Due to the size of my audience and my irregular posting times I don’t get a ton of review copies (last one I got was the new Gila Lustiger novel, read my review here). This arrived last week and it’s lovely. Review forthcoming (after I finish my reread of Die Frequenzen, meanwhile here is my review of his debut):
There are very few writers in recent decades that have had such a rapid decline in reputation as German titan of letters Günter Grass who died Monday morning. After his death became public earlier this morning, many of my friends, well read students, writers and academics, didn’t manage more than a shrug in reaction to the news of Grass’ death. Grass’ career, since winning the Nobel Prize in 1999, has been marked by a shift in politics, and significantly worse writing. The first volume of his memoirs, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel is, in my opinion, the only truly excellent piece of writing he had published between 1995 and his death this weekend. The rest of it – subpar poetry, atrocious novels and negligible prose – was often popular, but lagged behind even the worst of his earlier efforts. Yet literary decline alone is not enough of an explanation: for most of his literary career, Grass had also been politically active, including active campaigning for the center-left party SPD and its chancellor Willy Brandt. Many of his books bear the marks of a politically active mind. He wasn’t able to keep the politics of his day out of his books, leading to excellent novels like Kopfgeburten or Der Butt, which directly discussed and reflected on elections and policies. However, after winning the Nobel Prize, Grass, never one to eschew populism, increasingly sensed that a certain nationalistic brand of right wing rhetoric had crept into mainstream discussions and had become acceptable in polite company. Like his fellow traveler Martin Walser (not to be confused with Robert Walser, the Swiss genius), Grass played with tropes of nostalgia, nationalism and antisemitism, to an ultimately alarming degree. When he died, the crooked noises of his blaring populist trumpets had drowned out the memory of his much more sublime earlier work, in part because in the minds of many readers, late career Grass reminded them of the populist portions of his earlier work that had always been present. That’s why a shrug and an imprecise sadness was the main reaction among many of my friends and colleagues, despite the death of an enormous writer who was influential not just for German but world literature. Writers like John Irving and Salman Rushdie have acknowledged their debt to Grass’ voluminous oeuvre and among the highly praised writers of today in this country, few are untouched by his influence.
For most of my reading life, Günter Grass had been one of my favorite writers. Yet even I had conflicting emotions when I heard the news. despite Grass’ presence in my reading and writing life. Not just Grass the novelist, but also Grass the playwright, and, most importantly, Grass the poet. It’s not as well known or remembered today, but Grass’ first publication in 1956 was a collection of poetry and art, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner. His status as an broadly talented artist came from the place he was in after the ravages of the war. Born in Gdansk, he voluntary enlisted in the army in WWII and later was a member of the Waffen-SS. Contrary to many former soldiers or SS members, Grass (admittedly late, in 2008), was clear about the fact that he was not seduced, that he was a willing, even fanatic participant, but it was an experience that, he also claimed, cured him of all authoritarian impulses for the rest of his life. After the war, he became a stone mason apprentice and more generally an artist. Throughout his life, he had never really stopped being a well rounded artist. He was a painter, sculptor, a poet, a novelist, an essayist and an editor. If you’ve ever seen one of his books on the shelf, whether in German or in translation, the cover picture is one drawn or painted by Grass himself. I keep repeating these things because with Grass, they are not minor details. Grass was an unbelievably talented artist. He was not a novelist who dabbled in other genres or areas. I can’t properly judge his art (not my field of expertise) but I can certainly vouch for his poetry. Throughout his career Grass wrote poems and while his later poetry was never quite as good as his early work (true for many poets), he had kept his gift until the mid-1990s, when it, with his other gifts, slowly left him. I would not be who I am as a poet and writer today without Grass’ early poetry, and its influence was fairly wide spread in German literature generally. His gifts were so lavish that he started to write almost occasional poetry, poetry with lewd or odd subjects, poetry that was incorporated into novels, most notably Der Butt (The Flounder, 1977), which contains poems extolling the practice of going to the toilet as a group activity, among other subjects. I insist on this because writers so profoundly gifted in so many areas are very rare and for many decades, there was good reason to count him among the world’s foremost purveyors of literature.
It was Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1959), his very first novel that indelibly established his importance and skill. It’s part of the misleadingly called Danzig trilogy as all three of the books are set in Danzig/Gdansk. The term is misleading because, with a few exceptions, most of Grass work is either set in or refers back to Danzig, which is Grass’ Yoknapatawpha County. In her essential study of Grass’ work, Irene Leonard pointed out that “Danzig was a German microcosm. In Danzig, events in the Reich were repeated in slow motion.” Additionally, Grass makes all his characters into members of the petit bourgeois class, Kleinbürger in German, this being the class with the highest density of Nazi supporters. This obsession makes him give background characters, when they reappear in his later works, more petit bourgeous professions than they were said to have when they first appeared. It’s important to know that this shifting of truths is not an exception, it’s the rule in Grass’ work, starting with his debut novel. Grass is almost obnoxious in his insistence that not only are his narrators unreliable, he himself is not a reliable source regarding his own books and he crafted a prose intended to have a life of its own. I can’t speak for translations, but in German, Grass writes exactly the kind of prose that you’d expect from a masterful poet – he is highly attentive to even the most minute elements of his writing. A Grass sentence is instantly recognizable: Grass has a specific way of using objects and adjectives in his sentences, by omitting pronouns, stacking and shifting adjectives. He paraphrases and dismembers official jargon, figures of speech, commonplaces and sources such as Heidegger or Weininger. His fiction was first written by hand, then typed into a typewriter, then typeset by the publisher. In all these stages, it was continuously edited and refined. In Grass’ work, especially in the latter two novels of the Danzig trilogy, we are made to witness a writing that is highly cerebral and attentive, and yet also compulsively readable. It’s a visceral joy to read Grass, and that’s not just connected to his obsession with physicality, whether that’s young Tulla Pokriefke’s thin body or the rich physical multitudes of cooking, eating and crapping in The Flounder.
Grass’ influences are complex and varied. The most immediate influences are the nouveau roman for their use of surfaces and objects, the great poet Arno Holz (who almost won the 1929 Nobel prize) for his use of adjectives and Alfred Döblin for almost everything else. Döblin combined for Grass (and many other German writers) the influences of European avantgarde like dada or absurdist literature with the impact of Joyce and Dos Passos, all of which is wrapped in a strong dedication to narrative and readability. Other influences on Grass are Swiss classic Gottfried Keller (especially Der Grüne Heinrich), Goethe and a whole array of novelists ranging from Laurence Sterne to Grimmelshausen. From all these influences, Grass learned how to deal with narrators and reliability, how to use objects in order to fragment narratives of reality into episodes or scenes that are then co-determined by the presence of the objects arranged in the scene. Public language, molded into Grass’ syntax, becomes one more objects among many, all of which often ends up overwhelming the stories’ subjects. Grass as the author is intentionally elusive, pushing the text away even from himself. His is a writing heavy with symbols but on close reading, these symbols tend to shift, displace, elude. To an incredulous American interviewer he once said “Symbols are nonsense – when I write about potatoes, I mean potatoes.” At the same time, he was aware and adamant that as the author, he did not have final authority over the text, especially once the book was written and he got rid of his notes. The author as a dubious witness – it’s more than an application of Tristram Shandy to the shambles of post WWII Europe. In the light of his autobiography, it also reflects a profound mistrust of grand narratives. A writer with a social and humanist conscience who is aware that in his youth and young adulthood, he unquestioningly and voluntarily followed and fought for the Nazi regime in general and Hitler more specifically, this kind of writer can end up with a poetics as Grass': distrustful of narratives and distrustful of himself. Even in Beim Häuten der Zwiebel, doubt creeps in. Characters from the novels are given a voice, sowing doubt in the memoirist’s mind.
All of these things are already present in his first books. Die Blechtrommel is narrated by Oskar Matzerath, a person of stunted growth, who writes down the book from within a sanatorium, a “Heil- und Pflegeanstalt”, the “cloisters of modernity” as Elias Canetti referred to them. According to its internal logic, Oskar wrote the book between 1952 and 1954, the book ending on the eve of his 30th birthday. There are two levels of story, one, Oskar’s life from conception uo to his 28th birthday, the other, the two years in the sanatorium during which Oskar writes down the book. There is no external authority verifying the truth of the events presented – in fact, it’s Grass’ own oeuvre that ends up factchecking his early books, confirming and denying various ostensible facts told us by Oskar. Oskar’s honesty is not the most importanr part. It’s his insistence, his obsession in marshaling the past to come back and give a record of the small and large crimes and sins that happened. The word “sin” is not randomly chosen here: Die Blechtrommel, is a book suffused with a sense of religion, reflecting Grass’s Catholic upbringing. Even more openly religiously influenced is the second book in the trilogy, the novella Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse, 1961). Numerous studies have shown that Grass carefully crafted the book to fit quite a few German theories of the form (ours is a nation obsessed with the genre of the novella, cf. Hartmut Lange for the probably best living practitioner of the form). For a writer enamored with excess and the fullness of story, this novella is remarkably strict and lean. It’s probably Grass’ most ‘perfect’ book, the one least flawed (we all remember Randall Jarrell’s definition of the novel). It’s an exceptional achievement, and an unbelievable example of an already fantastically good writer rapidly developing and maturing. Katz und Maus tells a story of characters that we’ve already met. One has to imagine the Blechtrommel as opening a fount of stories that are all interconnected and that correct and discuss each other. The crowning achievement of this early work is Hundejahre (Dog Years, 1963), which examines and interrogates guilt and complicity by putting on a virtuoso display of how to employ and undercut various forms of narration. It’s separated into three parts, using multiple kinds of voices, genres and perspectives, hiding and revealing identities, zooming in and out of smaller stories in order to discuss and illuminate the greater stories at length.
I discussed the Danzig trilogy at length for two reasons. One is the importance of its ideas, characters and methods for Grass’s later work that would continue to go back to this well until Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk, 2002), which is almost indistinguishable from parody. The other reason is that these 3 books, as well as the unexpected but excellent Das Treffen in Telgte (The Meeting at Telgte, 1979) are the most likely to endure. They are least shackled to the political events of the day. I don’t mean to say that those four books are Grass’ best work, but they are Grass’ most accessible work for an audience living at least a decade after the books were published. His very next novel after the trilogy, örtlich betäubt (Local Anaesthetic, 1969), published at the height of student protests, questions ideas of revolution and change, using history as a way to make sense of the present, not as a way to look at and interrogate the past. It’s also the first book not to include the writing situation as part of the story, even though its narrative setup is not dissimilar to Katz und Maus. While that one was constructed as an Augustinian confession in a very narrow sense, örtlich betäubt is basically a confession/rant delivered by a patient to his dentist (one is reminded of Peter Brooks’ precise analysis of the culture of confession). The present in question that’s being examined was the tail end of the Kiesinger administration. Long before Merkel, Germany was once, for three years, governed by a coalition of its two largest parties. The chancellor of that coalition was Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi party member (who, like Grass, joined with enthusiasm). Other former members of the Nazi party included the foreign minister as well as the economics minister. This may explain the novel’s sense of gloom and doom, especially since Grass, a typical social democrat, did not believe in radical change either (Wer hat uns verraten? Sozialdemokraten!). The next novel, similar in intent, if differently structured, picks up at this point and ends in the election of Willy Brandt, the great hope of Germans center-left intellectuals.
With those two novels a new era of Grass novels begins that use not just the past, but also myth and fairy tales in order to examine a political issue of the day, whether that’s feminism (Der Butt / The Flounder), demographics (Kopfgeburten / Headbirths), environmental concerns (Die Rättin / The Rat) or the German reunification (Ein weites Feld / Too Far Afield). They all have their specific strengths and are often powerfully written and elaborately (and cleverly) constructed. They were not, however, as well received by critics, in part because their political content offered critics an easy way to dismiss the books without engaging with their extraordinary literary power. It’s not until 2002 that Grass scored another major success with both critics and audience. That book was Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk). Now, by 2002, Grass work did not have the same potency as it had even 1995. His collection of short prose, Mein Jahrhundert (My Century, 1999) was uncharacteristically flat, by then, he hadn’t published a new book of poetry since 1993. Im Krebsgang was short, hurried and flat – it turned out that Grass’ high octane style didn’t work when it wasn’t powered by a writer working at the top of his game. It seemed -as I mentioned- like a lazy parody. It’s success -somewhat analogous to the lack of success of the earlier books – was due to politics. In 2002 another important and popular, if deplorable, book was published: Der Brand by actor and historian Jörg Friedrich. In it, Friedrich goes on at length about the hardships of the German populace during the Allied bombing, producing a heated amalgam of facts, fiction and some terrible turns of phrases (like “the bomb holocaust”). Grass’ novel about a German civilian ship, sunk by a Soviet submarine in the last weeks of the war perfectly fit the sudden craving in Germany of narratives of German victims. Starting roughly in 1999, a subtle (though increasingly less so) historical revisionism had created this need for counter narratives that emphasized German victims. Apart from the very good first volume of his autobiography Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion, 2006), the rest of his work published in the oughts was similarly bad. His collection of poetry Letzte Tänze wasn’t even a parody any more. It’s just a mostly inconsequential book of newfound righteousness and old man horniness. The nadir, finally, of Grass’ literary production was his poem “Was Gesagt Werden Muss” (“What has to be said”), a poem about Israel that is full of modern antisemitic rhetoric.
The young Grass used to take these phrases and twist them into art and truth. Old Grass just regurgitates right wing rhetoric. In the years between Im Krebsgang and the new “poem”, he had given numerous ill informed interviews. Famously, he invented the fact that 6 millions of German soldiers had died in soviet camps, a number clearly intended to balance the 6 million Jews Germans had murdered. His use of German myth and tradition in connection with present day concerns in his last volume of autobiography Grimms Wörter (no translation yet, 2010) suddenly didn’t seem smart and literate any more as it was in the 70s and 80s and more reminiscent of right wing nationalist nostalgia. As his work and reputations slowly disintegrated Grass pressed on, gave interviews, published more individual poems. More, more. Despite his misguided politics in the last decade of his life and his waning literary skills, he was still animated by an urge to say something, to contribute something, to do something. For me, there’s nothing worse than a writer without obsessions and urges. Günter Grass had both in spades and the best of his work ranks with some of the best literature published in the last century. It’s tempting to judge him in the light of his poor last decade. As someone who has been reading Grass for 20 years, who has read all of his books, most of them multiple times, I don’t want to do that. Today we mourn the passing of a Great Writer. Mourn with me. They don’t come along very often.
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Lustiger, Gila (2015), Die Schuld der Anderen, Berlin-Verlag
Have you ever read a book and wished its author was a better prose writer? By which I don’t mean, have you ever read a bad book and wished you’d read a good one instead. No, have you ever read a book that was genuinely interesting and good in many ways, but hampered by mediocre prose and/or strange ideological biases? They turn up now and then in my reading, these books. I guess, Paul Auster is an example of that, Richard Powers is maybe another, in some of his books. I have, however, never encountered as tantalizing a case as Gila Lustiger’s new novel Die Schuld der Anderen. In almost 500 pages, she creates a rich panorama of modern France, tied into not one but two crime writing narratives that draw from different traditions. Jewishness, history, corruption, murder, sex trafficking and other themes are woven into a book that never feels overburdened by these heavy topics. It’s a difficult balancing act that she manages well. All of this comes on top of a deft job at turning a real life case of dozens of workers at a chemical plant who, in the course of their work, came down with kidney cancer, into a riveting narrative. The skill and research involved could have made for a very good book if it had not been for an unbelievably pedestrian prose and strange obsession with Islam. I liked the book so much that I kept hoping it was some kind of pastiche, I looked up sources that I assumed were referenced stylistically, but no such luck. The prose is derivative, but not artfully so. It’s flat and dour, dragging the story down with it. That said, I strongly recommend a translation. It’s not on the level of the books that I listed as “Translatables” elsewhere, but many of its faults should vanish in translation, if written by a translator with a nimble enough pen. The rest of it, the history and characters and the sense of a France with a complicated and dark past and an uncertain future, these elements would remain. It’s a hard book to review, because the prose was so unpleasant to read, but at the same time, the book’s other aspects were enough to keep me reading. With its writing, I can’t really recommend it, but I do think it would fare very well in translation.
Die Schuld der Anderen, which can be translated as “The Guilt of Others”, is Gila Lustiger’s fifth novel. Lustiger is the daughter of the vastly more famous Jewish historian and entrepreneur Arno Lustiger, who was born in Poland in 1924 and was interned in multiple concentration camps during the Third Reich. After the war he settled in Germany where he became a founding member of the Jewish community in Frankfurt, as well as a prolific and outspoken scholar on the topics of Jewish history as well as Jewish resistance during the Third Reich. Gila Lustiger, his daughter, grew up in Frankfurt, then spent much of her early adulthood in Israel until she moved to Paris in the late 1980s where she’s still living. Her very first novel Die Bestandsaufnahme (1995) is an examination of Jewish lives during the Nazi era, in a way a direct continuation of her father’s intellectual project. It’s very unevenly written, but contains some striking observations and contextualizes the almost incomprehensible horror of the Jewish fate with all the skill of a well educated debut novelist. Contrary to what one would expect, there is more good writing in this early book than there is in Lustiger’s new novel. The cumulative effect of the lives unfolded in its pages is truly powerful. It’s also the only book of hers that has been translated into English (by Rebecca Morrison) as The Inventory. Her real breakthrough didn’t, however, come until her third novel, So Sind Wir (~That’s how we are), which was on the 2005 shortlist for the German Book Award, the most prestigious award for new novels. So Sind Wir is again a novel with very pronounced Jewish themes: this time, she takes a long look at her own family history, in particular her father’s life. It’s an interesting take on the family novel, playing with the idea of truth and fiction, victimhood and persecution, self and history. It’s not just a simple sentimental retelling of her father’s difficult life. Driven by a craving for normality, the book’s narrator makes it clear that she’s not angry at the Germany who murdered her family or looked away while others did it. Paradoxically, she expresses anger at the victims. She does not want to be the ‘daughter of a holocaust survivor’ and at the same time it’s impossible to ignore the culpability of the parents and grandparents of her fellow students. It’s only in the second half of the novel that she attempts a synthesis between those impulses.
So Sind Wir is an interesting novel that keeps referencing the act of remembering, of creating and opposing common narratives around the Shoah. Objects like photographs are examined and contextualized. The book strongly reminded me of some later texts by this year’s Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano (cf. my review here) – interestingly, her new novel, set in France, made me think of Modiano once again, but this time of his debut masterpiece. As I pointed out in my review, much of the book’s impetus seems to be provided by the inextricable nature of French literature, history and culture, with French strains of Antisemitism and, indeed, with French Jews. In Die Schuld der Anderen, Gila Lustiger presents to us a protagonist who, in his personal heritage, combines this mixture: he is half Jewish and half gentile, and his non-Jewish family are industrialists whose power reaches deep into the highest strata of French and European politics. A character that serves as a metaphor: French Jewish history and French history proper are so closely intertwined as to make it impossible to separate them. In this, she anticipated the French prime minister Manuel Valls’ dictum that “la place des Francais juifs, c’est la France”, which he offered in reaction to Netanyahu’s suggestion that Jews should all emigrate to Israel. Lustiger, who in her earlier books had interrogated the place of Jewish communities in Germany and among Germans, is doing the same for France in Die Schuld der Anderen. But unlike those earlier books, she makes it part of the general background for a story that has nothing to do with Jewish history or identity. It is truly impressive to what extent she has managed to debate questions of Jewish identity as part of her work on the personal background of her characters. This explains why Die Schuld der Anderen is her longest novel to date: it’s more than just one novel. It’s three different ones, expertly merged into a single narrative. If only the writing itself was better.
The novel’s main narrative takes a look at one of several French scandals centered around France’s chemical plants and workplace toxicity in general. Her protagonist, journalist Marc Rappaport, decides to investigate an old murder case that appears to be fairly clear cut. 30 years ago a young sex worker was murdered and now all of a sudden, evidence appears to surface that implicates a bank teller who could not seem less of a murderer if he tried. Rappaport immediately distrusts the case brought against this man and sets out to find the real killer. In the course of his investigation he dives deep into a France that appears to be rotten with sex trafficking, corruption and rape, and pretty much everyone in power is implicated in one way or another. This part of his investigation reminds the reader of the stark 1970s noir novels and films where the rot in society’s foundations ends up overwhelming even the most well meaning of investigators. The colors Lustiger uses are strong, almost garish. Many of the scenes involving this case leap right off the page, with characters that are very flat, but highly engaging. There is a feeling that for all the research Lustiger has done, not an overwhelming amount involved active sex workers. Many of the characters and scenes are reminiscent of similar characters or scenes we know from TV or movies. For a book that starts and ends with finding and punishing the murderer of a prostitute and discusses the terrible things that happen to sex workers, she is not greatly interested in their plight. That’s not, however, to the detriment of the novel. Lustiger spends less time fleshing out this case, so she depends on its characters being vivid and memorable. Working with grays would make it much harder to cram everything into the book she wanted to put in and still be clear and comprehensible. The other case, one that Rappaport uncovers while following up on that murder, is much less spectacular in the usual ways. It’s about workplace safety and kidney cancer contracted by dozens of factory workers. Rappaport discovers the scandalous practices of Nutrissor, a company providing nutrition enhancements like Vitamin A, in the process exposing its workers to carcinogenic substances. Rappaport, a sleuth who is part Maigret, part Philip Marlowe, manages to juggle both investigations, uncover sources and evidence, all the while filling us in on modern French history.
Gila Lustiger did not pull her topic out of thin air – she references a problem that is very present in contemporary French discourse. Two excellent books have recently come out that take a long, hard look at French practices when it comes to poisoning its populace and workers. One of them, Les Empoisonneurs (2005) by Vincent Nouzille, takes a broader view and discusses the myriad of different ways that French policies put French citizens in danger. France ranks, according to Nouzille, near the bottom of European countries when it comes to protecting its citizens from various poisons. Nouzille, not adverse to polemic exaggeration, nevertheless has strong research backing up his strong claims. He predicts 40,000 deaths per year until 2025 that are directly traceable to neglectful policies. More specifically, in relation to Lustiger’s novel, he suggests that over 60% of French workers will have been exposed to asbestos at some point in their lives, compared to 25% of the general populace. Nouzille points out how fears of irradiation and general issues connected to nuclear power are discussed much more frequently than other poisons. And he (as does Lustiger) raises awareness of how normalized it has become to endanger your workers, if the economic gain appears to vindicate such policies. In this, he follows Bruni Mattéi’s landmark essay on the invention of professional risk. A book that’s more specifically interested in the fate of workers is Annie Thébaud-Mony’s cleverly titled Travailler Peut Nuire Gravement À Votre Santé (2007). Resembling a fictional article that’s discussed in Lustiger’s novel, at least in form, it looks at different fates and workers and at the way companies are mainly concerned with ways to hide what they are doing to workers. That hiding can come from reclassifying poisonous materials as safe, or, as in Die Schuld der Anderen, by making sure intermediary materials are not checked for toxicity at all, or even by contracting out all the truly hazardous work. A worker quoted in the book expresses the trust that many workers have in their company. It may not be their best friend but surely they won’t let us die here, right? Someone would have said something at some point, right? But company doctors are mostly concerned with getting you back to work, not getting you healthy. Nouzille and Thébaud-Mony both chart the loss of that trust in French politics to succeed in the basic job of not killing its own people in the workplace.
Gila Lustiger is not just broadly inspired by a series of events. In fact, she uses a very real case. The company she calls Nutrissor is called Adisseo in real life and it’s one of the three largest producers of animal food in the world. In 1981, Adisseo used something called Chloracetal C5 in order to produce Vitamin A for animal products. At least 10 workers contracted kidney cancer due to exposure to it. The first case was discovered in 1994, but the company had known since at least 1991. In 2007, the rarest of rare events happened: a French court declared Adisseo, one of France’s chemical titans, guilty of negligently causing the cancer of those 10 workers. It was spectacular due to how rarely these things happen, but it did not change France, or even Adisseo. That’s why Lustiger describes the actual case, but she chooses a different ending. Her France is a France of violence and power struggles. It’s a country where you don’t get redress in court, where you don’t really take recourse to the police or politics. The book, I will say this much without spoiling the ending, does not ‘end badly’, several problems get worked out. In the end, the reason Lustiger sidesteps the courts and police procedures can be found in the title of the novel.
Die Schuld der Anderen is a novel about guilt. Everybody, it turns out, is complicit in how the system works, how it’s allowed to function. By pointing to other people’s guilt we are blinded to our own guilt, to our own contributions to the suffering of others. Lustiger makes this point astutely and repeatedly, and, despite herself, the point turns out to be bigger than the book, because it points at the novel itself as well. One interesting thing that keeps happening is that Rappaport listens to people talking around him and tells us about it. He overhears discussions and phone calls and the author rarely ties these observations into the larger plots of the book; it seems a minor detail, but it reflects something about the way the novel works. By inviting voices, history and facts into a book that also contains a sensational murder mystery and traces of conspiracy thrillers, Lustiger dissolves some of the borders between the book and the world, and some of its failings become functional as further examples of complicity. In the middle of the book there’s a two page rant about Islam. It has nothing to do with anything else, but as various interviews and articles show us, it’s a personal obsession of the author, who, in this way, becomes another example of righteousness blinded to its own complicity. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, between the book and the world, between the author’s examination of her characters and the way that examination turns a spotlight on the author herself, it makes it genuinely difficult to look at the book’s numerous flaws and not consider them somehow a functional part of the book. I’ve genuinely reread particularly badly written passages multiple times, trying to figure out whether they were intentional pastiches of genre writing in German or whether they just showed, as many other genre novels in this country do, the terrible influence of decades of bad genre translations from English and French. In the end it doesn’t matter. Bad writing is bad writing, but much of the book is compelling enough to recommend the book. Maybe not as a book to read, but definitely as a book to translate.
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Perkins, Emily (2008), Novel About My Wife, Bloomsbury
Sometimes I am glad I persevere in reading a book that starts off awfully somehow. Novel About My Wife is one of those cases. New Zealand author Emily Perkins completely inhabits the voice of a self centered hack of mediocre talent. So completely, in fact, that it really starts to grate after about a dozen pages. I own (but have not yet read) a second novel of Perkins’ and had to look at its writing to reassure myself that what I was reading wasn’t horrible due to ineptness. And it’s not. Emily Perkins’ book is an almost perfectly executed text that is more gripping as a literary exercise than it is as a story. Perkins draws from a rich literary tradition of female madness and male callousness, and ties it up expertly with the style she chose to tell the novel in. The downside to this is that, as we become more aware of her sources and technique, we can anticipate the direction the novel is taking. It doesn’t end with a bang, it ends with a whimper, as we finish the book to see what we know is coming. And yet, after spending some time in the book’s world and voice we do read until the end, until the book disappoints us just a tiny bit, but this soggy ending befits a novel that really trades in the traditions of unpleasantness. And if you feel that this has been the least straightforward first paragraph of a review of mine in a long time, then you’ll have an idea of how I think of this book. I think this is an excellent book, extremely well executed, but also a book that is not always a joy to read. I don’t think I’ve read a book quite like this in a long time, and that’s certainly a good thing.
First things first. As you would expect from a book called Novel about my Wife, it’s not primary a novel “about” anyone’s wife. The pages of the book contain two different texts. One, written in regular type, and making up the main body of the book, is the story of Tom Stone and a time in his life when everything went bad. It is written from his point of view, and it’s a first draft kind of manuscript, with repetitions, corrections, and frequent reflections on the nature of the story and its truths. This part contains, as Stone says “the known knowns, as a politician might say”. Stone is the narrator of this book, but he is also its author. There is no immediate “outside” of the book except the book itself, with Perkins’ name printed on the cover. I explain this so thoroughly because it’s important to understand that Perkins has created a book that doesn’t just give us an unreliable narrator and his version of the truth. Except for the one passage I just quoted, it doesn’t really make the unreliability an issue. The biggest mystery of the book might well not be known to the narrator either. It’s not important whether he lies. That’s not at issue. What is, is the mere fact that this is a story narrated by a male “author”, who structures, historicizes, rationalizes his wife’s sad mental decline. And he does it in a style that is not just self absorbed, but also almost unbearably awful. Tom Stone is a terrible writer and we don’t need anybody telling us so – our own reading is evidence enough. And yet, for all his mediocrities and deficiencies, he is the one who gets to tell this story. In short – the novel “about” a wife is a novel about Tom Stone, his priorities, the workings of his mind and the society that produces his kind.
It’s also, of course, even though not primarily, the story of his wife Ann and what happens to her – both what has happened to her in the past and what happens to her in the novel’s narrative present. The present is there for Tom to sort out. Here he has his memories to guide him. As for the past, that’s more difficult. He explains to his implied reader: “What Ann thought. What Ann felt. What happened to her when I was not around. For this I need fiction.” This fiction, labeled “N.A.M.W.” -“Novel About My Wife” – turns up here and there in short, melodramatically phrased novelistic inserts. While Tom might just be flagged as an “unreliable narrator”, making my previous paragraph wordy and unnecessary, there’s more at work here. Perkins doesn’t hide things in his narrative, Tom doesn’t lie or deceive us. For all we know, his story is perfectly reliable. He admits to lying to his wife and opens up about many things that precipitate her mental deterioration, the worst of which, of course, hides in the novel-within-the-novel. She also doesn’t openly betray him by distorting his voice – the effect was subtle enough that I genuinely wondered whether this was just a badly written novel. Accumulative, however, we notice that this is a story written by a man to the backdrop of his wife’s anguish and despite being titled Novel about my Wife, it’s disconcertingly preoccupied with his own petty concerns. At one point, to alleviate some pressure, he calls up an ex-girlfriend of his, and it works, he was “swept with relief” as “[a]n enormous weight, the burden of fidelity, lifted from [him]”. The contrast is instructive and important, especially given the tradition that the book ends up settling in. There are two distinct literary traditions dealing with spouses that suffer from breakdowns. One is written by men, one by women. Perkins wrote a book that belongs to the latter tradition, but mimics the language and structure of the former.
The first category could easily be summarized as “novels about men’s wives”, an exploration of female breakdowns. In a 2011 essay, Naomi Scheman undertakes a dialogue of sorts with Stanley Cavell’s philosophy, by pointing out how much of it is predicated on a male author and a male audience. She points to discussions that either employ a generalized we or use the third person. Even well meaning looks at the plight of ‘outsiders’ are “a response in the third person, learning more about them, when what was needed was a response in the second person: […] not knowledge but acknowledgment” (emphasis hers). While I am not sure about the strength of her arguments against skepticism (although I will come back to them in my review of Setz’ Indigo), the point about the direction of discussions on knowledge are entirely valid. And we can see that literature bears them out again and again. Jonathan Wilson points out, for example, that in Bellow’s books we see women only through the mirror of “American male anxiety”, other examples in literary works are women in Philip Roth’s novels (including the downright vengeful depiction of Eve Frame in I Married a Communist). In popular fiction, works like the novels of Wally Lamb continue this theme. Women are moody, angry, sometimes insane, and most of the time, they turn up in these books as a nuisance. That is how Perkins’ narrator Tom sees his wife too. Tom is an unsuccessful screenwriter and the first half of the novel mostly charts his attempts to make enough money to support his family, and all the attendant anxieties. More successful, more virile men turn up, and women are either used as relief (cf. above) or they are a nuisance. Ann, Tom’s wife, is particularly difficult. She has a pregnant woman’s moodswings (cue the stand up comedy routine), but she also somehow suddenly believes she might be haunted and that there are such things as ghosts, possibly. One evening after she confronts him about his snobbish attitude towards colleagues, he, as the narrator, insists on undercutting her speech by directing his readers’ eyes at her. He turns on the light and states “She looked ugly”.
We know these performances from the other side in literature. Especially pregnancy and/or a sudden involvement with or fear of the supernatural have been used by female novelists fairly frequently as means to highlight the pressure and the eye of society and its pressures on women. The results are often riveting and terrifying. One example is Sara Gran’s brief but horrifying novel of demonic possession, Come Closer. The plot of the book is unusually single minded and the book takes no detour in dragging its readers to its terrible conclusion. The basic trajectory of the plot is not, however, what makes the book so terrifying. It’s the way that this demonic possession expresses itself: it’s a total loss of control. Things in your household are not subject to your control, but much worse, things in your head are not. Gran’s protagonist is increasingly unable to rely on her senses and memory. She will say and do things that she doesn’t remember saying and doing and the sensible world outside offers her no means of redressing it. But Gran does something else too. Instead of writing an elaborate tale in the Stephen King mode (which does offer room for female narratives, as novels by writers like Caitlín Kiernan and Sarah Langan show), she uses an unusual amount of space, given the length of the story, for exploring the increasing alienation from her husband. All the demon does, at the beginning, is increase her natural anxiety that exists because her husband ignores and abandons her. It amplifies her anger. And her husband is no help to her. He is solicitous enough to appear helpful, but he keeps her at a distance, cheating on her, eventually asking for a divorce. Sara Gran really couldn’t be more clear in how her book works. Near the end, we learn that the demon is connected to Lilith, Adam’s first wife who “wouldn’t lie down and take it and she wouldn’t do what she was asked or told”. The demon, manifesting itself as a loss of control and destruction is merely giving Gran’s protagonist something she always craved: love and protection. That she destabilizes and destroys the male dominated surroundings is not a bug, it’s a feature.
Similarly terrifying, and an even better book, is Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. Similarly short, it’s the story of the Lovatt family. Harriet and David, Two young conservative people meet in the hubbub of the 1960s and decide, against the Zeitgeist, to raise a ‘traditional’ family, which works well. There are alarming signs in the husband’s behavior and in the way the young family grows, but it isn’t until the titular fifth child that something breaks. Something, Harriet feels, isn’t right with the child growing inside her, but everyone from her family to her husband, to the institutions, disbelieve her. She feels alienated from the unusually active and unusually large child in her womb. It is frequently described like a demon, hence the connection to Gran’s book. While friends jokingly call it “a wrestler”, her husband already censures her behavior. She refers to the child as “this creature with whom she was locked in a struggle to survive”, calling it “the enemy”. Once born, it appears that she was right. Ben, as he’s named, is a violent and strange child, and she’s not the only one to notice. The story doesn’t end there, it’s where the story really picks up steam. Ben physically assaults his mother, who finds breastfeeding him well nigh impossible, he attacks other children, and quite generally becomes a danger to others. His mother decides to go and get the help of institutions, who have a history (cf. Foucault) of taking the strange and maybe dangerous and pulling them back in line by hook or by crook. As a woman, hoewever, she quickly finds herself under attack. Her husband works against her, and the rest of the family similarly abandons her, as well. A doctor looks at her and says “The problem is not with Ben, it’s with you. You don’t like him very much.”
“The problem is with you” is something women get thrown at very frequently, but that’s what happens when they open up. More often, intimidated by this pattern, afraid of censure, women keep their inner lives to themselves. This is how things like postnatal depression or even rape end up often being unreported. In novels, men, uninterested in dialogue, write about these silent women, reporting to their readers the surface phenomena, which often look like moodiness, bitchiness, and other gendered negative perceptions. And this is exactly what Perkins makes use of. She’s presenting to us a man writing about “the known knowns”, hitting all the registers and his voice with such precision that she comes close to a pastiche of a certain kind of authorial voice. She never descends into parody, the book is not a comedy (although it’s frequently funny). Behind the whole story is a Lessing/Gran kind of book, a terrifying story of paranoia and abandonment. As soon as we realize this, Novel About My Wife becomes increasingly scary and tense. Emily Perkins is a deeply intriguing writer and I will read her other books in due course. You should, as well.
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ich habe falsch gezählt, das klopfen der
schienen verrät mir nichts. was ich weiß:
hier ist bedeutung – ich wurde verabschiedet &
werde empfangen vom sonnenvogel. mein
bett trage ich auf dem rücken, den schlaf
in der rocktasche, meine erdachte zukunft
im kopf. zum schnellen schlag der gleise
singe ich den dithyrambos meiner erwarteten
liebe. ich habe falsch gezählt.