian stateliness of Lowell is made to up a life that has more doubts, an a fuller body to deal with. There is no scaffolding in Bidart’s poems – it is Bidart’s breath, his rhythmic heart that pushes everything into its place. 25 years old, living in the ruins of an old, collapsed country, I touched these words and marveled. I found Bidart. And with every new book I found him again. In the more recent poems, even more of the scaffolding falls away, lines survive on the strength of Bidart’s invocation of an unsentimental sentimentality, an exploration of the body around one’s body, of the words in plain, exalted speech. Many years later, I sit in a crumbling apartment, in Germany’s former capital, touching the ruins of my lives with the words I have, exalted, plain. And still, when I am desperate to find words, I reach for Bidart on my shelf.
In what I am currently writing I have become quite interested in the way autobiographies and autobiographical work constructs an imagined community, obviously Benedict Anderson doesn’t quite apply here, but he also doesn’t NOT apply, you know? Instead of looking at the way autobiography explores the self, and applying various ideas of selfhood and truth etc. to it, I have become more interested in how reception theories shape what we understand of autobiography – if we shouldn’t read them in relationship to the self and ideas of the self, Freudian self-analysis and whatnot, and instead read them as texts written to be read by an audience. Written to interact with a specific literary field. Autobiography is a public act, and I think some interactions between writer and audience can be described by using Marcel Mauss and the gift. And now I have been thinking – and I’m sure this is not true for every autobiography. Say, Robert Lowell, a tall, white, straight man. But, say, you look at Mary McCarthy (because that’s my topic) and the situation turns. Or the tradition of Jewish autobiography. This is two steps. One, looking at the outside effect of autobiography and entirely excluding the self-exploratory aspect of it. Two, see in what way this works to construct a sense of (a) community, or a pole within a literary field. So that’s where I am. Any comments?
Valente, Caterynne, Space Opera, Saga Press
One of my favorite science fiction novels is The Killing Star by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski. The situation is simple: in the future, with humanity having colonialized the solar system and about to step outside, someone notices we exist and might be a threat, and, just to be safe, nukes the whole of humanity before coming in and mopping up what’s left. It is a dark novel that provides an unsettling answer to the Fermi paradoxon, and its logic is grounded in our history of colonialism and imperialism. Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera takes a very similar premise, and spins it into one of the funniest novels this side of Scalzi’s Redshirts (it’s funnier than Scalzi). Humanity has reached the brink of leaving for space, and now the sentient creatures of the universe are auditioning us for space adulthood. How you may ask? After a devastating civil war in the galaxy, a singing competition was instated to test sentience. You have to take part. If you are an applicant species, you can’t come last – if you come last, your planet is wiped clean and re-seeded. So one day, the universe is knocking on earth’s door and asks for humanity’s champion. That champion is a washed up British glam rocker: brown, queer and old. What comes next is hilarious – and smart.
The obvious comparison is Hitchhiker’s Guide, with its satirical phantasmagoria of space, but the most apt comparison to me is the work of Terry Pratchett. Like Pratchett, Valente suffuses her extremely funny writing with some ultimately serious thinking about who we are as a society and who we ought to be. Pratchett’s work is less about dwarves, wizards and inedible streetfood than it is about community and how we as humans – and more precisely, the English –struggle with and understand community and humanity. One wonders what Pratchett, who died in 2015, would have made of Farage and Brexit and Trump. Well this is an option: Catherynne Valente takes one of the big projects of post-WWII Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest (née Grand Prix Eurovision) and blows it up to galactic scale. She keeps the current rules (including the stupid stupid current vote split between popular and jury vote), and adapts them to a larger scale, with aliens of all shapes and sizes, and includes the genocide-for-losers option (though it only applies to applicant nations. Established nations who come last are merely shamed for it. Valente is an unexpectedly funny writer, the book’s joke density is extremely high, with standalone jokes, allusions to pop music, to Eurovision history, to books, and more wrestling for space, but even so, we’re always led by a clear political sense of what’s good and proper.
Racism, for example, isn’t, and Valente gets in multiple hits at it. This connects Space Opera to another novel that I can hear humming in the background: Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love. Gwyneth Jones is one of the most underrated and most brilliant writers of SF today, and her Bold as Love cycle focuses on a mixed-race British rock guitarist, connecting rock music with British politics, and for all the fantasy hijinks in Jones’s books, there is a serious contemplation behind it all, which Valente shares. Both Valente and Jones take contemporary culture, signifiers of identity and skew them away from assumptions of whiteness and “Britishness.” Valente gets explicit – once her protagonist, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes gets picked, the British public is upset: a brown immigrant from a Muslim background? Couldn’t they have picked someone….whiter? There is a tendency in some science fiction to externalize debates on racism to aliens and make it about purple beings discriminating against green beings – not so here. Like some versions of Doctor Who, Valente never disengages from actual racism, though she does use galactic racism as a canvas as well. In Space Opera, things are terrible on Earth, and things are terrible in the Galaxy, and one doesn’t replace the other.
In fact, Valente’s novel is a perfect example of the possibilities of science fiction. Yes, it is a endlessly hilarious take on Eurovision, but it also exemplifies what Samuel Delany has written about science fiction expanding literary language and possibilities. It takes a genre considered bad (Delany says “When far-future sf fails, we usually call its degenerate form “space opera”) and elevates it. Valente uses the camp and exaggeration inherent in the form to speak to a larger issue about violence and war and, most of all, community. If you have read any of her other books, in particular what I consider her masterpiece, the 2009 Palimpsest, you won’t be surprised at the precision and craftsmanship throughout the book. Jack Vance, one of the SF legends, had written a tongue-in-cheek take on space opera in his 1965 Space Opera, but somehow Valente’s book exceeds this and many other novels like it. There is no flab, no fat on the bones of this novel. Even her very prose is complex and dense with allusion and humor. Her humor is not harsh, not cheaply ironic. It is full of puns, verbal energy – it’s like a three ring circus act. What’s more (and important to understand) is that Valente (like me) unironically loves the ESC. The book comes with quotes from some favorite songs and a long dedication to its founder in the afterword. Irony is cheap. This book is not. The book demands to be re-read in delight, excitement and admiration. Space Opera is very funny, very serious and very, very good.
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I have been working on fiction/memoir relating to my family – there are a lot of stories to be told, a lot of paths to followed. Most of my immediate family, two generations, one generation back, are some form of immigrant. But my grandfather is currently dying as I type this and everything is stopping in its tracks. I cannot properly explain what a loss this loss of my grandfather would be – would, mind you. He’s had an incredible life so far, and I’m visiting him across the country tomorrow, today, that is, later today, I suppose.
Death is strange. As a weird man who has been obsessed with death, largely my own death, but also that of others since childhood, a man who visits cemeteries, and is largely alone in this – it is not accompanied by a real fascination, or a gothic habit. It’s just – death.
But this is different. Today – yesterday, I suppose, I mean, dates get blurry when you write at night – my father, who lives far away from me, apparently locked himself in a room to cry after he had a phone conversation with my grandfather. I myself was stuck in a different room for an hour, similarly struggling. The image of my father in his bedroom, not able or willing to communicate with his family, bereft, even though nobody has died yet, feels like the fingers of death on our lives, a moment that we will all remember, even those, like me, who have not been there. Something has broken in him, in us, and there’s a feeling that it has also infected our memories.
How far back does death reach? Already, I find it difficult to call upon memories of my grandfather that are not touched by death, memories of my own life. At every important turn in my life, he was there, usually quiet, grumbling. A broad man of small stature who worked hard for everything in his life, who worked hard to survive. And my father, a much taller man, in his room, this moment which I have not witnessed myself, it pulsates in my imagination. I have not been able to shake it.
The first and last time I remember seeing my father cry was when his grandfather died. We all stood at his grave, my father cried, I couldn’t cry. I pinched myself – there must be a way to cry, but nothing happened. My father cried, standing in the cold on the slighly hilly cemetery in the little East German village. I stood there, pretending to cry, ashamed of failing some protocol. This time is different. i have been intermittently crying for two weeks. Maybe I am becoming a warped version of my father. Maybe that is what death does.
I don’t do it. Not on this blog anyway – though I would obviously take a commission to do it. And I published one of Ben Mazer’s book two? years ago. But overall – I don’t do it. I find it exceedingly difficult. And I write so much academically about poetry, and I write poetry myself and love to discuss poems, with poets and readers. But writing reviews of poetry – somehow my brain or pen doesn’t quite bend to the task. When I review a book like Herta Müller’s poems, if you look closely, I did not in fact review the poems as much as I reviewed context and translation. I have, I think, I flatter myself, a good, solid sense of what makes a good poem, of what good poetry is, and I hope that this sense transcends, at least somewhat, my own very narrow taste, I mean who knows, but I don’t review poetry, I can’t sit down and line by line offer my take and how do I end it with “you should read this book, if…” – of course you should read it, you idiot, it’s poetry. Even bad poetry is worth your while. So, I don’t really review poetry. Poetry reviews me.
Malaparte, Curzio (2018), The Kremlin Ball, NYRB Classics
trans. Jenny McPhee
I reviewed Malaparte’s posthumous and strange novel for Review 31.
For better or worse, The Kremlin Ball gives us a point-blank perspective on Malaparte’s literary and personal inclinations: his egomania, his disdain for simple people, his attraction to totalitarianism, and his conflicted feelings towards masculinity. That alone makes it well worth reading.
I saw today that Stephen Mitchelmore has tweeted about a possible publication of an English translation of Celan’s Collected Posthumous Prose. The book, a thick, dense tome, is indeed wondrous, some of it in French, some in German, some in Romanian. The translator is Pierre Joris. The connection of Joris here is interesting, I find, and I want to say a word or two about Celan, his friends and his published correspondence.
There are so many volumes now of Celan’s correspondence (the only one I’m lacking is the one with his wife, because it is an expensive French “coffret” – and I assume the German version, though much cheaper, is translated and what would be the point of that) – but they all – every single one – have the same shape. Celan meets people with kindness, sadness and enthusiasm. He’s clearly difficult, but an extraordinary and intense person. Then, mid- to late career, fatigue sets in. Everything starts when Yvan Goll’s widow – Claire Goll – starts a public campaign that smears Celan as a plagiarist of her husband’s work. It is enormously untrue, but damages Celan immensely. And it’s not just the publicity and Goll’s loud attacks – there’s also the dubious reaction from his friends.
German critics, then as now, have a complicated relationship to Jewish literature. Henryk Broder has defined it as the difference between dead and living Jews: Germans feel guilty about dead Jews – but they will leap at the opportunity to attack living Jews. As a survivor of the Shoah, Celan straddled the line. When he entered German cultural life, his biography, in connection with his astonishing work, insulated him, gave him praise, protection and a certain status in German culture. But the Goll Affair exposed how precarious his situation was. Celan felt under attack – as a person, as a poet, as a Jew. And suddenly he found himself among Germans. Barbara Wiedemann’s valuable edition of documents around the Goll Affair show that the most engaged of his friends were Jews themselves, like Peter Szondi (a brilliant philologist and survivor of Bergen‐Belsen, who drowned himself a mere year after Celan’s departure, and 7 years before Améry’s ‘suicide, another survivor of the Shoah).
If you look at the letters, you can see the exact point where Celan turns to suspicion. It hams his relationship with Bachmann, whose sometime-lover Max Frisch had no empathy or understanding for someone not as securely ensconced in a country and culture as Frisch was, and it ends several others. Surrounded by Germans, Celan sees how tenuous his sense of home and security is. Like Peter Szondi, he looks towards Israel as a home. There is very little in his work that comments on Israel, but several passages in the collected prose refer to Israel. In his poem “Denk Dir,” written during the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, he describes Israel as “dies wieder / ins Leben empor-/ gelittene / Stück / bewohnbarer Erde.” (~ “This piece of land, suffered up into existence”). Like Szondi, he never moved there. Szondi’s motivations for not doing so may mirror Celan’s – Szondi writes in a letter to Gershon Scholem that he felt “at home” for the first time in Israel and that it was “unbearable,” this feeling. He was no longer able to be comfortable, after 40 years of alienation, genocide, and then living among the people who engineered that genocide. Celan’s relationship with Israel was certainly extraordinarily complicated, but he was clearly, unequivocally, a defender of the Jewish homeland.
Now, to get back to the English translation of the Collected Posthumous Prose. Pierre Joris is, in many ways, a typical representative of the Anglo-saxon left when it comes to Israel. His focus is on Palestine, and he is vocally, loudly, pro-BDS, a virulently antisemitic movement. To see his name next to Celan’s work gives me the shivers, but somehow, it feels fitting. Celan grew to be suspicious of many of his friends, aware that their relationship to the – for him, existential – questions of Jewishness, security, home, was different from his. Joris seems not atypical among his friends. Celan – like Améry, like Szondi – was ultimately dependent on the language of those who, a few years earlier, wanted to murder him and his family, he was dependent on structures partially built by murderers and lived subject to laws carried out by former murderers. The chancellor of Germany in the last years of his life was a former Nazi party member. Living in the language of Germans and among Germans, building a sense of home and language, informed much of his work. It is cruelly fitting that even in translation, he is dependent on the language of people with antisemitic sympathies.
In case you missed it, I had a new prose poem out at Hawk & Whippoorwill.
Thank you for reading my things
Jonguitud, Paulette (2015), Mildew, CB Editions
Is it still a translation if a book was translated by its author? There’s something to that transition that many writers find a bit daunting. Yoko Tawada, for example, an author writing in both German and Japanese, does not translate her Japanese work into German. Thus, the Japanese novel which was translated into English as The Emissary, arrived in German later than in English, and in a translation by her longtime translator Peter Pörtner, despite the author being not just fluid in German, but regularly producing excellent novels and essays in this language. Another example regarding translations to Germany is Mikhail Shishkin, who is a professional translator between Russian and German, and yet, he does not translate his own Russian novels into German. In other cases, most famously Joseph Brodsky, it has been argued that Brodsky’s English equivalents of his Russian poems are inferior to the work produced by professional translators. As I said, it’s a bit of a curious issue. Why not regard the “translated” text as a new creation by the author? In any case, these are some of the questions raised by Mildew, Paulette Jonguitud’s (in many ways) masterful novel(la). Jonguitud is a Mexican author, and this book was published as Moho in 2010, and translated by the author in 2015. I found as I read and reread the book that one’s perception changes depending on whether we read it as a translation or as a new creation or re-creation by the author. I don’t think the book improves if we read it as translation – occasionally we come across strange changes in register, slightly uneven syntax, and other linguistic choices that I suspect read absolutely natural in the Mexican original. There’s a part of my brain that reads these passages as ‘mistakes,’ as infelicities, as problems that editors or a more careful translation could or should have fixed. I find that these passages don’t stick out as much if we read the book as an original English translation.
Here’s why: the protagonist is a mentally unstable woman, and the book an interior monologue as she comes to terms with some horrible things that happened to her and in her life, as she’s preparing for her daughter’s wedding. If we read the stylistic oddities as related to her state of mind, they seem less odd than if we read them as related to the language of origin. And in this way, they add to the tapestry of the book – the sometimes odd syntactic choices can make a fussy impression: the language of someone who is trying to piece together what has happened in the past years, months and – crucially- hours. Constanza, the protagonist, is preparing herself and her daughter’s dress for the imminent wedding, but as she prepares, she notices a stain on her leg. The more time passes, the longer and larger and greener the stain grows, the titular ‘mildew’ slowly envelops her body. Jonguitud uses well-trod literary ground, but she remakes it new. The book weaves memory and worries, past, present and the possible future into a seamless narrative. The book is conceptually heavy, but never loses the fat meat of literary narrative and psychology. Unlike other books that have seemed too skeletal to me, like fellow Mexican writer Luiselli’s novel Faces in the Crowd, which was all concept and structure, Jonguitud’s book has emotional and narrative depth beyond the conceptual playfulness. Constanza appears before us: believable, distressed and lost. She doesn’t know what’s happening to her, and neither do we – we look at her past for clues, much as she invokes her own past as what has led her to this point and the green growth on her body. I’ll spoil it now: while there is a revelation towards the end, we never really get an explanation for the mildew. The book beautifully ties everything together in the dark last chapter, but that’s not an explanation.
And there’s a good reason for that. I will say I am leery of writers who use disfigurement and disability as a cheap metaphor – too often in books where, once the ‘problem’ is cleared, the disfiguration also clears up. It was in our heads all along! Sontag has warned of the use of metaphor to discuss illness: “illness is not a metaphor, and […] the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.” But here’s the thing: it’s not really a metaphor, and not really an illness. And it doesn’t clear up. I honestly expected it to be in the narrator’s head – a manifestation of her fears, her self-hate, her guilt. I know this – the feeling some part of your body has developed a life of its own, the Sancho Panza to my anxiety’s Don Quixote, rushing the windmills of my mental health. It was instantly believable – but when Constanza’s daughter comes in and sees the mildew, and thus the mildew becomes a real object in the real world of the novel, we move out of these simple equivalencies. That we don’t get a reality based solution to what the mildew is means that we’re in a very different territory here. The obvious siblings of Jonguitud’s story include writers like Kafka, and his stories of the world’s terrifying, unexpectedly cruel and monstrous reality. The world suddenly turns on many of Kafka’s narrators and suddenly things we considered workable tactics in dealing with our environment slip out of control, change, become strange or threatening or both. Constanza isn’t suddenly disabled, or possessed – no, a real, physical mold has started to grow on her, something that inhibits her movements, even, not a discoloration, it’s suddenly there, it’s part of her reality and she has to deal with it. It mirrors the way things have changed in her own life, how certain people and their actions have become part of her reality and she had to deal with them.
There is an obvious Deleuzian angle here – but it’s indirect, in the way that much of the important theory of our time is Deleuzian in one way or another. When Foucault said that we would view the 20th century as Deleuze’s century, he was right – but off by a century. And I don’t really want to dig into the theoretical angle here, but I do want to note how extraordinarily rich in meaning Jonguitud’s mold is. Depending on how you approach the book, it can be seen to be about a vast variety of things. There is the obvious issue of the body – of the way women are socialized to view their bodies from birth to the end of their lives – and how other women often reinforce the pressures and expectations of physical womanhood. What is feminine, what is attractive, what is worth having? In this reading, the mildew is what Sontag called a “punitive […] fantasy” – but Constanza didn’t do anything wrong – except to be born a woman into a patriarchal society that places certain values on certain physical manifestations of feminity and womanhood. And yet – she’s clearly complicit in these narratives to a certain extent – and complicit in something much worse, as it turns out. The most obvious reading of the book would be an ecofeminist one, about how power separates and controls things, how certain forms of speech control and damage. There’s so much here, but it’s hard to really discuss without giving away some crucial details of the book. In some ways, one can read the book as an attempt at connecting the “becoming-minor” with “becoming-woman” as Deleuze and Guattari suggested in their Kafka book (I appear to circle back to Kafka here).
Suffice to say that Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew is darkly brilliant – condensed but rich, one of the best books of its kind that I can remember reading. Stylistically it’s not without flaws – but it’s not all bad, either. Jonguitud’s English is simple – I am not a fan: simplicity is the most difficult style – there’s nowhere to hide. I sometimes have the suspicion that the reception of writers like Kafka in translation is also one of simplicity of language – in German, there’s nothing simple about Kafka’s language which consists of carefully layered tenses and conditionals, of precariously balanced registers and complex descriptions that can take many readings to unfurl. We don’t get that here. The language in Mildew is plain – but even so, the book is brilliant and everyone should read it.
So I’m starting work on a Mary McCarthy paper due in May and this amazing interview seems like a good start:
At least in my corner of Twitter, the new Marie Kondo netflix show has caused ripples of upset – less about the suggestions regarding cleaning your apartment she makes, and more about how those suggestions apply to books. To a bookish person, the basic mantra – hold up something and see if it sparks joy, if not, chuck it out – can apply to pillows or knick-knacks (though even there there is resistance), but surely not to books. As Ron Charles notes in his exasperated complaint about Marie Kondo’s show and book(s), she says holding it up does not include reading from that book, because that might muddle your opinion. I mean, God forbid that reading a few sentences might spark joy that seeing a cover might not. Strictly speaking, I share that upset opinion, and my apartment, with all of its walls lined with books, bears witness to that. Similarly, I also understand the other side of this, given that I know that romantic partners may have had a hard time accepting the vast sea of books. Certainly, my decision to hold on to a lot of books is indulging a personal sense of memory, loss, words, a very personal sense of comfort and a quiet sense of pleasure. It ties into other personal habits that are difficult to square with partners, like my penchant for nighttime writing and constant reading.
That said, everything changes eventually. This past year, due to space issues, I had to cull some books. This week, among many others, I got rid of a book I have owned for almost exactly two decades – for some reason, I bought Thomas Lehr’s bildungsroman Nabokovs Katze when it came out in 1999 and have kept it around until today. I carried it from apartment to apartment, from one corner of Germany to another one and finally to Bonn, where I have lived too long already. So this week, I took the book from where it was on my shelf, I looked at it, and considered why I own the book – the answer is: because I own it. Back when I read it for the first time, I disliked the book, and the one time I reread it since, I liked it even less. As a reader, I never had a ton of patience for these flat autofictional titles where some masculine erotic fantasy is offered as a lazy masturbatory replacement for introspection. And I have less patience for this nonsense today. There’s a well regarded Spanish writer that an acquaintance of mine translated into French that I tried real hard to appreciate, but this writing, particularly with a connection to cinematic knowledge or background, is so common, and boring and dull, and I don’t need that kind of thing in my life. What makes it worse, Lehr is stylistically dull dull dull despite inexplicable critical praise for his style. So out it goes.
This is my Marie Kondo rule adaptation:
- Did I like it?
- If not, is it interesting?
- If not, is the book as an object worth keeping (rare/beautiful book?)?
- If not, is the book worth keeping as a memory support?
- Is it part of some collection?
In the case of Thomas Lehr’s voluminous meditation on a masturbatory boyhood and lazy cinema references, the answer to all of these is no. The only reason I own this specific book is because I have owned it for two decades. Which is no longer acceptable given the danger of being crushed by my own books. I own too many books to keep one on the shelves that fits none of these categories. Bye bye.
Last time I was in Paris I went to (and recommended on the blog) a bunch of bookshops. This time I wasn’t there for a conference so I had time to visit more, but I would only recommend three of them. They are from left to right (click to enlarge): the Librairie Vendredi at the top of rue des Martyrs, Le Monte-en-l’air, nestled between a church and the busy rue Ménilmontant, as well as the queer-themed Les Mots à la Buche, just around the corner from tourism hotspot rue des Rosiers. At the bottom, all the books I bought, minus one that I cannot currently locate.
The past year was not ideal, at least for me, but let’s hope for a better new year. It began at the riverbank of the Seine, in Quai d’Orléans, fitting, since I’ve been writing about Bishop for about seven years now. In the weeks and months to come I need to work on getting more of my writing and reading published somehow, I mean for what it’s worth I do a lot of it. Thank you readers who have stuck around for indeed sticking around.
So I’m in Paris for a few days around New Year’s – though I haven’t actually figured out what to do ON New Years – and I arrived today. I’m a bit under the weather, a burgeoning cold, exhaustion, depression, everything somehow caused me to stay inside for much of the day – the first thing I did once I did leave the apartment was to go to a bookshop. I have a list of bookshops in Paris I find intriguing (and last time I visited, I went to a bunch), and I somehow can’t stay away. I can’t stop buying, sorting, reading books – and bookshops are more than just a conduit for this addiction. They are powerfully rich places – when I visited Poland and Finland this year, I went into several well reviewed bookshops, although they did not stock books in languages I can readily read or even understand. I’ve expressed my admiration for booksellers before, but it bears repeating: I love bookshops and I cannot stay away.
I don’t usually make this list, but last year I made one, and somehow as i was taking notes I decided to make another one this year. This year saw me go to more concerts – seeing The Breeders and Mitski in concert was a delight, and their albums some of the best of the year. Below my favorite albums of the past year (“Freedom Summer” is an EP, but I enjoyed it so much, it made the list. There’s nothing really surprising on this list. What are your favorite albums?
Mitski – Be the Cowboy
Pusha-T – Daytona
Nipsey Hussle – Victory Lap
Robyn – Honey
Kali Uchis – Isolation
SOB X RBE – Gangin
The Breeders – All Nerve
John Prine – Tree of Forgiveness
Mount Eerie – Now Only
Haiyti – Montenegro Zero
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – Years
Danger Dan – Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben
Travis Scott – Astroworld
Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs
Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
Vince Staples – FM!
Rosalía – El Mal Querer
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
Sleep – The Sciences
A.A.L (Against All Logic)- 2012 – 2017
Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy
Translee – Freedom Summer
Saba – Care For Me
Ezra Furman – Transangelic Exodus
Neko Case – Hell On
Anderson .Paak – Oxnard
Clemmons, Zinzi (2017), What We Lose, Penguin
In German journalism, there’s been a shock recently: Claas Relotius, an award-winning journalist, admitted to having invented the majority of facts and descriptions in his long, meandering tales of Syrian orphans or Yemeni prisoners or Texan racists. Apart from all the implications regarding the SPIEGEL fact checking system, and the institutional racism that underwrites the whole affair, some have noted the recent confluence of journalism and fiction, primarily about how journalism has taken up the tools of fiction. Now, if you make a point about journalism, you’re wrong about it being a new phenomenon. But there’s a particular aspect in the way it bleeds into fiction, not the other way around. I’m not talking about nonfiction novels, per se, either. There appears to me an increasing amount of fiction written with the journeyman routine and simplicity of journalism. I’m probably wrong about when this started, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all the novelists that sprang up around journals like n+1 wouldn’t have been one of the first waves of this happening. Look, we live in a time of memoir. There are so many excellent memoirs being published recently, it’s hard to keep up. Depression, mormonism, motherhood, Lord knows everything is somehow covered, and because no two stories are exactly alike we are not tiring of it. Most encouragingly, the recent wave of memoirs or memoirist essays, is largely led by female writers, with Tara Westover (Educated) and Terese Mailhot (Heart Berries) being two especially stunning examples just from this year alone. It seems however, as if this has started seeping into fiction – the tone, the structure, and, regrettably, the style.
This is not to say that the memoirs I mentioned are badly written. They are not. But they are written with an eye for a specific kind of simplicity – and many of the fêted autobiographical essays that have been published on the internet and shared thousands of times, are often even more simple. It has become so recognizable a style that I can’t help but recognize it in the pages of Zinzi Clemmons’s debut novel What We Lose. There is much to admire about the book, and there are many fascinating aspects to what Clemmons does here – with blind spots sometimes as intriguing as moments of insight. But all of this is told in a language that you could call “restrained,” as I have seen reviews call it. You could also call it bland. Almost everywhere, wherever you open the novel at random, it is written in the style of the well meaning personal essay, published by one of the many great online journals. There are two exceptions: sometimes, Clemmons employs short, declarative sentences and line breaks for poetic effect, which never, to my mind really works. And sometimes, greatly emotional moments in the book do benefit from the language, which, on a handful of pages, creates an exciting tension. But it’s never the tension of fiction. Many of the nonfiction novels that arose from New Journalism managed to tell a fact based story, a report of some sort, with the effervescence, the linguistic breadth, the power of fiction. The New Journalists were more than journalists, they were brilliant writers, and they married a brilliance of style to the craftsmanship of journalism and managed to get a bit closer to what we imagine truth is than mere journalism could. There’s no real comparison to the SPIEGEL affair – part of the reason Claas Relotius was never suspected was that his (in hindsight, obvious) inventions were cloaked in the drab and predictable language of SPIEGEL journalism. He just lied, he didn’t extend the vocabulary of journalism to reach for something more, something deeper.
And this is the strangest thing about Clemmons’s novel. There’s some autobiographical link, given that both the novel’s protagonist and Clemmons share some biographical facts – and as a long autobiographical essay you’d praise this book. It could be tighter you might say. It could interrogate some situations better, you might say. But this would absolutely be an interesting portrayal of a mixed-race woman with South African ancestry, who struggles finding her place in the world, struggles in relationships, and struggles with loss, both loss she lived through, and potential loss. Given that this is a novel, you’d imagine Clemmons somehow expands this brief, reaches for possibilities beyond what the autobiographical essay allows for. And she is playful with form. She includes pictures, graphs. Some quotes are not immediately marked as quotes, allowing for a text that sometimes swims between facts and invention – and I feel someone needs to write an account of the various ways WG Sebald’s outsize popularity among writers in anglophone countries has shaped a certain kind of fiction, but that’s not the place to do it. But none of this really pushes the book into a new place. Sebald, particularly in translation, reaches, and in the best moments achieves, a kind of sublimity that is uncommon, and that stems from the way he uses memory and objects, literary texts and observations, to situate himself in an inbetween world of text and reality. It doesn’t happen in What we lose. It’s curious: Clemmons cites various memoirs, from Obama’s to Mandela’s and Lorde’s, and makes a point about how they are tethered to a moment, how textuality limits the trace of autobiography, but then doesn’t really go anywhere except constantly pointing out small moments of indecision, where the life of her protagonist shifted but didn’t have to.
Her protagonist, who is very certain of her own intelligence, never engages with life – her own or that of others, and sleepwalks through her life, as she sleepwalks through that account of her own life. It is so striking that it made me wonder whether the blandness and obliviousness was intentional. If the bland style reflected the protagonist’s unhurried, superficial account of her life. I mean, it’s a lot. The protagonist’s family comes from a rich part of South Africa, and she’s terrified of the country. Clemmons juxtaposes her protagonist’s privileged musings with a study about real and imagined levels of crime in Durban, South Africa. She quotes at length from that study, which makes for compelling reading, and then – just moves on. The study functions as a reproach to the protagonist’s tense opinions, but the next time she returns to South Africa, this topic doesn’t come up again. Some of the book’s effects are effects of juxtaposition, where quotes and citations outshine the things we learn from the protagist’s own point of view. If the idea of the book is for us to critically read the memoir-style narrative for its failures and blindnesses, this still sticks the reader with a lot of blind, bland writing, even if the overall book is critical of that. The protagonist points out the gaps in the heroic narratives about Winnie Mandela, notes the violence in her biography. She then declines to further examine the topic. Or does she? Are we supposed to read the memoir-style passages with Winnie Mandela’s myth-making and her violent actions in mind? This allows for intriguing analyses of the novel – but not necessarily for a great reading experience, because, as I’m sure I’ve written before: writing things in a bland style to criticize blandness, still forces the reader to sit through the generic internet blog memoir style blandness for a whole novel.
That’s it though – as a metafictionally heightened comment on a bland woman’s encounter with grief and loss, there’s much to love about the book. The book shines most when you describe it, not when you quote it. The way the chronological structure of the book creates a genealogical continuity, all while focusing on loss and fear, is exciting. Meanwhole I can’t find any paragraph or sentence in the book I would love to quote to illustrate this. It’s odd – but as a novel, the writing has to be relevant here, and as interesting as the book is in many ways, it reads bland at best. This is the life of a woman who is terrible at self-reflection, and the book makes this clear constantly. It does not provide the literary tools to elevate the resulting text into great fiction.
Hand, Elizabeth, Generation Loss, CR Crime
Hand, Elizabeth, Available Dark, CR Crime
Over the past year I have read quite a few crime novels in between doing work and other things, and I’ve increasingly felt that there are two specific things a good crime novel will do well: it will have mastered the generic structure of uncovering a crime (subverting the structure is its own kind of mastery), and it will be about something unrelated to the murder business. I find I am easily tired of the Elizabeth George type of contemporary crime novel – where characters and setting basically fill in the gaps in the mystery structure. I understand the appeal – and a well executed generic mechanism can be a thing of beauty, and is often underrated by “literary” critics. Novels that do both aspects well, however, are rare. One such writer I enjoyed greatly is CJ Sampson whose novels set in Henry VIII’s time work enormously well as crime novels, but who also use the historical context as more than attractive setting. Similarly, some of the most lauded crime novels of the past years take on the topic of racism in the American South, like Lori Roy’s Bent. Moreover, it appears to me, writing a novel that connects both spheres – or just writing an exceptionally tightly structured crime novel – can be like catching lightning in a bottle – often, previous and subsequent attempts fall far short of the mark.
All this is to say that Elizabeth Hand’s novel Generation Loss is an almost perfect example of what I enjoy in a crime novel, and the one sequel I have read of it, Available Dark reads like an underdeveloped print of what made the original book succeed – and indeed I am apprehensive of reading the third and most recent installment. Generation Loss is not Elizabeth Hand’s debut – far from it. Hand has been writing speculative fiction since the early 1980s, but for her 2007 novel Generation Loss she switched into realism, producing a noir crime novel that seems quite unique in setting and outlook, but underneath the hood of this remarkable book is a finely tuned generic crime mechanism. The introduction of characters, of the central mystery/crime, the small revelations that drive the plot and finally the big confrontation and resolution are both generic and extraordinarily well paced. But just as a lot of midsize cars built by the same company have the same motor but appear to be different brands, what makes Generation Loss so unique is Hand’s choice of setting and characters. Much of the plot may be mechanical, but Hand’s mastery is so deft that the plot’s movements seem to derive from an internal logic of settings and characters rather than from the execution of a genre-based mechanism.
The protagonist of Generation Loss is Cass Neary, who works in a bookstore and is generally quite miserable. She is a photographer – or rather, she used to be a photographer, who produced one well regarded book and then fell into obscurity. When the novel opens, she barely makes a living as a clerk in a bookshop. Like Elizabeth Hand, Cass Nearly is a craftsman – when she talks about photography, and when she takes her own picture, we quickly find that her relationship to her art is not one of vague ramblings about the nature of art and photography. Cass is interested in the mechanics of what makes a good photo – how to manipulate film, focus etc. I cannot tell whether her comments will seem insipid to a real photographer, and of course, many of the comments take the form of information dumps in convenient dialogue for readers like me, but it never seems overwhelming or bothersome. It is always tied to Cass’s personal approach to art – Cass’s first and only book featured dead and destitute people of the 1970s/1980s punk scene, and her ideas about photography, as well as the artists she admires, are all centered around this concern with (and sometimes paradoxical seeming distance from) reality. The book starts when Cass is offered a job to interview a legendary photographer who lives on an isolated island off the coast of Maine. She arrives, only to find that the photographer knew nothing of an interview, there are children disappearing in the area, and one morning, the photographer is found dead.
Cass’s interest in photographing the dead becomes a central element of the book’s resolution, but more importantly, Hand quite cleverly connects the genre of realist noir to the protagonist’s preoccupation with realism in photography. Many of the character’s musings on her art can be applied to the book’s own genre, with the conventions of realism being questioned quite intently. The conventions regarding what passes for real, and what does not translate not just to the mechanics of plot, but also to the minutiae of style. Hand’s style is self-consciously modern and hard-boiled. She uses pathos that’s quite typical of the genre, in order to shift into certain emotional states that she does not want or need to explore in details not typical of the genre and not expected of this kind of naturalist fiction. Not having read her other novels, I’m obviously speculating, but since this is her first noir contemporary novel, and it is written in a pitch perfect noir contemporary style, she must have created it for this book – and it never reads as parody. Additionally, though Hand is far from the first one to do it, she inserts a female protagonist into a male genre – thus drawing additional attention to questions of gender. This also gets repeated on the level of photography – or the art world in general. On the island(s) off the coast of Maine, she encounters not just the legendary photographer she was sent to interview – and who is a woman. She also meets male artists, and as if to drive the point home, there is a child that connects these two characters. Art, biology, and the anxiety of influence appear and reappear in various guises throughout.
That’s what sets this book apart – it’s not the female centered take on noir, it is not the excellent execution of crime genre writing. It is, instead, the fact that somehow, despite actually running on the rails of genre, it appears to be motivated and pushed and formed by art, and by the protagonist’s obsession with it. Cass Neary is a close cousin of Thomas Bernhard’s Der Untergeher, an artist brilliant and talented enough to be able to recognize genius and to understand the gulf between her talents and that of the true standout artists of her genre. Cass is obsessed with art, and it is only fitting that the final confrontation is between her and another art obsessive. Everything fits and clicks.
That makes it a bit of a disappointment that her next novel, Available Dark, does not rise to the same heights. We appear to meet another art obsessive, we appear to be drawn into another maze of the arduous space between art and life, as Cass Neary is flown to Helsinki to help assess the value of a set of photographs. Instead, in this book, photography and the art and technique of it is incidental. Available Dark sidles up even closer to noir conventions, with Neary sometimes merely following the winds that blow her across the icy Scandinavian plains of a baroque plot. As the resolution presents itself I was more irritated than anything. A lot of stupid people doing stupid things and killing other people for even more generic, stupid reasons. I know that a lot of crime novels are centered around the stupid things that stupid people do (and the half-clever ways they try to cover it up), but that’s not what I find interesting. There’s a disturbing thing that happens at the end of Generation Loss that I am unwilling to spoil, but it is entirely in line with that book’s general theme, but it expands it, and opens up Cass Neary’s world into another direction – it’s tough to see it fall by the wayside within the first couple of pages of Available Dark, serving merely as motivation for Cass to take that Helsinki job. However, whatever misgivings I may have about Available Dark, they don’t tarnish Generation Loss, which is fantastic. Read it if you like that sort of thing. It’s good.
Müller, Herta (2018), Father’s on the Phone with the Flies, Seagull
Translated by Thomas Cooper
I reviewed the first major translation of Herta Müller’s poetry for Full-Stop:
Internationally, Herta Müller is best known as a novelist, but since winning the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, Müller has not published a single novel or collection of short stories. Her publications since 2009 consist of essays, interviews and — poetry. Indeed, this is the first time since her earliest days as a writer that Müller does not use narrative prose as her main mode of writing. In the 1980s, Müller abandoned her youthful poetry in favor of writing short narrative prose — and eventually, novels. It is as a novelist that she became famous and critically acclaimed. Yet her beginnings as a poet — much like Thomas Bernhard’s — have shaped not just her early prose, but much of her subsequent writing. Regrettably, as with Bernhard’s poetry, her first translated poetry for an American audience is marred by a translation that does not rise to the challenge and promise of the text. A warm and vibrant poetry is turned into small, dour, humorless lumps, like a game of Chinese whispers among IRS employees.
You can read the rest here.
Uwe Johnson. Man. In a turn of luck for anglophone readers, the complete Jahrestage is now available in English, in a brand new translation. I have few words for how much I admire Johnson as a writer. There are no reviews of his work here (apart from these letters) because I find it difficult to explain exactly why I admire his work so much and how exactly it’s made. The book I make people read to explain my admiration isn’t, by the way, Jahrestage. It’s Mutmassungen über Jakob, his debut novel.
Mutmassungen has been recently published in a scholarly edition that I of course own though I haven’t read it yet. Mutmaßungen is a book about East and West Germany, about heritage, about family, about the epistemological limits in dictatorships. It’s a masterpiece, and one of the best German-language novels of its time, and yet and still it is far from Johnson’s best novel, which mainly speaks to Johnson’s unbelievable skill. And while you can describe the book in this language that describes what this book is about, for me, the real kicker is the writing. I just took the book from my shelf and started reading.
It starts with a simple declarative sentence – with an implied question. “Aber Jakob ist immer quer über die Gleise gegangen.” – ‘But Jakob always crossed the rail tracks.’ The language is simple and unmarked. The next three sentences are pieces from a dialogue, first restating then interrogating that initial statement. They are written in colloquial language – but halt! It is not merely colloquial. The syntax is glittery, moving with uncommon elegance, managing the colloquial and the tentative dialect with a powerful sense of stylistic sureness and exactitude. Johnson’s use of colloquialisms, his absolute dedictation to the way language and places intersect, interact and identify each other is almost Faulknerian – as is Johnson’s sheer linguistic prowess.
Next Johnson includes a description of someone crossing the rail tracks at night. Is it maybe Jakob? “…war vielleicht Jakob zu erkennen.” This small phrase in the middle of a description that’s otherwise precise and clear as early morning air in Mid-winter, undermines what we know that we CAN know here. It introduces us to the fundamental sense of insecurity over what we can know. In the next paragraphs we return to the dialoge – between who, we don’t (yet?) know.
And then we have a small passage in cursive, the interior voice of Gesine Cresspahl, who is also the protagonist of Jahrestage, reflecting on her father and, following that, a straightforward paragraph about her father, Heinrich Cresspahl. While the beginning of the novel, with its dialogue, its questions, its insecurities about what we can know or say – is most characteristic of what kind of novel Mutmaßungen is, it is those two paragraphs, the half-sentence in cursive, and the half-page introduction to Heinrich Cresspahl that give us Johnson most fully.
In them, Johnson uses a style that is both traditional and old-fashioned, as well as modernist and clever. Johnson is fond of inversions and slightly outdated, even archaic words and constructions. “…er entbehrte seine Tochter” isn’t quite right for the time. There’s a sense of mild stiltedness to much of this – but it’s never accidental. Johnson, a young man, just graduated, his teacher the underrated Ernst Bloch, has, from the first book, an uncanny sense of style. The stiltedness and occasional archaic turn contrast with Johnson’s skill at making syntax glide, of moving in between places and topics with a well placed comma and an unexpected inversion.
And then, man, then we’re off to the races. what I described, these first two and a half pages of the novel, they tell you what’s to come – fragments, a mystery, and a unique stylistic voice. I have never really reviewed Johnson (I once submitted/gave a conference paper just for the opportunity to write SOMEthing about Johnson), on this blog or elsewhere and that’s because I find it so hard to explain how unique and enormous this writer is, was.
Everything in Johnson’s work follows from this book. Stylistically, thematically, morally. There’s a beating moral heart to this book that finds its conclusion in the towering achievement of Jahrestage, but we meet it for the first time here. Writing, speaking, understanding, these are moral endeavors, these are things asked of us as writers and artists – and Johnson always persevered.
Johnson wrote with obsessive attention to detail, he typed and revised his letters, he didn’t try ti drown out other voices, even in the strange moral missteps such as the paranoid-but-brilliant Skizze eines Verunglückten, he’s still present and what’s present until the last page is his unique style and voice. Even in the sloppier third installment of Jahrestage, it never entirely abandons him. He’s always Uwe Johnson, to the last.
And if I want to remember why I can’t write about him, I just open Mutmassungen über Jakob to the first page, read the first pages until I am speechless, breathless and moved. Uwe Johnson. He’s the real deal. One of the titans of literature, even if other, vastly worse writers in the German language have garnered more praise and attention. It’s good that Jahrestage get all this attention now. They deserve it.
From David Plante’s Three Difficult Women
Lafferty, Mur (2017), Six Wakes, Orbit
I’m behind on reading all kinds of lists and books – and this year’s Hugo shortlist is no exception. For whatever reason, the first book I picked off that list is a novel I had never heard of by a writer I had never heard of: Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes. It was an excellent choice: Six Wakes is a very good science fiction novel. For some reason, reviewers of science fiction – and genre generally – are obsessed with the question of ‘transcending genre’ – can a book be more than ‘just’ a genre novel? It is a bad question and the books that ‘transcend genre’ can be quite dull, to be honest. And it is applied more often to science fiction and fantasy novels than to crime novels, for example. And while it’s true that certain novels, mired in genre conventions, may not be appealing to a general public, it is not due to immutable literary laws. SO yes, it is true: there may be readers who may not take to Six Wakes, because it is written within the conventions of science fiction – but at the same time, it also has all the trappings of a conventional mystery. Most of the book’s events could also take place in a locked house, or a house locked down due to weather phenomena – and inside the house, a drama between six individuals with their secrets develops. It would be a quite traditional set-up, if not for the fact that the house is a space ship, and the house itself is a character here. But everything truly science fictional has happened in the past, and Lafferty cleverly restricts the possibilities of the book’s present in such a way that you could replay most of its plot with Agatha Christie’s vocabulary and furnishings. This allows us to appreciate what the truly unique elements are that science fiction brings to this particular table: questioning the limits of what it means to be human, in a way that is just not possible for a plain ‘realist’ mystery. Lafferty won’t win any points for language or concision here – the book is a bit longer than it needed to be – but it is an exceedingly intelligent book, which, like all good mysteries, is very well constructed. This is a genuinely good work of science fiction, and I cannot for the life of me come up with a reason why you shouldn’t read it. Should it win the Hugo? Probably not – but it is a strong field this year. It is still one of the better science fiction novels I’ve read over the past years.
It’s a bit of an irritant: Mur Lafferty, the internet tells me, has written a lot of books and I have read none of them before Six Wakes. At the same time, this appears to be her first foray into ‘proper science fiction,’ after several books that sound more like urban fantasy. And while I enjoy zombies as much as anyone, a book that interrogates our sense of identity and self – and the future of the way we construct those two things – is more up my alley. On the surface, the book is about a generation starship which is run by a small crew of six people. One day they all wake up with no memories of what happened – except the knowledge that one among them is a murderer. The rest of the book is spent figuring out who dun it and what it means for their mission. The actual details of that surface plot are a bit more complicated, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But the most interesting aspect of the whole book was the unexpected decision by Lafferty to make much of the book about religion and faith. One character in the book has an obvious, strong connection to the topic, but ultimately, the question of religion and faith touches all the characters, and Lafferty yokes her discussions of what it means to be human to the question of what it means to have faith. There is no snideness or irony to any discussion of faith here – it is, excuse the pun, enshrined by the author as a fundamental human act, one that helps us and our selves, our morals and values cohere in a way that nothing else does. And it is the aspect of humanity that is the first to be endangered when the basic parameters of being human fall by the wayside and we can become, technically, immortal. Over the past five, six years, there’s been an on/off debate about secularism, and the role of faith in our world – this debate left its fingerprints all over the humanities. At every conference, someone brings up at least Charles Taylor. The religiousness of everything has been offered, denied, interrogated. It is quite refreshing to see a use of faith that does not take sides in this debate, that takes faith seriously as a technique of the self. This is not about God. This is about people.
And people are, in some ways, on their way out in the world of Lafferty’s book. At least people as we define and understand them today. Cloning has become viable – more than viable, it has become an almost everyday occurrence, a tool. In fact, abuse of cloning has become enough of a problem that laws dealing with it have been enacted. Lafferty’s invention here is the idea, which I have not seen before, of the use of cloning. Books involving cloning very rarely follow the interesting uses such a technology might have: in this case, a form of immortality. Humanity has learned how to make mindmaps – and if you want, you can have your mindmap implanted in a clone that carries your DNA, thus living on for as long as someone is there who can wake a new clone and imprint it with your most recent mindmap. There is, in the world of Lafferty’s book, a debate between humans (people who have not exceeded the “normal” human lifespan) and clones. Since there is always only one version of each person (multiple clones are banned by law), clones are as individual and unique as normal humans. This development also gave rise to a new form of hacking. If you hack someone’s mindmap, kill them, and wake a clone with their modified mindmap, you have created a version of the same exact person that may be more to your liking. A rebel who is no longer interested in being a rebel, for example. She does not make the connection more explicit, but this is the first novel I have read that almost directly engages with the ideas put forth by Achille Mbembe in his seminal essay “Necropolitics” – and puts a new spin on it. The new technology of cloning was at first a wild field of possibility – the law, specifically, to rein in the numbers of clones (only one at a time) seems like an exercise of sovereign power in line with Mbembe’s ideas.
The cloning technology also allows for longer distances to be bridged in space travel, with the crew dying and waking up again anew in the cloning bay. And indeed, this is what happens as the book opens – with one crucial technical problem: before death and revival, the mindmaps had not been updated – indeed they had been wiped of everything that happened since they were loaded into the ship’s data. What’s more, the previous bodies of the crew were not properly disposed of. They are found floating around the ship with signs of violent death. Someone stabbed, strangled and poisoned the crew. It stands to reason that it was one of the six. It could have been any one of them. Not only do they not know – the murderer him or herself also does not know since all six mindmaps have been wiped clean. The rest of the book is dedicated to resolving that mystery.
Six Wakes very specifically works on two levels: each person’s memory of the time before the ship’s take-off is a dive into Lafferty’s ideas and the political and social consequences of technology as she envisions it. That part is straight – and very good – science fiction. Everything that happens on the ship after waking, could strictly speaking, with one significant difference (the AI on the ship plays a major role), be rewritten as a Gothic mystery. The ship functions as a big gothic mansion. The six people in it barely know each other. They all have secrets that they hide from one another and the revelations of those secrets will lead straight to the discovery of the murderer. While this story has SF elements, it doesn’t need them, and it is quite clever of Lafferty to write a novel so clearly in two different conventions. It allows her questions about humanity and identity to resonate on different levels as well, allows her novel to push and pull at the reader in two different, but entirely conventionally recognizable ways, which makes the fundamental ideas of the novel stand out. The impression, structurally, is one of craft and care – which, regrettably, doesn’t filter down all the way to the sentence level. The book is too long for the story it tells, and many paragraphs feel padded and superfluous. Long mystery novels structured like Lafferty’s tend to employ incident, conflict and revelation more densely. She does not do that – and at the same time, many of the recollections that form the backbone of the crucial SF parts of the novel are not structured at all with notions of conflict, they are meant to add up to a final revelation, to add up to a picture of the society and this difficult technology it has brought forth. And there is one final weakness: almost all mystery novels I have read suffer from a very weak conclusion and revelation. Six Wakes doesn’t escape that particular fate either.
And yet – this is a very enjoyable book, despite its weaknesses. It is very smart, its ideas unique and cleverly used. The use of genre is done with judiciousness and care. It is not meant to be analyzed sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, but as a whole the book holds up very well to careful critical (even academic) analysis. This book is very good.
Ellis, Warren; Phil Hester et al. (2018), Shipwreck, Aftershock
If you read comics, you will have come across Phil Hester’s work here or there – he’s inescapable. And not like the ubiquitous mediocre artists. Hester’s work is always excellent. Shipwreck is no exception. Every panel, every page works. There’s a touch of J.H. Williams III about the panel layouts here, and a couple of younger artists have produced similar work, particularly in the way Hester relies on his inker here for depth and stature. And then there is the writing. Shipwreck is one of many projects by Warren Ellis, who has something of a renaissance these days – he has never gone away of course, but the recent creator owned comic books published by Image Comics (Injection, and, more relevant for this book, Trees), as well as his work on characters like Karnak or Moon Knight has been exemplary. Shipwreck is unusual among all these titles by being self contained. It’s a 6 issue comic, collected in one trade, published by Aftershock. The tendrils that Shipwreck extends towards other comic books are too numerous to list, but the book never feels derivative. It clearly feels like part of a longer comics conversation, yet its structure and character is quite unique, and Hester’s bold pen contributes to this certainly.
Shipwreck, like many great contemporary comic books, is high concept: a man lands on a strange world. As it turns out, he built a machine that can jump to a parallel earth, an attempt made in order to save the ballooning population of “regular” earth. This parallel earth is a strange hellscape – Ellis’s depiction draws from various ideas of postapocalyptic landscapes. The tropes are all there as expected: strange bars, unexpected encounters, no large communities – this is about isolated individuals strewn across a large vista of rocks and ruins. At the same time, we learn that somehow this world of destruction and mystery has a high level of technical expertise, plus a level of organization that allowed them to insert a spy in “regular” earth’s mission, there to sabotage it. This parallel earth is an earth of violence tropes, of fear. Towards the end of the book, a character from parallel earth says to the protagonist: “nobody understood you back there because you were afraid of everything and they weren’t. you’ve come home.” This insertion of fear here points to what Ellis is doing with the tropes and narratives here – he’s condensing them into one sharp image: the leap. It is a Kierkegaardian leap, this leap from one earth to the other, and Ellis has exposed it as such, with all the implications it has for other texts in this vein.
To my mind, the comic books that I thought most immediately about were Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein’s Drifter and Jeff Smith’s Rasl. Drifter ran through multiple trades until it ended beautifully last year. It is about a man who lands with his ship, seemingly dropped out of time – traveled through more than just space. There are contradictions and mysteries that Brandon wraps around an engaging story. While Brandon’s story, in turn, shares a lot with many other recent comic books about space-as-wild-west (Copper is one excellent example), his inversions of time and identity made his book stand out. The dominant narrative – who shoots who, who does what, all of these are diversions in the greater mystery of time and place. Drifter is full of leaps, and even engages the idea of religion, but manages to still wriggle out of it, boiling it down to a personal journey of melancholic self-discovery. This comic, towards the last trades, has some of the loneliest and emotionally gripping panels I can remember reading from a comic in this genre. Nic Klein’s art is essential to this. I’ve been meaning to do a review of Drifter for a while, but I never quite got around to it. The book’s final revelations aren’t real revelations in the sense that we are genuinely surprised – instead, we can kind of guess at everything after the first trade, but Brandon manages, with great skill, to use the majority of his run to carefully tease out all the implications and turns in his concept. The result is a wonderful comic that everybody should consider reading.
In many ways, Shipwreck uses very similar moments of revelation, the landing of the ship, the alien-but-familiar landscape, down to the way Hester renders moments of surprise, and mental strain. Another book that is similar, though in less immediately obvious ways, is Jeff Smith’s Rasl, which he published in four volumes a few years back. Smith is most well known for Bones, but I’d argue that Rasl is a greater accomplishment. RASL is a book about science, indirectly referencing various debates about the Manhattan Project and the viability and exploitability of various forms of scienti´fic progress. But more relevantly, it is about a man who straps a device to his body that allows him a form of interdimensional travel. The protagonist in Shipwreck also has a device that allows him a specialized form of travel – it allows him to jump short distances – i.e, disappear and reappear somewhere not too far away. Like RASL’s device, this one takes a toll on its user. There are a couple of scenes that read like direct references to Smith, but it’s hard to tell with such a broadly allusive book like Shipwreck. Smith does tether his story to religion, but more in the sense of a general meaty mysticism rather than something more specific. Smith’s book is effusive and inspired rather than precise and direct. Ellis’s book is the latter, more than supported by Hester’s inorganic, angular lines.
As a whole this reads like a master’s comment on a whole genre – it feels less like fiction, and more like metafiction. A comic book disquisition on craft. There is a lot of “story” in the book but at the same time, the book doesn’t appear to be interested in story. That Ellis can do story is evidenced by his own Trees. Shipwreck reads more like a proof of concept, a master showing up his disciples. Or: Masters, plural. Hester, too, has been around longer than many fêted contemporary artists, and has provided great art all this time. I first encountered Hester’s work on Kevin Smith’s iconic Green Arrow run – whatever you think of Smith’s work in comics, Quiver is a masterpiece, and Hester’s art is a big part of that. His work here is recognizable – but it, too, seems to dip into current trends, but on a much higher level. As I said – a proof of concept comic, by a legendary writer and a legendary artist.
A note towards the end: this was published by Aftershock comics. I have never heard of this publisher before – but the book is well produced, and it’s not just Ellis who writes for them these days. There’s a book by Garth Ennis, and one by the powerhouse pairing of Palmiotti/Conner, as well as a comic by Cullen Bunn, who seems to be everywhere these days.
in translation and as you pass through the first pages you realize with a sunken heart that you walk among the ghosts of the source language and the shuddering testimonials to the translator’s unwillingness or inability to invent an original English equivalent. Bummer.
(This post may or may not be related to my reading of Herbert Lomas’s translation of Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll: A Love Story.)
Mawil (2014), Kinderland, Reprodukt
The Western discourse on Socialist literature has always been ideological in the sense that we as readers expected something from the literature coming out of the Soviet bloc, and imbued that with literary value. This has at times led to the promotion of mediocre but very critical writers. Wolf Biermann is one of them, and the charade that the continued literary life of Monika Maron is should be filed in the same category. Sometimes, the way these expectations are dealt with is entertaining: I can highly recommend reading Heiner Müller interviews from his middle period of work – he is constantly, as a writer known to be at odds with the leaders of the GDR cultural establishment, prodded to please say something critical, and instead he goes on and on about the problems with capitalism, savagely critical of leftwing “symbolic” criticism and endorsing violent change. Another example is Rummelplatz, a novel that was not allowed to be published in the GDR, and the rejection of which had sent its writer, Werner Bräunig, into an early grave. The rejected manuscript is literally a museum piece now: in the German History Museum in Bonn, it is presented among other articles of “proof” of socialist repression. As I point out in my review on the blog, Rummelplatz is an odd candidate for such a hallowed spot in the museum of Why Socialism Is Evil: Bräunig’s novel explicitly and at length points to the many acts of exploitation that happened in West Germany and how East Germany had risen from a couple of potato fields to an industrial nation, against the threat of Western sabotage. It’s critical of some mechanisms of the GDR without endorsing the alternative. Like many writers of his time, like Müller or Wolf, Bräunig favored a change in the system, rather than a change of system. These books, half in and half out of discourses on socialism, are in my opinion the most interesting of the bunch. But it is a careful balancing act that isn’t so easy to pull off. Mawil’s thick brick of a graphic novel, Kinderland (named, I think, after this 1986 song), doesn’t quite manage this. That said, it’s certainly a more worthwhile addition to the body of literature about the GDR than many widely praised fictional statements on Why Socialism Is Evil.
Kinderland slips in and out of discourses. It is a story of life in the last years of a country heading towards dissolution. There are different books in it: a paint-by-numbers book about socialism as fighting dissent and being in favor of conformity, a book about growing up in the GDR, a book about isolation and growing up abandoned, a book, strangely, about alcoholism, and finally, an exciting tale of a boy who discovers his table tennis talents and mounts a school-wide table tennis tournament. Not all of these books fit extremely well together, and when I read it for the first time, I felt let down and disappointed. But upon rereading the book a few times, I have found it to be quite interesting. The combination of disparate elements works in its favor – life at the tail end of the GDR was confusing and complicated, as I, who started elementary school in the GDR and ended it in a united Germany, can personally attest. The book’s greatest strength is its careful attention to details. The slang, words, objects, the rhythm of life under the socialist regime are written with the vividness of memory, and I think it is the exactness of the book that leads to some of its complications and problems. I cannot vouch for most of it – but there’s a curious echo in my reader’s memory here. As a boy I read many of the books in my father’s library. And since my father lost his reading appetite when he became an adult, those books were largely young adult books, some of them exciting tales about being a teenager in the GDR. In my head, when I read Kinderland, the details I knew about through family stories, the details I personally observed, and the details I remembered from YA books written for GDR youth come together to create a feeling of verisimilitude. And one wonders how much of the plot and structure of Mawil’s book can be tied to his own reading, and his own indirect knowledge.
Mawil’s art is the real deal – he manages to slow down and speed up his story at will, provide a genuinely exciting table tennis game even for people who have never played or followed a single complete game of table tennis. As an artist he is not necessarily what I would call an original artist – most of his techniques can be attributed to examples from Belgian comics to Chris Ware and in particular Seth, though it’s the latter association that makes me think the art’s roots are a bit deeper, like Seth’s own are. But if you have read Seth, and Ware, and maybe Rube Goldberg, you’re not surprised by anything the book does – but it is entertaining. Mawil has full control of moods, speed, and humor in a way that I always greatly enjoy in comic books. He also uses the art to tease the reader with possibilities. The story, ultimately, is a low key story, which ends in a low key way, with two boys trying to seal a friendship. But it is presented to us immediately under two different auspices: the cover, with a sea of pioneer-blouse wearing kids and one dissenter in their midst, suggests that the story is about political dissent. The first page on the other hand presents a number of toys and childhood objects that anyone who grew up in the GDR can readily identify – there’s no other function of these panels than to signal to the reader a sense of nostalgia – or ostalgia, as it is often called. Neither impression is true for the direction the novel will take. All the working class misery, all the many, many characters who are clearly alcoholics (alcoholism was specifically a scourge of the GDR), that precludes a safe nostalgic reading. Similarly, a character in the book, a conformist girl called “Angela Werkel” is clearly an allusion to Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor. It’s not true – in the sense that Mawil, as a boy, did not meet Merkel who was much older at the time of the events described. But the inclusion of someone who did well under socialism, and did very well after socialism, who is shown to be intensely conformist, but also kind-hearted, is a suggestion that what really counted was not the content of one’s party allegiance but the content of one’s heart, bland as that may sound.
The main character, called Mirco Watzke (Mawil’s real name is Markus Witzel), is also one of the least interesting ones. His childish excitement, anger, frustration and happiness is well rendered, but is drowned in all the typical generic discourses on childhood which Mawil makes no attempt to break or criticize. The really fascinating character is a boy named Thorsten. He is the boy on the cover who does not wear the uniform (Mirko Watzke is the boy to his right). He’s not ideologically opposed to the GDR, he’s just a misfit. His father has left the family to pursue worldly riches in West Germany, which has turned his mother into an alcoholic. He basically lives alone, and his abrasive character means he has difficulties making friends. It is hard not to see the disillusioned, broken teenagers in Clemens Meyer’s novels about the period after reunification (very well translated by Katy Derbyshire) in Thorsten’s future. In fact, one could argue that the whole book takes on Thorsten’s shape. The contradictions in his character and the contradictions in this wild ride of a novel seem to fit. The biggest weakness of the book is Mawil’s apparent decision not to jettision his autobiographically inspired protagonist. The genre of coming of age book, where the protagonist plays straight man, and mostly narrator and observer to a wild friend or acquaintance, would have been a better fit for the material in this book. But then one has to wonder about the politics of writing this book. In a world where a novel of not-quite-dissident writing gets a spot in a museum, where the memory of the not-so-distant past is intensely politicised, Mawil’s stops and starts.
For the first time in what feels like forever, I will be having a holiday-holiday, and not just a handful of days wrapped around a conference. I will be spending a few days in Tallinn next week – and afterwards a few days in Helsinki. Anything you can recommend me in the way of spending my time in Tallinn? Or things to read? I am currently reading Sofi Oksanan in preparation for the trip. Tipps? Suggestions? What is essential to eat?
I sent a couple of poems away to a competition two days ago and it makes you wonder as you look at the pile of poems that you’ve amassed since your last book: is this really you? Can’t you do this better? Didn’t you write something last week that you liked better that you think works better that is smarter more lyrical more worth pouring into poetry but then you look at that and it already congealed into strangeness and it feels like a selfie you took last week where you have too many chins and awkward hair and didn’t your face look better – I mean I take a load of selfies for various reasons and you know those jokes and sketches where a guy in the mirror mirrors all your movement, tricking you into believing they are real and meanwhile you look at the screen saying: oh, that guy looks nothing like the guy in the mirror, nothing! but you look at your selfie and you scream that guy looks nothing like me and for fuck’s sake this isn’t even Heraclitus, this is just embarrassing to be honest and you know what’s embarrassing? These poems, and you don’t know who to show them to for triage because you don’t want to be embarrassed in front of people you genuinely respect so you sit on the floor in a pile of poems and your weird face looks up at you from every angle, bald spot here, strange torso here and so on and on until you go blind and dissipate nec corpus remanet
Ibargüengoitia, Jorge (2018 [1977/1983]), The Dead Girls, Picador
Translated by Asa Zatz
For a novel called “The Dead Girls,” Mexican author Jorge Ibargüengoitia isn’t particularly interested in said dead girls. In the introduction to the new edition of the book, Colm Tóibín compares the novel to Roberto Bolaños 2666, in particularly section 4, “About the Crimes.” He fails to note that, in contrast to Ibargüengoitia, Bolaño does talk about “the crimes” at length, and he presents stories from the lives of many of the murdered women in Ciudad Juarez, which is Bolaño’s focus. He notes the investigation, and presents a possible murderer. Section 4 of 2666 is a real punch to the gut. There’s no sense of the situation being ameliorated or prettied up for the reader, and despite Bolaño’s complex use of postmodern techniques throughout his work and in this novel, as well, there’s no sense of postmodern playfulness clouding the seriousness of the crimes. That is not the case in Ibargüengoitia’s 1977 nonfiction novel which takes a case ripped straight from Mexican headlines in the 1960s, and which had produced a sensational, gut wrenching Mexican movie just the year before Dead Girls was published, and retells the story with the vast instruments available to the well trained postmodern novelist. There’s something distasteful about Ibargüengoitia’s literary project here, and it is not the smell of a dead body which is described at length towards the end of the book. This book has to be read with two lenses – as a literary project by Jorge Ibargüengoitia, and as a literary text that has no outside and does not partake in public discourses. As the latter, The Dead Girls offers a lot of delights. Ibargüengoitia uses mirrors, inversions, symbols, and parodies various discourses of detective and police and general nonfiction writing. He uses witness accounts, he uses doubt, humor and an almost surreal Gothic construction with a lightness of touch that is truly impressive. If not for the dubiousness of Asa Zatz’s translation, the book, viewed under that second lens, can only be praised.
But there’s the language, of course. When Picador decided to reprint a couple of classics and commissioned new introductions for them, they did not, for the few books that had been translated, commission new translations or edit the old ones. Asa Zatz’s is the original translation, and it is one of those cases where you can see, without looking at the original text, that something is off. In various places you can see inversions that appear to mimic the Spanish original, rather than present an organic English orginal in its stead. There are a few other problems that are more like mistakes (some pronouns and deictic expressions appear to be off), and the overall impression is one that makes the reader lose faith in the translator. How does the original novel deal with dialect? With low class speech? Am I getting from The Dead Girls what a Mexican reader would get from Las Muertas? Raymond D. Souza says that “there is considerable variety” in the book between “literary discourse,” “popular language” and “legalistic and journalistic jargon.” There’s no such variety here, really, in the English version. A contrasting example would be Lisa M. Dillman’s work on the novels of Yuri Herrera, which, particularly in Kingdom Cons and Signs Preceding the End of the World, does some very interesting stuff with language and register and which I’ve long admired. The claim – without looking at the original – that a translation is “good” is always dubious. But in some cases, you can tell when a translation isn’t, let’s say, great, and that’s, at least to my mind, the case with Ibargüengoitia’s novel. That said, those of us who have read literature in translation for years and have still not cleaned up our act to learn more languages up to easy reading level, we are used to these small roadbumps in reading and read right over them. And as one’s reading of The Dead Girls takes up speed and you look at all the angles and curiosities in the fictional mansion that Ibargüengoitia has constructed, you – or at least me- start noticing these issues less and less. It doesn’t mean they are not there, but the book’s machinery covers them up quite well.
What’s more: the novel’s chosen style is dry journalese, similar in some sense to Garcia Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, but in a less serious register. There’s also a framing temporal inversion in The Dead Girls, though the main plot is offered in drab chronological order, and since Ibargüengoitia was friends with Garcia Márquez, it’s not implausible that Ibargüengoitia’s 1977 novel had some influence on Garcia Márquez’s 1981 novella. That said there’s a key difference between Ibargüengoitia’s book and the common texts that would come to mind as comparisons, whether it’s Garcia Márquez or Bolaño. Chronicle of a Death Foretold takes liberties with the historical facts but his liberties, apart from the final reconciliation, do not ameliorate the situation or the facts, the novella merely artistically heightens the situation. That, Ibargüengoitia also does. But that is not where he stops. The Dead Girls is very loosely based on the Las Poquianchis case. Las Poquianchis were two to four sisters (there were four sisters in the family, all four were jailed, but the central case revolves around two of them) who ran a couple of brothels in Mexico and murdered 91 people, most of them women. The case, when they were eventually “caught” and charged, gained an enormous notoriety in Mexico. For example, a tabloid, colorfully called Alarma! more than tripled its circulation while the trial of las Poquianchis was ongoing. In 1976, a year before Ibargüengoitia’s novel appeared, a movie just called Las Poquianchis came out – and it detailed the case in a lurid and sensational manner. The sisters did not just run brothels, they also didn’t “just” murder prostitutes, they also, according to many reports, toured the countryside and trafficked young women – tricking and forcing them into prostitution. Of course, these reports are hard to parse for truth, particularly since this perceived thread of the roving immoral madams perfectly fits the typical narratives of moral panic. For Mexico City, Martha Santillán Esqueda has provided an excellent account of the way public moral panic was stirred up around this topic, particularly since the abolishment of prostitution in Mexico earlier – and the resultant web of illegal brothels and corrupt officials maintaining the web. Esqueda also points out that, when polled, many prostitutes suggest they were there of their own free will – and these questions are impossible to answer without taking into account the economic pressures on these inevitably very low class women.
And Ibargüengoitia reaches for these ambiguities with both hands. His book is constructed of pastiches of various kinds of journalistic media – from witness accounts to re-tellings, to official documents. At the end of the novel he presents a famous photo of Las Poquianchis and some of their prostitutes, but he mirrors the picture and erases all their faces (it’s easily googleable though). The novel begins with the caveat “some of the events described herein are real- all the characters are imaginary.” It gives Ibargüengoitia leeway in constucting a much smaller, much more contained, much more symbolically resonant text. Instead of a criminal enterprise and four brothels and 91 murders in the span of only about 10 years, his book’s situation focuses on just one “wandering” brothel, and five murders. While many of the original murders happened during the active running of the brothels (some murders were as prosaic as rich male customers being murdered for the money), all of the murders in The Dead Girls happen after the brothels are shut down and the prostitutes and the two sisters cohabitate in a sealed off house that was built as a brothel but never used. Ibargüengoitia uses various elements of the Gothic novel for his purposes. By making a sealed off, dark house the scene of so much of the book’s drama, he inverts the broad expansiveness of such a region based crime as human trafficking and prostitution into one narrow cramped space. He uses gender as a signifier – the domesticity of the arrangement is used in the crimes, and in some of the murders. Not to mention that the first body buried isn’t a murder per se, but dies violently at the end of a long and complicated healing process, an irony that is central to the way Ibargüengoitia built his book. A fine irony pervades much of the book anyway. While the 1976 movie screamed about corruption, Ibargüengoitia uses allusion and suggestion to decry the machinations of the state. The framing crime, the one that brings the sisters down in the novel, is an act of female jealousy and hot temperedness, while as far as I can tell the original sisters were brought down when a mistreated prostitute escaped and told her story to policement that were not paid off by the sisters.
91 murders, of those roughly 71 dead women – often underage girls. Ibargüengoitia takes the number and the names off this crime and writes a book about writing about crime. Some of the murders in the book happened by accident – maybe. A lot of it is due to a complicated situation. To a spurned, angry gay official who was embarrassed publicly and is taking it out on the sisters. Not one of the murders was committed in a callous way. Prostitutes are sold off, but we don’t learn their names because they were homely, and so what if this is human trafficking. Ibargüengoitia does not take a moral stand, and as a novelist, it’s stupid to demand one of him, but these nonfiction novels that stand in the liminal space between truth and invention – there are different rules that apply to them. There is much to be admired about the construction of the book: the city/farm dichotomy that was part of the public moral outcry, is tampered with in clever ways, space (up/down, inside/out) is manipulated in clever ways. How witnesses work, how narratives are structured, Ibargüengoitia’s novel is full of allusions to these topics and discourses. For a topic centered, in Mexican discourse at the time, around “white slavery,” Ibargüengoitia is at pains to point to the relative darkness of skin of several actors in the book. But the “dead girls” of the title – they get short shrift. And not just the 70+ dead girls that died at the hands of the real Las Poquianchis. But also, honestly, the five dead girls of the novel. Ibargüengoitia interrogates, towards the end, the labels of victim and perpetrator, and while, in isolation, that’s fine, in the liminal space of this kind of book, it’s incredibly dubious. His framing only works because he reduced the situation so much. It does not work with 70+ dead women and an uncounted number of trafficked, raped, mistreated women.
I think there’s a strange kind of tendency of writers, particular progressive writers, of, faced with the awfulness of moral panic, to sanitize the effects of prostitution. The whole recent debate around Dante “Tex” Gill’s potential onscreen portrayal in the movie Rub & Tug by Scarlett Johansson never really touched the fact that Gill was famous for taking over a number of “massage parlors” which were really brothels. During Gill’s ascendancy to a prominent place in Chicago’s underworld, “at least four women with ties to the rub parlors were murdered or died under mysterious circumstances” – but the debate around Johansson was entirely one about whether Gill should be portrayed by the actress and not about the role of forced prostitution and rape in public progressive discourse. There’s actually quite a solid amount of admiration for Gill in many of the think pieces written about the affair around the movie. I think there’s a certain blinkered blindness, a lack of empathy to women which I think is woven throughout books like The Dead Girls, even if they are as well made as this one. When I noted how powerful and excellent Lydia Millet’s fictional portrayal of this lack of empathy for women was in my review of My Happy Life, I could easily have referenced Ibargüengoitia’s novel. But it is quite good. It is hard not to recommend, if you can deal with the other aspect of it.
If you follow this blog, you may have seen my complaints about Anselm Neft’s reading on the second day of TDDL and its aftermath on social media, where Neft defended his use of racist and sexist slurs because of his use of a specific voice. Of course, his “friends” came out in support of literature and against “censorship” and attacked his critic. So far, so German.
But as it turns out, Neft’s awfulness is maybe part of a larger political moment. I recommend the most recent episode (Jul 19) of the excellent Still Processing podcast. To summarize: apparently, during this year’s Tin House Summer Workshop in Portland, Wells Tower, an established author, presented a text which sounds eerily similar to Neft’s: like Neft, Wells Towers appropriates the voice of a marginalized person, a homeless person in both cases, and uses this set-up as an excuse to be offensive and insulting to other margínalized people. Apparently, there was an intervention there, particularly after a night of reflection.
This is also an indicator of the different ways in which the two counties deal with this moment. No such reflection appears to have helped Neft and the various supportive voices in the German-language literary community.
Alfred (2014), Come Prima, Delcourt/Mirages
Despite the Italian title, Alfred’s award winning graphic novel is French. Alfred, whose name is Lionel Papagalli, is a 40something artist and writer from Grenoble. This book is a marvel of emotional storytelling. The basic beats of the book are well known and common enough that we all know a novel or movie or comic book about this topic. Two sons return home to their father to figure out the intergenerational sociocultural dynamics between emigré children and their parents. The what isn’t the most important part of Come Prima – it is the how. This large book is consistently spellbinding and moving. Alfred does more than just tell a story about a father and a son, he also, in various registers, tells a story about fascism, about what it means to be working class in a changing world, how we construct our futures relative to our pasts. To what extent are our identities tied up in our memories? Like all good comics, the major achievement of Come Prima is not to ask novel questions, it is to find unique artistic ways to ask and maybe answer them. As the cover suggests, the book is largely a road movie kind of story: two brothers take a decrepit little car to go to Italy, to bury the ashes of their father. On the way we discover various nooks and crannies of the family history, and both brothers gain depth as we hear more of their stories. Alfred has at his disposal an enormously malleable artistic grammar where a shift in colors and realism allows him to show shifts in emotion and tenseness. The main graphic effort in the book, however, are sections painted entirely in blue and red colors, with no black outlines, passages that indicate formative memories – both kinds of drawing, the realistic leaning main visual narrative and the memory paintings, come together in two enormously powerful panels towards the very end of the book. To be clear – Alfred doesn’t offer a particularly insightful tale here – this is all effect and emotion. But it is fantastically done, and truly compelling.
Alfred makes some interesting choices regarding his setting. The book is set in 1958, as we learn from a radio broadcast heard somewhere on the road, and while much of the beginning of the book draws on noir, we soon find that the war, which, after all, had just ended 13 years earlier, is casting a shadow on many of its characters. It is a curious achievement by Alfred to decide not to focus on that aspect specifically, despite it being a central part of why the characters are who and where they are. What this creates is a story that we can all recognize, a story that is, as I said originally, very common: the damaged older brother, the ruptured family relationships, the strange characters encountered on the road – but giving it that historical context deepens the story, and also, implicitly, interrogates those other stories for such a context. The “noir” label generally is interesting that way – the term “film noir” was invented by a French critic in 1946 – and generally, French noir is considered as having peaked in the postwar era, as contrasted with American noir, whose heyday was in the 1940s. It’s true – there’s a whole batch of French noir in the prewar era, including the enormous Le Jour se lève, which I have rewatched just last week, as well Pierre Chenal’s 1939 screen adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, which was the first adaptation of that seminal noir novel (the first American adaptation followed much later in 1946); there’s no denying the importance and centrality of post-war noir as a force in French and world culture, from the novels of Gallimard’s série noire, inaugurated in 1946, to the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and Jules Dassin. The war, also often implicit in these movies, is also a force in all of them, even clearer, in some ways, in the extremely political Italian noir of the 60s and 70s. Contrary to the usual noir lighting and cinematography, Alfred shifts the genre into the light – Come Prima is positively flooded with sunlight. Outside of that, I think the comic is engaged in a dialogue with the genre of film noir and its validity for our narratives of today. I went on and on about film noir because it’s not necessarily explicit in the comic – apart from the very noir beginning of the book.
But leaning heavily on the tradition of film noir allows Alfred to lightly touch on complex questions of masculinity in some vignettes here and there without having to play the scenes out to the end. The book begins by introducing the older brother, Fabio, a failed and failing boxer, who shies away from a steady job. The implications of boxing for discourses of masculinity are clear (Mailer, Oates), but most of the other scenes in the book deal with the issue as well. Fabio is visited by his younger brother Giovanni, who is asking him to come home to bury his father’s ashes, which Giovanni brought with him. We never meet the father in the book, but the whole tale is about dealing with father figures and one’s own relationship to maleness and fathers. Giovanni, as it turns out, is a father, as well, one who has abandoned his child. Fabio fights on the streets and in the ring to deal with insecurities and vulnerabilities. Even the few female characters are tied to fatherhood and masculinity, from Fabio’s girlfriend in the present, who tries to convince him to take a job with her father’s company, to Fabio and Giovanni’s adopted younger sister whom Fabio has never met. We are rushed through scenes and characters, with Alfred spending languid moments looking at landscapes or focusing on small moments rather than elaborately written scenes – but his reliance on genre means that he can do that without the whole thing feeling rushed. He plays with genre in other ways too – the memory passages are presented to us with increasing narrative detail – every time they return we come closer to some revelation – but when we finally know everything, the “revelation” is a minor detail, and instead of rushing towards some dark family secret, the passage of memory panels turns out to be a quest for a fullness of memory. There’s no secret at the end of this tunnel – at the end, this story is about being honest to yourself about why you have led the life you have, what your various failures mean within the context of your own life and that of your kin. And that, I think, also leads back to the forgetfulness of masculinity, and the erasure of history by the victorious and the virile.
This is particularly salient here because the period of rupture is the advent of fascism. What Alfred here does is extremely clever: he does not use fascism’s destruction of families as the point where this family breaks apart. That’s such a common narrative, but his point of departure is just before everything crashes down. Fabio and Giovanni’s father was a left wing unionist during fascism. He was beaten, broken, he saw friends being killed. In fact, adopting that girl is a direct result of these devastations. And yes, his son was on “the other side” – but not when these things happened. Fabio joined the black shirts as a young man in order to hurt his father and in order to belong to something different, something bigger. By making this narrative part of the novel’s general discussion of masculinity, he implicates the latter in the former – general narratives of masculinity in fascism. In the end, Fabio leaves for Africa and later France before fascism completely takes over, allowing Alfred to include this dark chapter of history but having his story be about more than that. The absent father and his values of cooperation, kindness, solidarity provide the moral background in a story that implicitly interrogates the value of Grand Personal Narratives that always focus on violence, women and alcohol. In the end, the past and the present fuse beautifully into a contemplation of life by Fabio who has always been on the run. “Come Prima” means “as before” – and while we know from Heraclit that we cannot live exactly as before, sometimes we need to return to our origins before we can begin again.
So I saw the Breeders in concert recently, which was quite exhilarating as an experience for a lifelong fan of the band who has never seen them on stage.
Heads up: this is not a review – I reviewed the novel on this blog in 2010. My review is here. I just want to draw attention to it as a brand new translation of the book, by Charlotte Mandel, a very good translator who also translated The Kindly Ones, is about to come out. So if you click on the link you’ll find my 2010 review of the book. As you can probably tell, I had a bit of a mixed opinion of the book. And it is still my least favorite Ènard. I do like it more today than I liked it then. And Énard is generally speaking a very good writer I think we all agree, more or less. And while this is not a new review, I have blogged a couple of new reviews over the past week. You can see all of them here. How did you like this book?
Millet, Lydia (2002), My Happy Life, Holt
So I have a lot of books in this apartment of mine, as I said yesterday. And this includes several books by whole writers. Those acquisitions were made on reputation alone (and usually favorable pricing situations). One such writer is Rachel Cusk. Another one is Lydia Millet. I own several of her books but haven’t read a single one. So I started with the one that seemed most obviously appealing to me from afar: the 2002 novel My Happy Life. This book is fascinating and absolutely brilliant – and it works with a naïve protagonist – or someone who prefers to tell their story as if they were one – and includes the resulting lacunae of details that are part of our stories and memories – the exactness of fact. Writing like this requires a stylistic discipline and a different exactness of detail that makes this kind of fiction extraordinarily hard to pull off. The easiest out is to use a child or a mentally ill person (or both), because that lets you off the hook in a lot of ways. The resultant bright eyed look at what is often a dark story can be effective, but has a whiff of gimmick about it. When it comes to mentally largely competent adults, the results are often a bit flat and boring or tired – and, most importantly, muddled. I think there’s a misunderstanding about these kinds of narratives. Just because someone doesn’t understand the world as we do, they are not looking at it through a mist. Children are extremely sharp observers.
What Millet pulls off in My Happy Life is a story about a woman who presents to us a world view that is more gentle than the common way we view the world, but she does this in layers and layers of observation, allowing us to see not only that her life is clearly anything but happy – in fact a continuous nightmare – but also how it has become what it is. At its core, it is about the female experience, or a female experience – how power and men grasp at the totality of womanhood – in its essential, basic elements: presentation, representation, self-reliance and biological reproduction. At every step of the way, society grasps at Lydia Millet’s protagonist and fucks her over, denying her agency, free will, and the most basic amount of empathy. In fact, that is what’s ultimately the toughest part about the book – all the men who are unable or unwilling or both to provide some empathy for this put-upon, strong, resilient woman. Why not say your life was “happy” if saying otherwise does not have any advantages among people socialized as men, or socialized to support or defend men. The exactness of detail and style throughout this book is nothing short of brilliant. Millet pulls from multiple registers, uses them all expertly, has always complete mastery of plot, dialogue, and the empire of signs that constitute our reality. In a blurb on the back, someone calls it a “dreamy whirl” – but there’s nothing dream-like about it. Millet’s protagonist may not call a spade a spade, but she describes the spade extremely well, and the distance from what she describes with utmost realism to the name she uses for it has its own literary function.
I mean, before I melt further into this puddle of praise, here’s what the book is about: it is the bildungsroman of a woman who grew up in an orphanage and ended up locked in an empty, abandoned former mental hospital. Her present situation is the framing narrative, that’s where we begin and end. We also stop there in between. From her cell in the mental hospital, she tells us about her life. Her happy life that begins in an abusive orphanage. There are things you don’t think at the beginning that become really clear towards the end of the book – everything in this novel is anchored to wider literary discourses, talks to a broader tradition of literature, a very Irigaray kind of project, overall. So this orphanage is also, of course, all the other orphanages and all their other orphans. And reading it this way recasts various characters in her novel in a different light. The bully – because each bildungsroman set in an orphanage has this morality play about masculinity in it and early fights to persist – here is simply allowed to do what he must, and the woman lets him do that for his own good. Nobody stops him, nobody asks about the beatings and their physical traces on the young girl – things just happen. What the protagonist is taught is how to apologize. She learns to say “excuse me.” She learns to cloak things in a different light. She learns that if she speaks up, if she steps out of line, she will be blamed. At school she is raped – and as a punishment, she’s kicked out of school. She attempts suicide a bunch of times, attempts for which she is punished. She is assaulted and abused by various boys and men early in her life – and that’s how she learns to look at things from a brighter side – it makes things more bearable. These are just a handful of pages that I am summarizing in such detail because what Millet does is a recasting of the common theme of orphanage abuse into the situation of a female protagonist who cannot expect empathy from her readers – much as she cannot expect empathy from people around her. Millet shows how these narratives curdle into terror when you change parts of them.
I mean the Irigaray-like “mirror” is one thing, but My Happy Life reads throughout like a conversation with various feminist theories. But it’s also a critique of pure intellectualism – the protagonist’s pain and trauma are things she learns from – and constructs a view of reality that seems disturbing. Early on she calls abusers “warriors” who “will not be stopped by skin” because “they want to catch the soul. They think that souls are heart and bone, residing in a certain place, and can be known by traveling.” She closes with a declaration of love for the abuser du jour and as a reader you have a couple of options here in how to parse this. One thing is off the table – the naivete of the uneducated, the simple of mind and brain. Throughout her life, Millet’s protagonist is seen reading books. It’s never specifically stressed, but unflaggingly mentioned, in all parts of her life, the protagonist is reading books. She’s clearly not stupid – nor uneducated in a practical sense. What Millet presents to us, instead, is the uselessness of pure knowledge. The protagonist’s knowledge is also embodied – how you deal with the world and how the world deals with you. Much later, the novel’s doublespeak is given a different analogy: on a Polynesia-sounding island (“huts on stilts”?) she learns various words in the local language and reflects on the distance between words, meaning and representation. And as we move from orphanage and school to various phases of her adulthood, Millet engages in similar doublespeak of her own, giving us examples of different power structures that we easily recognize, from capitalism to imperialism, and equating them to the abuse of patriarchy, which the early sections of the book taught us about. This, we learn, is all related – the abuse of power taken by men is replicated in the abuse of power in capitalism, which is replicated in imperialism. This is like that, and the protagonist moves through all of it until she ends up, for no good reason, in a mental hospital. She does acquire occasional problems, but when she describes what could be a delusion, and someone takes her literary, she corrects her interlocutor: this is just a figure of speech. So much for naivete.
And she undergoes all of this explicitly as a woman. Her attempts to find a job land her jobs as a maid and a cleaner. She is repeatedly raped, for a good portion of the book she is continuously raped by an industrialist who keeps her locked up and takes some kind of whip to her body that ends up covering her whole body in scars. This section reminded me of another book I meant to review. Stephen Graham Jones’s book The Least of My Scars is a masterpiece of thriller writing, about a serial killer who is completely without remorse. He is kept as a kind of pet in a house by some rich guy who hand delivers his victims to him and, one assumes, takes his pleasure from that. Like Millet, Jones’s style is masterfully precise, but the obscurities are different, what Jones does is invert externalities into this small apartment, rewriting serial killer narratives, inscribing them into the walls and architecture of one house. Jones uses various serial killer tropes and shifts them around. I should have reviewed that book first, however, since reading Millet makes me see what Jones doesn’t really touch: gender. Women in his book are objects – objects to be murdered (The Least of My Scars is extremely graphically violent), but also objects to be owned. There is an interesting differentiation he makes, but it pales when compared to My Happy Life – the various rooms and enclosures of Millet’s book mirror the rooms and enclosures from literary history, and as much as Jones condenses typical narratives, and violently savages the assumptions of interior monologue and serial killer psychology with his protagonist who has no inner life, his novel stretches into the psychology of those around him – but not into the women. Millet’s protagonist is colonialized top to bottom, from her psychology to her womb. In something of a particularly dark part of the novel, she gives birth to a son, who is then taken away from her. So maybe there’s another similarity between Jones’s book and Millet’s – Jones’s serial killer protagonist uses all parts of his victims in his acts – and Millet’s protagonist is used completely, by a patriarchal society that has no respect or patience for those among it who are assigned female at birth – and immediately, like Millet’s protagonist, shunted into the machine of patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. That Millet connects all this to a mental hospital suggests that we should interrogate the nature of trauma, oppression and mental health.
So I have a lot of books in this apartment of mine, they are sprouting like a malignant plant and God knows there are many, many unread one – it’s not just a museum of The Things I Have Read, I keep buying books like a meth addict. And sometimes there are whole writers whose work I have surreptitiously acquired in bits and pieces but never gotten around to read. I don’t know how long I will have to wait to shuffle off my mortal coil but while I am forced to stick around, I keep digging into these shelves, adding things, replacing things, reading, reading, reading. I have no real prejudice when it comes to genre, though I obviously have strong opinions when it comes to quality. My books are in three languages, the three I read most easily, German, English and French, though I have a small brace of Russian books here. As I type that last sentence, I am left to wonder whether I have written this prose piece before, whether I have forgotten that I wrote it, whether my life or my memory of it which, ultimately, is the same thing, have folded in on each other again. My memory is notoriously bad. I write about books here so as not to forget. Between the ages of 14 and 25 I had read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” more than 6 times, as somehow, the previous readings had left no permanent imprint in my brain – and I was delighted again, every time. Sometimes I have a memory of some text or voice and it sits in some recess of my brain like an angry, cornered rat, attacking my present thinking. That is another reason to keep all these books around; I can get up and pick books off the shelves until I find the text whose ghostly memory haunted whatever I was presently reading. But primarily, these books are not about the present or the past – they are about the folds of future possibilities. These malignant plants that have taken over all the walls in this apartment and some of the floors and night stands and window sills they are the texts and books that I might read in whatever time I have left remaining. So I write and write and write, a poem or an essay per day and I read from these books, these walls of paper and how could I ever switch to ebooks: my life is here, printed and bound and sorted onto shelves. It cannot be deleted with a push of a button and neither can I. Like a cockroach, i stick around.
Nolte, Jakob (2017), Schreckliche Gewalten, Matthes & Seitz
So I complain about translation a lot here, and if you’re following this blog, I’m sure you’re a little bit tired of it, but among the whining about infidelity, and cheating the reader etc. there is another effect that is a bit underrated. Jakob Nolte’s subpar but interesting sophomore novel Schreckliche Gewalten is a good example of that. Here’s the thing: I love Thomas Pynchon’s work to a frankly upsetting degree, but his work suffers from the same problem that other Americans also have in German translation. It’s depth of style. Somehow, in the 1960s, German translators decided that in order to give German audiences a real feeling of “Americanness” in style, there had to be a certain ease of style too, a certain “Americanness,” if you will. Which leads to some writers like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth to read much less stylistically complex than they do in English. I’m not here to debate the literary value of Bellow or Roth, but, missteps aside, it’s inarguable that they were, on a sentence by sentence level, quite excellent prose writers. They don’t read like that in German, on a sentence by sentence level. And postmodern writers like Barth and Pynchon fared even worse. Pynchon can be quite a knotty writer of prose, and for a long time, translations did not reflect the complexities of his style. But generation on generation of writers grew up on his books in translation. Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, was translated by none other than Elfriede Jelinek – Pynchon’s books had the imprimatur of literary royalty, whatever the details of style. But if you are a young man whose literary proclivities lead him down the path of postmodernity, there’s a chance you won’t just have structural debts to the writers that inspired you – you’ll also have stylistic debts. And while Jakob Nolte is clearly a well read author who very clearly has a solid command of English, the most striking thought I had while reading his novel was – how it read like a poor man’s Pynchon in terms of structure, but nothing in any way like Pynchon in terms of style – and honestly, I think I blame translation for this.
But to get to the actual book at hand. Schreckliche Gewalten did very well when it came out, it was longlisted for the German Book Award, and, given the slightness of the text he read, it was likely on the strengths of the novel that Nolte was invited to the Bachmannpreis this year. And I will be honest – I did not go into the book wanting to like it. The first pages were such a drag, after the explosive early events that I dreaded reading the whole thing. But I did – and it wasn’t such an awful torture. It never improves regarding the quality of its prose, but Nolte does a few very interesting things with – not structure per se, but the way he sequences narrative passages. He moves in and out of pastiche, half the text is metafiction, the other half mixes other kinds of narrative. There’s a fascinating energy in this novel, and this may sound strange but while I don’t know that I would recommend the actual novel to anyone, I strongly recommend a translator have a look at the text and consider translating it. There is something captivating about Nolte’s book, its turns and twist keep you engaged as a reader – and while I advocate fidelity in translation, a less ethical translator could shift the quality of Nolte’s prose a bit upwards and the result would be an absolutely solid book. Honestly, Schreckliche Gewalten is quite a ride, a messy book, but I do enjoy messy books, this just isn’t, au fond, very good. In many ways, this is “precociously brilliant young man” territory, flirting with the so called polymath novelists like the late David Foster Wallace or the great Joshua Cohen. But both Cohen’s and DFW’s prose is excellent – and Nolte’s isn’t, which keeps bringing me back, like a bad-taste boomerang, to the first paragraph. What’s more, the prose is so low-key that despite the plethora of voices and quotes and paraphrases populating the novel, there’s a sense of a single specific voice behind the text – and it’s like that dude at the party who needs to explain to you why Star Trek: TNG was the best Star Trek and why Star Trek Discovery isn’t a real Star Trek show, and then he explains to you why The Wire was the pinnacle of prestige TV and why Elon Musk is right about [fill in any social issue]. That dude, you know, who begins most of his sentences with “well, actually” and appears to know a lot, but it’s mostly surface level sub-wikipedia chatter, with blind spots that you can attribute to specific bias fairly easily.
I mean, I don’t know. Maybe I should first say what the book is about: a mother turns into a werewolf, eats the father. She tells her children that once a generation, a gene carrying this disorder activates. So that would mean one of the children is doomed – except they are twins. They then deal differently with the issue – the sister stays at home while the brother travels abroad. In the end – sorry for spoiling you, both turn. My primary association was with Tournier’s masterful Les Météores (incidentally, how did the academy hand out TWO Nobel Prizes to French novelists while Tournier was alive and did not give one to him?) – but Nolte has less interest in the human condition. For Nolte, everything has a metafictional tie to narratology or typology. But he doesn’t stop there in his structuring – his twins, a boy and a girl – are separated on a gendered basis. There’s a good and a bad reason for that. The good reason is a discoursive one. It allows him to discuss feminism, by having the girl become part of a radical feminist group, and be engaged in mild acts of domestic terrorism, before getting caught up in other parts of 1970s radicalism and upping the ante. The boy meanwhile travels to Afghanistan, following typical male narratives of adventuring. While both children are sexually active, this, too follows typical patterns. There is a metadiscursive, critical element here – the gendered structure reflects and spotlights the gendered narratives that so many of the texts the book is built of are filled with. At the same time, Nolte keeps on doing this page after page, chapter after chapter to the point where you’re wondering how critical this is. He invents a female killer who is out to kill the mother, but instead begins an affair with the female twin. He writes sex scenes that are badly written porn manuscripts, and then “flips” them to show us clichés embedded in them, but these “flips” which he does a few times are so ineffective, and so transparently “clever” in a self satisfied way that they begin to grate.
Everything about the novel begins to grate at some point. There is a clever use of ethnicity, and a similar narratological use of problematic discourses on race and imperialism, but after a hundred pages of the same patterns repeating again and again, one tires of this too, and becomes maybe a tad suspicious of this blonde white young man who revels in his amusing games with fictionality and race. Particularly since he’s such a bad writer. There’s another thing. Pynchon’s best books are not just written in a dense, erudite prose, they are also endlessly inventive. Of the 350 pages here, Nolte manages to keep about 150 at a greater pace. Those 150 pages, in the middle, are where the book is most entertaining – he switches perspectives suddenly, moves in and out of characters and narratives, explains historical or invented literary facts, with just the tiniest hint of Vilas-Matas to make it just enjoyable enough – but he takes a bit to get going and runs out of steam towards the end. Everything, truly everything about this book screams “debut novel by precocious 19 year old Wunderkind novelist” – but while he’s young (*1988), he’s not that young, and this is not his debut.
And if he’s not a 19 year old Wunderkind novelist with his debut novel – what is this? My gut feeling early in the book that never really left me blames German translations of and reception of writers like Pynchon, DFW or Barthelme. This is what happens if an influential book or writer is only partially presented to their readers – as a maker of plots, say. I am sure that some of the influence of Dostoevsky, whose uneven, rough style is not always translated accurately as uneven and rough (again, German translations may be among the worst) can be charted similarly. I have also wondered whether the way Japanese and Latin American writers of late postmodernist periods have been translated into English has shaped certain stylistic pecularities of very literary young contemporary writers. But that’s only tangentially related to Schreckliche Gewalten. The book is too enjoyable in the middle to be really bad. But nobody in their right mind would call it good. At best, in its best moments, it is an interesting mess. At its worst, it is boring and boorish. Those two sides of it are not well balanced – which, in a novel about twins is, possibly, its own metafictional commentary. It doesn’t improve the book, however.
On Sunday, the winners of the four prizes plus the audience award were announced. Yes, that’s right, I’m a bit late. Sue me.
If you feel you need to catch up with what’s happened over the three days of readings – and I recommend you do take a gander – here is my summary of Day One., a day about whiteness and the blindness of writers and judges in the face of it. Here is my summary of Day Two, a day mostly about mediocrity and the praise it can elicit if it is narrowly tailored to MFA standards (in this country: Literaturinstitut (see this review). And finally, here is my summary of Day Three, a day which saw the competition’s best text by a country mile, and one of its worst and if you’re still completely lost as to what the hell is going on, here is my general post about this year’s event. If you want, you can read all the texts here, though you should hurry, they won’t be online forever.
So on Sunday, the venerable judges voted in a dramatic fashion. The day was full of surprises. You know what wasn’t a surprise? That the best text, a brilliant reckoning with Germany’s post-reunifaction history of violence, Özlem Dündar’s text in four voices, did not win. It didn’t even come in second, not until Bjerg’s MFA-by-numbers meditation on fatherhood and sad white men had its place in the spotlight.. Last year’s decision to sideline the politically interesting texts for Schmalz’s solid, but politically empty monologue was, as it turned out, a sign O’ the times. At least this year’s winner, Tanja Maljartschuk’s text, was very good, and sharp enough in focus and moral clarity, likely the second best text in a field that was, overall, stronger than last year’s.
Indeed, of the five texts I personally considered best, my three favorite texts also won three awards. Only Corinna T. Sievers, whose sharp text about womanhood, sex and the struggles of addiction confounded the judges, and Ally Klein, whose text about anxiety and panic attacks, a text which I would not have properly understood without help myself, went unrewarded.
Dündar did win an award – the third place Kelag award. And Raphaela Edelbauer won an audience award. Regrettably, the second and fourth place awards went to Bov Bjerg and Anna Stern respectively. I want to talk about these for a moment: most observers of the voting that led to Anna Stern award saw judges changing their vote, voting tactically – because here’s what almost happened: Joshua Groß’s bad text almost won, because Klaus Kastberger suffered some kind of mental breakdown and kept throwing his hat in the ring for Groß’s text which was politically and literarily dubious.
It was stunnning. I could not believe it – but in the end the explanation is simple enough. Despite women winning the majority of this year’s awards, the structure of the Bachmannpreis favors men. The reason women did well this year (unlike last year, for example) is that Edelbauer, Dündar and Tanja Maljartschuk have written texts that are generally considered among the best texts, across the board. Nobody could have excluded those three texts from awards. But that a mediocre writer of MFA or Literaturinstitut pabulum like Bov Bjerg not only gets praised , but also takes home an award at least three women would have deserved more, is a sign of a certain tolerance of white male mediocrity – or rather, a certain critical appreciation for a tone and style of writing, a nonchalant irrelevance.
Indeed, Kastberger compounded his sad performance when he praised Bjerg as one of the most relevant German writers of our time – which, if true, is a horrible indictment of contemporary German literature. Honestly, I don’t think it’s true, but it’s instructive that this is where Kastberger’s brain went, this is his category for Bjerg – and maybe that also explains his support for Joshua Groß. Important Male Novelist – a category he leaped to defend.
There’s another little nugget that turned up in the award’s aftermath: Anselm Neft, whose text used slurs and appropriated the voice of a socially weaker person with a language of cliché and stereotype that aimed for effect rather than depth, went on a Facebook rant about a critical voice on Twitter. He defended his use of that language and slurs and assembled a crowd of angry Germans who agreed with him. That crowd contained almost every signifcant participant in the #tddl-discussion on Twitter, plus some of the judges. Everybody agreed that it should be fine to use slurs against Roma and stupid, biased or cowardly to complain about this minor matter. Interestingly, among his supporters appear to be people involved in running the award: in the comments, he noted that someone had told him that he had only barely lost out on the audience voting, which Raphaela Edelbauer had ended up winning.
The whole sorry affair both underlined why texts like Dündar’s that critically interrogate German narratives have a steep hill to climb to win an award like this one, and why writers like Neft and Bjerg will for the foreseeable future have a shortcut to such honors. There’s no topic like the vague sadness of adult white men to win awards. That’s been true for decades, and at least on the basis of this year’s TDDL, it still appears to be true.
Things are coming to an end. Day Three closed the active portion of the Bachmannpreis with a thoroughly interesting set of texts. Tomorrow prizes will be awarded. At least one of today’s writers should win one, as we have seen the best text of the competition (as well as one of the worst) but we’ll get to that. Meanwhile, here is my summary of Day One. Here is my summary of Day Two. Here is my general post about the event. If you want, you can read all the texts here. The writers today were Jakob Nolte, Stephan Groetzner, Özlem Özgül Dündar and Lennardt Loß.
It was a short day, and not overall as annoying as some previous days – apart from one very bad text, there were two meh texts, one fantastic text, I did not run out of white wine and also I took a nap which is always lovely.
Jakob Nolte, whose novel I’ll review soonish, started the day with a story that seems a bit boring and written slightly sloppily, but upon reading his novel it appears to be written in – his style, I guess? That does not make it good though – it was mostly boring and uninteresting. A couple of crooked metaphors, odd grammatical choices etc. It’s a perfect middle-of-the-road text. Not good enough or bad enough to create excitement, but after day one started with death, and day two started with anal sex, starting day three with a mostly meaningless story about a woman on a beach wasn’t such a bad change of pace. The racial politics of the text were a bit dubious, but so is Nolte’s work generally. His novel uses various people of color to provide meaning and depth to the tale of ethnically German twins born in Norway, which is the whitest possible constellation. In comparison, the story wasn’t that bad.
In a sense the whole day was slowly building to Dündar’s excellent text, as the second writer, Stephan Groetzner, produced a humorous, clever and satiric text about – look, I’m not entirely sure. The text was partially set in Moldova and in Austria, and in its Moldovan sections it sidestepped the usual German tendency of filling these texts up with local color that always feels at best a bit exploitative (see Nolte, Jacob) and at worst a bit racist (see Neft, Anselm). Instead, the text was filled with Austrian terms – from local Austrian myths to Austrian vocabulary – specifically signposting his intentions by having models in Moldova have vegetable based nicknames, all of which were words that only exist in the Austrian variety of German. Groetzner is German, and this rubbed Klaus Kastberger the wrong way – mind you, this is the same Klaus Kastberger, who last year listened to a story about service personnel of color – and urged us to re-learn how to deal with servants.
Thank God the next text was brilliant. Özlem Özgul Dündar presented a brilliant text. A chorus of mothers, echoing various writers from the German tradition (I particularly heard Jelinek, but I am biased) presented the facts and emotions around an unnamed calamity, where neo-fascists burned down a house inhabited by foreigners. The most likely reference is to the 1993 Solingen arson attack, but other elements appear to be referencing other arson attacks that happened at the same time. I say “neo-nazis” but the people involved in the Solingen attack were largely “normal” young men, some with solid background. And in other arson attacks, like the one in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, which happened around the same time, a whole mob joined the attackers. Dündar’s story touches on many of these beats, and also provides a harrowing and moving account of what it feels like to have been there, to have died there, to have survived it. Her textual means were precisely attuned to the needs of the material – and while the text was presented as prose, it showed the author’s background in playwriting and poetry. An enormous text – slighly marred by some of the reception, as some of the judges, in particular Michael Wiederstein, who grew up near SOlingen, appeared to have no great interest in neo-nazis.
There’s a weird thing in Germany where this country has an obsession with Nazis in the period between 1933 and 1945, but attempts to blank out the topic of Nazis after that period, especially Nazis that were born after the war, or even later. That explains why Wiederstein, Mr. No Historical Memory of Events Happening After 1990, invited Lennardt Loß, whose awful, awful text, an excerpt from a very likely lamentably awful novel, is centered around an old Nazi (a “real” Nazi) and someone who was part of the RAF, the left wing terrorism that was particularly active in the 1970s in Germany. There are so many distasteful things about the text, from the dumb use of parallel guilt between someone supporting the RAF and an actual Nazi – but the text itself, with its stilted dialogue, miserable prose and misshapen structure, was almost as offensive on a purely aesthetic level. Loß, with no particular interest in history outside of Wikipedia entries ended day three on a bad note.
I mean it’s a fool’s game to predict the jury but Dündar’s text was so goddamn good that only a moron wouldn’t vote for it to win, but we’ll see.
If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the event) so here is a brief summary of how day two (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Corinna T. Sievers, Ally Klein, Tanja Maljartschuk, Bov Bjerg and Anselm Neft. . You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined. For a summary of the first day click here.
The day started with a text about a nymphomaniac female dentist, in a story by Corinna T. Sievers. With a few exceptions here and there, Sievers’s style was exceptionally clear and sharp, mostly, again, with a few exceptions, allowing the writer to modulate events and tone with some ease. Oh, and the story was largely pornographic. The scene ends on a slowly and carefully described blow job, performed by the dentist on one of her patients. This was not a surprise. In the novels I’d previously read of hers, explicit sex scenes were the rule rather than the exception. But it’s worth a closer look. These are novels about child abuse (in fact, two out of three novels broach the topic), crime, alcoholism, dysphoria. Two out of the three feature middle aged female protagonists who are struggling with the pressures and expectations placed on them in some way or another. To note one in particular, the widely acclaimed novel Maria Rosenblatt: it takes up the stucture and language of crime novels, with frightening ease, and inverts many of its assumptions. How does the story change if we turn the boozing detective who fucks around into a woman? How do other elements of the story have to stretch and adapt? Reviews of the book all mention its sexual explicitness – by comparison, just among the books I reviewed this week – I can assure you, despite the incredible flood of penises in Stephan Lohse’s novel, no review focused on the homoerotic or queer centering of male genitalia – we’re used to dick, as described by dudes. So far, each novel makes specific, different use of the explicit sexuality that appears to be Sievers’s hallmark – so if this writer is so clever what’s the point with the story as presented at the Bachmann-Preis? To understand you have to look at the complicated history of the Bachmannpreis. In the very first instalment, in 1977, Karin Struck presented a story involving female bodily functions and was severely upbraided by one of the critics: nobody is interested in the thoughts of a woman who menstruates! By contrast, a few years later, Urs Allemann took an award home with a story about a man who admits his pleasure in sleeping with infants. And there is one more possible contextual allusion: in her introduction, Sievers mentions Martin Walser as a writer she admires. On the one hand, yuck! On the other hand, a few hours after the reading, I had to think of the year Walser’s daughter, Alissa, presented a half-incestuous atory about a woman who uses her father’s money to purchase sex and then talks to him about it. Walser also took home an award – with a story that had possible autobiographical implications. Now, Sievers is, by profession, a dentist, and choosing to present a story about dentistry, when she had not done so in any of her previous novels, seems strategic, implicating her audience in the performance in a way that she could not have done with a written story. Her slow, strangely paced reading contributes to that theory. And there’s more: the reaction to the text, particularly by the male jurors, some of whom, like Klaus Kastberger, joked that they would want to get an appointment at her practice, “though we should talk about the price,” appears to have justified most of her literary choices. The story, much like Raphaela Edelbauer’s story that opened the first day, had significant problems, but, like Edelbauer’s text, on balance more good things than bad things and in my opinion had been the second best text presented at the competition thus far.
This assessment didn’t change after the second text of the day, an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by Ally Klein. Klein’s story did not appear to be any good – bad imagery, a surfeit of adjectives, flabby structure, more like a pile of excited descriptions than a serious piece of fiction. But as I browsed twitter, I came across a series of tweets by Sarah Wipauer, a writer who suffers from periodical and incapacitating panic attacks and as a sufferer of this affliction. She immediately recognized the symptoms in Ally Klein’s text. She was not just moved to tears, but brilliantly explained how the very deficient seeming nature of the text, like its images and adjectives and banal seeming prose was actually further evidence of its literary treatment of specific symptoms, and what seemed vague and imprecise was, in reality a well-made, precise text about this particular affliction.
The morning was brought to a close by a story by Tanja Maljartschuk. Maljartschuk has published multiple award-winning novels in Ukrainian – she has never published a longer narrative originally written in German. That said, her story was absolutely enjoyable. The most classically written story so far, written with professional routine, it is a story about a migrant who is constantly in danger of being picked up by the police, and an older woman with dementia. Their paths cross, as a strange combination of acts takes place, in a scene of biblical and literary allusion, the protagonist steals some money from the old lady, but ends up washing her feet, as he is, at the story’s end, arrested, with certain doom in his future. The benign theft has echoes of two texts in particular – there’s the encounter of Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean in Hugo’s classic novel – and a sequence of scenes from Clemens Meyer’s debut novel Als wir träumten, where a whole group of impoverished, disillusioned young men steal from an older woman, but also take care of her, in a strange sense of symbiosis between two disadvantaged groups. Much as in Lohse’s racist text from yesterday, this echo connects racial and class issues, but unlike Lohse, Maljartschuk connects the two levels with skill and ease. If anything, the story is too well made, hiding its skill under a clear, startling veneer. By far the best story of the competition so far.
The two afternoon readings were kicked off by Bov Bjerg. I don’t have a ton to say about this one, in part because my initial and also my second impression are/were wildly at odds with the audience reaction on Twitter and the jury’s enthusiastic reaction. I’ll write a review of his bestselling novel Auerhaus one of these days and will use the opportunity to go into more detail. What it is, is a very well made story about a father and a son, about depression and the fear of your child inheriting your own suicidal ideation. I may not understand panic attacks, but boy do I understand that fear. I want no child of mine to grow up suffering as I did and do. And on some days that does translate to: I want no child(ren). That said, the story is incredibly flat and boring and banal – incredibly so. It’s not its simplicity. I love well made simplicity. But I think the right comparison here is with the Maljartschuk story that preceded it. Both texts were well made, but while the achievement of Maljartschuk’s story is that of an experienced writer who has worked on their craft – the “well-made” aspect of Bov Bjerg text is that of MFA-taught well made writing. I have complained about the MFA-taught slickness before, particularly about the two major MFA mills in Germany, the Literaturinstituts in Leipzig and Hildesheim. I believe that the positive reaction to the story and the inability to see the exceptionally formulaic nature of its achievement (in other words, it’s literally institutionally well-made not literarily well made) is connected to the way the literary critical system in this country is set up – with Leipzig and Hildesheim producing a specific kind of writing, influencing the critics’s sense of the literary field – and in turn, the critics’s expectations shaping what is taught as a “well-made story” in Leipzig and Hildesheim. In a sense, this story was made for this stage, in a terribly boring cercle vicieux. This is not a bad story by any means, just an awfully dull one, the wrong kind of well made, with a fundamental expectation of universality that is typical of white men, which is why the lack of diversity this year is such a problem.
At least with the day’s final story, written and presented by Anselm Neft, we were back on more reliably German ground, as Neft appropriated the experience of marginalized people, used racist slurs against Roma, absolutely crowded his text with clichés and sloppy prose, and was generally not so much an embarrassment to the proceedings, but a solid representation of a year of this award with the largest percentage of German writers of recent years (Edelbauer was the only Austrian writer on the list this year). I admit, reader, I fell asleep during the story. I reread it later, but honestly, it wasn’t even offensive enough to keep yours truly awake.
Tomorrow’s group of writers is odd. I have no sense of who I really want to win the award. Tomorrow starts with Jakob Nolte, whose well received last novel is actually pretty bad (review forthcoming), and Stephan Groetzner, who reads exceptionally obnoxiously. God knows.
If you follow this blog you are likely not fluent enough in German to have followed the Bachmannpreis livestream (see my post about the event) so here is a brief summary of how day one (of three) went. The writers who read today were, in this order: Raphaela Edelbauer, Martina Clavadetscher, Stephan Lohse, Anna Stern and Joshua Groß. You can read all the texts here, if you are so inclined.
The day began with the writer I was most excited to see. Not because I thought it was the best writer in the competition, but because Raphaela Edelbauer‘s book is such a lovely accomplishment and yet I had no idea how she’d approach the writing of fiction proper. One of her book’s strengths is a sense of how the languages of fiction and science and history are connected – and in her text she achieved much of the same thing. A text that ended up being about the terrors of history implicated both science and the people who partake in it. How we deal with nature and how we deal with our fellow human beings – at the same time, the parts of the text that were fiction proper were not nearly as good as the nonfiction sections. Edelbauer does not have a mastery of the first person narrative yet – indeed most disappointingly, she does not bring the same attention and care to the first person fiction narrative that she brings to the nonfictional work. The prose in the latter is multifaceted and complex, while her first person narrative frequently falls flat. The text overall had a curiously conservative and polished feel despite the author’s young age – the skill in the nonfictional passages still meant that the text ended up being an above average achievement. What a way to start the day!
Particularly since the second author of the day was Martina Clavadetscher, whose novel I loved, and who brought prize winning cachet to the competition. Her text, on the printed page, looked like her novel, short, poetry-like lines, and occasionally poetry-like rhythms and small rhymes even. In the early goings, her text about death and the predicaments of the female experience, was dense with well turned phrases and potential. Quite soon, the text flattened out into – I guess, boredom? As it turns out, Clavadetscher appears lost in the short form – she was unable to impose any kind of real structure on the text, which meandered from paragraph to paragraph. On the way to the end it shed all of the well turned phrases from its beginning and picked up a large assortment of empty clichés. A big disappointment.
Stephan Lohse’s text on the other hand – hoo boy. Lohse’s debut novel, published last year, had an underlying, but underdeveloped queer narrative that was among the strongest points of that otherwise middle of the road coming of age novel. His story is about two poor marginalized white boys – and as in his novel, he has a very good handle on the male teenage experience. The best part of the story is an interesting though underdeveloped queer facet. There’s a twist here though – the main character identifies with Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba – although in a key paragraph of the novel Lohse complicates this and it’s worth explaining in detail: when during a class discussion children pick who they want to be when they grow up, he answers “black.” His teacher – the only non authorial voice of authority in the text – defends him against the derision of his fellow students: being black isn’t about the color of your skin, it’s about how you feel on the inside, whether you are “dem Wesen nach ein Schwarzer” – whether you are a black man on the inside. Like some nightmare James Schuyler had in the 1930s, that’s that in the story. The rest of the story is split between a conversation between the two boys and infodumps about the life of Patrice Lumumba. At its core the story is a story about marginality and struggling with marginality by appropriating the language and experience of another race, but the author never undercuts the basic assertion of the teacher in the story – and is unpleasantly comfortable with giving the boy, who just goes by Lumumba, numerous lines where they boy uses a form of Bantu as a way to fill in the gaps of his white experience.
But while authors can be blind to these kinds of faults in their work, the panel of literary professionals that judged him should have seen and noted the issues. Nora Gomringer came closest by noting that the story is a bit delicate (“heikel”). As for the other judges, they continued their sterling performance from years past by just sailing past the racial or even, really, class issues of the text. New judge Insa Wilke even saw this text as a significant contribution in a current progressive conversation about race – and if you believe that I have a racially dubious bridge to sell you. But as it turns out, her own invitee had his own problems in this regard.
First however, after the much needed break, was Anna Stern. Her first novel was a mess of names and structure, and though her second book was much clearer and more readable, her text was a messy, unstructured chaos that read like a first draft in literally every single sentence. Most of the audience on twitter admitted to being confused, although in text we did not pass, riverrun, past Eve’s and Adam, but merely through the crucible of a text of modest means and no proofreader.
The day was brought to a close by Joshua Groß. I had previously read three of his books though not reviewed here. Groß’s writing is an update on 1990s pop writing, particularly on the German tradition of the writers around Christian Kracht. Groß uses ironically refracted misogyny and an affected lightness of tone and inconsistently applied contemporary references to write a pop cultural tableau without the depth of his forebears. In his 2014 novella Magische Rosinen, his protagonist is a “rapper” who travels to Brooklyn a lot – he’s no Patrice Lumumba, but there’s an uncomfortable sense here of a white bourgeois writer of enormous privilege to use the terms of black culture to fill in the margins of an ultimately meaningless contemporary identity in our social media age. And it’s not just Groß – young privileged white German writers have seized on this moment to explain why they feel so uprooted. Simon Strauß, Botho Strauß’s son, has just published a novel about youthful nihilism that veered – like its author – sharply right. Strauß, like his father, has written a book and essays that align him with the rise of the far right in all areas of German cultural and political life. Joshua Groß’s project – such as it is – appears different, but it’s only different to a point. He’s also very happy to work on shaping white German identity by means of appropriation – and as some of Christian Kracht’s career has shown, the line between this kind of party nihilism and right wing celebration is a precarious one.
I haven’t even mentioned the actual text Groß read yet, but it’s a forgettable riff on American culture, particularly on mechanisms and events surrounding an NBA game in Miami. The text is replete, as all of Groß’s work, with misogynist staples and clichés etc etc etc. The most notable part of it is the defence of the text by Insa Wilke, the judge who invited the author to read. Wilke appears to believe the text is cutting edge, giving a much-needed update on 1984’s panopticon. In doing so, she not only ignores Thomas Mathiesen’s 1997 coinage of the synopticon in his classic essay “The Viewer Society” (and its web 2.0 updates, for example Doyle 2011), but also literally the whole body of pop literature and the body of work of writers like William Gibson and many others. It’s baffling, but it is evidence that the Bachmannpreis, over the past years, has turned into a search for the Great White (literary) Hope, and the racially troubling texts in the last three years are no accident, and the praise for texts like Lohse’s and writers like Groß isn’t either.
Raphaela Edelbauer’s text is the best of the bunch so far, but apparently, Lohse is the frontrunner. I mean who the fuck knows.
Edelbauer, Raphaela (2017), Entdecker- Eine Poetik, Klever
Raphaela Edelbauer is the writer I am most excited to see at this year’s Bachmannpreis. The only book of hers I have read is the magnificent Entdecker – Eine Poetik, a book about writing that is filled, absolutely filled to the brim with unexpected images, with fresh words, with humor and brimming with insights and clarity. If you are a translator, you should absolutely sit down and translate this book. Edelbauer is among the younger writers in this competition, but her book is heads and shoulders above the work of many of her fellow competitors.
Entdecker draws on Edelbauer’s own prodigious sense of language, on a sense of story and narrative – tied into the languages of science and discovery. She moves from Humboldt to Wittgenstein and Auerbach with an ease that is almost depressing. The first section, a “beastiary,” reads a bit like Ken Liu’s Nebula-nominated story “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” but stripped of the genre ballast and transposed into Humboldtian spheres. Texts as animals – brilliantly conceived and executed with rare skill.
The second section, on minerals, begins as a disquisition on minerals, but immediately invents a character and his story to help explain how mining works. In doing so, Edelbauer assembles and disassembles this character – and the tools of storytelling themselves. Without ever sounding obnoxious or pretentious, she dives in and out of representation, offering a comment both on the language of science and the structure of narrative in the process. There are so many dry, constructed books making the rounds in English translation, intellectually interesting, but written without inspiration or power. Edelbauer is the exact opposite of that.
Since this is just supposed to be a brief note and not an analysis, I cannot go into details about the way she uses theories from Deleuze to Haraway and many others without ever namedropping any of them. Her makeshift protagonist turns into mineral, into machine, into text and back into narrative. He becomes object through the machinations of language, laid bare for all to see. Similarly, the chapter on cartography – like a long riff on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem and theories of narrative and cartographic and mental mapping, she tells bits of stories, reveals them as types, uses the language of science and the metaphors of fiction. There is depth and breadth to her writing, but it also works on a sentence by sentence basis. Open the book to any page and you’ll see excellent writing.
My favorite section is one towards the end called “Anatomy” – it’s the most fiction-like part of the book, and largely charts a trip through human anatomy – a literal trip. The protagonist’s travels and travails through the bends and shapes of the human body are told with a fresh eye to how these stories can or should be told. They also combine various ideas brought up earlier, from maps to gravitational theories. Some of this prose reads like a pastiche of 19th century writing, with the same focus on exclamations, and the same way of dealing with heightened emotions and imagined horrors. There’s a clever connection here by Edelbauer between style, and content and a smart way of connecting various origins of specific discourses, all while remaining engaging and readable.
I don’t know what she’ll do at the competition, how this will translate into a sustained piece of fiction, but I am extremely excited to find out!
Lohse, Stephan (2017), Ein Fauler Gott, Suhrkamp
In my loose series of reviews of books by participants in this year’s Bachmannpreis, I continue to not necessarily pick the cream of the crop for review, by accident. Stephan Lohse is an accomplished actor – surely something that will help him in this competition that requires of its authors to perform the text. He’s also a novelist and the 2017 novel Ein Fauler Gott (~a lazy God) is his debut novel. He’s not the first German-language actor to turn to novels. Particularly notable among the recent actors-turned-novelists are Josef Bierbichler with his good novel Mittelreich, and Joachim Meyerhoff, with his ongoing, slightly dull, series of autobiographical novels. It is Meyerhoff that Lohse most resembles. There is very little heightened literary attention given to structure and characters in Lohse’s book, which relies mostly on theme, and the power of nostalgia and recollection. And sadness, I suppose. There are two protagonists in Lohse’s novel, one is a 11 year old boy, whose interior life is treated with detailed empathy and care – and his mother, who, as she unravels psychologically, is ushered through a series of scenes all of which might as well be subtitled “this is supposed to be sad.” Maybe it’s because I also read some books by fellow Bachmannpreis competitor Corinna T. Sievers, but the flat and frankly flippant way Lohse uses the mother’s psychological struggles didn’t sit right with me. It doesn’t help that the boy’s story, after a somewhat interesting beginning, slips into the most typical kind of adolescent boy’s coming of age tale imaginable. I know they are common in all the languages, but my God there’s maybe something especially dull about the German version, however widely they’ve been praised. If you have read any of these books, say Thomas Lehr’s Nabokov’s Katze, or literally any other book in this vein, you will not be surprised by Lohse’s book at any point. What’s more, his lack of empathy towards the mother is also mirrored in the odd way he treats the occasional racism of his characters. Saying “this happened in the 1970s, that’s just what people thought” is no excuse, my good dude. It strikes me as additionally dubious that the only other text I found online is a very very brief text about African child soldiers on the Suhrkamp blog, which, in its absolute inability to transcend its sources and add something to the material, seems appropriative more than anything else. In a way, after last year’s readings, Lohse seems to be a fitting candidate for the Bachmannpreis stage.
The novel is set in 1970s Germany, and spans one year in the life of Ben and his mother Ruth. The book opens as Jonas, Ben’s brother and Ruth’s son, suddenly dies of a mysterious illness. Stephan Lohse makes excellent use of this situation at the beginning. In fact, the first 50 or so pages of this book made me very excited. Too bad the rest of it is largely about penises and the disorderly mind of a slightly off-kilter boy of medium intelligence and observational skills. Jonas is an absence in the lives of boy and mother – and in the beginning, Ben imagines his brother around him, something his mother expresses jealousy of. This set-up is so rich with literary potential. Using the narrative of adolescent confusion, but lacing it with a non-supernatural imagined absent presence? It works extremely well for a handful of pages, until Lohse just drops it, and moves on to much more conventional tools and tales. I don’t understand this choice – the only way it makes sense to me is the author’s unwillingness to jettison the autobiographical connection. In fact, I don’t know to what extent the book is indeed autobiographical, but the choices seem to indicate such an inspiration. Why did the boy at some point replace his absently present brother with friends? Because…that’s what happened! It’s an awful excuse in a novel, but seems the best excuse for the choices here. The majority of the novel is a pretty straightforward year in the life of a slighty odd boy. He has odd neighbors, a grandmother with dementia, kisses a girl for the first time, and explores his own penis and the penises of several other boys, though apparently non-sexually. On a trip his accommodation burns down, and it ends on a mother-son roadtrip into the sunset, as if to say: look, look, this IS the kind of book you thought it was. The lack of a will to shape and push his material is never as clear as when, towards the end of the book, for no good reason, we find ourselves in a ten page summary of one (in numbers: 1) inconsequential game of football (or soccer, as you prefer) played among school boys. It leads to a revelation for the protagonist: he wants to become a goal keeper, but why should the reader care? These kinds of scenes are so common in young adult novels, or novels by adult men about their childhood that we’d recognize the scene and its emotional and literary significance in a two page summary, but God beware that Lohse restrict his – at this point – slightly unfocused ramblings.
Indeed, it’s not just the book that is chronological, it feels like the writing of it was too. The last things we read in the book strike me as the last things written for the book. All the ideas and structures that seemed to be interesting at the beginning fall by the wayside as the mother flattens into a caricature and the boy’s life paradoxically rounds into type. Some of this appears to be due to – to be fair – the writer’s inexperience or lack of skill. This is, after all, a debut novel, although Lohse isn’t a spring chicken any more. Here’s another aspect: the switch of perspective, the first two or three times it happens, is revelatory. The book’s first pages are written in the style of a child, and as a reader, I was immediately worried about the gimmickiness of this mechanism, but the first time we read the mother’s perspective, it beautifully balances out the boy’s language, and adds additional elements, like the jealousy of his imagination I mentioned earlier. This, too, passes. During this year of mourning, improbably (and unevenly), the boy’s language, almost like a literary mirror of his voice, changes, becomes more adult, and at the same time, some clusters of words that appear to be tied to the boy’s language, reappear in the mother’s perspective as well. For an actor, whose life is focused on words and voice, Lohse shows a curious disinterest in either of those elements. I think for debut novelists, the flow of words is something that is typical – indeed, beautifully contained debuts like Clemens Setz’s excellent Söhne und Planeten are more rare than you’d want them to be (but then, also, look at his second book). The untamed river of words also swallows up some interesting and some troubling aspects that you’d wish the novel made some more conscious use of. One is the mother’s past, who came to Hamburg as a refugee after the war. Some of Lohse’s comments about the GDR appear to be factually challenged, and some just biased. Similarly, the book contains off-hand references to Africans, to “Czech greediness” and to “drunk Russians in the woods.” It makes occasional fun of people for their disabilities (a woman’s harelip makes the boy think of a hippopotamus, for example) – none of which, I’m sure, is meant maliciously. The author just doesn’t particularly care.
The same is true for the question of queerness. I have always wondered about the penis-centric nature of male adolescent literature, which are full of cock, but even for the genre, this book quite overflows with teenage boy’s genitalia. There’s a constant tension of queerness throughout the book, which, after everything, is the most interesting part of it. A chaste, “accidental” kiss is reciprocated later. The boy, somewhat inadvertently, jerks off his best friend. Another boy, a bully, ends his beating of him by rubbing his crotch on him until he comes in his pants. Twice the author goes out of his way to mention that the male protagonist feels an unease with terms for female anatomy, and in the early parts of the book he also tries on make-up. The way the book deals with the protagonist’s queerness is maddening, because gay or not (the book doesn’t commit on this), it does inscribe a queerness into his adolescence, but it doesn’t quite manage to structure it into the narrative. It just keeps coming up. Again and again. The reason the boy starts playing football is so people won’t consider him “a gaylord” – but after the absolutely overdetailed account of the game, the author doesn’t return to it. It’s like seeing someone start a line of code without ever closing it, and you keep going down the code and – nothing. The way he ties some of his childhood to reading Karl May doesn’t help because the reader can’t help but think of the way Josef Winkler’s masterful autobiographical studies examined what being a reader of Karl May has meant to his adolescence – and how the sometimes difficult nature of it ties into his later obsession with Jean Genet, whose work on queerness and death could have provided the same clarity for Ein Fauler Gott that it provided for Winkler’s prodigious oeuvre. But it didn’t, and so what we are left with is a book both filled with good ideas and bad executions, a muddled book that is curiously self-satisfied. I don’t know.
If you follow me on twitter, you’ll see a deluge of tweets this week from Thursday to Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain. I will be live-tweeting the strangest of events from my little smelly book cave.
Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, Frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.
This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are all more or less young writers but they don’t have to be novelists.
The 2016 winner was British expat writer Sharon Dodua Otoo (here’s my review of some of her fiction), who read a text that was heads and shoulders above the sometimes lamentable competition. And you know what, the German judges were still slightly upset about it last year, which explains why last year’s best writer by a country mile, John Wray, didn’t win. It’s the revenge of the Bratwurst.
This year’s lineup, with the exception of an interesting writer here and there, seems similar in quality, but whiter and more German than any recent line up. Although they did, similar to 2016 and 2017, invite a writer who hasn’t published anything originally written in German yet, which is always an intriguing proposition. It’s Ukrainian novelist Tanja Maljartschuk. Her fiction has already been translated into English and published by Cadmus Press – you should have a look.
Outside of this – there’s a bestselling novelist this time, some dubious looking male writers, Martina Clavadetscher, whose most recent novel I absolutely loved, and Jakob Nolte, who uses science fictional elements in his very interesting work. I have a weird gut feeling about who the judges might gravitate towards this year, given last year’s dubious choice, but since I’m awful at predictions, I’m not going to go all out here.
The real change this year is a shift among jurors. Nora-Eugenie Gomringer, whose most recent collection of poetry I reviewed here, joins the jury, as does Insa Wilke. Regrettably, they do not replace any of the lamentable jurors that made last year so frustrating (see particularly my account of Day Two of the competition). They do bring “the heat” – as they say. I read some of Corinna T. Sievers’s novels, an author invited by Gomringer, and they are excellent.
There are many bad signs. I had to put away a book by Joshua Groß after three pages due to its 1950s style sexism. It’s an overall very male, very white and very German list (the best German-language writers are not – in fact- German). And yet…I cannot help but be excited. Follow along! There’s a livestream! You can also read the texts during the competition here. So here’s the full list (I have written some comments or reviews for some of these writers, you can find those linked directly)
Bov Bjerg, D
Martina Clavadetscher, CH
Özlem Özgül Dündar, TUR
Raphaela Edelbauer, A
Stephan Groetzner, D
Joshua Groß, D
Ally Klein, D
Stephan Lohse, D
Lennardt Loß, D
Tanja Maljartschuk, UA
Anselm Neft, D
Jakob Nolte, D
Corinna T. Sievers, D
Anna Stern, CH
Dündar, Özlem Özgül (2018), Gedanken Zerren, Elif Verlag
After a review of Anna Stern, who will read at this year’s Bachmannpreis, I want to turn to another very intriguing writer, similarly young, also slated to perform in Klagenfurt at the same competition. Özlem Özgül Dündar writes poetry, prose and drama. She’s roughly from where I currently live, and she studied philosophy in Wuppertal. Then she went on to study literature at one of our two dedicated MFA universities: Leipzig. She’s a translator, which is an excellent training for any writer. But of her own work, she has not as far as I can tell published anything in book form beyond this thin little collection of poetry, which came out earlier this year.
But what a poetry it is. Despite many many dissimilarities, the writers she immediately made me think of, in terms of poetry, are Wolfgang Hilbig and Said, but mostly the former. Dündar’s interest is not in an interlocutor, not in a playful encounter with music and tradition. In her poems all lines appear to be the same length, but that’s a trick – indeed, it’s an artifact of printing: they are all fully justified so that words line up evenly on left and right margins. The poems themselves are narrow, and the author sometimes breaks them up as if she was counting syllables or letters or some other Moore-esque approach to form, but I’ve gone through multiple poems now and I cannot get a consistent syllable length within the poems. What it is is a conversation with that kind of writing.
What’s more, her poetry almost monomaniacally obsesses over the distance between the self an others, about the way we move through space and how we limit our own spaces and how others limit our spaces. Words, in some poems become just as much of a spatial gesture as physical gestures do. And in her poetry, the way she treats line breaks, it mirrors that same interest or obsession. For a first collection, it’s an astonishingly smart and careful effort. The connection, to me as a reader, to Hilbig’s poetry is the interest in the self and its delimitations, the self and its necessities, and the many ways those necessities are broken up. In contrast to Hilbig, however, the language itself throughout Gedanken Zerren is fairly simple – the complexities of Dündar’s poetry, to my mind, come from repetition and her management of breath and speed. Hilbig made heavier use of pathos inherent to word choice, I think
Özlem Özgül Dündar has done well in open mic competitions, and she has also won serious literary awards – which suggests her work works well on the written and the spoken level. Since I have read this book in anticipation of her participation in a prose competition, there are limited ways in which this very impressive book can help me do that. She has written essays that share her poetry’s breathlessness, and there’s a chance her performance will similarly arrange simplicity against a complexity of structure and rhythm. Whatever happens, I am already intrigued.
Stern, Anna (2014), Schneestill, Salis
Stern, Anna (2016), Der Gutachter, Salis
This coming Thursday, the Bachmannpreis will begin again and I will, again, follow along, glued to the TV screen. Excitement, excitement, excitement. I will write a separate post listing this year’s changes and authors, but this time I have read some of these writers in advance. One of them is Martina Clavadetscher, whose most recent novel I have reviewed quite enthusiastically here.
Another is Anna Stern. Anna Stern is a German writer who lives and studies in Switzerland. She has published, as far as I can tell, two novels and, most recently, a collection of short stories. To assess her performance in Klagenfurt reading those stories would have been most fitting, I did not, however, have enough time and money to purchase the complete oeuvre of Ms. Stern. Instead, I read her two novels. While I didn’t particularly like either of them, there’s an obvious, sharp progress between novel one, the 2014 Schneestill, a puzzlebox novel drawing on noir, on Auster, and probably also on Simenon, and novel two, the 2016 Der Gutachter, a more grounded, urgent book about a murder and people living off the Bodensee. There is more authorial control, depth, and narrative sharpness in the second book compared to the first. That said, both books live, in my opinion, in the boring wasteland between the fetid depths of “awful” and the airy heights of “great.” Both books are…ok. Difficult to distinguish from many other middle of the road crime novels published in Germany, and hardly among the more interesting.
Schneestill is set in Paris, and you can tell the author is very excited to share that with us, because there are occasional French words, dropped into the text for local color. People meet in cafés and while there’s a long noir tradition in German fiction connected to Chandler, Goodis and Hammett – this novel’s atmosphere seems specifically French. There’s the shadow of Simenon over everything in this book, with a postmodern admixture of Modiano – and his American progeny, Paul Auster. Simenon’s dense but short book live off a sense of absolut clarity, even if things are obscured, there’s always a sense that if you find out the right facts, or can shift your position to a more advantageous one, you can see how it all connects. There’s a moral imperative to that kind of structure in Simenon, or at least that’s how I remember his work. Modiano, whose masterpiece is a surreal alterative history of the Third Reich in France, destabilizes this clarity. In the trilogy immediately following his debut, he destabilizes the certainty of seeing clearly, of being able to remember clearly, of there being an obvious truth, and not just the muddle of history. And while his later work would work this search for a truth to a finer, clearer point, giving his whole oeuvre a certain urgency and direction, it is this trilogy that influenced a young American writer named Paul Auster, who stripped Modiano of the sense and weight and responsibility of history, and turned it into a career of writing clever, navel-gazing novels, often built like a puzzle, with mostly lamentable prose. While Anna Stern explicitly names Ian Rankin as one of the pillars of her work (in Der Gutachter). I cannot help but see Simenon, Modiano and Auster in Schneestill.
There are two different melodies woven through the book, something that Stern retains in Der Gutachter. One is a story about obsession, about gazes, about seeing, watching, interacting with people. A young man sees a mysterious woman in a café, immediately falls for her. As he comes home, he finds that she has just been released from prison where she had been sent for a murder a few years earlier. This does not dampen his ardor in the least – on the contrary, much as it would any of the five hundred indistinguishable protagonists of Auster’s novels, it increases his obsession. He tries to find her again, creates a web of gazes to trap her. In the end, and under curious, complicated circumstances, he meets her – and she tells him her story, like a charming Parisian Scheherazade. This melody is refracted in different ways, among them the obsession of another character which complements – and complicates – the original protagonist’s obsession. This search for the truth through an examination of the streets of Paris and the faces of its women, this is where the novel retains the closest ties to Simenon, as well as in the moral question that dominates this part of the book: what is a murderer – and can we trust, engage with, understand, and ultimately, forgive a murderer – even before we ever met them? Can I balance the evidence of my eyes and my heart – with the rational, bleak truths offered by the world around us? Stern’s protagonist, in his quest to find that woman, becomes a creep, and this is by far the most interesting part of the book, because Stern acknowledges this, though not for long. There’s a short period, just a handful of pages towards the end of the book, where you can almost read it as a criticism of not just the male-centric narratives of Simenon, Modiano and Auster, but also of the many many writers that followed in their wake. But regrettably, that’s not what Stern is interested in.
She’s more interested in memory and guilt, which is the second melody woven throughout the book, and this is sort of where we lose Simenon, and enter into Modiano territory, but it’s Modiano as seen through the lens of Paul Auster. I have to repeat: she mentions Auster nowhere in the book, but it’s hard not to see him as being an influence here, maybe indirectly, since Auster’s influence is felt in a lot of fiction, regrettably. The question of what happened, who is at fault in the murder case, and how does what happened change those involved becomes the most dominant one as the book rushes to a finish. Unlike Simenon, or some of the crime novels specifically cited by the author, the book isn’t really interested in the circumstances of what happened, it isn’t really interested in the awfulness of guilt and the way it deforms those that live with it. All of the book, including the knotted conclusion, seems to be more of a literary game with the various ways to express all these themes. It’s a riff on a couple of different writers, with the only thing that distinguishes this book from its predecessors being the flat writing, that sometimes morphs into a very poetic register, but without giving us a feeling of authorial control or interest. A smart, well-read writer, but a bland, not very well written novel, was my initial impression upon finishing it.
By contrast, the tone of Der Gutachter is much more consistent, and the novel is faster to summarize. It is not a complicated puzzlebox of conflicting melodies, it does not draw on a smorgasbord of writers. Instead it is something more simple: a crime novel with an environmentalist’s conscience. It begins as a story about a Gutachter, an evaluator, who suddenly goes missing, presumably murdered. The book’s protagonist is a police officer who takes roughly a week to find out what happened, and structurally, it shares the same weak ending that a lot of crime novels have – having a long explanation at the end that collects all the ideas and leads that we picked up along the way in a sufficiently dramatic way has always been a crutch for crime novels, and their main weakness. But as the detective finds out who killed the evaluator, he also takes the time to find out about what his last evaluation was about – giving expert testimony on the ideal phosphorus levels in the local lake. That seems simple, but as the police detective collects evidence, he also collects information about the complexity of the topic. Anna Stern has studied Environmental Science in Zürich, which explains why the detective’s enlightenment takes the form of didactic info dumps which we as readers cannot escape either. That said, the topic of what grounds one’s life, how livelihood can become more than just a job, but something ingrained in one’s identity, all of this gives an urgency and moral clarity to Stern’s second novel that the first one lacked. The style of the book, while still nothing to write home about, is much more consistent, a much better read overall.
There are no longer Simenon, Modiano or Auster in the background here. Au contraire, the writing has turned to much more Germanic sources. Although – sources less connected to her German origins and more to her present Swiss background. There’s a long tradition of Swiss (and Austrian) writers using a slightly distant, objective-seeming style, using the protocols of institution and office to create their stories. Despite the detective protagonist, Der Gutachter is not written in the style developed by German noir writers. Instead, I hear echoes of writers like Max Frisch, Hermann Burger, Albert Drach and Adolf Muschg throughout the book. I mean, obviously I mean no comparison – these four, particularly Burger and Drach, are absolute masters of their craft, but it’s impossible not to hear them here. Stern herself takes care to mention Ian Rankin here, and there’s absolutely a sense in which Rankin and the tradition of Scottish crime writing more generally (for example Denise Mina) have left their fingerprints here as well, though not necessarily stylistically. The Scottish tradition of crime writing strikes me, who hasn’t read that much of it, as being particularly interested in social backgrounds and social motivations, and these end up being essential to understanding the novel’s murder case. But it is the contrast between the institutional, careful tone of the detective’s narrative, and the wild, angry complaints from the local fishermen, that really encapsulates the book’s conflicts between disinterested analysis, and modern science and economy on the one hand, and one of the oldest professions on the other. Usually, especially reactionary writers will use peasants as a foil to criticize modernity, often with anti-Semitic overtones (think Hans Fallada). Anna’s use of fishermen is smart – it removes certain connotations and increases the connection to the land. That said – the style of Burger, Muschg or Frisch is hard to pull off. Burger is one of last century’s best German-language writers, and Frisch isn’t far behind. It’s hard to write like this without slipping into a certain blandness – and Stern does not succeed in evading this fate.
But all criticism aside: honestly, I am curious about where this writer is going. If I could do it again, I would read neither of these two books and I cannot see myself recommending them to anyone. But at the same time, I can see many readers who like these kinds of novels enjoying them, and as far as I can tell the books have been published to good reviews – and indeed, the author has been invited to participate at this year’s Bachmannpreis, after all, one of German-languahe literature’s most prestigious awards. There’s absolutely a good, solid chance that I am way off on this.
So I went to San Francisco and bought a bunch of books, God knows why. A lot of it is genre diversions.
About to give a conference paper on William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell and the Puritans. Wish me luck? I have some free time. if you happen to be in town, I would love to meet you. I’m flying to SF tomorrow.
Souvent, lorsque je parle, quand je suis face à face, je m’étonne d’entendre, en même temps que l’autre, ce que je viens d’énoncer à l’instant : je me découvre. Aussi, lorsque l’autre s’énonce, peut-on quelquefois, en des moments privilégiés, devenir cet espace offert à la compréhension. Mais dès que l’attention fléchit, je bredouille, sans arriver à poursuivre un cheminement. Comme si, pour dire, j’avançais sur un tapis tendu par l’attention d’une altérité soutenue. En d’autres mots, comment pourrait-on articuler la langue dans une bouche, si ce n’est, toujours déjà, dedans l’oreille du voisin ? Et cette langue, qu’invente-t-elle d’autre que ces catégories du monde que forgent, avec ces mêmes vocables, nos fictions mentales ? En d’autres termes : parler, c’est dire le monde pour l’inventer.
Maurice Olender/Un fantôme dans la bibliothèque
Ono, Masatsugu (2018), Lion Cross Point, Two Lines Press
Translated by Angus Turvill
Lion Cross Point is a gentle little book about how to deal with violence, trauma and memory. Its author, acclaimed novelist Masatsugu Ono, offers us a fractured narrative of a boy’s past and present – and maybe his future. The novel has an incomplete set of details about the events that shaped its protagonist – because it relies on that protagonist to furnish these details. In many ways, the novel is a description of a process of memory recovery, as Takeru, the ten year old boy at the heart of the story, slowly dredges up more and more details about his past, as revelations about his family – and a ghostly apparition, serve as catalysts, telling him it is ok to share his story, to go on, to be. The book is short – and uses its space extraordinarily well. There are no wasted lines, no throwaway observations. As with all translations, it’s hard to judge it stylistically, and it has a few oddities in how it deals with Takeru’s interior monologue that could be either stylistic choices by Ono, or translation artifacts. Overall, however, the novel’s simple language works remarkably well and never lends itself to a certain blandness or coldness that many lesser practitioners of literary minimalism exhibit. I have complained about them on the blog before. This is an enormous little book, and I have to thank the translator Angus Turvill, as well as the publisher, for bringing this writer into English of whom I had never before heard. Neither, to be honest, had I been aware of the publisher, Two Lines Press, which has done a remarkable job here, on all levels.
Like an orchid, Lion Cross Point has many layers and opens itself slowly and languorously, as we read through it. As least that was my experience. Ono has an interesting preoccupation with names and places and structure, and he doesn’t ease us into the book. In fact, in some ways, reading the first third or fourth of the book is a process of learning, of understanding how to read the book and its events. In this, we follow in the footsteps of Ono’s protagonist, who slowly learns how to read his own life. How do we understand kindness if we were raised in a harsh, impoverished, cruel environment? In these situations we might be confused about the forces that make people care about us, bring us food, for example, or protect us against violence. Takeru’s examination of his life and his past slowly unearths these acts of kindness and the people who offered them, and we see him slowly move from – not suspicion, but confusion – to a kind of acceptance. It is ok. Right up to his own acts of neglect and violence, Takeru looks at his hands and his heart and struggles to accept himself and his place in the world. He’s not the only person in the book who struggles, and through Takeru’s fractured memories, we see the other people – not clearly, but outlined sharply. There’s his mother, who suffered a great deal of abuse and wasn’t able to protect Takeru and his brother. And there’s his brother, whose affliction forms a central element of the book, but is never misused by the author for easy emotional points.
As we meet Takeru, he’s visiting his family’s village over the summer. It is the friendly kindness of the villagers that serves as a catalyst for Takeru’s journey to understanding and speech and self expression, particularly a trip to a local aquarium. Twice, Takeru frames his understanding of a past event as sprung from something he witnessed in the village. One of the more interesting aspects of the translation is also tied into the village – dialect. I think we who read translations are all aware of the pitfalls of translating dialect, or not translating it. The German translation of Kelman’s masterful How Late It Was, How Late, a novel written wholly in Scottish dialect, is rendered entirely in standard German. A difficult decision, but what dialect would you pick to mimic Scottish? There are many more examples like this. In Lion Cross Point, translator Angus Turvill has opted for a clever middle ground between dialect and standard English. He uses small contractions, and “g-dropping,” to signify country dialect. The way it is employed makes the fact of dialect very clear – g-dropping is today a particularly clear sign of down-to-earth, lower-class usage of English- without committing to any specific dialect. It’s not a perfect solution (I have a personal obsession with the topic of translating dialect), but I found it an unusually brilliant and effective one. It also has the additional advantage of helping us wade through Takeru’s sometimes chaotic montage of perception and memory.
This chaos, however, is more than just a result of Takeru’s fractured and traumatized mind. There’s also, I feel, an underlying discourse about names and meaning and identity that vacillates somewhere between Searle, Kripke and Wittgenstein. Early in the novel, a character insists on the similarity of two names and what that means for the bearers of those two names. What does a name mean, what does it signify? Where do the lines between the two entities blur? Ono does this repeatedly, but with particular emphasis in two places: one is the one I just described. The purpose of that character’s comparison of names is, I think, to help Takeru find a place in the village and understand that he is part of that village’s past. Part of the cluster of descriptions that mean “Takeru,” to talk about it in Searle’s terms, have to include the surprisingly mysterious history of the village and the landmark that gave the novel its name. The other instance of this is a loose association of Haiti, the country of origin of one of Takeru’s benefactors, with Heidi, Johanna Spyris character (though in this case more specifically the anime incarnation of it) and Haiji, a classmate of Takeru. The purpose of this second chain of family resemblances is a bit more complicated, I think, but there are other cases throughout the novel that are not so obviously marked. If you started this novel with a mild irritation at the many names that are introduced in short order (some characters are introduced multiple times), these passages show you why Ono built his book around these names and places.
Indeed, the fact that Takeru doesn’t learn to read his past in a clearer and more benevolent way until he is “home,” i.e. in the countryside where his family is from, says something to the importance of places. As with other aspects, we as readers are also primed to understand this book as being centrally concerned with place by several early scenes, including a prayer to the shrine of the ancestors in the house Takeru arrives at. There is an implied preference for the countryside as a locus of understanding yourself that’s common in world literature, but has particular significance in much Japanese literature I’ve read, and so seems heightened. Family, land and self seem linked – with our current self not much more than the topmost inscription on a complicated palimpsest, and older layers occasionally shining through in the form of ghosts and visitations.
The central topic is indeed meaning, and I think both in a more abstract sense, and in the sense of memory interpretation: how do we give meaning to the various parts in our life and the people therein? Who are we? Speaking of ourselves means balancing the pain and the joy and accepting who we are. It’s okay. Masatsugu Ono’s novel is a remarkable achievement which brilliantly deals with complicated questions and always remains emotional and humane throughout. I have, in this review, skipped over many plot details, particularly of the ghostly apparition, but they rely on the same mechanisms that I sketched above, and since I think you should read this book, I didn’t want to deprive anyone of the joy of discovery, of the journey through the folds of Lion Cross Point.
Apparently, in German translation, Donleavy’s masterful debut novel The Ginger Man is sold a scandalous bodice ripper.
When what you do has to do with writing and thinking and translating and writing, having a temporary mental breakdown means all your work comes to a stop. I am writing again this month, but I have no idea how to reply to a lot of emails from people I solicited last year, or friends who gave me opportunities or look at my list of places to send abstracts or poems or short stories, God knows I write a little of everything somehow.
This is not to complain although it may read like it. But as I am sitting here at my computer, looking at drafts and notebooks, the devastation of two fallow months is enormous, and translates into setbacks, and possibly other fallow months down the line. And I have lived with this for so many years, losing a week here, a month there, and it has cut deep gashes into my CV and you can’t explain this to people. If I can’t write I can’t write. I can push myself here and there, but there’s a limit.
And then I sit here, balding, tired, on a cold March night, with a cat on my lap, a weird writer-translator version of Dr. No, I guess, picking up the pieces, writing a new draft here, a new poem there. And this is how it goes. And this is why I have this blog. I don’t put a lot of work into these reviews but they help clear the mud from my brain sometimes. It is very helpful and I am grateful for every single person who reads this blog, making me feel slightly less alone in this cave of books and manuscripts and cat toys and empty coffee cups.
modoc. n. One of the several small dummies set up to be knocked over by baseballs at a carnival tent; hence, a stupid person.
mohosca. n. Muscle; energy used in work.
mojo. n. Any narcotic.
mokers, the. n. Despondency; dejection; the blues.
mokus. n., adj. 1. Drunk. 2. Liquor.
molasses. n. A good-looking used automobile displayed to attract customers to a used-car lot.
moldy fig. 1. A prude; a pedant; one whose views or tastes are old-fashioned. 2. Specif., a person who prefers traditional jazz to the progressive forms.
The Pocket Dictionary of American Slang. Eds. Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner. Pocket, 1967.
Offill, Jenny, Dept. of Speculation, Vintage
If you think back on the final two pages of Michael Chabon’s sophomore novel Wonder Boys, you’ll remember it ends with the writer-protagonist jettisoning his monstrous manuscript, “the whole exploded clockwork” – he calibrates his “writerly perception of depth” and sets out to write a book that “sounds true,” written in the rhythms of daily domestic life and not the writerly obsessiveness of his previous alcohol fueled existence. This – the recalibration, the rejection of an unwieldy manuscript failure, it has a mirror in Chabon’s own life, who, after his jaunty little debut novel, spent some years on a large manuscript that he eventually abandoned. This is all to say that Jenny Offill’s own sophomore novel Dept. of Speculation has a similar sense. Offill’s narrator-protagonist, the nameless “wife,” works at a college, and is struggling to complete a second novel, constantly fielding requests by friends, colleagues and acquaintances to produce this difficult second book. At the same time, Dept. of Speculation is, in some sense, that second novel, published 14 years after Offill’s debut. And much as Chabon wove a fictional narrative around the personal struggle to produce a good second novel, Offill’s book tells a story of a disintegrating relationship.
It starts uneventfully, describing academic life, a lovely marriage and an “evil” but adorable child. Things go a bit off the rails when the husband turns out to be an adulterer, but Offill fills even the lovely charming early portions with shadow and doubt. Being a writer and being a teacher and being a wife and mother are three different kinds of being, and she never feels quite adequate to all of them. Offill’s style is flat, in the way many contemporary ‘experimental’ dullards are, but she rises above them by making the flatness a part of the narrative. The structure, full of short sentences and short paragraphs, seems fragmented, but it isn’t really. It’s sequential and coherent, but the paratactic perniciousness of the book creates a distance, makes us follow the narrator into her own stressed, unhappy, distracted mind. As, towards the end of the novel, things go bad, the narrator switches to talking about herself in the third person, further increasing an effect that has been part of the novel all along. This is a surprisingly rich novel, for all its straightforward elements, and the various detailed kinds of flatness in it. The first time I read it I read it in one sitting and it’s hard to imagine the book working when broken into multiple sittings. The book’s intense coherence would fall apart and all you’d be left with would be some angsty statements in short sentences and short paragraphs.
Dept. of Speculation is interesting in how it uses form without abandoning emotional significance. There’s the instrumentalized flatness of course, which the book uses well, in contrast to some other widely praised, intensely dull recent prose works. She also uses our narrative expectations in undermining our readings. As I said, the switch from first person to third person, with no accompanying stylistic change, seems to be done in line with the other attempts to create some distance in the book. At the same time, Offill fills her novel with doubt. There is the narrator’s side gig of being a ghost writer for a failed astronaut businessman (failed as astronaut, not as businessman). It’s a curious insertion into a book that doesn’t stray that far afield with other details. Offill’s narrator is economical with details. We don’t even get names for anybody involved, there’s not a lot of extraneous description, the book obsessively circles the same topics: writerly impotence, anxiety, love and some details of domestic life. Offill is exceptionally disciplined, so the ghost writing seems strange. One obvious effect is to show the difference between writing about one’s own life or follow one’s own inspiration on the one hand, and just lending your words to someone else’s life, someone else’s partially imagined experience. Another effect comes later. There’s a scene where her husband writes a short story and files it among her class work. The details remind her of her own life, but she assumes a female student who recently attempted suicide, is behind those words. This is a kind of ghostwriting too, but while in ghostwritten books, the real author spends their existence behind the curtain, in this case, the narrator becomes the audience.
Clearly the novel is preoccupied, outside of the details of the story of domestic bliss and upheaval, with the authenticity and directness of writing, and while we may assume that the narrator at some point starts talking about herself in the third person, which reflects her increasingly troubled state of mind, an equally plausible possibility asks us to question our assumptions regarding narrator/protagonist/writer. I will admit, this is the second time I started this book. First attempt, last year, I abandoned the book because I was bored. But I think I was wrong. This book is actually quite interesting, and it uses its limited palette, and its humdrum plot in order to do something with plot and narrative. In many ways it reads, once you resolve to read it this way, like a very classic postmodern work from the 70s, but without the now-boring irony and laid-back chuckle at life and people.
The story it tells, despite what I think is some intense postmodern tomfoolery, is still moving, still emotionally resonant. And that is no small feat. Overall, I think, Offill walks a very thin line here. It’s playful and interesting, but also written with substance and purpose (unlike, for example, the Luiselli novel which I didn’t find sustaining beyond its levels of playfulness). It’s emotional and direct without being drab and dull. What I most appreciate is how Offill pulls off this flat style without joining the ranks of all the bores like Blake Butler, who I think is a better editor than novelist. I’d like to repeat this: I think this book is fundamentally interesting, and I will likely return to it at some point to look at it from yet another angle. There’s other books I read this week and might review, like Brit Bennett’s debut novel, that I found so uninteresting, I considered getting rid of my copy. Bennett’s book is maudlin, clichéd, socially and formally conservative. It’s also much less of a tightrope walk. Whatever Bennett does, it does so forcefully, with all possible risks smashed out of the book by an MFA reading group. Offill takes a risk, I think. And for a slim book like that, it offers a bunch of angles to its readers, all of which involve rereading the whole book and its details. The student who attempted suicide, for example, is given quite a bit of space, and her inclusion raises questions of genre and representation, that I cannot go into here.
One interesting aspect of the book that I want to mention in closing is that in some ways the novel functions like a funhouse mirror of John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner, which took both book nerds and the wider reading public by storm when it was republished in 2008. I have some…issues? I guess, with that novel, but that’s maybe for a different post or a different venue. It’s curious though, that it’s always these kinds of books that do well upon being rediscovered. Stoner, and the work of, what’s that Hungarian called? Sándor Márai, that’s it, and who could forget Hans Fallada’s unfortunate resurrection, after he was correctly buried by German critics in the 1950s. But, again, that’s not the point here. What I did want to say is that Dept. of Speculation feels in so many ways like a companion piece to Stoner that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was partially intentional. I mean, obviously the campus novel has a long tradition, and one wishes that some novels in the genre would be reread more often, like Jarrell’s funny novel, but in many ways Offill’s book feels like a direct reply to Stoner. And I don’t merely mean in the way the two novels employ gender. Offill’s attitude towards realism and representation, which I think I sketched earlier, also feels like part of a communication with John Williams. Or maybe not. It’s a good book, is all.
Last Christmas I visited Vienna for the first time in my life – an overwhelming experience. And a brief one. I visited for slightly less than 24 hours, a flu-stained night in the Weißgerber district inclusive. I went through a long checklist of places, cramming them all into my tight schedule, including multiple bookshops and food places. Through all this, however, I evaded one specific place, despite being rather close to it at numerous times: I did not visit the Ungargasse, the street immortalized in Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina. That novel’s protagonist lived in Ungargasse 6, while Ivan, her lover, lived in Ungargasse 9, across the street. Bachmann herself never actually lived there, but she did live in the immediately adjacent Beatrixgasse.
I feel it’s hard to explain how important that novel is for me as a person. I mean, I have strong emotional attachments to a number of Austrian writers, like Josef Winkler, Hertha Kräftner, and I adore and admire the complete work of Ingeborg Bachmann, of which I own pretty much everything that’s ever been published, plus letters and the occasional secondary work. But for some reason, since high school, Malina has exerted a special kind of pull on me (I think the only German-language prose writer who has close to the same effect on me is Uwe Johnson). I considered at some point writing a review or essay about the novel, but I think it’s entirely impossible for me.
Malina is a difficult book, and critics like to point to supposed weaknesses, to strangenesses of structure and plot, to odd remarks; it’s a complex book that eludes easy classification. It’s also a book that readers have tried to simplify by reading it for autobiographical notes and import.
I have been rereading a new book on Bachmann by Ina Hartwig this past week, called Wer war Ingeborg Bachmann? Its publication right on the heels of the first two volumes of the new collected edition of Bachmann’s work, edited by Hans Höller, underlines a currently resurgent interest in Bachmann’s life. This new edition of Bachmann’s work is radically focused on Bachmann’s personal life – last year also saw the first volume of Uwe Johnson’s collected works being published. The editors of that edition started with Johnson’s first published novel (Johnson’s first written novel, Ingrid Babendererde, a complicated manuscript, isn’t slated for publication until much later). Höller does not begin with Bachmann’s first published poetry, or her early radio plays, or her earliest published prose. It starts with her last unpublished and unfinished novel, and a collection of her notes she took in/for therapy. There’s nothing that’s more personal than the latter, and her unpublished, and unfinished prose often reads like an open wound, dealing with loss, violence, sexuality and patriarchy. Höller makes his interest and focus known. He also specifically mentions, teasingly, that he will be publishing the Bachmann/Frisch letters, an almost mythical set of texts about a failed relationship which is detailed in only one longer text, Max Frisch’s novel Montauk.
There’s an unpleasant whiff to Höller’s project. It’s not new, this prurient interest in Bachmann. In a fantastic 1997 book-length essay, Ingeborg Bachmann und die literarische öffentlichkeit, Klaus Amann already details the distasteful nature of this interest, and how it harms Bachmann’s work. And to be clear – I am not innocent in this: I have read all her published letters cover to cover. I have read Höller’s two Bachmann books cover to cover and assembled a wealth of notes on them. I will read everything i can get my hands on.
But reading Ina Hartwig’s book, I found striking how it keeps circling back to the three late novels, the published Malina, and the unpublished Buch Franza and Fanny Goldmann. How it tries to read her life from these clues, and takes details of her life to “elucidate” details from the novel. Hartwig’s book has other oddities (the book is completely permeated by a bizarre obsession with Bachmann’s looks, to the point that she asked multiple interviewees whether they thought Bachmann colored her hair), but as a reader of Malina for all my adult, and most of my teenage life, Hartwig’s fleecing of Malina for clues was…unpleasant, I guess. And not from an ethical point of view. But it seemed to be based on a profound misreading of Bachmann’s text, which is vibrant with ambiguity and significance. It’s a strange spectacle to watch a book one cares so much about be so shallowly treated.
And maybe it’s just me. I cannot explain why I was so terrified to go to Ungargasse. Maybe because I am not convinced that the street I know from the book is there. That it’s visitable. It’s a strange book. And clearly I cannot write cogently about it.
Garner, Helen (2014), This House of Grief: Story of a Murder Trial, Text Publishing
I had previously only read one other book by Helen Garner – and it was a novel. This House of Grief is a nonfiction account of a murder trial. And it’s so damn good that I now own three more books by Garner. I will admit, I have a soft spot for true crime and have spent too much time looking up details and backgrounds for all the various true crime accounts I have consumed – Podcasts, books, Netflix TV shows….but never once during or after reading Garner’s story was I tempted to draw in outside sources to fill in the picture. And that’s because this book lives somewhere outside of these concerns with crime and prurient interest. Somehow, Garner succeeded in crafting a mournful book about a murderer that exists on a different plane. This is a story about a man who murdered his children, yes, but it’s also the story of an elderly novelist and journalist who attends his trial, who tries to wrap her mind around this crime, around the man accused of it, and the doomed dance of his defender in court. Garner pays attention to voice and gestures, to faces and bodies, creating before our eyes a powerful portrait of an instance of humanity having failed – for whatever reason.
The father who killed his children never admits to his deeds, and so Garner – and we as readers – are never offered an explanation, there’s nothing relieving us from the darkness at the heart of this criminal act. There’s no Mindhunters-like psychological framing and explanation, no confession of passions run amuck. The prosecutor, Garner herself and some other people who have been drawn into the maelstrom of this trial, they all offer some small explanations. Frustration, jealousy, sadness, anger. These are all possibilities, but what unites them all is the shocking way in which they are insufficient to explain what happened here. None of these seem to be enough to explain why a man would drown his children that he appeared to love very much. And Garner isn’t alone watching this trial. She brings along a teenager who has the requisite time, and now and then she also talks to lawyer friends of hers. This constant dialogue with others creates a kind of chorus of people none of which have any doubt of the father’s guilt. He is clearly, obviously guilty, he smells of guilt to Garner – and thus to us. And all of it is told in a language that is almost without flaw. Elegant, clear, Garner summons an army of short sentences and phrases, only occasionally letting the spill all over the page in small poetic images and the author’s acute distress. This trial – and the book- must have been hard to live with. And we are fortunate that Garner persevered.
In this time of #metoo and the crumbling façade of violent and mediocre masculinity, this is a curious time to be writing this book. True, it came out in 2014, before the Zeitgeist shifted so significantly in 2017 – but still. I have not read Garner’s other nonfiction books, but from some overviews I saw that The First Stone, Garner’s 1995 study of a sexual harassment case, garnered the kind of critical attention that makes me suspect its implied thesis hews rather close to the one that Katie Roiphe centered in her own book on a similar topic, the now infamous The Morning After. Whenever Roiphe puts pen to paper these days to comment on sexual harassment, there’s a chorus from twitter, blogs and many such sources, reminding all of us that this is the author of The Morning After and thus we should be disregarding her writings and opinions. And it’s true that much of that book is unpleasant to read and distorted a very real problem. If Garner’s The First Stone went into a similar direction, it seems fortunate that writing the book didn’t tarnish her reputation. And in many ways, This House of Grief represents a kind of about-face, a shift in emphasis.
Garner’s book never leaves us in doubt: this man is guilty. And his guilt is connected to things Garner never really manages to suss out. The opaque horror at the core of the book is, however, insistently connected to various failures of masculinity, to male anxiety, to masculine violence and dread. This is where all of the explanations, however incomplete, inefficient, or unlikely they may be, lead. If this was a novel, you’d consider it overdetermined, too constructed, too constricted by the author’s will to make it all cohere. But here we are. From the unlikely name of the accused, Robert Farquharson, to the helpless dance of his defender and the wise voice of Garner’s teenage companion, it all coheres, in a compelling but distressing way. One of Garner’s epigraphs to the book quotes a lawyer “walking past,” who says that “[Robert Farquharson] can’t possibly have done it. But there’s no other explanation.” We get small snippets of crime scene investigations, of small doubts offered, but they are drowned in the better sense that the prosecution’s case makes. That man murdered his children – in part because he was a man and couldn’t deal with what was expected of him.
Gender is woven throughout the book. Later in the book we learn of the endless devotion shown to Farquharson by his sisters, and even, to a point, by his ex wife. We learn of the pitfalls of this kind of devotion, but mainly, we are explained, often implicitly, of the way Robert Farquharson fails to deal with his failures. Financially on the cliffs, left by his wife for the constructor who was employed by them, with severely reduced contact to his children, Farquharson doesn’t do anything sensible, he doesn’t pick himself up, he doesn’t move on, he doesn’t try other projects, he wallows in his failures. The trial specifically notes, absent any admission or confession by Farquharson himself, that driving a shabby old car would naturally feel emasculating and humiliating, an assumption that most people involved in the case seem to share. Garner includes a curious discussion of masculine attractiveness in it:
“But, having recently watched a bunch of blokes pour a concrete slab in my own backyard, I was equipped to imagine the effect of this sight in Cindy Farquarson’s stifling situation. A concrete pour is a dramatic process. It demands skill, speed, strength, and the confident handling of machinery; and it is so intensely, symbolically masculine that every woman and boy in the vicinity is drawn to it in excited respect. Spellbound on the back veranda between my two grandsons, I remembered Camille Paglia’s coat-trailing remark that if women were running the world, we’d still be living in grass huts.”
If Roiphe is a bit infamous among progressives, Paglia has, since publishing her (inexplicably) still-read tome on literature that’s short on analysis and long on caustic diatribes, become a veritable troll, intensely supportive of fringe anti-feminist opinions. Garner’s inclusion of Paglia here is curious. It makes no contextual sense that she’d cite Paglia as an authority here. Instead, what we are offered is a complicated tableau of masculinity, feminity and attraction that is presented as contradictory.
Farquharson maintains to the end, and one assumes, to this day, that what happened was an accident, that he blacked out due to a freak medical condition. We, however, stare at his horrible deeds, and try to understand them from the explanations offered, all of which somehow come back to notions of injured manhood. There’s a specific, unpleasant kind of violence that tends to accompany people socialized as male, at least in our societies, our kind of socialization. Helen Garner, as an observer in the courtroom, and her teenage friend, serves as a kind of Greek chorus to all this. Woeful cries, exclamations, repetitions. In a sense we don’t need to be told what Farquharson’s fault, his ἁμαρτία is. It is implied in the darkness under the words, under every gesture. The very inexplicability of it, which rubs up against the overall very simple case, the amplitude of evidence feeds this sense. Elisabeth Roudinesco, in an early chapter of La Part Obscure de Nous-Mêmes, points to the shifting explanations of what the “perverted” people are – how do we contextualize their missteps. And, she says, as divine explanations (with demons preying on those weak of faith, found themselves on the retreat, the answers came slower, and with more contradictions. Later chapters invoking Peter Singer point to how complicated, really, these explanations have become. In This House of Grief, on the one hand, we are given an extremely simple situation, a biblical scenario, if you will, but the father’s silence, and the terror that always comes with these stark, hard to understand these crimes, these inhumane human decisions hark back to Roudinesco’s discussion of the dark parts within us. Greed, anger, these are easy to grasp, but what happened in Farquharson’s head, in his car, seems more easily explained with demons, the devil, schizophrenia, one of these. But there are no demons, there’s no devil and Farquharson was sound of mind. So what now?
As it happens, Garner has a horrible little theory of her own, which the trial judge and defense lawyer both remove from the courtroom: “the long black thread of Farquharson’s ‘depression’.” It is not to be discussed, it is not to be presented to a jury. Much of the book is spent watching Garner watch the defense fail, in a kind of replication of Farquharson’s previous failures:
“the final fortnight of evidence was like watching, in ghastly slow motion, a man slither down the face of a cliff. Sometimes his shirt would snag on a protruding branch, or his fall would be arrested by a tiny ledge, a fragile outcrop; but the fabric would stretch and snap, the narrow shelf would crumble, and down he would go again, feet first, eyes wide open, arms outstretched into the void.”
But while watching this cascade of failures, by Farquharson, by his lawyer, by his defense, his humanity, Garner reaches into the bag of possibilities, and draws out the idea of attempted suicide. Taking his children with him, Farquharson attempted to remove his presence from the world, remove his failure, his inadequacy, and commit murder as a horrible way to wipe the slate completely clean. This idea Garner mentions fairly early, but she doesn’t let go of it. The only explanation she can think of to escape the horror of unexplainable murder is a more graspable, more understandable murder-suicide. There are books on this. This we can understand, this we have studied. Ultimately, it’s unimportant whether Garner is right. This House of Grief is only partially about Farquharson’s trial. It is about a writer trying to deal with something inexplicable and to contain it in clean, safe language. It is an enormous book.
…here is Deborah Smith in her own words in the LARB, published yesterday. Look, I started to annotate the thing in my head (because, I mean, oh man), but ultimately, I found I’ve spent too much energy on this already, particularly with this improvised rant. Smith’s essay speaks for itself. I’m tired.
This is a short note regarding, once again, after this post, the Han Kang / Deborah Smith debate. I’m writing this directly into the CMS so excuse any infelicities or oddities beyond the usual.
I do not necessarily wish to re-open the discussion about translation. I’ve had many frustrating, mind-numbing discussions with people on the topic. I’ve heard all kinds of terrible arguments. The most recent text about it, a poetically written article in le New Yorker, is interesting in that it doesn’t really try to defend the indefensible, despite praising, overall, the way Smith and Han Kang deal with translation.
The author in the New Yorker, Jiayang Fan, says at some point, “This isn’t what’s normally meant by translation.” – and she’s right. And for all I care the debate can end here. That is not what we mean when we say translation. And Han Kang’s English books, seeing as they can indeed best be described as a “collaborative work,” should have Deborah Smith’s name on the cover. I have no problems with invasive translations if they are marked as such. Look. I have two volumes of translations by Paul Celan on the shelf. They are some of my most cherished books. Celan was a linguistic marvel. BUT all of the poems read as if they had been written or edited by Celan. They are, to a very large extent, Celan poems, not poems by Mandelstam. It’s not subtle: I have two slim German volumes of Ungaretti’s poems here, one with Celan’s renditions, one with Bachmann’s. You can immediately point out which are Celan’s. It’s incredibly clear and obvious.
Look, for someone of little talent and skill like me who speaks too few languages, who travels little, lives in the country he grew up in etc., translations are necessary and at the same time a matter of trust. I trust you, translator, to render for me the work of a writer who I cannot read in his own words. And sometimes this involves overlooking some obvious issues. I adore Megan McDowell’s translations. And not because she’s such a transcendent translator: most of my adoration stems from the fact that the books she picked for translation are so good. I can see the original shine through in weird spots, but that’s fine. I trust Megan McDowell to give me the book as best she can. That’s “what’s normally meant by translation.”
Jiayan Fan, in her New Yorker article, also says “the latitude of Robert Lowell’s poetic “imitations” comes to mind.” – and that’s entirely accurate. I have written about that book of Lowell’s, and smarter people than me have pointed to its many many issues. Among the problems is that sometimes, Lowell was just re-mixing older translations. Sometimes he would translate texts from languages he didn’t speak in the first place. That is, indeed, not “what’s normally meant by translation.” And I admire Lowell’s Imitations. I think it’s one of his best books. However, none of these translations should be given to someone interested in, Say, Osip Mandelstam.
Earlier in the same article, the author dismisses Charse Yun’s careful criticism by saying that the things he notes are peripheral. They are not “the questions at the heart of Han’s work.” – Indeed, the debate about Deborah Smith’s translations goes to the heart of what we believe literature is. If we think literature is a message, some deeper content that can be paraphrased any which way, where the actual shape and color of the prose is merely incidental, then yes, maybe these are good translations. But if we think literature is made of words and words matter, then, fuck no. All translations are imperfect in some way, and to be honest, I don’t entirely believe in the translatability of poetry in the strict sense at all. But translators – we, or let’s say, I, trust them with doing their best to do this.
The article by Jiayan Fan suggests that, eh, the actual words on the page – not so important. What counts are the deeper questions and issues. The “greater fidelity” to what Han Kang has to say, not the measly detail of how she says it. It’s not an uncommon attitude. I have seen very popular short stories praised recently that were horrifically written as prose, but praised as “well written” – a statement that, upon reflection, referred to structure and the verisimilitude of the events depicted. But I, personally, don’t share that attitude. I don’t understand how anyone interested in literature can share that attitude, but I accept that I may be in the minority here. That is, I think, the basic difference and the bottom line here. That is why discussions on the topic have been so frustrating for me. I can accept that many people disagree.
And that would be all I have to say about the New Yorker article and the situation overall, but I have two remarks to add. Bug-bears if you will. One is every single review that discusses Han Kang’s “style” in English. I don’t care whether you believe the words matter (and thus we get Deborah Smith’s intense distortion of Kang) or whether you think the “deeper questions” matter (and thus we get “a greater fidelity” (to quote Smith)). Let’s be clear: under no circumstances are you getting Han Kang’s style or an approximation of it. The difference between the two positions doesn’t touch this question. The facts as raised by Charse Yun are clear. The difference between me and the millions of fans and defenders of the Kang/Smith collaborations is that they think it’s irrelevant. If you claim you’re getting Han Kang’s style you’re wrong.
The same goes for the idea that maybe Deborah Smith is a better translator in her newer books, less invasive, producing more of “what’s usually meant by translation.” This should be incredibly easy to test. Charse Yun makes clear claims: “Han’s sentences are spare and quiet, sometimes ending in fragments. In contrast, Smith uses a high, formal style with lyrical flourishes. As one critic noted, the translation has a “nineteenth-century ring” to it, reminiscent of Chekhov.” Look at the new translations. Has the style of the books changed? Is it more sparse now? Are the lyrical flourishes gone? I looked at the more recent translations and the answer is: no. And that should be immediately clear to any reader. I am honestly baffled by this suggestion of her maybe having changed her ways. It’s testable. There’s no need to throw up your hands and say “maybe!” GOOD LORD.
I’m sorry if this ran a bit long. Forgive me. This is not a theoretical essay, though I may have a draft of one lying around somewhere (focusing more on this aspect). This is just me sitting here being a bit upset. The best book on translation I have personally read, by the way, makes a case for translation as inspired deviance. I am not per se critical of that position. I guess I am writing as someone depending on that trust, that unspoken contract between me and the translator.
I don’t usually make this list, but last year I was listening to a much more diverse list of albums than in previous years, and apart from discovering the work of artists like Lisa LeBlanc, Oxmo Pucchino and Alain Bashung, and listening to an indecent amount of Sondheim musicals, I was also listening to a fair variety of music that came out in the same year. The list below isn’t of course some kind of firm canon. Xiu Xiu’s new album could have been on the list, John Moreland, Colter Wall and the Secret Sisters all published excellent country albums last year. Big Thief’s Masterpiece was, indeed, a masterpiece. Neil Young’s latest archival release Hitchhiker was pleasant and enjoyable. There’s a new German band called Faber, whose album Sei ein Faber im Wind scratches an itch I have. I mean, this list could have looked different. I have not listened to the new Björk album; it should probably be on here. So there’s something transient to this list. Nevertheless, I kept fiddling with it over the past hour and have now settled on its current shape. I like this. This is what I liked last year.
- Perfume Genius – No Shape
- Arca – s/t
- Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights
- Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
- Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
- Priests – Nothing Feels Natural
- Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone
- Lorde – Melodrama
- Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
- Tyler the Creator – Flower Boy
- Sampha – Process
- Zugezogen Maskulin – Alle gegen Alle
- Migos – Culture
- Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
- Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
- CupcakKe – Queen Elizabitch
- Moses Sumney- Aromanticism
- The Mountain Goats – Goths
- Bedwetter – Volume 1
- Mark Eitzel – Hey, Mr. Ferryman
- Wiley – Godfather
- J. Hus – Common Sense
- Glassjaw – Material Control
- Playboi Carti – s/t
- Khalid – American Teen
So after blogging 26 reviews in 2016 and 2015 each, I happened to post 33 reviews this year, despite some quiet months without any reviews. An alphabetical list of the books under review this year are below, with very brief commentary.
Melinda Nadj Abonji: Fly Away, Pigeon: A Swiss novel about a not entirely common immigrant experience. Solid writing, sometimes very good. Compelling discussion about how wars in their home country can affect immigrants, and how that might change our view of them.
Charlie Jane Anders: All the Birds in the Sky: Regrettably reactionary/conservative book that is wildly imaginative and entertaining otherwise.
Nina Allan: The Rift: Nina Allan is one of the brightest stars in contemporary science fiction, although it’s maybe questionable to what extent her books are science fiction. The contrast with Anders’s novel highlights the missed opportunities in the latter.
Chetan Bhagat: The Three Mistakes of my Life: Oh God no. I regret reading this. The only book I read in 2017 that rivals this level of awfulness is Robert Waller’s bizarrely bad Bridges of Madison County, which I didn’t review on the blog.
Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes: I admire Campbell’s art so much. She is one of my three favorite artists in comics. I bought a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trade paperback last month just because of her art. And somehow, improbably, Campbell’s writing is almost as good. This book is also beautifully produced.
Jacques Chessex: A Jew Must Die: Chessex is a great novelist and this is just a masterpiece of prose, control, tone.
Martina Clavadetscher: Knochenlieder: Imaginative, passionate, interesting Swiss novel about the near future, about communities, biology, inheritance, ecology. It’s not perfect, and it’s weaker in the second than the first half, but it’s darn good as is.
Paul Cornell: Witches of Lychford: Of all the books I read in this novella-sized TOR imprint, this one feels most like a genre exercise. I mean, it didn’t have to be a masterpiece like Kai Ashante Wilson’s book or Brian Evenson’s, but this is a bit thin, if very well executed. It could have been better: for example, Kij Johnson’s book in the same imprint, which I read but didn’t review this year, is a novella-length riff on Lovecraft that feels more relevant, necessary, interesting. Plus, there’s a bit of an ideological haut goût in Cornell’s book that didn’t sit well with me.
Wioletta Greg: Swallowing Mercury: Oh man. This is flat, and not great, and the translation feels dubious. Moreover, since writing the review, I read more books by and about Polish writer-immigrants in the UK which made me be simultaneously more interested in the topic and less interested in this particular book.
Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation To The Bold Of Heart. A young Swiss writer. Excellent, excellent novel. Dense, postmodern, but emotionally captivating.
Nathan Englander: Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Man, I love Englander. I don’t know that I can be in any way neutral about his work. Really enjoyed this novel. Really fascinated by the way it embedded borderline nonfiction elements like a biography of Ariel Sharon. A messy book about a messy conflict. Much better executed than his first novel.
Manuele Fior: 5,000 km per second. Fantastic, moving graphic novel. Written in Italian, translated into English. Everybody raved about it in 2016. Everybody was right.
Daniel Goetsch: Ein Niemand. No. One of four novels I read this year by a Bachmannpreis participant, and -hands down- the worst. His story that he read there was a bit worse still. The politics of who gets invited there puzzle me.
Nora Gomringer: Moden. Speaking of the Bachmannpreis: Nora Gomringer won it, she is fantastic, and she will be on next year’s jury. Here’s to hoping she’ll have better luck picking than 75% of her colleagues this year. Oh, also, someone go and translate her books already.
Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman. 2017 is also the year where I became a fan of Shirley Jackson. This is fantastic. Unbelievable. She is fantastic. Saving up to get the LoA edition of her short stories next year. There’s also a recent biography of her that I need to read. Man.
Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept. Another one of the TOR novellas. This one is among the very best I have read. I have admired Jones for years. So should you.
Theodor Kallifatidis: Masters and Peasants: Greek immigrant, living in Sweden. Today, people read mostly his crime novels because of the whole Nordic Noir thing. This is a very very interesting sorta-kinda autobiographical novel. Funny, devastating, strange.
Meral Kureyshi: Elefanten im Garten. Recommended to me by Adrian Nathan West, whose excellent novel I have read this year but not reviewed. This book is another Swiss immigrant tale. Not as strong as others I have read, and it often echoes other writers in the tradition, but still good, and certainly better than many books that have been winning awards for German-language literature these days.
Manu Larcenet: Ordinary Victories. This is unbelievably good. I was recommended this, and boy is this good. I have since read two more books by Larcenet, both of them excellent. One is the funny Bill Baroud, about a portly secret agent, and the other one the dark Blast, about, man. Things. Go and read Ordinary Victories. You will not regret it. I promise.
Barbi Marković: Superheldinnen. Another Bachmannbook. This one much stronger than her story. I adore this writer. Someone should translate this book into English.
Ben Mazer: February Poems. I greatly admire Ben Mazer’s poetry, and this is his best book. This year, Mad Hat Press published his Selected Poems which everybody should read.
Denise Mina: Still Midnight. Denise Mina’s novels are a masterclass in how to write mystery fiction with meaning and a backbone.
Jerry Pinto: Em and the Big Hoom. Mediocre book about a shitty son. It has been reviewed extremely positively, so who knows. Maybe it’s me. (it’s not).
Sasha Marianna Salzmann: Ausser Sich. One of the best books I read all year, and almost certainly one of the three best German-language novels of the year. The other two are Michael Roes’s Zeithain, and Peter Handke’s elegiac Die Obstdiebin, neither of which I reviewed here.
Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream. One of two fantastic Argentinian books I read this year. The other one is Mariana Enriquez’s story collection Things we lost in the fire, which I didn’t review but still might. Both books were translated by Megan McDowell, and while the translations seem a bit off here and there, the books themselves are extremely strong.
Luan Starova: My Father’s Books. A Macedonian memoir-novel. Lovely. Read it.
Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton. A book with many plaudits. Didn’t particularly like it. Strong execution. Hollow core.
Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth. Fantastic science fiction classic about alienation, loneliness, hope and loss. Essential.
Lewis Trondheim/Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrisson. French graphic novel about a female private detective-in-training. Writing and art are lovely. Cannot wait to read more.
Juan Pablo Villalobos: Down the Rabbit Hole. Really good Mexican novel about the drug trade from a child’s eye. This tired trope is invested with some interesting new energy in this book. Good not great. If you look for something to fill that Yuri Herrera shaped hole in your life, this ain’t it.
Klaus Cäsar Zehrer: Das Genie. Interesting story. Terrible, boring, blasé execution. Someone, please, someone write a novel about the same person, but with some proper literary skill.
So that’s that. I’m incredibly grateful for every reader and commenter on this blog. Thank you.
I wish you all, those few who read this blog and those many who don’t, a merry Christmas. I hope you spend time with your loved ones, however you define that group for yourselves: family, friends, lovers or a combination thereof. This has been a very very difficult year for me, and I’m sure for some of you it hasn’t been easy either. I salute those of you who have had a lovely year and commiserate with those who have had a different one. I’ll probably be writing more about my year, and I will be offering an overview of this year’s reviews as well, but I am not necessarily in the mood to draw up lists and results and proclaim on The State Of The Marcel tonight. Instead I’m sitting here, in Bucharest, near the Dâmbovița river, in a cozy apartment, slightly lubricated by some gentle alcohol and some lovely food. I’m a bit more sentimental than I usually am, so this little paragraph is what you get. Like Blanche, I oftentimes rely on the kindness of strangers and I have had a lot of strangers who have been exceptionally kind to me. There’s Joe, whose work I greatly admire, who read and advised me about the most personal piece of writing I have ever published, a short piece that is part of a much longer manuscript of autobiographical fragments, lamentations and musings. There’s Nate, a magnificent writer, who has given me advice, help and more on publishing things, on making a little bit of money on the side with my skills that feel fundamentally unmonetizable. There’s Tristan who very kindly published my first piece of work this year. There are all the kind bloggers and Twitter users who have commented on or retweeted my work. And then there’s all the friends in my life, of whom I have more than I deserve or genuinely expected to have at this point in my life, not to mention my family or families. I had an emotionally absolutely miserable December, I didn’t send out any of the things I wrote, I read very little, and it wasn’t a great time overall, but today is a good opportunity to consider the gifts I have been given by all of you, strangers, friends and family alike. Thank you. Thank you everyone and Happy Holidays to you all.
Englander, Nathan (2017), Dinner at the Center of the Earth, Knopf
In a tunnel, dug by a Palestinian “tunnel millionaire,” a Palestinian politician and an Israeli ex-spy meet up and have a dinner as the 2014 Gaza War flares up above their heads. Theirs is the Dinner at the Center of the Earth of Nathan Englander’s 2017 novel. It’s a curious, Salman Rushdie-esque moment, not just the dinner, but also the discussion that led to it. This is not the only humorous moment of historical drama in the novel that to me had echoes to Rushdie’s work – and indeed those are some of the novel’s best moments. That said – the book has a lot of good moments. It’s simply a very good book. I may be biased – despite my problems with short stories, I have always enjoyed Englander’s books. I can’t even entirely explain why. I think he hits some of my soft spots very exactly, and I have to say it always comes as a bit of a relief to see that the reading world at large often shares my positive opinion of Englander – because I sometimes truly have difficulties rationalizing my enthusiasm for his prose and plots, as well as his characters and charisma. It’s a bit easier, I think, to explain why I consider Dinner at the Center of the Earth such a good novel. It’s true – it’s a bit uneven at times, but this unevenness is baked into the whole. It’s supposed to be a bit off, to take some reading and rereading to fully gel. When I read the novel for the first time, I wasn’t convinced that this wasn’t a combination of great and awful short stories awkwardly glued together. But what it really is is a masterful writer’s ability to hold several balls in the air at the same time, and make the whole circus act cohere. It does not cohere into a message, or one triumphant final tableau. In fact, the book’s two final scenes, one about a war that starts above ground while two lovers dine underground, and one about a suicide, are two versions of a darkness that few writers can articulate as well as Englander. There is grace and humor to the suicide scene, which is one of the strangest scenes of its kind that I can remember reading recently. And the eponymous dinner – framed in every way like a metaphor for political reconciliation, for hope in a hopeless conflict – ends with two lovers huddled in the darkness, scared, or resigned or both. Many of Englander’s decisions in the novel are a bit unexpected and this is part of what makes the novel such an interesting achievement.
The novel is written in alternating chapters following a spy story, the story of a black site prisoner, the story of a millionnaire and a Palestinian upstart meeting on a lake in Berlin, as well as – and that is surely the most unexpected of all the decisions – a story about Ariel Sharon’s death, which is told from two angles. From the angle of those watching him die, and from within Sharon’s own mind, who had been in a coma for 8 years before he passed. Englander never names Sharon, but he also doesn’t disguise him. His character, “the General,” has Ariel Sharon’s biography, but by eliding his name from the story, Englander allows himself to invent, embellish and adorn the death of Sharon. It turns his death and life into a tale – one with a broader purview than just the complicated life of a complicated man. Englander zooms in and out of realism in the story, and in and out of genres. He doesn’t name Sharon, but when he describes Ehud Olmert’s peace offering, he names Olmert specifically, and describes him clearly and sharply as “the least prime-ministerial person […] with his shadow of a comb-over, and his wiry, runner’s frame, and the exhausted, in-over-hishead, watery eyes.” One assumes this decision is connected to ideas about the narrative of nationhood, about the way acts of violence become part of national myths, and the fabric of the stories we tell each other about our realities. The General is a larger than life person, and he has shaped the fate of his country like few others, from the wars he fought at the beginning of his career to the big steps he took at the end. What’s more, his actions, before he slipped into a coma, felled by a stroke, determine the options that all the other characters of the novel have. If the novel is uneven and complicated, so was Sharon’s life, and the novel demonstrates what some statesmen offer their country, good and bad, and how far and wide these decisions cut. In some sense, the final pages tell us: this is who we are now, and this man, he is part of the reason why. We read Sharon’s thoughts and memories, but it is not living, breathing Sharon that speaks – Englander has animated Sharon on his comatose deathbed for us. The General finds himself in “a kind of sheol, a limbo space” which, before him, was shared by “other Israeli kings.” To leave it, he has to fully launch himself into myth, away from reality, into a place that is both national narrative and personal delusion.
And he is not the only one in this novel. All characters launch themselves in one direction or another. From small movements, like pushing off to sail on a lake, or the thrusting pushes of lovers, to larger thrusts, like the decision to follow one’s conscience, to flee, to kill oneself, to change one’s life in one way or another. As the book’s chapters alternate, so do times and places. Some of the book is set in 2014, some of it in 2002, some in 2003, etc., and that doesn’t even include reminiscences and memories. People and trajectories end up circling around Israel, this resilient little nation in the Middle East. Although Englander includes two central Palestinian characters, he isn’t really interested in them – he is more interested in the complexities of the Israeli experience, the Israeli conscience. There are no “civilians” in the book, really, with one major exception. Mostly, they are spies and politicians – and the General, of course. There is a curious balance that Englander strikes between the General on the one hand – he who doesn’t doubt his duty to his country, and who is willing to do things we might not all be willing to do, in order to, as he sees it, bring peace and security to Israel. On the other side are two spies who doubt their duty, who doubt the necessity of murder in order to achieve balance and peace. It is not, obviously, conducive to their safety, to harbor thoughts and opinions like that. And as there is no easy solution to the geopolitical problems swirling around Israel, there’s similarly no easy solution to Nathan Englander’s excellent novel. This includes the novel’s style of writing. Englander can command with some ease a specific style, a rich, embroidered language that he uses here to tell stories of weight and pathos. He is also incredibly deft with humor, particularly Jewish humor. And a scene written in one style, can often switch to a scene written in the other. And this doesn’t include the stories of espionage in Berlin, Paris and Capri, for which Englander often chooses a looser, slightly flattened language. All of this is incredibly readable. It’s hard to beat Englander for sheer enjoyment. If he wanted, he could write a simple tale of myth and Jewish kitsch, and have the result be utterly adorable and successful. It’s a sign of the author’s talent and – dare I say it, four books into his career?, importance that he built this book into something much larger, and much less obviously pleasing. It’s a book that reckons with a personal and political darkness.
In the novel, the General, Sharon, that is, remembers Ben Gurion telling him, after Sharon committed one of the most infamous massacres attributed to him, that “the world hates us [Jews], and always has. They kill us, and always will. But you, you raise the price,” and exhorts him to not “stop until killing a Jew becomes too expensive. […] You, put here solely to raise the bounty hung on the Jewish head. Make it expensive. Make it a rare and fine delicacy for those with a taste for Jewish blood.” At the end of the book, we hear Hamas’s rockets rain down on Jews, and Israeli retaliation. Looking at the results, we can all calculate the current “price” for ourselves, but clearly, Ben Gurion’s ideas, or Sharon’s memories of them, have not helped. Sharon himself had a change of mind later in his life, a change that is recorded in the novel as well. So what now? The novel has no answer – and sometimes borders on defeatist. But maybe it’s its form, and its language and the urgency of its propositions that are the real solution on offer: it’s us, all of us, and our voice, our art and our thinking that can change things. And kindness and generosity. All of this is contained in Englander’s novel, which gets better with every reread. In his acknowledgements, he mentions cutting this novel from the body of a larger work. I cannot wait to read it.
Pinto, Jerry (2012), Em and the Big Hoom, Viking
Ah, man. I’ll just say it. I thought this novel was awfully mediocre, on a multitude of levels – but it comes with a big bag of praise. The book is covered in huge blurbs, by the likes of Rushdie, Ghosh and Kiran Desai (well ok). This is a supposedly “profoundly moving” book – so when I tell you it’s mostly annoying, trite and sometimes offensive, I may be in the minority of readers. There are indeed moments where the book comes close to being moving; they are all towards the end. The book is about a mother and her son (there’s a daughter too, but Jerry Pinto, in what is symptomatic for the whole book, includes her as a kind of afterthought, most of the time, as a plus one for the frankly unbearable narrator and protagonist. When the mother dies (it’s not really a big spoiler), Pinto’s narrator slips into a slightly different tone, offering a simulacrum of moving, elegiac narration. This fits, in turn the blurb by Kiran Desai, who made a career (and got a booker winning book) out of offering a pale simulacrum of specific tones and moods popular in English-language Indian fiction (I have some remarks on that genre here). Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood to read this, but at this point I feel as if I am merely picking reasons not to stick to my initial impression. Because, man. This book is lifeless, cold, with a tinge of misogyny and general awfulness. The prose isn’t that hot either. The dialogue is often interesting, with some intriguing touches involving the titular “Em” sometimes borrowing American turns of phrases, but the non-dialog prose moves from banal triteness to trying to engage that register of cleverness, that tradition that runs from G.V. Desani to Rushdie – a specific kind of linguistic playfulness. Yet, as we see in the latter half of Rushdie’s work, that kind of writing requires a special skill and literary alertness – neither of which Pinto appears to possess. With so many books in the world, I cannot come up with a single reason why anyone should pick up Em and the Big Hoom, and honestly, I am not entirely happy I did so myself.
To start at the beginning: Em and the Big Hoom is a novel about an Indian family – a mother, “Em,” a father, nicknamed “the Big Hoom,” and the two children, the male narrator and “Susan.” Em is mentally ill, or so the novel insists. She has some form of manic depression, and has had it for years and years. She has lived through a number of suicide attempts, but she also hears voices apparently, and God knows what else Jerry Pinto dug up in his grab bag of mental illness issues. The novel’s bulk is set in a hospital as the narrator questions his mother about her choices in life, why on earth she was such a bad, bad mother, but he also elicits stories from her about her past. This narrative set up is the reason why the novel, like Em’s mind, feels a bit unmoored, there’s no real present to hold on to, as Pinto doesn’t really offer broad descriptions of the ward and their interactions in it either. His focus is almost completely on the two elements: the reproachful dialogue and the many, many flashbacks. I think there’s a skill required for this kind of set-up to be convincing, and not come off dull, and Pinto doesn’t have it. Although, I will say, this is a debut novel, and many debut novels suffer from this ungrounded, overexcited kind of structure. That said, Pinto steers his novel onto well-trod paths, the excitement cannot come from covering new terrain. For example, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, though I do not hold her into the same esteem as many friends who think she should be winning the highest literary honors, is a small, fine book about the aftermath of maternal suicide. Robinson makes good use of the reality of nature, of objects, houses, things, in short, as a way to root and situate her characters. Loss and disorientation are given meaning by giving the reader a sense of direction within the novel itself. Pinto isn’t particularly interested in that, and so the book becomes a diatribe against the fictional mother. I think the only mother I remember being this sharply condemned is Evelyn Waugh’s Brenda Last whose “Thank God” upon learning of her son’s death has long since engraved itself in our memories.
In contrast to Waugh, Pinto isn’t interested in painting Em as a deceitful person. Em is merely selfish. Pinto described mental illness, but, underneath, what he’s really talking about, is selfishness. Em is painted as someone who indulges her whims, with her husband and children suffering. There’s an episode where the family finds out that Em has spent all the money in a savings account that was supposed to support the family in the case of the father’s death, and she explains how it is connected to trust, and to anxiety, but neither the narrator, nor the rest of the family can muster any sympathy or empathy for Em. This is nor per se a comment on Pinto’s skills. Indeed, part of what made the narrator so galling in this and other scenes is the clear depiction of the mother’s objections. He does not offer a caricatured crazy woman. This is no drunk Janice Angstrom drowning her daughter in a tub, as Updike, he of the misogynist streak, constructed her for his own protagonist, “Rabbit” Angstrom. At the same time, Em never gets her due, and if the reader isn’t entirely sure what the book’s own stance towards its narrator is, the kind, sometimes even moving, final portions of the book dealing with grief and the aftermath, quickly disabuse us of any notion that we are offered the son’s blindness critically. Neither son nor husband are interested in that woman that lives among them. There’s precious little talk of anything that resembles therapy – instead we hear a lot about various kinds of medication, culminating in a scarring electro-convulsive therapy treatment. This, incidentally, is how we have always talked about depression and similar mental illnesses, and the current movement to “finally” treat mental illnesses like “normal illnesses” and the open way to discuss medication, while usually painted as progressive, is, in actuality, like some other current social “progressive” movements, anything but. Instead what we are given is a family who doesn’t really care why their mother and wife does what she does, they pathologize her, criticize her, talk down to her, culminating in the son yelling at his wife “Shut up you disgusting bitch!”
That is worth looking at for a second. He apologizes, but it is a difficult apology because his mother won’t show him that she is hurt by it, implying that it is the hurt, not the substance of the insult that needs apologizing for. But what’s more, this outburst comes after the mother jokes about his work, or rather, about the money he makes and that he still lives at home. This declaration so mortally wounds his masculinity that he “could not remember ever being so violated and hurt.” That is quite something for an adult to say, who immediately insults his mother worse than she’d ever dream of insulting him – what’s more, her treatment at the hands of neighbors (who suspect her of stealing a child when she walks around daydreaming, holding her son), the police (who arrest her), the mental health professionals (take your pick), and her family. If condescending to someone is such a vicious insult, they all need to rethink their lives. But this scene helps in other ways too. It highlights the strange masculine assumptions, the narcissistic ride that this narrator is on. Telling him he doesn’t make enough money to move out is a mortal insult, but in a later section, he very simply assumes the only reason his sister will move out is that she marries. And that’s not even the strangest instance of blindness in this scene.
Shortly after he insults his mother, she makes a sharp joke involving the insult: “can the disgusting bitch make you some tea?” She then writes a note of apology for what she said, and signs it, “the disgusting bitch.” From her son? Nothing but silence. The night after this, Em has a breakdown, has to be moved to the hospital, where she is again visited by her Gold Star son, and greets him with “I went mad, so you don’t have to be. You don’t have to do anything now that I am the disgusting bitch.” You’d think, huh, this is all pretty clear, but this is how the narrator reads the situation now: “I looked at her carefully. She was not letting me see what she was thinking. So I knew, immediately, that she had registered the thoughtless insult and that it had mattered. She was not going to give me proof so there was no way I could actually apologize. But I tried. ‘I’m sorry I said that.’” I mean this is special. Apart from the bad prose, it’s woth noting that THIS is when he knows, “immediately,” that his mother “registered” the insult. Not when she used it twice the previous day. Not when she wrote an embarrassing note of apology that she should not have written. Not when she had a mental breakdown immediately afterwards. No, now, the third time she mentions it, her son has an epiphany, but still, he can’t “actually” apologize because his mother won’t give him “proof” it hurt her. None of the things I listed count as proof. God knows what would be “proof” in his eyes. Tearful recriminations? This scene is an exception in some ways, but it does show, especially since there are continuities to the motherless time of grief towards the end, viz. Susan, for example, how the narrator – and in some sense the novel as a whole – conceive of women and mothers. I mean, if this novel was based on one or more real women (and some details in it tell me she is, or Pinto did some research), I can pinpoint pretty exactly how Em got to where she ended up. Em is a clever, independent, unusual woman with an unquiet mind, surrounded by people who like “quirky” women as background noise, not as a disruptive force. Em eventually commits suicide, and while you shouldn’t point a finger when it comes to suicide and mental illness, in this case you could at least raise an inquisitive eyebrow while looking at that son.
The worst failing here is the lack of introspection, the lack of real vulnerability. As I close this review, I’d like to point to another example. It’s from Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s autobiographical writings. I won’t pretend I found this myself – confounded by the praise (particularly Ghosh’s. I admire his fiction so much!) on the book cover, I looked for and found an appraisal of the (then unpublished) manuscript on Amitav Ghosh’s blog, where a user pointed to these stories in the comments to the blog post, which, as luck would have it, are contained in my volume of Akutagawa’s short fiction. Akutagawa’s appraisal of his own mad mother is also harsh and sharp. In “Death Register” he writes: “My mother was a madwoman. I never did feel close to her as a son should towards his mother.” When his mother, after wasting away for a while, opens her eyes on her deathbed to announce the end, “we couldn’t help giggling” despite feeling sad. The details chosen in the few remarks are exquisite. In another short prose piece he goes on and on about never being breastfed by his mother. Pinto’s narrator expresses anxiousness about whether his mother’s “madness” (I’m not super sure about that diagnosis) can be inherited. Akutagawa, on the other hand, is aware that he has. He jokes in other prose pieces about being unconcerned about the dangers of insomnia, after all, it’s “nothing new for the son of a madwoman.” As readers, we could take him being as cutting about his mother as Pinto’s narrator is because we are shown his own vulnerability, and unlike in Pinto’s novel, this is real, poetically expressed, artistically heightened, vulnerability.
I mean, I understand, there’s a chance all of these critiques are part of the text, and not brought to the text by me. Since there’s no outside voice, there’s a chance that Pinto created a misogynist protagonist who drives his mother into mental breakdowns on purpose. But there’s no textual evidence for that. What’s more likely is that Pinto shares this view of mental illness as this foreign country, with those afflicted by it outside of normal empathy and he shares this view of women, particularly since the Big Hoom isn’t much better, and as an author, he’s given Susan a marginal existence in the book. I mean, on the penultimate page of the book, he has Susan being fond of her tupperware, and telling the two men after the wake: “I’m going to clean up. You two go.” Because of course. Pinto has skills, many of them in the dialogue, but most of all, he’s given me a wish to know more about Em. For a novel with her in the title, we learn precious little about her. In my head I thought her voice could be a variant of the protagonist of Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life. I mean we don’t know. And that’s the problem. Well, there’s also the prose. There’s always the prose.