Linn Ullmann: Grace

Ullmann, Linn (2005), Grace, Picador
Translated by Barbara Haveland
ISBN 0-330-43431-4

Levé, Édouard (2009), Suicide, Folio
ISBN 978-2070398621

[English translation: Édouard Levé (2011), Suicide, Dalkey
Translated by Jan Steyn
ISBN 978-1-56478-628-9

This is the second part of a two part review of two short novels about dying. For the introduction and a review of the first book, Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, click here. As I pointed out, Garner’s novel is a moving and intense take on the ars moriendi, that leaves out the thoughts and emotions of the dying person, focusing instead on the friend giving her shelter. The opposite is true of Linn Ullmann’s Grace.

DSC_0585Linn Ullmann is a Norwegian novelist, critic and actress. Grace, her third novel, was published in 2002, to instant acclaim. In Norway, it won “The Readers’ Prize” and the translation was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. In a way, it seems fitting that this book won an audience award since it feels much less complicated and skilled than Helen Garner’s book did. For all the immediacy that Garner provided, she also offered a complex framework, buttressed by unusually controlled and clear writing. Ullmann’s prose, in stark contrast to this, seems much less controlled. The book spans the whole period between the day the doctors announce the impending death of Johan Sletten, Ullmann’s hapless and cancer-stricken protagonist, in “six months, maybe more, maybe less”, and his eventual death. Additionally, Johan uses that time to reflect on his past life. All of this happens in about 130 pages. Ullmann’s technique involves examining individual episodes, and there is a genuine attempt to find original, significant, new ways to talk about someone dying of cancer. Her attempt to squeeze new life from old situations is most visible in some of her metaphors:

Mai’s face was a sign. He caught himself searching Mai’s face with something like suspicion, much as a passenger on a plane will search the flight attendant’s face when the plane begins to shudder and the cabin lights go out. Is this it? Are we crashing now? Does she look worried? Will it be over soon?

On the other hand, it’s hard not to see other situations as mere wistful riffs on established tropes, such as the moment that Johan’s face grows a horribly disfiguring boil, signifying his illness and general descent into physical decrepitude. This is not necessarily negative, however. Using these tropes and situations, Ullmann aligns herself with a much older tradition, medieval and renaissance morality writing about death. Starting with the overtly religious title of the English book (I have no cultural context for the original Norwegian title, Nåde), and contining with set pieces like the boil. She is not the first writer to go down that road, and there’s no getting around that fact that other authors in the genre, even contemporary ones, have a much more nimble hand at this kind of writing. Philip Roth (click here for more of my reviews of his work) comes to mind, and even though I find his Everyman the sad nadir of his late uninspired spike in productivity, his use of tradition as a point of reference in discussing the life of a 20th century man is absolutely masterful, whether the text in question is Dickens or the titular morality play.

DSC_0600Everyman, however, is also a good example of a kind of writing that Ullmann actively distances herself from: the vaguely masturbatory, self-congratulatory summing up of male experience. Even when writers like Roth examine mediocrity, there’s always an element of pride, a swagger to it. Of course, with Roth, the source of that swagger more often than not is sexuality – and its enemy, physical decline. He has his protagonist say that “eluding death seemed to have become the central business of life and bodily decay his entire story.” An anxiety about bodies, combined with sexual narratives that are often boastful even in less than stellar moments. Reading Grace, one feels that Ullmann is very aware of these contexts (while I focused on Everyman, there is an endless multitude of books doing the same thing). Her portrayal of mediocrity is harsh and thorough: Johan Sletten’s life, as we learn quickly, has been one of failure and weakness. His first marriage was doomed, but while he wished to end it, he had not been capable of doing so, waiting until the situation resolved itself. His weakness shows in this assessment of his relief at his first wife’s death

Johan often thought that if Alice had not, after twenty years of marriage, been run over and silenced at last by a black station wagon in downtown Oslo, he would have had to run her over himself.

Clearly, Johan, is an unsympathetic character. There is really nothing likable about him, and Johan himself is highly aware of that. He had a falling out with his only child but makes no real effort to repair that relationship. And it’s not just his personal life: he was fired from his position at a newspaper after he plagiarized a review. There is no sense of this being an isolated, regrettable mistake. Instead, it is accepted as a consequence of the way Johan has been leading his life.

DSC_0599There seems to be more than a little of Iris Murdoch‘s George McCaffrey, one of the most masterfully realized literary mediocrities I can remember reading about, in the character of Johan. But the protagonist of The Philosopher’s Pupil (a book that anyone reading this should read as soon as possible) fights his mediocrity, without being interested in changing its substance. George McCaffrey is smart enough to see that he is profoundly lacking; much of his actions, however, serve the purpose of trying to keep others from noticing it. As a result, George develops a great deal of resentment and aggression, impotent as much of it turns out to be. But for Johan, there is clearly no wish or attempt to do something about it one way or the other. Johan just lives on by virtue of his body continuing to function. Until, indeed, it stops. Which, fittingly, is the moment he starts to resent his decay. He starts to get into the old man complaints we know from so many other books. This is quite clever of Ullmann, as it allows her to tie this common literary phenomenon into the context of this mostly unpleasant man’s cowardly musings, thus putting on a different coat of interpretative paint onto this/a well known surface. There is, however, something in his life that seems to somewhat redeem him: his second wife Mai. Mai is a physician, and she is considerably younger (17 years) than him, and more importantly: she loves him. Johan can’t quite comprehend this love, and we can’t quite, either. Given the small girth of the book, Ullman doesn’t really have room to make Mai’s love plausible, and so she doesn’t really attempt it. This, however, leads to an interesting wrinkle in the structure of the book. There are many ways in which the book appears to suggest (and sometimes outright say) that Mai is Johan’s redemption, a fresh breath, a new lease on life, but at the same time, she is presented as a bright, wonderful, empathetic character, and Johan, well he’s still Johan.

DSC_0586While he is appropriately overwhelmed by her love and rightfully thankful for it, it enters his life at a time when he doesn’t have the strength to really accommodate it. There is an odd sense of recriminations. Take this example: spurred by an almost-epiphany in the park, he decides he wants for them to adopt a dog, and, excited, puts this suggestion to Mai, but she declines. This, we are told, “ruined his breakfast.” He’s upset he’s not getting his way in this small aspect, and because he is incapable of contextualizing moments in his life with the larger ebb and flow of what happens (a skill he lacks but which might have helped him to reconsider the way he’s let his life fall apart in the first place). As we find out, he lives his life inside his own head, with his observations and his decisions only related to his personal brand of whiny, cowardly logic. To take up Helen Garner’s metaphor: he has no ‘spare room’ for Mai inside his head, he is too preoccupied with arranging the place for himself. The latter half of his life has consisted of letting himself go, and burdening others with the weight of his failing life. And as his cancer, the “beast”, gets worse, he imposes the ultimate burden on Mai: he asks her to assist him with dying, to euthanize him. In the intro to my review of The Spare Room, I said that Grace is a kind of ars moriendi: but in a way, it does this by showing us a bad example. Like Nicola, Johan doesn’t really want to face his death head on; as with everything else in his life, he evades dealing with things directly. Unlike Nicola, he doesn’t actually do something to fight death, he just moans and complains.

DSC_0590If that was all there was to the book, it would be quite the dour piece of writing, but it’s not. The book is called Grace, after all, and indeed we see Johan transformed by the process of dying. It’s not that he becomes a better man. He remains a petty and jealous and selfish mediocrity, but Linn Ullmann makes us see, from the outside, that the situation transforms him, as an object. So far, he’s only been part of a failing life, a burden on the woman who loves him, a bad father, and a failed journalist, but in the waning of his life, something spectacular happens. Reading the book, we realize that Johan has been put through a series of events that have structural and symbolic power, and while they don’t really have an effect on him, they make the book into a kind of place where changes happen. The moment when he eventually dies is one of the most powerful moments in the whole book. It is set up as a moment where the conventional imagery of a dying person waiting for the sun, waiting for the dawn is juxtaposed with the overpowering fact of the connection that two people can have, even two people as mismatched as Johan and Mai. When making a decision whether or not to help Johan with his death, Mai tells him: “I know you better than anybody else. […] And we have a language all our own, you and I.” It’s a nighttime moment, and Johan is waiting for the light. The novel, carefully, artfully, replaces that distant light with the luminous love that Mai has for her dying man, and his dithering with the sudden decisiveness of his loving, intelligent wife. As Johan passes away, Mai offers a prayer, not for religious reasons, but because “it seemed like the right thing to do.”

DSC_0598In many Christian theologies, there is an active element in receiving grace, but Johan squirms and resists. But maybe his acceptance of grace (or lack thereof) is not the point. After all, he is not the narrator of the book. The narrator is a personal friend of Johan’s, who tells the story in limited third person point of view, letting us see everything through Johan’s eyes, see Johan’s thoughts and memories, except for a tiny handful of moments where he pulls away and lets us in on the wider picture. The way this works reminded me a lot of Édouard Levé’s Suicide, a pretty flawless little book addressed to someone who killed themselves, narrated by a personal friend. Levé’s narrator, while drawing up a picture of the trajectory of his friend’s life, keeps framing it in the context of his death: “ta mort a écrit ta vie.” His friend’s death has changed how his life is perceived, but also how his friends relate to their own lives: “ton suicide rend plus intense la vie de ceux qui t’ont survécu.” Levé manages magnificently to zoom in and out of knowable and unknowable facts about the dead friend, imagining his thoughts on the one hand, presenting public statements on the other. The whole book is basically a skillful interrogation of what death means to those who choose it freely and to those around them, how meanings changes in different contexts, and how we construct meanings for lives that eminently resist that. When I reviewed The Spare Room, I said that there’s a difference between preparing a space for one’s own death and preparing a space for someone else’s. In a way, Suicide, which doubles as a suicide note by Levé, who chose his death a mere three days after delivering the manuscript of the book to his editor, is just that kind of space. The room carved out is one in cultural narratives of how biographies work, and a more specific space within very precise cultural and geographical contexts.

I think that Ullmann does implicitly (and with considerably less skill) what Levé does explicitly: her book is really focused around her unnamed narrator, who controls the presentation of events. Mai, Johan’s grace, is offered to us, and Johan’s dithering and small scale rejection of that grace is only underlining the significance of what is offered. Ullmann’s book is much more openly moral than Garner’s and fits the medieval mold more comfortably: in the shadow of Johan’s meager existence and pitiful death, we are told a much bigger story about how to die and how we hope for our lives to be graced by other people’s affections. Death, in Grace, is not a dark force. It is granted by the most generous person in the whole book.


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Helen Garner: The Spare Room

Garner, Helen (2008), The Spare Room, Henry Holt
ISBN 978-0-8050-8888-5

DSC_0587There are few topics that are as difficult to write about as death. At the same time, there are equally few topics that get as much exposure as this one either. It seems a go-to topic for writers intent on writing solemn/serious literature, ranging from mediocre writers and their books (cf. Paul Harding’s Tinkers), to excellent writers and their books (cf. Graham Swift’s Last Orders) and excellent writers and their mediocre books (cf. John Banville’s The Sea). I have to admit that as a reader, I tend to be a tad suspicious of such books (an offshoot of these are novels about the Shoah (see my review of HHhH)). I have, however, recently read two novels in the genre that I found very impressive. Like the best books focusing on the death of individuals, they deliver a take on the ars moriendi that is interesting and original. Interesting enough that I will devote two reviews to them, one for each. These two novels were published within just a few years of each other, in different corners of the world but they are both attempts to examine this vast, difficult topic within less than two hundred pages, and both use simple language, with short sentences and small observations in order to do it. In both books it is cancer that ends a life and throws the lives of those around the terminally ill protagonist into turmoil. I’ll be basically writing a double review in two parts, posted separately. Part one is on The Spare Room and part two is on Grace (you’ll find it here)

bright-sidedHelen Garner’s The Spare Room is told from the perspective of Helen, whose friend Nicola, weakened by cancer, comes to visit in order to undergo an ‘alternative’ treatment. The novel focuses on the weeks that Nicola stays with her friend and shows how what is effectively palliative care can take its toll on those looking after terminally ill people, and how anger, frustration and exhaustion can completely take over a household. Its language is extremely simple, but not flat, filled with quotidian observations, moving chronologically from day to day with careful, bitter languor. We don’t get a look inside the mind of the dying person: she is instead reflected by Helen’s reaction to her. Linn Ullmann’s Grace, by comparison, sweeps through the life of a man called Johan, who is terminally ill with cancer. We are mostly sharing his point of view, including his reflections of what appears to be a failed life. The book jumps back and forth, and it is told in similarly simple, but highly evocative language. Ullmann doesn’t much bother with day to day events as she chronicles both a bitter life and a bitter death. Garner’s novel has the weight and care of a novel fraught with experience and thoughtfulness, while Ullmann’s appears to be more reliant on melancholic set pieces. At the same time, Ullmann’s novel reaches further than Garner’s. I can recommend both books, with reservations.

DSC_0591Helen Garner is an Australian writer born in 1942, and The Spare Room is her first novel in 16 years. This novel feels lived-in; the protagonist, Helen, feels fully fleshed out and the book is extraordinarily well grounded as far as its setting is concerned. It’s set in Melbourne and while the writer doesn’t offer many details about the city, all the references feel on cue and natural. There’s a natural tendency to consider this book somehow autobiographical, not just because the writer and the protagonist share the same first name and live in the same city. It’s the writing itself that creates this feeling. Helen Garner does not attempt to go for a poetic, elegiac style. Instead her writing is simple, never attempting to buoy simple situations by presenting them on an elevated linguistic plate. We find things the way they are. When people “slouch in front of the TV”, then that is what we are told. But the simplicity is never flat. I have been increasingly frustrated by contemporary novelists who assume that simplicity in style does not require the same degree of deliberation and artfulness as would a more flowery kind of writing. Books like Blake Butler’s otherwise very intriguing There Is No Year seem to be very disinterested in aesthetics. Garner’s book does not dispense with musicality, and it does not completely ignore the option of elegiac phrasing where appropriate. Rather, what Garner’s appears to be doing is reaching for the word or phrase that is genuinely most appropriate to her given the situation and syntactic context, instead of reaching into the bag of phrases, as a lesser writer would. Given all this, I am not surprised that this is a writer that won’t be rushed from book to book.

DSC_0595And it’s not just the prose itself that is believable. Helen, the protagonist, and Nicola, her cancer-stricken friend, are also instantly plausible. To be fair, if they were not, the book would instantly crash and burn. Unlike Grace, which is couched in a sea of metaphors, small stories, big scenes etc., the simplicity of The Spare Room means that unless the main character is believable, the distress and struggle, the chaos and conflicts, the overall damage that death did to Helen’s life simply from passing through it for a short while, it would just seem like agitated but irrelevant noise. Garner does not let ‘big themes’ do the work. Her book works hard to convince us that these lives matter, that it matters what happens to them. And it feels like naming the protagonist ‘Helen’ is part of the author’s attempt to drive home the plausibility of the situation and the significance of the two lives that are entangled for a short time in Melbourne. The fact that all this works so well is especially impressive given that in many other way, the book is deliberately staging a scene, structured around the titular “spare room”. It would be a misreading to dismiss the book as simple, whether we read it as realistic or staged. Cindi Katz and Janice Monk have written very eloquently about the role of spaces and geography in the life course of women, and how fear-based discourse – and an isolation of homes – often limits the mobility of women in geographic spaces. The way Nicola is compelled to travel in order to defeat fear (and this also involves leaving the spare room Helen prepares for her), and the fact that her temporary home is inverted as an unsafe place, a place where she cannot possibly find healing, all this presents exciting angles for reading this book, which cannot be easily exhausted. Other complexities are introduced by various objects and people, who often feel symbolic, arranged on a stage.

DSC_0590Garner offers us, at the outset, an epigraph, a quote from fellow Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolley: “It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep.” This could mean several things: from actual sleep to preparing a place for someone’s final rest. As we see quickly, what’s meant is something in between. Death just passes through, but the spare room becomes part of the process of dying. The aforementioned art of dying is examined by showing the reader someone who struggles with it, and in truly medieval fashion, they are struggling on a carefully circumscribed stage. This is the room, which is being prepared as we enter the novel, because the book starts before Helen’s friend Nicola arrives. Nicola has stage IV bowel cancer and travels to Melbourne in order to undertake a sketchy treatment at the Theodore clinic. Even though Nicola has not yet arrived at Helen’s home, she is already there in spirit. We are witness to Helen’s preparations for Nicola and as the reader will find out, preparing a place means more than just providing some clean sheets. Now, on some level we all understand that: most of us have at some point experienced the incredible kindness of having a space prepared for us in someone else’s house – and by extension, someone else’s life. But Helen’s situation is different.

DSC_0585She is careful about adapting the room for Nicola in two different ways. One of them is meant to reflect Nicola’s deteriorating physical state. Helen worries about the floor accommodating Nicola’s frailty, and the colors and shapes in the room making Nicola feel welcome. The other concern is expressed with much more levity, as Helen moves the bed “to align the sleeper with the planet’s positive energy flow, or something?” These two preparations are not equal and are not equally expressed. Helen is a rational, careful, caring adult. She has prepared a space in her mind, as well as in her house, but unlike the spare room, the space in her mind is an assortment of rational medical knowledge about Nicola’s cancer. This is where the novel’s main conflict arises. Nicola has no intention of getting medical treatment. The clinic she is visiting will provide a variety of dubious treatments, including stays in a sauna, cupping, and above all, Vitamin C. As it turns out, these treatments are not just dubious, but they also massively weaken Nicola, who, in addition to all this, steadfastly refuses pain medication and as a result, becomes more and more frail and irritable. While Helen knows to expect some of this, the brute force of Nicola’s irritation and anger is tough to deal with. What’s more, Helen is perfectly aware that what she is doing is basically humoring a dying person. Helen knows full well that what she is doing is giving palliative care. She is “watching” Nicola, but at the same time, she is her caretaker. The room she prepared for her friend, in her house, in her head and in her life has been stocked with provisions, stocked with help. When Dr. Theodore, the unpleasant and clearly untrustworthy head of the Theodore clinic, imposes too much of a strain on her friend, Helen intervenes.

DSC_0589All of this happens in the span of a slim book and Garner’s writing is perfect for this: as I mentioned earlier, it’s simple, but at the same time it’s precise: she enumerates the elements of her world, as she prepared it for Nicola, and as it evolves during her stay. Events are also stated with care, as are Helen’s thoughts. No matter how much chaos arises, no matter how bad the emotional turmoil is, the writing never slips. This makes for devastating reading, because, robbed of poeticisms, what we are left with is the stark reality of how death enters the life of these two women. The struggle within Nicola, a struggle to believe in the possibility of being healed, is repeated in Nicola and Helen’s interactions. Nicola is learning to die. The phases of her moods seem to roughly reflect the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. Helen’s love and patience allows Nicola to find a way to move on, find a way to accept death, or at least not fight it with the help of dangerous quacks. Helen Garner’s novel refuses typical narratives of cancer, and more importantly: it doesn’t offer a moral lecture on how to be a good cancer patient. We don’t get to see Nicola’s thoughts. We infer the challenges, the irritation, the conflicts from the effect she has on Helen and the things she says to her. But the truth about the pain and the approaching death, these things Garner withholds from us. Preparing a space for one’s own death is different from preparing a space wherein someone else’s death unfolds. Medieval ars moriendi tracts didn’t just instruct people on how to die well, they also instructed the family and friends of dying people on how to treat them, and in a way, this is an explication of such an idea: how to prepare a space for someone else to spend some time dying, not only as a spare room in a house, but also as a mental space in one’s head and life, to accommodate the rage, fear and sadness of a dying person.


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Laurent Binet: HHhH

Laurent Binet (2010), HHhH, Livre de Poche
ISBN 978-2-253-15734-2

[English translation: Laurent Binet (2012). HHhH. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by Sam Taylor
ISBN 978-0374169916

Georges Didi-Huberman (2011), Écorces, Editions de Minuit
ISBN 9782707322203

DSC_0582Listen, I don’t think it’s just me. There has been a surfeit of novels about the Second World War in recent years. It’s always quite a popular topic, but the amount of high profile literature on the topic has been staggering. Three of the most well known novels are the recent new translations of Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone (originally published as Jeder stirbt für sich allein in 1947, translated by Michael Hofmann in 2009), Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (originally published as Les Bienveillantes in 2006, translated by Charlotte Mandell in 2009) and Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies (Originally published in Sweden in 2009, translated by Sarah Death in 2011). And it’s no surprise that this (admittedly short) list of very well received publications largely consists of translations. French literature especially keeps producing prize-winning work about the Shoah. Littell’s novel, which won the prestigious Prix Goncourt upon publication, was followed by Frabrice Humbert’s fascinating L’Origine de la violence, which won the Prix Renaudot in 2009, Yannick Haenel’s Jan Karski, winner of the Prix Interallié in 2009 and finally Laurent Binet’s HHhH, winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman in 2010. If that list seems long and exhausting, well, that’s because it is. There is no way one can keep up with high profile, prize-winning novels about the Shoah without going a little mad, I think. This enormous amount of literature also leads to writers exploring odd angles or experimenting with different techniques, trying to find something new to say about a topic that doesn’t appear to offer new insights.

HHhH 4Then again, writing about this topic can come with great rewards, as even horrible books like John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (see my review here) are received well and sell indecent amounts of copies. The Shoah as a topic is so deeply ingrained in our perception of modern history, and is imbued with such a sense of tragedy that even halfway competent books can powerfully pull at our heartstrings. On the other hand, there’s a certain fatigue now and we demand more and new pleasures from new entries in the genre. Les Bienveillantes attracted a lot of attention for being (or appearing, rather) both well researched and madly readable. HHhH, Laurent Binet’s debut novel, translated by Sam Taylor and published in April 2012, is both interesting as an attempt to do something new, as well as pretty dull as a novel, and dubious regarding its moral stance. It’s hard to recommend a book that bored me this much, but it is deeply fascinating on several levels, and if you are interested in the topic and endowed with more patience than me, go ahead and read it. And if you start reading, I suggest you keep reading. The book gets better and somewhat more interesting. Even its flaws, and obnoxious navel-gazing end up becoming part of the book’s structure.

Foto 0326Since the last major publication by a French writer in English translation was Jonathan Littell’s brick of a Shoah novel, it seems like the most relevant point of reference for Binet’s book, especially given the fact that both writers are almost the same age (Littell was born in 1967, Binet in 1972), and both books have been published in English to great acclaim (Binet’s novel was praised by writers like David Lodge, Martin Amis and Vargas-Llosa, and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award). Both have been written by authors who have not witnessed the atrocities of the Shoah themselves and both have a very unique, and very specific angle. This is all they share, however. The novels themselves couldn’t be more dissimilar. The Kindly Ones is a mad look into hell. Self-consciously literary, it eschews the idea of the banality of evil, introducing a flamboyant character, who is perverted, mad and highly educated, following him through the horrors of the Second World War. Reviewers have pointed out that, while an accurate portrayal of a historical figure, it’s hardly an accurate portrayal of the typical Nazi mindset, and that it’s hardly helpful to support the idea that the Nazi mentality is a wild kind of hateful madness. As Robert Merle’s classic La mort est mon métier stunningly demonstrated, the horror of a regular, orderly mind, coldly evaluating the practicality of mass murder is far more shocking, most Nazis being, as Merle termed it, “moraux à l’intérieur de l’immoralité, consciencieux sans conscience”. Littell decided to exchange that kind of horror for a more intense, bloody kind of horror. The excesses of his book owe much to the brilliant thesis of Klaus Theweleit on the role of male sexuality in the Third Reich (translated by Chris Turner and Stephen Conway as Male Fantasies, a book that everyone should read), and there is a kind of second-degree accuracy to the bath of blood and sperm that is Littell’s novel. As a variety of stuck-up German reviews pointed out, Littell isn’t very concerned with providing accurate details (the novel was heavily corrected between the original French publication and the 2010 paperback, see this review for an enumeration of incorrect terms and phrases), but reading it in conjunction with Susan Sontag’s famous essay on Fetish and Theweleit’s extraordinary book does provide a great reading experience. And this is possibly its main point: it’s a wild ride. For a book that’s 1400 pages in my edition, its pages just fly by. The fact that Littell uses an exaggerated caricature of a Nazi leader helps the book slip into a mad/delirious narrative that has more in common with the brilliant surreal frescoes of Edgar Hilsenrath than with Imre Kertesz’s or Primo Levi’s books. It also explains the amount of copies the book sold in France (it didn’t sell well in English translation though, surprisingly). And while the exaggeration, and the reliance on theory rather than experience has led to some criticism, the novel’s splatter-inspired realism owes much to the author’s time spent in various war zones around the world. The depiction of Max Aue may lack a certain sincerity, but the book itself is driven by an obviously sincere distaste with the horrors that man unleashes upon man.

9780374169916This sincerity can also be found in Laurent Binet’s novel, but unlike The Kindly Ones, HHhH is more similar to great works of Shoah literature like Jorge Semprun’s Le Grand Voyage, without attaining the same literary brilliance. HHhH is a novel about “Operation Anthropoid”, an assassination attempt on SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. Here is the wiki page which I highly recommend reading. Binet’s work is very well researched and his appetite for showing us every wrinkle of the operation is very impressive. Even if you know a lot about the period, you’re bound to learn something new. The central character of the book is Heydrich, and Binet is adamant about presenting us a plausible psychological portrait of one of the most brutal and terrible men in modern history, a man central to the early Nazi atrocities. The low point of his gruesome career was when he chaired the Wannsee Konferenz, the infamous conference where the organized murder of up to 11 million Jews was conceived and implemented. 6 months later, through the actions of two brave Czech men (and multiple other brave supporters), Heydrich died. Those two men were Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, and Binet offers us convincing portraits of them as well. While the book takes a bit to get off the ground, the author gets more and more caught up in the tumultuous events and with him, so do we, his readers. However, to get to that point, the author drags us through more than 400 pages of an amazingly self-indulgent monologue. The fact is that the book is as much a book about the process of writing this book, as it is about the historical events it purports to be focusing on. Every other chapter that deals with the historical facts is followed by a chapter (almost like a diary), discussing the dangers and pitfalls in what Binet just wrote. There are numerous chapters that involve his girlfriend commenting on the preceding chapter and Binet discussing (and defending), in great detail, the choices he made). There is no character that Binet lavishes as much attention on as he does on himself. At times, you feel as if you are at a dinner party and the person sitting next to you, on their fourth glass of wine, involves you in a narrative that is half complaint, half grandiose explanation of facts. We’ve all been to those parties, haven’t we?

THE-KINDLY-ONESAbout 15 pages into the novel, he is still debating how to begin his narrative. There’s a lot of “I could do this…but should I?” And this is, generally speaking, fine. Binet’s self-reflexive discussion of precision has a long tradition in the genre, not least the aforementioned novel by Semprun. The danger of falsifying events you’re discussing by imbuing them with imagination rather than facts is always present, especially with a topic like the Shoah, where witnesses are of such central importance. Writers like Semprun have opened a discourse about how reliable they are as witnesses and how representative their experiences are of the broader historical event. Semprun would go on to revise his memory in later books, driven by the urge to get the facts absolutely right. So Binet’s obsession with being not just plausible, but absolutely accurate is something that makes immediate sense. There is an important literary tradition for it, and we can all understand why it would be important. Semprun’s work engages an audience because he needs an interlocutor, he needs to talk to someone. In a similar vein, Binet discusses his work with us, but also with people in his life. The whole book is unstable. Chapters in the novel that discuss events in the past are followed by chapters discussing the use of metaphors in the very preceding chapter. Binet is obsessed with not describing anything that he can’t verify or source. The main question is: can I know this? And just like that, Binet replaces the discussion about “unsayable” things, with a discussion about “unknowable” things, which is an interesting shift and certainly worth discussing, but at the same time, one can’t help but think that the whole of HHhH is really not about the Shoah or Heydrich or Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, but about Mr. Laurent Binet. Semprun had a character say, insistently, when offering a reason for offering testimony: “il faut que je parle au nom des choses qui sont arrivées pas au mon nom personnel”. This is, really, what we expect a good book on the topic to do, but Binet turns this around in what left more than just a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

hhhh-by-laurent-binet-485-pThe important thing, for him, is to write a good book, and an original book, as well. There is a bit of Mean Girls attitude to Binet’s continuous discussion of other books in the genre. He keeps reassuring himself. Reading the novel by Alan Burgess, Binet is relieved to discover that “il n’a pas écrit le livre que je veux écrire”, reading a book by David Chacko, Binet declares him a “tricheur habile”, an able cheater, a title Chacko apparently earns for being a novelist. The strangest moment however is reserved for Jonathan Littel. Binet writes on Littel: “J’avoue que sa documentation est supérieure à la mienne. Mais si c’est du bluff, cela fragilise toute l’oeuvre.” So what is the “bluff” that fragilizes Littel’s book? It’s a statement about a historical character driving an Opel. Binet offers his question: can I know this? And without offering any kind of basis for his doubts or facts to the contrary, he goes on to declare this a bluff. This thing goes on for three pages, there is a whole (short) chapter devoted to the possibility of him being discouraged by the publication of Littel’s book. Boo. This serves no purpose but to flatter Binet, who, near the end of the book, has the stones to offer, as a justification for writing his book, the fact that the assailants Gabčík and Kubiš were not able to convince themselves that their actions served a higher purpose: “J’écris peut-être ce livre pour leur fair comprendre qu’ils se trompent.” There is no “au nom de choses” here, no pretense even of caring about the facts. There are plenty of these odd tone deaf moments where Binet inserts himself in the moral framework of the novel as well as the narrative. Like one, roughly 80 pages into the book where he recounts troubling events from his personal life that involve him not being invited to a wedding and his girlfriend being pissed at him, you know, IMPORTANT STUFF, and muses whether this was how Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a Soviet general, felt when he was defeated by the Polish army in 1920.

„Je me demande s’il a cru qu’il était cuit, fini, lessivé, s’il a maudit le sort, l’adversité, ceux qui l’ont trahi, ou s’il s’est maudit lui-même. En tout cas, je sais qu’il a rebondi. C’est encourageant, même si c’était pour se faire écraser quinze ans plus tard par son pire ennemi. La roue tourne, c’est ce que je me dis. Natacha ne rappelle pas. Je suis en 1920, devant les murailles tremblantes de Varsovie, et à mes pieds s’écoule, indifférente, la Vistule.“

Mind you, Tukhachevsky was a brutal murderer and ended up being murdered by Stalin, but it’s really not that different from your girlfriend giving you the stinkeye, right? Right?

DSC_0594There is an unpleasantly defensive three page excursus about how Binet can write well about Prague because he has no chip on his shoulder like exiled writers, so he’s free to imagine whatever, like, in his case, Prague, the city „vers où tout mon être aspire“. The inspiration for this chapter is an interview by Marjane Satrapi who points out that for herself and for exiled writers like Kundera, home is the place that rings most true in their writing, and the Parisian novelist Binet makes sure no-one would suspect him of being in any way indebted to the place he lives in and comes from – even though half the book is about the author’s work in his Parisian present. The project is commendable, a lot of its concerns of it are, as well, and I do understand the difference between being a survivor and someone born many decades after the war. Binet is absolutely right to be uneasy about writing about things he did not experience – something many writers like Littell or, God forbid, Bernhard Schlink, should have given a moment of thought  –  and thus preferring to cling to the facts. But he ends up too self absorbed, too tone deaf and too self-congratulatory.  I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: HHhH is less a book about WWII than a book about Laurent Binet, Clever Man About Town. As a result, the book as a whole is bloated and undisciplined, which is not helped by the fact that the author is no master of prose.

HHhH 6I want to close this review by recommending a third book that touches on the topic: it’s Écorces by Georges Didi-Huberman. Didi-Huberman’s books are books about observing the world, about making sense of smaller parts of it aesthetically and morally. He wrote an utterly amazing book about ballet, and several books that touch on the Shoah. Écorces is a series of observations centered on objects that he himself photographed on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2011. It’s a short book, but I feel that Didi-Huberman managed to succeed where Binet failed: writing persuasively and selflessly about being so far removed from the events he is attempting to write about yet attempting to still write about them. What’s more, Didi-Huberman is a fantastic writer of lean, precise, luminous prose. Yes, Écorces is about the person Didi-Huberman who walked through what’s left of that horrible place, but he clearly talks to us about – to use the earlier Semprun quote – „au nom des choses qui sont arrivées”. Didi-Huberman values the silence that allows us to remember. To quote Shoshana Felman: „the Holocaust [is] the very figure of a silence […] which our very efforts at remembering […] only reenact and keep repeating, but which a certain silent mode of testimony can translate and thus make us remember”. Of the three books that this review has discussed, only Écorces really offers the space and thoughfulness for remembrance, the opportunity to let history and our moral understanding of it fill the darkness of memory. Littel’s loudness is just as shocking as Binet’s effete ponderousness is annoying, but Didi-Huberman finds the right notes to make history sing. His project, however, is also much, much smaller in scope, and there is someting to be said for loud, powerful statements as well. The mere fact that all three books are vocal and upfront about the problems inherent in writing about atrocity is encouraging. And all three books are well worth reading, though for different reasons.


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Wenn ich liebe

(I wrote a German poem. Don’t do that a lot, so indulge me. The weekly review will be up tomorrow)

Wenn ich liebe

ziehe ich mir das Fleisch
aus dem Rücken und drücke
ein Alphabet mir ins Mark,

mit Lettern, aus alten Nägeln gegossen
und im üblen Geruch hauchzarter Nächte
gehärtet. Ich lerne eine neue Sprache

von hinten nach vorne. Ich blute in den Stuhl.
Bald kann ich nur noch die Schreibhand heben
nur Dir zu liebe richte ich mich manchmal

noch auf. Wenn ich liebe
muss der Tod eine Perücke aufsetzen
und am Telefon seine Stimme verstellen,

er kommt abends wenn du schläfst
oder wenn du aus dem Haus bist,
mein wächsernes Geheimnis.

Wenn ich liebe spreche ich mehr Sprachen
als meine blutleere Zunge gelehrt in Worte
gießen kann. Hier ist mein Fleisch. Hier ist mein Fleisch.
Das muss genug sein.


As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Osamu Tezuka: Ayako

Osamu Tezuka (2010), Ayako, Vertical
ISBN 978-1934287514
[Translated by Mari Morimoto]

DSC_0553So, it turns out just because you like a book very much, that does not necessarily make it particularly easy to talk about. Most recently, for me, this was the case with Osamu Tezuka’s fantastic comic Ayako, which was published in one massive gorgeous volume in Mari Morimoto’s translation by Vertical. Over the course of 800 dense black-and-white pages, it tells a disturbing and suspenseful story set in postwar Japan and it manages to be several kinds of books at once: a sharp narrative of how the defeat in the Second World War affected Japan on a social, political and cultural level, a dark horror tale of a village committing a terrible, prolonged crime, a revelatory take on actual political/criminal mysteries of the day and the biography of a young woman, who comes to represent both the promise of the coming modern age, and the darkness lurking within. All of this written and drawn by perhaps the foremost manga artist/writer, several of whose books have become permanent fixtures in the evolving canon of Japanese comics culture. He has written comic books for both children and adults. Ayako is written in the Seinen manga genre, mangas targeted at a 18-30 year old audience. Have I possibly overstated the magnificence of the book? That might well be true, but I still recommend this book highly to anyone even remotely interested in reading comics. I just lack a certain vocabulary and context to discuss the book properly, not being very well versed in either postwar Japanese society & culture or Japanese comics in particular, although I have read a few (and even reviewed one or two here). So overall I am not 100% sure how to explain to you that this is a fantastic book, but if you trust my opinion on comics at all, go get this one. Ayako feels significant historically, but mostly it is a tumultuous, engrossing read that spans decades, and contains so many lives, so many ideas and appeals to my love for both historical narratives and a certain, slow burning kind of sense of terror.

DSC_0557   The book, initially set in 1949, starts out as a kind of seedy postwar narrative that reminded me so much of Carol Reed’s masterpiece The Third Man that I suspect it was an influence on the book somehow. The man this part of the book focuses on is called Jiro Tenge, who returns from the war and he is shown to be enmeshed in a web of espionage that survived the end of the war and left him indebted to several unpleasant figures. If we compare his story with the movie, somehow he ends up being both Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. He is this book’s most complicated character, battling various moralities and his eventual demise is foreshadowed by the noir structure of his storyline. Tezuka makes sure we see little of what is happening, he insists on literally not giving us the whole picture, telling the beginning of Jiro’s postwar spy career in fragments: we see feet and shadows and eyes, and fleeting fragments of dialog. The major motivation for Jiro’s actions, his spying for the United States in the war, basically committing treason, is hinted at, but there is no flashback, no explanation for how he came to be a spy, we just know he is now, and he can’t turn his back on the network that survived the war and quickly became enmeshed with the mob. As in Italy, the immediate postwar period and American occupation was an immense boon to the local mafia, which thrived on the enforced secrecy and black markets. In this way, Tezuka transcends narratives like The Third Man by showing us how closely crime and politics were interlaced, and not in a simple way either. It’s not just corrupt politicians, it’s a country being forced at gunpoint to enter a different kind of modernity, a country forced to accept the dictates of another and individuals within that country torn between different loyalties. Think Wolfgang Koeppen’s Pigeons on the Grass (which, by the way, if you haven’t read yet, you should, along with everything else by Koeppen that has been translated into your language. The English translation of Pigeons on the Grass has been done by David Ward and published by Holmes & Meier), atmospherically, if that makes sense to you. Jiro re-enters society burdened by feelings of guilt and by the silence enforced upon him. This is the moral thread from which his whole moral fabric eventually unravels. And here is one of the difficulties in reading this book for me. I am a German reading it in 2013. It was written in the 1970s for a Japanese audience. For me, someone turning on the murderous Japanese emperor is “a good guy”. But for 1970s Japan, that was not as simple. His moral ambivalence, his guilt had to have been palpable to the book’s original audience, and while to me it is a tale of a good man going bad, for a Japanese audience Jiro had to have been at least ambivalent to begin with.

DSC_0555As for the other main characters, Tezuka offers no such ambivalence. They are either clearly good, or clearly evil. But in a way this is because they live in a different setting. Jiro comes home to a rural household. His dealings with the agencies and later the mob take place in Tokyo, but his family lives in the countryside. The Tengo family, moreover, is rich and owns a large farm and holds sway over the whole village. Through Jiro’s eyes, we get to know that deeply dysfunctional family and the estate. The father is a violent, sexually abusive man, who treats everybody like shit. The rest of the family is composed of the lickspittle older brother and various younger siblings, as well as the older brother’s wife, who has just given birth to a girl called Ayako. As it turns out, Ayako has really been fathered by the head of the family, and the older brother just acquiesced, hoping to curry favors and power from his father. Jiro is the only one not bowing to every insane whim of his father’s, the rest of the family is suffering in silence. What happens next is too complicated and disturbing to recount in detail, but eventually, Ayako is thrown in a windowless room in the cellar, with only a trapdoor bringing in light and food. In that windowless room she grows up into a beautiful young woman. And there is a sense of safety for her in there, even though the sexual abuse rampant on the Tengo estate does not spare her in her hidden place either. Officially she is declared dead. A few hundred pages later, the death of the head of the household precipitates another series of events that lead to an unexpectedly dark ending. Having read a few other books by Tezuka, including the splendidly imaginative Dororo, the relentlessness of Ayako is stunning. The author offers us no compromise, there are no copouts and there is really very little respite in this story of one huge downward spiral.

DSC_0554Ayako, the girl/woman, is the only light in the darkness, but her character is strange, odd (there is a footnote in the beginning of the book,, pointing out that her name in Japanese is written with the character for “odd”), she almost seems fantastic. In a story of unrelenting realism, where consequences have to be faced and suffering can at best be delayed, she adds an almost supernatural element. I am not spoiling the ending for you (and you can see I tried my best not to tell too much of the story), but throughout the book and especially in the last panel that we see her in, she reminded me so much of Junji Ito’s work. Now, Ito is a younger writer/artist, so he was not an influence on this book, but I guess I am using the comparison to try and explain how the girl, Ayako, feels to me as a reader. Junji Ito is a writer of horror manga and the only writer in the genre of comic book horror who has genuinely terrified me with his work. I recommend, nay, urge you, to read his work. Here is a blog post that might get you started. Ito writes horror that is metaphysical as well as intensely physical. Bodies decay, are warped, torn apart and transformed in his work, but the same happens to people’s souls. And while Ayako’s body remains unblemished, one can’t help but feel the horror of a whole lifetime of abuse coiling up inside this innocent mind. The last panel we see her in, she looks at us and we are terrified, even though she is the most unequivocally ‘good’ character of the whole book. She seems to have contained the horror of that whole Tengo family, all their guilt and violence and suffering and sadness and abuse, without even losing a bit of her innocence. There is a purity to her that nothing can diminish and this is deeply fantastic, deeply unrealistic, as the book itself keeps reminding us by showing us all the bruises on all the other characters. She is a wonder, and terror, at the same time.

DSC_0558It is hard not to see the family, and its eventual breakdown, as somewhat analogous to the state of Japanese society, which went from a monarchy to a democracy. I said earlier that it is never explained what happened to Jiro in the war, but some things that happen to some characters in the book can be read as explaining the spirit – if not the substance of what happened. And there is another element that ties the personal stories to the actual events in Japan that are verifiably true. The story of Jiro is a relatively straightforward crime narrative that gets tangled up in the mess that is the Tengo family. At its heart is a murder mystery. Now, that is a mystery to the characters in the novel, and further murders and deceptions follow from it on the level of the fictional Tengo family. But at the same time, the murder of a political figure called Shimokawa is, according to a very helpful footnote, modeled on the murder of a real life politician called Shimoyama, whose death is one of the enduring historical mysteries in Japan and is described as the “Shimoyama incident”. 1970s Japan was an audience that was sure to recognize the massive similarities, and Tezuka offers us a revelation of the way the murder took place and the reasons for it that is less Dan Brown and more James Ellroy in Black Dahlia. What it also does is tie the Tengo family to an urgent strain of Japanese postwar history. The historical murder is mirrored and repeated by intra-family murders, strengthening the idea that the Tengo family is analogous to Japanese society. And Ayoko, the milky skinned young woman might well be read as the soul of the Japanese nation, in the way that Romanticism has invented ‘national’ essences, a notion that many modern nationalisms have built upon.

However, we are left with a bit of a stale taste: the girl who has been used by her family all her life, is being exploited by the author as well. There is an uncomfortable amount of female nudity in the book, and while I would like to think that part of the discomfort is intentional, and that it does intentionally reference exploitation, the fact remains that the book visits terrible abuse on its female characters to make a narrative and a political point, and one can’t help but be reminded of the “women in refrigerators” trope that was so well described by Gail Simone and others in her wake: the tendency of comics to kill or abuse women to make a plot point, or to motivate the male superhero into action. The case here is not as simple as that, thanks to the incredibly layered nature of the book, but a distinctive unease remains, especially since the Seinen manga genre is primarily targeted at a male audience.

DSC_0556A note on the translation: the book reads very fluently and the occasional footnotes are very helpful, but there is one big weird flaw: the rural populace speaks a ‘hick’ dialect and Mari Morimoto attempts to approximate it in English, yet the result is frequently awkward. And as I close this review, I have barely mentioned Tezuka’s art. The reason for that is that by now, any panel drawn by him is instantly recognizable: his mixture of realism and Disney-fied cuteness has been a defining influence on manga artists. I find it hard to describe without also describing so much of what was to follow him. Suffice to say that this is a complex and masterful tale, and the art doesn’t just accompany it – it makes much of it possible. So much of the strangeness is conveyed in images rather than in words: it is a story of secrets, silences and looks. And Tezuka’s art is always in complete control of the story. Ayako is a masterful book by one of the greatest comic book writers/artists of his or any time. I can only repeat what I said earlier: if you are at all tempted by comic books, give this one a whirl.


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