Nathan Englander: Dinner at the Center of the Earth

Englander, Nathan (2017), Dinner at the Center of the Earth, Knopf
ISBN 9781524732738

In a tunnel, dug by a Palestinian “tunnel millionnaire,” a Palestinian politician and an Israeli ex-spy meet up and have a dinner as the 2014 Gaza War flares up above their heads. Theirs is the Dinner at the Center of the Earth of Nathan Englander’s 2017 novel. It’s a curious, Salman Rushdie-esque moment, not just the dinner, but also the discussion that led to it. This is not the only humorous moment of historical drama in the novel that to me had echoes to Rushdie’s work – and indeed those are some of the novel’s best moments. That said – the book has a lot of good moments. It’s simply a very good book. I may be biased – despite my problems with short stories, I have always enjoyed Englander’s books. I can’t even entirely explain why. I think he hits some of my soft spots very exactly, and I have to say it always comes as a bit of a relief to see that the reading world at large often shares my positive opinion of Englander – because I sometimes truly have difficulties rationalizing my enthusiasm for his prose and plots, as well as his characters and charisma. It’s a bit easier, I think, to explain why I consider Dinner at the Center of the Earth such a good novel. It’s true – it’s a bit uneven at times, but this unevenness is baked into the whole. It’s supposed to be a bit off, to take some reading and rereading to fully gel. When I read the novel for the first time, I wasn’t convinced that this wasn’t a combination of great and awful short stories awkwardly glued together. But what it really is is a masterful writer’s ability to hold several balls in the air at the same time, and make the whole circus act cohere. It does not cohere into a message, or one triumphant final tableau. In fact, the book’s two final scenes, one about a war that starts above ground while two lovers dine underground, and one about a suicide, are two versions of a darkness that few writers can articulate as well as Englander. There is grace and humor to the suicide scene, which is one of the strangest scenes of its kind that I can remember reading recently. And the eponymous dinner – framed in every way like a metaphor for political reconciliation, for hope in a hopeless conflict – ends with two lovers huddled in the darkness, scared, or resigned or both. Many of Englander’s decisions in the novel are a bit unexpected and this is part of what makes the novel such an interesting achievement.

The novel is written in alternating chapters following a spy story, the story of a black site prisoner, the story of a millionnaire and a Palestinian upstart meeting on a lake in Berlin, as well as – and that is surely the most unexpected of all the decisions – a story about Ariel Sharon’s death, which is told from two angles. From the angle of those watching him die, and from within Sharon’s own mind, who had been in a coma for 8 years before he passed. Englander never names Sharon, but he also doesn’t disguise him. His character, “the General,” has Ariel Sharon’s biography, but by eliding his name from the story, Englander allows himself to invent, embellish and adorn the death of Sharon. It turns his death and life into a tale – one with a broader purview than just the complicated life of a complicated man. Englander zooms in and out of realism in the story, and in and out of genres. He doesn’t name Sharon, but when he describes Ehud Olmert’s peace offering, he names Olmert specifically, and describes him clearly and sharply as “the least prime-ministerial person […] with his shadow of a comb-over, and his wiry, runner’s frame, and the exhausted, in-over-hishead, watery eyes.” One assumes this decision is connected to ideas about the narrative of nationhood, about the way acts of violence become part of national myths, and the fabric of the stories we tell each other about our realities. The General is a larger than life person, and he has shaped the fate of his country like few others, from the wars he fought at the beginning of his career to the big steps he took at the end. What’s more, his actions, before he slipped into a coma, felled by a stroke, determine the options that all the other characters of the novel have. If the novel is uneven and complicated, so was Sharon’s life, and the novel demonstrates what some statesmen offer their country, good and bad, and how far and wide these decisions cut. In some sense, the final pages tell us: this is who we are now, and this man, he is part of the reason why. We read Sharon’s thoughts and memories, but it is not living, breathing Sharon that speaks – Englander has animated Sharon on his comatose deathbed for us. The General finds himself in “a kind of sheol, a limbo space” which, before him, was shared by “other Israeli kings.” To leave it, he has to fully launch himself into myth, away from reality, into a place that is both national narrative and personal delusion.

And he is not the only one in this novel. All characters launch themselves in one direction or another. From small movements, like pushing off to sail on a lake, or the thrusting pushes of lovers, to larger thrusts, like the decision to follow one’s conscience, to flee, to kill oneself, to change one’s life in one way or another. As the book’s chapters alternate, so do times and places. Some of the book is set in 2014, some of it in 2002, some in 2003, etc., and that doesn’t even include reminiscences and memories. People and trajectories end up circling around Israel, this resilient little nation in the Middle East. Although Englander includes two central Palestinian characters, he isn’t really interested in them – he is more interested in the complexities of the Israeli experience, the Israeli conscience. There are no “civilians” in the book, really, with one major exception. Mostly, they are spies and politicians – and the General, of course. There is a curious balance that Englander strikes between the General on the one hand – he who doesn’t doubt his duty to his country, and who is willing to do things we might not all be willing to do, in order to, as he sees it, bring peace and security to Israel. On the other side are two spies who doubt their duty, who doubt the necessity of murder in order to achieve balance and peace. It is not, obviously, conducive to their safety, to harbor thoughts and opinions like that. And as there is no easy solution to the geopolitical problems swirling around Israel, there’s similarly no easy solution to Nathan Englander’s excellent novel. This includes the novel’s style of writing. Englander can command with some ease a specific style, a rich, embroidered language that he uses here to tell stories of weight and pathos. He is also incredibly deft with humor, particularly Jewish humor. And a scene written in one style, can often switch to a scene written in the other. And this doesn’t include the stories of espionage in Berlin, Paris and Capri, for which Englander often chooses a looser, slightly flattened language. All of this is incredibly readable. It’s hard to beat Englander for sheer enjoyment. If he wanted, he could write a simple tale of myth and Jewish kitsch, and have the result be utterly adorable and successful. It’s a sign of the author’s talent and – dare I say it, four books into his career?, importance that he built this book into something much larger, and much less obviously pleasing. It’s a book that reckons with a personal and political darkness.

In the novel, the General, Sharon, that is, remembers Ben Gurion telling him, after Sharon committed one of the most infamous massacres attributed to him, that “the world hates us [Jews], and always has. They kill us, and always will. But you, you raise the price,” and exhorts him to not “stop until killing a Jew becomes too expensive. […] You, put here solely to raise the bounty hung on the Jewish head. Make it expensive. Make it a rare and fine delicacy for those with a taste for Jewish blood.” At the end of the book, we hear Hamas’s rockets rain down on Jews, and Israeli retaliation. Looking at the results, we can all calculate the current “price” for ourselves, but clearly, Ben Gurion’s ideas, or Sharon’s memories of them, have not helped. Sharon himself had a change of mind later in his life, a change that is recorded in the novel as well. So what now? The novel has no answer – and sometimes borders on defeatist. But maybe it’s its form, and its language and the urgency of its propositions that are the real solution on offer: it’s us, all of us, and our voice, our art and our thinking that can change things. And kindness and generosity. All of this is contained in Englander’s novel, which gets better with every reread. In his acknowledgements, he mentions cutting this novel from the body of a larger work. I cannot wait to read it.

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Jerry Pinto: Em and the Big Hoom

Pinto, Jerry (2012), Em and the Big Hoom, Viking
ISBN 9787-0-670-92358-8

Ah, man. I’ll just say it. I thought this novel was awfully mediocre, on a multitude of levels – but it comes with a big bag of praise. The book is covered in huge blurbs, by the likes of Rushdie, Ghosh and Kiran Desai (well ok). This is a supposedly “profoundly moving” book – so when I tell you it’s mostly annoying, trite and sometimes offensive, I may be in the minority of readers. There are indeed moments where the book comes close to being moving; they are all towards the end. The book is about a mother and her son (there’s a daughter too, but Jerry Pinto, in what is symptomatic for the whole book, includes her as a kind of afterthought, most of the time, as a plus one for the frankly unbearable narrator and protagonist. When the mother dies (it’s not really a big spoiler), Pinto’s narrator slips into a slightly different tone, offering a simulacrum of moving, elegiac narration. This fits, in turn the blurb by Kiran Desai, who made a career (and got a booker winning book) out of offering a pale simulacrum of specific tones and moods popular in English-language Indian fiction (I have some remarks on that genre here). Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood to read this, but at this point I feel as if I am merely picking reasons not to stick to my initial impression. Because, man. This book is lifeless, cold, with a tinge of misogyny and general awfulness. The prose isn’t that hot either. The dialogue is often interesting, with some intriguing touches involving the titular “Em” sometimes borrowing American turns of phrases, but the non-dialog prose moves from banal triteness to trying to engage that register of cleverness, that tradition that runs from G.V. Desani to Rushdie – a specific kind of linguistic playfulness. Yet, as we see in the latter half of Rushdie’s work, that kind of writing requires a special skill and literary alertness – neither of which Pinto appears to possess. With so many books in the world, I cannot come up with a single reason why anyone should pick up Em and the Big Hoom, and honestly, I am not entirely happy I did so myself.

To start at the beginning: Em and the Big Hoom is a novel about an Indian family – a mother, “Em,” a father, nicknamed “the Big Hoom,” and the two children, the male narrator and “Susan.” Em is mentally ill, or so the novel insists. She has some form of manic depression, and has had it for years and years. She has lived through a number of suicide attempts, but she also hears voices apparently, and God knows what else Jerry Pinto dug up in his grab bag of mental illness issues. The novel’s bulk is set in a hospital as the narrator questions his mother about her choices in life, why on earth she was such a bad, bad mother, but he also elicits stories from her about her past. This narrative set up is the reason why the novel, like Em’s mind, feels a bit unmoored, there’s no real present to hold on to, as Pinto doesn’t really offer broad descriptions of the ward and their interactions in it either. His focus is almost completely on the two elements: the reproachful dialogue and the many, many flashbacks. I think there’s a skill required for this kind of set-up to be convincing, and not come off dull, and Pinto doesn’t have it. Although, I will say, this is a debut novel, and many debut novels suffer from this ungrounded, overexcited kind of structure. That said, Pinto steers his novel onto well-trod paths, the excitement cannot come from covering new terrain. For example, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, though I do not hold her into the same esteem as many friends who think she should be winning the highest literary honors, is a small, fine book about the aftermath of maternal suicide. Robinson makes good use of the reality of nature, of objects, houses, things, in short, as a way to root and situate her characters. Loss and disorientation are given meaning by giving the reader a sense of direction within the novel itself. Pinto isn’t particularly interested in that, and so the book becomes a diatribe against the fictional mother. I think the only mother I remember being this sharply condemned is Evelyn Waugh’s Brenda Last whose “Thank God” upon learning of her son’s death has long since engraved itself in our memories.

In contrast to Waugh, Pinto isn’t interested in painting Em as a deceitful person. Em is merely selfish. Pinto described mental illness, but, underneath, what he’s really talking about, is selfishness. Em is painted as someone who indulges her whims, with her husband and children suffering. There’s an episode where the family finds out that Em has spent all the money in a savings account that was supposed to support the family in the case of the father’s death, and she explains how it is connected to trust, and to anxiety, but neither the narrator, nor the rest of the family can muster any sympathy or empathy for Em. This is nor per se a comment on Pinto’s skills. Indeed, part of what made the narrator so galling in this and other scenes is the clear depiction of the mother’s objections. He does not offer a caricatured crazy woman. This is no drunk Janice Angstrom drowning her daughter in a tub, as Updike, he of the misogynist streak, constructed her for his own protagonist, “Rabbit” Angstrom. At the same time, Em never gets her due, and if the reader isn’t entirely sure what the book’s own stance towards its narrator is, the kind, sometimes even moving, final portions of the book dealing with grief and the aftermath, quickly disabuse us of any notion that we are offered the son’s blindness critically. Neither son nor husband are interested in that woman that lives among them. There’s precious little talk of anything that resembles therapy – instead we hear a lot about various kinds of medication, culminating in a scarring electro-convulsive therapy treatment. This, incidentally, is how we have always talked about depression and similar mental illnesses, and the current movement to “finally” treat mental illnesses like “normal illnesses” and the open way to discuss medication, while usually painted as progressive, is, in actuality, like some other current social “progressive” movements, anything but. Instead what we are given is a family who doesn’t really care why their mother and wife does what she does, they pathologize her, criticize her, talk down to her, culminating in the son yelling at his wife “Shut up you disgusting bitch!”

That is worth looking at for a second. He apologizes, but it is a difficult apology because his mother won’t show him that she is hurt by it, implying that it is the hurt, not the substance of the insult that needs apologizing for. But what’s more, this outburst comes after the mother jokes about his work, or rather, about the money he makes and that he still lives at home. This declaration so mortally wounds his masculinity that he “could not remember ever being so violated and hurt.” That is quite something for an adult to say, who immediately insults his mother worse than she’d ever dream of insulting him – what’s more, her treatment at the hands of neighbors (who suspect her of stealing a child when she walks around daydreaming, holding her son), the police (who arrest her), the mental health professionals (take your pick), and her family. If condescending to someone is such a vicious insult, they all need to rethink their lives.  But this scene helps in other ways too. It highlights the strange masculine assumptions, the narcissistic ride that this narrator is on. Telling him he doesn’t make enough money to move out is a mortal insult, but in a later section, he very simply assumes the only reason his sister will move out is that she marries. And that’s not even the strangest instance of blindness in this scene.

Shortly after he insults his mother, she makes a sharp joke involving the insult: “can the disgusting bitch make you some tea?” She then writes a note of apology for what she said, and signs it, “the disgusting bitch.” From her son? Nothing but silence. The night after this, Em has a breakdown, has to be moved to the hospital, where she is again visited by her Gold Star son, and greets him with “I went mad, so you don’t have to be. You don’t have to do anything now that I am the disgusting bitch.” You’d think, huh, this is all pretty clear, but this is how the narrator reads the situation now: “I looked at her carefully. She was not letting me see what she was thinking. So I knew, immediately, that she had registered the thoughtless insult and that it had mattered. She was not going to give me proof so there was no way I could actually apologize. But I tried. ‘I’m sorry I said that.’” I mean this is special. Apart from the bad prose, it’s woth noting that THIS is when he knows, “immediately,” that his mother “registered” the insult. Not when she used it twice the previous day. Not when she wrote an embarrassing note of apology that she should not have written. Not when she had a mental breakdown immediately afterwards. No, now, the third time she mentions it, her son has an epiphany, but still, he can’t “actually” apologize because his mother won’t give him “proof” it hurt her. None of the things I listed count as proof. God knows what would be “proof” in his eyes. Tearful recriminations? This scene is an exception in some ways, but it does show, especially since there are continuities to the motherless time of grief towards the end, viz. Susan, for example, how the narrator – and in some sense the novel as a whole – conceive of women and mothers. I mean, if this novel was based on one or more real women (and some details in it tell me she is, or Pinto did some research), I can pinpoint pretty exactly how Em got to where she ended up. Em is a clever, independent, unusual woman with an unquiet mind, surrounded by people who like “quirky” women as background noise, not as a disruptive force. Em eventually commits suicide, and while you shouldn’t point a finger when it comes to suicide and mental illness, in this case you could at least raise an inquisitive eyebrow while looking at that son.

The worst failing here is the lack of introspection, the lack of real vulnerability. As I close this review, I’d like to point to another example. It’s from Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s autobiographical writings. I won’t pretend I found this myself – confounded by the praise (particularly Ghosh’s. I admire his fiction so much!) on the book cover, I looked for and found an appraisal of the (then unpublished) manuscript on Amitav Ghosh’s blog, where a user pointed to these stories in the comments to the blog post, which, as luck would have it, are contained in my volume of Akutagawa’s short fiction. Akutagawa’s appraisal of his own mad mother is also harsh and sharp. In “Death Register” he writes: “My mother was a madwoman. I never did feel close to her as a son should towards his mother.” When his mother, after wasting away for a while, opens her eyes on her deathbed to announce the end, “we couldn’t help giggling” despite feeling sad. The details chosen in the few remarks are exquisite. In another short prose piece he goes on and on about never being breastfed by his mother. Pinto’s narrator expresses anxiousness about whether his mother’s “madness” (I’m not super sure about that diagnosis) can be inherited. Akutagawa, on the other hand, is aware that he has. He jokes in other prose pieces about being unconcerned about the dangers of insomnia, after all, it’s “nothing new for the son of a madwoman.” As readers, we could take him being as cutting about his mother as Pinto’s narrator is because we are shown his own vulnerability, and unlike in Pinto’s novel, this is real, poetically expressed, artistically heightened, vulnerability.

I mean, I understand, there’s a chance all of these critiques are part of the text, and not brought to the text by me. Since there’s no outside voice, there’s a chance that Pinto created a misogynist protagonist who drives his mother into mental breakdowns on purpose. But there’s no textual evidence for that. What’s more likely is that Pinto shares this view of mental illness as this foreign country, with those afflicted by it outside of normal empathy and he shares this view of women, particularly since the Big Hoom isn’t much better, and as an author, he’s given Susan a marginal existence in the book. I mean, on the penultimate page of the book, he has Susan being fond of her tupperware, and telling the two men after the wake: “I’m going to clean up. You two go.” Because of course. Pinto has skills, many of them in the dialogue, but most of all, he’s given me a wish to know more about Em. For a novel with her in the title, we learn precious little about her. In my head I thought her voice could be a variant of the protagonist of Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life. I mean we don’t know. And that’s the problem. Well, there’s also the prose. There’s always the prose.

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 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.)

 

 

Sasha Marianna Salzmann: Ausser Sich

Salzmann, Sasha Marianna (2017), Ausser Sich, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-42762-0

This was not, strictly speaking, the next review I wanted to write, but after I finished it this morning I was so impressed, so genuinely stunned by this book that I decided to review it right away. This is one of the best books I read all year, and almost certainly one of the best three books I read that were published in 2017. Sasha Marianna Salzmann wrote a torrential novel about abuse, history, identity, sexuality, family, I mean God knows what. So it has a few edges that could be sanded off, and maybe it’s a 600 page novel trapped in the body of a 400 page novel, with the author maybe rushing things too much at times, but those are minor complaints faced with such accomplishment on so many other levels. In Ausser Sich, Salzmann tells a story of fluid identities, of twins who lose each other, of gender and sex, of what it means to be Russian, Jewish, German, Turkish. She sketches, with extraordinary skill, the Soviet past of several couples, offering a view of identity that is both broad and delivered with narrative aplomb, and at the same time focused on specific faultlines, lines that connect and disconnect the families. It’s a fantastic book about language, and how language shapes our sense of self, of culture, of history. And all of this written in a style that is just the right amount of uncontrolled, provides just the right measure of disjuncture and madness. This is a book you want, you need to read. And translate.

This is Salzmann’s first novel, but she’s no novice at writing. Her background is in theatre, and it shows in the roiling volcano of language here. The majority of the book would work extremely well as a theatrical monologue. Salzmann wrote most of the book from the perspective of Alissa, twin sister of Anton, children of Jewish Russian immigrants, and that voice basically explodes on the page. The author isn’t as good when switching points of view, other characters don’t sound appreciably different or different enough, but then, the book doesn’t aim for realism, as much as it dances circles around the idea of simple representational realism. In fact, Salzmann masterfully zooms in and out of ideas of realism, and metafiction and magical realism. This becomes clear towards the end. Early in the book, a character reads a novel by Aglaja Veteranyi, and I have noted the importance of that excellent writer for German-language immigrant literature before. Later, we meet a character called Aglaja in Istanbul who gets injured during the Gezi riots. That Aglaja shares many biographical traits with the real Aglaja, but we are never invited to speculate about some overlap – Aglaja Veteranyi killed herself in 2002, while the Gezi Park protests took place in 2013. And yet – the novel connects this Aglaja to all its major characters, and goes out of its way to describe her biography. This comes after a lengthy exploration of gender fluidity, and is in a sense the final nail in the coffin of reading the novel as plain, if energetically told, realism.

At the same time, there’s no doubt that some parts of the novel rely on, and, really, specifically demand of us to read them as realism. Those parts mostly concern the historical portions of the book. Salzmann is very clear about the limits that patriarchy, sexism and antisemitism played in limiting the possibilities of her characters in Soviet Russia. Her history is not disinterested recounting of chronology – almost as a kind of contrast to what she describes in the book’s present, her history is one where paths have to be followed, where roles do not allow for any divergence. And the limits placed on people are twofold – limits we place on ourselves, as men, as women, as gentiles, as Jews. And limits others place on us, in the same roles. There are small shifts that are allowed, brief respite from pressures. There is a kind of lecturing here, or an implied one, and this would not work unless we can rely on the book’s accuracy, broadly speaking, in matters of historical realism. And yet at the same time, Salzmann doesn’t shy away from toying with fictionality. She connects her characters to the broader movements of history, offering snippets of discourse on history as narrative, rather than as iron-clad fact, including the Grand Narrative of Stalinism. What’s more – Salzmann ties in her constant discourse on the role of language on the construction of identity in these sections, suggesting, for example, that the lack of gendered professional nouns helped usher in generations of hardened, tough women in postwar soviet Russia.

All the historical diversions and the comments on language, they are all incidental to the main storyline, they broaden and buttress its concerns but they are not pe se part of it. Sometimes, Ausser Sich reads like a pond of invention. And that fits the main storyline. Alissa and Anton are twins, Jewish-Russian immigrants in Germany. The book isn’t enormously interested in the Russian immigrant experience in Germany, we just get a few broad sketches here and there, mostly about the difference between being seen as Russian or Jewish, and about the barriers thrown up by language. What we do get is the immense sense of isolation the twins feel, and the violence they undergo at the hands of their fellow high school students. This isolation and violence then pushes them to embrace each other in a way that eventually turns sexual and towards incest. Salzmann’s language is at its very best in describing violence and sexuality, enormously so. Another book I read this weekend that I considered reviewing (and still might) is Leslie Jamison’s The Gin Closet, a very mixed kind of book. In it there’s also incest, and it’s noted almost in passing: in a flat tone, using the heavy weight of the term “incest” itself to ground the situation. Salzmann never uses the word, but she describes an unusually tense connection between two people.

And of course, all that leads into the present of the book and Alissa’s search for her twin, a desperate, grasping search that lands her in Istanbul. Indeed, most of the book’s plot is set in Istanbul, which is maybe not what you’d expect from a Russian immigrant writing a novel about Russian immigrants to Germany. Istanbul, pre-Gezi park crackdown, is portrayed as a place of possibilities, of fluidity. This is the present – and it contrasts with the past’s rigidity. Salzmann is very clear that gender is not something inherent, it’s something external, a role that you can take or leave, although in most oppressing situations, you are not, indeed, free to take or leave it. But the Istanbul, as portrayed, does have this possibility, of changing pronouns, of transforming gender. There’s a Turkish man who comes out as being in this process of transformation, and Alissa herself, deprived of her brother, starts taking testosterone shots and take on masculinity. Salzmann shows us the process as a process, as a transformational moment, chosen as an encounter with pressures, with the outside, a negotiation of identity. At the same time, it is no light switch back and forth. It is a transformation of the body into something new, something different. At some point, Alissa discusses her fluid identity as a weakness, her inability to take up a perspective that is truly, unmistakably hers. Identity, she tells us, involves reading – and reconstituting-  signs and narratives. Negotiating reality, narrative and imagination.

And that is what literature does, good literature that is, isn’t it. This brings us back to the way the book uses Aglaja Veteranyi’s name and biography. Veteranyi’s complicated life and heritage are offered as representative of a certain kind of cosmopolitan fluidity, of the way all our heritages are mixed, or not all our heritages, but the heritage of those of us who are immigrants, complicated people, fluid, searching, maybe lost. My own heritage is mixed Russian, Kazakh, German, Hungarian, and Ukrainian. I’ve been writing about my own family for a few months now, and it’s sometimes difficult, and complicated. Who are you, when you’re in between languages and nations? Maybe my own fluid identity is why I find Salzman’s book so compelling. But even outside of personal bias and preference, Salzmann’s novel packs a punch. This is a book about identity and nationality that evades easy answers, or rather that offers multiple answers, complicated by the reality of our bodies and limit. It was up for a German Book Award and it’s honestly inconceivable why it didn’t win. There are minor flaws here, certainly, but this is one of the best books I read all year, and the only way for this author is up. What’s more, it should be a shoo-in for translation. Salzmann’s language is literary and skilled, but almost without any specific Germany idiosyncrasies that would make it harder to translate. Jirgl, among German contemporary novelists, would come to mind as the opposite of that.

As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 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.)

 

#GermanLitMonth

This year I participated in Lizzy Siddal‘s #GermanLitMonth

Somehow I mostly ended up reviewing untranslated books. Here they are:

There’s everything in there: positive reviews, negative reviews, science fiction, poetry and autobiographically inspired novels.

Nora Gomringer: Moden

Gomringer, Nora (2017), Moden, Voland & Quist
ISBN 978-3-86391-169-0

The most prestigious German-language literary award is the Büchner Preis. It is not given for a single work, it’s given for a whole oeuvre. Sometimes it’s given to younger writers, sometimes older writers, very often it’s well judged. I don’t get miffed about its choices often. Sometimes it even surprises me, as when the award was given to Felicitas Hoppe, a fiendishly clever novelist with a small but excellent body of work. Sometimes it goes to writers who should have won it a decade ago. Jürgen Becker and Marcel Beyer are examples of overdue writers finally getting their due in these past years. The award, unlike the Nobel Prize in Literature, actually awards poets quite often. Becker is an example of an important poet winning the award. If you want to read his work, you’re fortunate that the late Okla Elliott has translated a selection of his shorter poems, published by Black Lawrence Press. But, and obviously, that’s just me, it’s the awards for small forms, poets, writers of novellas that sometimes misfire. Wolfdietrich Schnurre, Büchner laureate in the 80s, was an important writer of postwar literature, particularly well known for his short stories, but exceedingly minor today. I am also not convinced of the plaudits frequently awarded to Durs Grünberg, whose debut collection of poetry I adore, but that’s about the only collection of his that is genuinely great.

And last year, the award was given, I don’t know why, to Jan Wagner. Jan Wagner is commonly credited with resurrecting popular poetry in Germany. His 2014 collection Regentonnenvariationen (~Rain Barrel Variations) rose to the top of the bestseller list, he won all kinds of awards, it was quite intense for a while. But his work is exceedingly banal. It’s what you’d expect from a well educated, smooth young man. The poetry is well crafted, tonally frequently epigonal, to the point where individual lines shift in debt from Grass, to Eich, to Fried. More than once I thought I recognized the actual wording and pulled Grass, Eich or Fried from my shelves, but of course that was never it. It’s just the echoes you can expect in the work of a gifted reader and craftsman. I don’t know who to compare it to. Maybe: what if Mary Oliver was less interesting.

Ok, ok. This is not about Wagner. But if you wanted to give a brilliant younger poet an award last year (to be quite honest, I don’t see how a writer like, say, Robert Schindel or Natascha Wodin wouldn’t be at the top of any Büchnerpreislist, but that’s not the point), I wouldn’t have picked Wagner. I would have picked Nora Gomringer. Nora Gomringer is a poet with a big name, as her father Eugen Gomringer is one of the most important German poets of the 20th century. That’s a heavy cross to bear, but Nora Gomringer wears that burden well. She has produced consistently good work, on stage, on the page, and she has supported and pushed other artists. She’s won a ton of awards, among which most recently, in 2015, the Bachmannpreis. For prose, of course, because why the fuck not. Nora Gomringer can do a lot of things, but what’s most remarkable is her gift for poetry.

I don’t do poetry reviews on this blog a lot. In fact, I think this review of Ben Mazer’s book is the only one I did. But on this, the final day of #GermanLitMonth I was re-reading her most recent book, the most excellent Moden, and thought, why not. I will say this: poetry reviews are difficult for me because I always put them in relation to my own writing; not a comparison, but I have a fairly good sense right now of what kind of idiom comes easy to me and what doesn’t, etc. So when I read Nora Gomringer’s recent books, one thing that stuns me in particular is the way she is able to control colloquialism and sharp, arch tone and turns of phrases. In German poetry, when you try to combine these two elements, what you usually do, see Wagner, is sound a lot like Grass. Because Grass (read my brief post about him here) perfected a specific way to turn words around, estrange them from common usage, spin, color them, in particular verbs. Moving them through sentences, conjugating them against the grain – when Grass was good, he was brilliant. But ever since, writers who tried to lift words into art have often reached for Grass’s register. It’s incredibly seductive. It works fantastically well.

Nora Gomringer doesn’t do that. And even after reading her book multiple times, I still have difficulties seeing exactly how she does what she does. Moden, her 2017 collection of poetry, follows Monster Poems (2013) and Morbus (2015) as the final volume in a loose trilogy. All three poems are about specific phenomena, united by theme, not by form.

Monster Poems is about monsters. Yes, pop cultural monsters, but also the monsters in us, the ways we can become monstrous. It’s about the threat of violence without and within. And all that is nice – but most of the poems contain a core of clarity, a discourse about female identity. “We Eves, all of us, I fear / we are replaceable” she writes in one poem, in another poem she marries Plath to Norman Bates, and in yet another poem, the big bad wolf comes to Little Red Riding Hood, opens his pants and tells her: “Reach Inside,” until eventually, she learns how to shoot, and kill, and where to bury the bodies. Nora Gomringer’s poems take no prisoners, but what I found most fascinating the first time I read Monster Poems was that language. It was loose and colloquial, but constantly tightened by a sense of form and art, with words often turned into an arch tone, but for once, it didn’t send me to the shelf to find the source. The source was right there.

The second book in the trilogy, Morbus, was about illness, death, and, generally, the fallibility of our bodies. In it, Gomringer’s language is just right, just hard and clean enough to manage a tightrope walk that moves you but never drops you into sentimentality. In a poem, which I think is about depression, she answers a question. “How would you describe this state?” and in three tercets, she offers three descriptions per stanza, one per line. She starts with “a black dog,” the common way to describe it, but moves on, and eventually we get “these questions of leather,” and finally, “the body in space.” The poem, built on repetition, varies its theme, introduces musical elements, plays with the various elements of its structure, including a final, completely dissolved tercet. At the same time, it offers a moving, stark evocation of emotional distress. It’s curious. It was published roughly around the same time as Jan Wagner’s book, and like his book, she is playful, clever, erudite and allusive, but unlike Wagner’s dull banalities, Morbus is vivid with something to say.

This balance, between looseness and tightness – it’s hard to get right, and Moden is, in many ways, the crowning achievement of this method. In the poem “Maybelline 306” she invents the word “Fure,” a portmanteau of “Furie” and “Hure” (fury and whore), but before you get into the beautiful anger of this poem, you notice that its musical theme is set by an unexpected inversion in the second line which is, I think the essential moment that holds the whole poem together, this moment of tense formal focus. I mean this is obviously fitting since the whole book is about, loosely, the topic of fashion. Gomringer interrogates the way we interact with fashion, but most of all, the way the female body is made to fit the demands of fashion. Among these is the infamous practice of breaking and bending young girls’s feet to make them more elegant. The poem on the topic, “Lotus,” explains that the rules for this practice are written by people who are in love. And after explaining the method, she turns around at the end of the poem, and offers, in a very Brechtian tone, a connection to our time. Speaking of Brecht: maybe it’s just me, but I detect his tone not infrequently in this book, which is fascinating. This book’s lines and words and turns are sharper, more cutting, less patient than the previous books. It elevates the whole collection. To me, the book’s central poem is called Elfriede Gerstl. Gerstl was an Austrian writer and a holocaust survivor – but the poem doesn’t dwell on that. It assumes we know, it assumes we know this woman and her strength and her past. The centerpiece of the poem is a meeting between the speaker and Gerstl. I think it’s the central poem because Gerstl’s own work has connections to the way Moden works. In particular Gerstl’s stunning autobiographical text Kleiderflug, a book that contains a long poem, shorter and longer pieces of prose. In Gerstl, Gomringer finds a feminist who writes about fashion however indirectly, who, like Gomringer, is part of a larger literary scene (among Gerstl’s friends was Konrad Bayer), and who has a steely feminine strength that also imbues Gomringer’s books.

Moden is, I think, Gomringer’s best work so far, but she’s written a lot of good books, books that count, books that have to be counted. She belongs among the great poets writing in German right now, the likes of Paulus Böhmer, Sabine Scho and Friederike Mayröcker.

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