Elizabeth Bishop: Pink Dog
Rio de Janeiro
The sun is blazing and the sky is blue.
Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue.
Naked, you trot across the avenue.
Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare!
Naked and pink, without a single hair . . .
Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.
Of course they’re mortally afraid of rabies.
You are not mad; you have a case of scabies
but look intelligent. Where are your babies?
(A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.)
In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch,
while you go begging, living by your wits?
Didn’t you know? It’s been on all the papers,
to solve the problem, how they deal with beggars?
They take and throw them in the tidal rivers.
Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites
go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights
out in the suburbs, where there are no lights.
If they do this to anyone who begs,
drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,
what would they do to sick, four-leggéd dogs?
In the cafés and on the sidewalk corners
the joke is going round that all the beggars
who can afford them now wear life preservers.
In your condition you would not be able
even to float, much less to dog-paddle.
Now look, the practical, the sensible
solution is to wear a fantasia.
Tonight you simply can’t afford to be a-
n eyesore. But no one will ever see a
dog in mascara this time of year.
Ash Wednesday’ll come but Carnival is here.
What sambas can you dance? What will you wear?
They say that Carnival’s degenerating
—radios, Americans, or something,
have ruined it completely. They’re just talking.
Carnival is always wonderful!
A depilated dog would not look well.
Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!
(from the anime Samurai Champloo)
West, Paul (1993), Rat Man of Paris, Tusk/Overlook
Paul West is one of the least well known of major American postmodern novelists. Born in 1930, and still at it, West has written an incredible amount of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, none of which I noticed until Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. And I don’t seem to be alone in that. A quick jstor search for mentions of this novel, which, after all, is one of West’s most well known books, came up almost empty. Whenever he is mentioned, the tone is reverent and adulating, but the dearth of academical studies on West appears to me to be quite symptomatic of the shroud of oblivion that has sunken over Paul West’s vast literary endeavors. And, as so very often, this is completely and totally undeserved. Rat Man of Paris, originally published in 1986, is my first West novel and it’s an extraordinary literary success. To say it’s a well-written novel would be an unfair understatement, it’s a book that thrives on style, without ever being offputtingly obvious about it. At the same time, Rat Man of Paris is a moving and disturbing novel about a survivor of the horrors of the Second World War, and a book that is intelligent enough not to get lost in feigned gestures of witnessing and authenticity. West writes extremely well about the vagaries of an unbalanced mind trying to come to terms with a horrendous past and a confusing present. In this endeavor, West’s protagonist mirrors the European society he lives in, a society that is also still trying to come to terms with the terrible events of 20th century’s murderous first half. In order to make this work, West presents numerous tropes of talk, speech and memory, seamlessly integrated into a quick-moving (and frequently extraordinarily funny) narrative that contains sex, attempted murder and Nazi regalia. Paul West’s Rat Man of Paris may not be for everyone, but I can’t but recommend this powerful, very well written work of art. It’s a quick enough read which invites numerous re-reads, a book by a writer who, from the evidence of this, deserves to be much more famous than he is now.
The book’s maudlin protagonist is Etienne Poulsifer, roughly middle-aged, who wanders the cobbled streets of Paris shocking tourists for a living. He has a whole act, he’s the titular Rat Man of Paris, it’s his brand and has become his identity. There are vast variations in the way Poulsifer (or Poussif, in short) performs his act, although its basic rules stay the same: it is a highly formalized demonstration. He sidles up to a group of tourists, in a café or elsewhere, steps up closely and then reveals an object, a rat usually. Sometimes, especially as the novel’s events develop, he exchanges the rat for something else, a fox fur, for example. The means of presentation often change, but they always revolve around the moment of shock. Shock, that is, that is then tempered by recognition and humor. I’m dwelling on this a bit because it’s central to the way West structures his book. He uses the Rat Man’s act as a miniature model of themes and structures central to the rest of the book. Poussif doesn’t always actually shock people on the street. When the book opens, he is famous enough that people know that they are supposed to be shocked. He’s going through the motions of shocking people, in a very elaborate manner. And a formally strict one: we are told that Poussif has a very precise idea of how his act should be performed. The steps involved have to be followed exactly, and any changes are deliberated heavily and slowly. When you see the Rat Man of Paris, you know what to expect. There is certainly, even from those who know him well, a kind of pleasant frisson, encountering the sudden display of rat, but on the whole it’s a grotesque of sorts, an entertainment, removed from historical context or more conventional frames of reference. It’s an oddity, unexplained and unexplainable. A rat: c’est tout. Yet that rat, and his presentation of it, is not a job, it’s an integral part of his identity. This is what the book opens with, Poulsifer and his act. And as we read on, his future and his past start to unfold before us.
His future, that’s his relationship with a woman called Sharli, a geography teacher who gets involved with Poussif for somewhat unclear reasons.
Something in him appeals to her. […] Affectopath, she sometimes calls herself; she hungers for affection, hungers to give it, and he has sensed this, as well as the tang and glint of her.
It is not entirely plausible that this would be enough to get involved with a freak like Etienne Poulsifer, but the book doesn’t care whether we think it’s believable. She falls in love with him, and their relationship proves sturdy enough, surviving several of Poussif’s manic episodes, his rapidly disintegrating mental sanity, a gun shot and slowly transforms into something even more durable and complex. We don’t get a lot of characterization as far as Sharli is concerned; from a certain point on, she’s just present, offering comfort and lodgings to the Rat Man. On the other hand, Poulsifer isn’t drawn in great detail either. We know him through his acts, through the things he says and the manner in which he behaves: towards other people, towards his own past, and with his own person. There are many things about this book that show the careful reader what an extraordinary master Paul West is, but one of the most obvious ones is the way he presents his characters through their actions. There are a few thoughts now and then, but they are, at best, thoughts in preparation of deeds, or thoughts functioning as actions. People are not described as much as they are displayed by the things they do. West’s characters are like the Rat Man’s rats, and his art as a novelist is the art
[h]ow to expose the snout, how to make it seem to move, how to tuck it out of sight and have to wrestle with it under one or two layers of clothing.
Exposing the rat does not, as we remember, mean describing the rat, it’s showing it in an elaborate way. In writing novels, arguably. description does not directly correspond to ‘showing’. West’s characterization through action, though, does. This is not new, by all means, nor is it rare. What is, however, is the fact that West manages to combine what in many writers engenders a simpler style, with an almost feverish language. West changes rhythms like trains, from sentences front-loaded with participial constructions, to longer, more supple sentences and truly simple short phrases. Sentences can stiffen or loosen up within a single paragraph, becoming more or less formal, for example. None of this ever seems chaotic, which is also why none of this happens at the expense of readability. West is in control of his style which marries narrative economy with syntactical gluttony.
I should admit at this point that my enthusiasm for West may stem from the fact that this is the first book I read of his, but that does not make his achievement less of an achievement. Thus, while it may be sensible to subtract some hyperbole from what I say, the core point, West’s fundamental excellence, should remain untouched. And while style and literary finesse is the most obvious sign of that excellence, his treatment of the dark subject at the heart of the book is another, arguably more important one. The book’s cover in my edition, a collage by Ellen Weinstein, shows part of a photograph of the infamous Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, ‘the Butcher of Lyon’. The novel’s time-frame falls straight into the period when Barbie was incarcerated after having been extradited to France from Bolivia in 1984; Rat Man of Paris was published just before Barbie’s trial began in 1987. In the novel, it’s Barbie’s face in the Parisian newspapers that awakens Poulsifer’s madness. As it turns out, he is a survivor of a village massacre by German troops in WWII, a catastrophe that has shaped his whole adult life. He seems to have managed, however, to sublimate the fears, anger and the horrific memories; there’s no doubt that the formal exigencies of his rat act helped him to achieve this. If at all, he remembers his past empty in “dribs, drabs”. He has, one might say, struck an uneasy détente with his past, forgetting just enough to stay reasonably sane. When the pictures of Barbie turn up in the newspapers, memories rush back at him. Although Barbie was probably not present at the village massacre (the book isn’t completely clear on this), seeing this SS-Hauptsturmführer seems to force him to remember his childhood trauma, however spottily. He remembers all the central SS officers present at the massacre, except for the commanding officer, who forms a hollow, unnamed hole at the heart of his memories.
This hole Poussif fills with the images of Klaus Barbie. Entering a downward spiral of rage and obsession, he starts dressing in a Nazi uniform as part of his old act. He never abandons his formal rules, doing everything according to his own code, which, as I mentioned, even includes rules for how to adapt and change his act. Thus his act constantly evolves, getting stranger and stranger, and losing the element of shock, becoming more historically charged. At the same time, he becomes more famous by the day, plastering Paris with posters advertising his act and accusing Barbie of heinous crimes he committed and of many he did not commit, maintaining that guilt of collectively committed crimes of such magnitude falls on each individual. Thus, he enlists a variety of media to tell his story. Additionally, he is followed around by a mysterious Spanish novelist, intent on telling the Rat Man’s story. There is, in the way West portrays Poussif’s changing acts, a very clear comment on the empty, ritualistic nature of public remembrances today. Just as people gather patiently around the uniform-clad Poussif to enjoy his droll act for the few minutes that it takes, thus we also gather around our places of remembrance for the rituals of remembering. Poussif doesn’t aim for entertainment anymore. He rages against the conventional limits of street entertainment, attempting to actually shock people, incite them to action against Barbie and all the other nameless and faceless Nazis he represents. West is not actually trying to provide testimony, or to fake it. On the other hand, he does not go down the road of books like John Boyne’s unbearably sanitized Boy in the Striped Pajamas (cf. my review of that book) either. Of course, individual testimony matters. Of course accuracy matters. However, in Rat Man of Paris, we also see the need for public remembrance, public outrage, a public sense of history. Paul West takes on a difficult territory and he doesn’t cut corners. He knows the limits that separate the things he can say about history and those he can’t. Plus. there is almost no gore, no violent, shocking imagery in his book; instead, his readers are upset finding that someone has scrawled “Forget” on a sign that originally said “Remember”. Rat Man of Paris is an attempt to sort out issues of guilt and memory in a masterful way.
By displaying such care and precision in matters of history, Paul West’s harrowing little novel is an example of a postmodern novel powered by an intelligent conscience as well as style. Of course, if we look at the means employed by West, we can immediately see that he makes use of ye olde postmodern toolbox. We encounter, for example, all kinds of narrative media in the book. Television interview, newspaper articles, we find reporters, Poussif himself, and a mysterious novelist, all helping to reflect and mirror Poulsifer’s rage and indignation. The book offers to its readers a protagonist who enlists a whole city as a canvas on which to tell his story of 20th century horrors. All this is naturally part of a toolbox which has been used by all kinds of writers far inferior to West. The most egregious case is probably Paul Auster, who has reaped success for presenting a diluted, anodyne version of powerful novelists like Paul West. In West’s work, we are always aware of the weight of words and actions; in it, playacting is more than just a smart literary version of Find The Lady. Acting is a reflection of everyday acts, and is rooted in the quotidian. On every page of Rat Man of Paris, a deep affection shines through, for his characters and the possibilities inherent in them and in their language. Paul West is a humane writer, an intelligent writer and a deeply gifted stylist. Read this book.
This issue of experimentalism is hollow to me. I can’t figure out the actual content of the problem. I’ve never tried to write anything experimental, because I don’t even know what that would be. I’ve just written what most compels me at the time, what I’d most want to read myself. Does anyone self-identify as experimental? Anyone? When Notable came out, there were people who said it wasn’t experimental enough, and I’m sure I’ll get that again. But all I want to do is write something good, and not just return to familiar material or approaches.
William Empson: Missing Dates
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
Empson. ‘Nuff said. If you haven’t, so far, read this book or that one. You really can’t not read them. There’s a new-ish Empson biography out, written by John Haffenden, but I’m slightly wary of Haffenden’s work these days. Any of you read the biography?
J.V. Cunningham: Coffee
When I awoke with cold
And looked for you, my dear,
ANd the dusk inward rolled,
Not light or dark, but drear,
That no glass can oppose,
I fled not to escape
Myself, but to transpose.
I have so often fled
Wherever I could drink
Dark coffee and there read
More than a man would think
That I say I waste time
For contemplation’s sake:
In an unencumbered clime
Minute inductions wake,
Insight flows in my pen.
I know not fear nor haste.
Time is my own again.
I waste it for the waste.
This is the third time I posted a poem by J.V. Cunningham on this blog, and it bears repeating: Cunningham is one of last century’s best American poets, he’s severely underrated, and The Poems of J.V. Cunningham, edited by TImothy Steele, is highly, highly recommended.
This from a new illustrated post at The Width of a Line, an awesome blog about a young, incredibly talented artist from Berlin, who keeps posting amazing sketches and pages and pages of her drawings online.
When people are moving too fast, if you’re brave you can also ask them if they would mind sitting for you for a bit, which helps to avoid the pesky drawing-people-without-a-model problem. I saw her at the fleamarket with a friend, but she was moving to much and too far away to sketch. I took heart and approached her, told her I would like to draw her if she had time, and gave her one of my cards. And she actually called about an hour later, ready to be drawn! (…) So this isn’t only about drawing strangers anymore. Suddenly I’m actually talking to people about drawing, exposing myself as I usually don’t: if they agree to be drawn by me, that also means they get so see and judge the drawing. This is frightening and exciting at the same time.
What this has to do with world domination? Well, as a side effect, this teaches me a lot about illustration in general, aspects of picture-making that I didn’t have to take into account before. Over these two month there is already a development in style and skill visible, I think. Ultimately I hope this will prove fruitful in helping me make a living from drawing, which is pretty much my version of world domination.
The whole book is about making, how the desire to make is built into us, its necessities and pleasures and contradictions. The impulse to make is itself neither good nor bad. It is a species of the will to power, which is inseparable from survival and creation. It is inseparable from the impulse to destroy. The most ferocious enactment of the will to power always must confront metaphysical and epistemological limits: in the poem (not in Eliade): “Once you reach what is / inside it is outside.” Human beings constantly strive to reach the heart of something: when they reach it they find it is only another surface. Art strives to be that center that has reached the light, and remains the center: in Ashbery’s brilliant phrase, the “visible core.”
After a few months of comparative silence, a flood of news about the American re-launch of Torchwood. For one thing, it’s no longer called “The New World”, it’s now called “MIracle Day”:
The plot of Miracle Day is the most explosive Torchwood storyline yet. One day, nobody dies. All across the world, nobody dies. And then the next day, and the next, and the next, people keep aging – they get hurt and sick – but they never die. The result: a population boom, overnight. With all the extra people, resources are finite. It’s said that in four months’ time, the human race will cease to be viable. But this can’t be a natural event – someone’s got to be behind it. It’s a race against time as C.I.A. agent Rex Matheson investigates a global conspiracy. The answers lie within an old, secret British institute. As Rex keeps asking “What is Torchwood?”, he’s drawn into a world of adventure, and a threat to change what it means to be human, forever.
For a chapter I am currently drafting, I’ve been reading (and rereading etc.) this poem by Matthew Arnold. I’m not a huge fan of his poetry (however much I love his essays), but this is a gem.
Matthew Arnold: Dover Beach
The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;—on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand.
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
(Text copied from here)
I really, really want to see this movie.
That Gabrielle Giffords, a Congresswoman and John M. Roll, a Federal Judge were shot today, in a district especially marked as a target by Ms. Palin and by a Republican Candidate in the same district, reminded me of this vintage bit of Republican rhetoric, spoken by Catherine Crabill, the Republican Party Nominee in the 99th House District of Virginia.
I want to try everything once. Everything that isn’t evil or dangerous, at least. Even if I weren’t at all bisexual, I think I would still have to have sex with a girl once, just to have done it. And indeed I don’t like buttsex, but nonetheless I’m glad I’ve gotten fucked up the ass a couple times. To never try something, to die without even knowing what it’s like, seems horrifying to me. I once had the opportunity to eat mealworms and I turned it down, and I’m still kicking myself.
Setz, Clemens J. (2007), Söhne und Planeten, btb
This is why I read books, this is why I follow contemporary literature. Söhne und Planeten, Clemens J. Setz’ debut novel is stunning in its accomplishments, announcing the presence of a writer whom we will not hesitate to call ‘great’ one day. In 2009, Setz published his sophomore novel Die Frequenzen, a quirky, smart, engrossing read of a book, some 700 pages of writing that was both accessible and assuredly literary; it was also a long book overflowing with stuff that was maybe a tad less disciplined than one could have wished it to be, continuing an intriguing trend in contemporary German-language literature. If his second novel was indulgent and effusive, his debut novel is strict and dark. Although, as a whole, it merits being called a “novel”, it consists of four shorter novellas, each of which is taut and cunningly crafted. The novel is emotionally moving, yet almost blindingly clever in its structure and slyly original. It has not been translated, so far, despite what Conversational Reading‘s Scott Esposito sees as a good time for translation, and despite a series of mediocre German writers already translated. This is one of the best debuts published in German in the past decade, and Setz is shaping up to be the finest novelist of his generation, and one of the best novelists of these past years in German in general, with fellow Austrian genius Thomas Stangl (also untranslated into English, so far, see here my review of Stangl’s shockingly great third novel) and the German prose wizards Hartmut Lange and Marcel Beyer (Beyer at least has been, partly, translated. Don’t miss out on his work). Although Clemens J. Setz’ second novel is flashier and maybe even livelier, his first novel is a much better candidate for translation and maybe the better novel, as well.
Steeped in German and American literature, Söhne und Planeten is a largely realist chamber play, set in the reasonably well off middle class, and is based on the tensions inherent in many father-son relationships, something that connects Setz to readers everywhere, regardless of language and culture. The book’s basic references are to writers like Kafka, Ashbery, Bernhard, Delillo, Stifter, Turgenev and Handke, i.e. American writers and those well known and translated in the US. Few of its strengths are specific to its original language; Setz’ characters’ ruminations on writing and literature, their fears and neuroses, their difficulties as fathers, as sons, with each other; their failings as writers, as persons, all these would make immediate, powerful sense in any skillful translation, well, as far as anything in the book makes ‘immediate’ sense. Reading Söhne und Planeten, which literally means ‘Sons and Planets’, means reading attentively, re-reading even, yet the book is not difficult, obscure or forbidding in any way. Like the aforementioned Hartmut Lange, Setz combines cleverness and craft with an accessible, fresh and clean language. In Söhne und Planeten (though somewhat less so in his second novel), Setz writes with an amazing literary sophistication, slipping in and out of various literary voices and modes; at the same time, he never loses sight of the simple basic story he’s got to tell, of men and their fears. This simple basic story is conveyed with simple enough words, and the closer the novel moves to its emotionally bruising finish, the clearer the language becomes. This book would be just as impressive in translation; what’s more, unlike writers like Thomas Bernhard or Andreas Meier, this book could almost be viewed as bestseller material, despite its author’s obvious literary finesse. It’s an excellent book, and one that should be translated.
I already mentioned the fact that Söhne und Planeten is composed of four sections that could be seen as separate novellas. As a novel, the book is devastatingly coherent, revealing its overall concerns and ideas only slowly, yet each of the four novellas is extraordinarily well crafted, and each of the four novellas is vastly different in the way it’s made, from each of the others. There’s no repetition, no sentimental whimsy, each of the novellas’ means are perfectly chosen, each novella is perfectly placed. The first and the last novella are relatively straight narratives of young men, the first focusing on the up-and-coming young novelist René Templ, the last focusing on Victor Senegger, whose suicide prior to the events of the book cast a shadow over everything that happens within the novel. The two middle novellas are composed of several points of view, providing more complex narratives, none of which, however, lacks the tautness and discipline characteristic of the German novella (think of Zweig, Storm or Lange). Like a finely composed piece of music, Setz aligns all of his characters, their thoughts and actions in a music that rises, in the end, to a moving crescendo. The last novella, a coda of sorts, the most sentimental, the most unvarnished piece of the whole novel, turns out to be a perfectly fitting capstone to a book where everything really is in its right place. In the middle novellas, in many ways, Setz pays homage to the vast canon of modern and postmodern American literature, somewhere between early-ish Don Delillo and Philip Roth, but it’s really the first section/novella that shows us the way, although it turns out to have been the least characteristic part of the whole book.
That first novella, called “Kubische Raumaufteilung” (~ Cubic Room Layout), and presented with a prefatory quote by a “V.S.”, presumably Victor Senegger, is basically an exercise in angst-ridden soliloquy massively influenced by Franz Kafka, although the book doesn’t restrict itself to obvious influences or homages. It also contains both pastiches and long, extended quotes, sometimes from surprising sources. “Kubische Raumaufteilung”, for example, borrows from Kafka more than the surreal manifestations of its protagonist’s neurotic fears; it also borrows, inconsistently, his exquisitely simple yet literary language, sometimes offering almost a direct likeness of Kafka’s tone and his turns of phrase. All this is coupled with a narrator who is often coarse, desperately coarse, even. René Templ is a fearful individual, a young father, an aspiring writer, a husband who cheats on his wife with another woman to feel better about himself, yet whenever he feels pressured or afraid, he shrinks to the size of a child, or at least he thinks he does. Fear, another character says, later in the novel, is just another way to deal with one’s own body, just as Celine maintained (quoted by Setz) that philosophy is just another way to deal with one’s fear. Templ is obsessed with his own body and its inadequacies. He masturbates thoroughly, and his obsession with his genitalia and bodily fluids isn’t just communicated plainly to the reader, it’s also part of why he appears to be failing as a father and husband. Templ attempts to locate himself in his own body but he can only find decay, piss and blood. A writer, his mind is only as strong as the weakest part of his body, and as a result, his writing, at least the one small bit of Templ’s work we’re offered near the end of the second novella, is a gleaming but useless prosthesis, bereft of any muscle or genuine substance.
It’s only slowly that we comprehend that Victor is really the book’s central character, his absence an important part of three of the four novellas. In some ways, the first novella centers on René, the one character that, in a skewed way, has taken Victor’s place with his father, old Mr. Senegger; at the same time, René’s about to enact a relationship with his son that has an uncanny similarity to the one, we gather, Victor and his father had. The second novella, then, moves closer to Victor by focusing centrally on death and loss. The setting of that novella is a dinner party at the house of Ernst Mauser, a friend of Senegger’s and Templ’s, who’s recently lost his wife. Present are a handful of writers, including both Senegger and Templ. It’s the most complicated and elaborate of the novellas; each of its chapters offers, Rashomon-like, a different account of the events at Mauser’s house, in different genres, from a chapter written as an essay, to one entirely composed of letters. Not that really a whole lot happens, per se; instead, the novella, called “Fuge zu Ehren des Sonnensystems” (~ Fugue in Honor of the Solar System), examines the shape of loss in a writer’s life, and the impact this can have on the way he deals with his art, and with other people. It also helps us to better understand each of the other characters, especially Templ and Senegger, both of which emerge from this novella as somewhat farcical, tentatively ridiculous characters, both laughably self-centered and devoid of self-criticism. Additionally, the novella continues Setz’ interrogation of fear and masculinity. All this, while tragedy -and victor’s story- is waiting in the wings. But there is no pressure within the careful pages of Setz’ novel, no urgency in the narrative, nothing that really tells to reader what to look for, what’s to come; instead, we often seem to be led into a pointless exercise in cleverness.
Upon rereading, the dense novel yields its complexities in a way that might not be obvious to the first time reader. The relatively autonomous nature of the novellas, their self-contained arcs and structure can seduce us into reading them on their own terms, without the larger connecting context (although that does eventually become rather difficult as the novel progresses). The impression of largely pointless cleverness is exacerbated by the way that Setz uses quotes, paraphrases and pastiches of other writers, from various literary contexts. We catch a phrase from Pound’s Cantos here, a lilting note from Musil, a whole page from Defoe and much, much more. I’m certain I haven’t caught the half of it, but the fact of the matter is that the book crawls with these. And lists, of course. The best poets to read in the spring (answer, by the way: “Jaroslav Seifert, Vicente Aleixandre und Ezra Pound”), favorite novelists, etc. As it turns out, the novel uses devices like that in order to mirror the poetical principles of Victor Senegger himself, and towards the end of the novel, Victor Senegger, lover, friend, and suicidal son, bleeds into and merges with Victor the writer, and ways to write and ways to live become comparable and interchangeable, even. In all of this, if we disregard the odd Kafkaesque interlude, Setz’ book is solidly conventional realism. The characters and their neuroses are often derived from or references to stock characters developed in a century of psychoanalytically influenced fiction. In its long quotes and giddy pastiches, Söhne und Planeten is almost contemptuous of the idea of producing something original, in the Romanticist sense of the word. But contempt is too strong a word.
The fact is, Setz often doesn’t seem to care where, within the gay mirror cabinet of literary genres and traditions, his novel can or should be placed. It’s overt simplicity does allow for easy pigeonholing, yet it seems to me that any closer look, any deeper analysis (and I haven’t even mentioned in how many ways Setz takes up the novel’s titular planetary metaphor and what use he makes of it) makes any honest attempt to do so impossible. The most remarkable thing however, and the last issue I’ll mention here, is the place it has within the corpus of Austrian literature. When Handke, Bernhard, Innerhofer and the other great post-war Austrian novelists and playwrights emerged and became a viable literary phenomenon in the 1960s, quite a few studies and essays pointed out how their kind of writing was a kind of anti-Stifter literature, a new tradition opposed to the massive influence of that titan of Austrian letters, Adalbert Stifter. And indeed, one can place a great deal of literary Austrian fiction in relationship to Stifter, yet some younger writers, especially Setz, don’t seem to fit that mold any more. In passing, Setz demolishes Bernhard just as calmly as he rejects Stifter’s ideas of order. Söhne und Planeten is a marvelous novel, one that’s worth reading and re-reading. It’s not perfect, but for a debut novel, it’s absolutely dazzling. Clemens J. Setz proves himself to be a master craftsman, even though, when he published the book he was no older than 25. The novel’s scope is small, its focus turned inward rather than outward, its basic story swaddled in several layers like an onion. If Setz keeps up his craft, care and attention, and adds vision and scope, he will become one of the best Austrian writers of our time. His second novel, however, much I love it, is not exactly encouraging, and his third one is even worse. Success may not help young writers keep up craft and care. But he is young and has endless potential.
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