Clemens J. Setz: Soehne und Planeten

Setz, Clemens J. (2007), Söhne und Planeten, btb
ISBN 978-3-442-73902-8

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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One thought on “Clemens J. Setz: Soehne und Planeten

  1. Pingback: Werner Bräunig: Rummelplatz « shigekuni.

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