Jakob Nolte: Schreckliche Gewalten

Nolte, Jakob (2017), Schreckliche Gewalten, Matthes & Seitz
ISBN 978-3-95757-400-8

So I complain about translation a lot here, and if you’re following this blog, I’m sure you’re a little bit tired of it, but among the whining about infidelity, and cheating the reader etc. there is another effect that is a bit underrated. Jakob Nolte’s subpar but interesting sophomore novel Schreckliche Gewalten is a good example of that. Here’s the thing: I love Thomas Pynchon’s work to a frankly upsetting degree, but his work suffers from the same problem that other Americans also have in German translation. It’s depth of style. Somehow, in the 1960s, German translators decided that in order to give German audiences a real feeling of “Americanness” in style, there had to be a certain ease of style too, a certain “Americanness,” if you will. Which leads to some writers like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth to read much less stylistically complex than they do in English. I’m not here to debate the literary value of Bellow or Roth, but, missteps aside, it’s inarguable that they were, on a sentence by sentence level, quite excellent prose writers. They don’t read like that in German, on a sentence by sentence level. And postmodern writers like Barth and Pynchon fared even worse. Pynchon can be quite a knotty writer of prose, and for a long time, translations did not reflect the complexities of his style. But generation on generation of writers grew up on his books in translation. Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, was translated by none other than Elfriede Jelinek – Pynchon’s books had the imprimatur of literary royalty, whatever the details of style. But if you are a young man whose literary proclivities lead him down the path of postmodernity, there’s a chance you won’t just have structural debts to the writers that inspired you – you’ll also have stylistic debts. And while Jakob Nolte is clearly a well read author who very clearly has a solid command of English, the most striking thought I had while reading his novel was – how it read like a poor man’s Pynchon in terms of structure, but nothing in any way like Pynchon in terms of style – and honestly, I think I blame translation for this.

But to get to the actual book at hand. Schreckliche Gewalten did very well when it came out, it was longlisted for the German Book Award, and, given the slightness of the text he read, it was likely on the strengths of the novel that Nolte was invited to the Bachmannpreis this year. And I will be honest – I did not go into the book wanting to like it. The first pages were such a drag, after the explosive early events that I dreaded reading the whole thing. But I did – and it wasn’t such an awful torture. It never improves regarding the quality of its prose, but Nolte does a few very interesting things with – not structure per se, but the way he sequences narrative passages. He moves in and out of pastiche, half the text is metafiction, the other half mixes other kinds of narrative. There’s a fascinating energy in this novel, and this may sound strange but while I don’t know that I would recommend the actual novel to anyone, I strongly recommend a translator have a look at the text and consider translating it. There is something captivating about Nolte’s book, its turns and twist keep you engaged as a reader – and while I advocate fidelity in translation, a less ethical translator could shift the quality of Nolte’s prose a bit upwards and the result would be an absolutely solid book. Honestly, Schreckliche Gewalten is quite a ride, a messy book, but I do enjoy messy books, this just isn’t, au fond, very good. In many ways, this is “precociously brilliant young man” territory, flirting with the so called polymath novelists like the late David Foster Wallace or the great Joshua Cohen. But both Cohen’s and DFW’s prose is excellent – and Nolte’s isn’t, which keeps bringing me back, like a bad-taste boomerang, to the first paragraph. What’s more, the prose is so low-key that despite the plethora of voices and quotes and paraphrases populating the novel, there’s a sense of a single specific voice behind the text – and it’s like that dude at the party who needs to explain to you why Star Trek: TNG was the best Star Trek and why Star Trek Discovery isn’t a real Star Trek show, and then he explains to you why The Wire was the pinnacle of prestige TV and why Elon Musk is right about [fill in any social issue]. That dude, you know, who begins most of his sentences with “well, actually” and appears to know a lot, but it’s mostly surface level sub-wikipedia chatter, with blind spots that you can attribute to specific bias fairly easily.

I mean, I don’t know. Maybe I should first say what the book is about: a mother turns into a werewolf, eats the father. She tells her children that once a generation, a gene carrying this disorder activates. So that would mean one of the children is doomed – except they are twins. They then deal differently with the issue – the sister stays at home while the brother travels abroad. In the end – sorry for spoiling you, both turn. My primary association was with Tournier’s masterful Les Météores (incidentally, how did the academy hand out TWO Nobel Prizes to French novelists while Tournier was alive and did not give one to him?) – but Nolte has less interest in the human condition. For Nolte, everything has a metafictional tie to narratology or typology. But he doesn’t stop there in his structuring – his twins, a boy and a girl – are separated on a gendered basis. There’s a good and a bad reason for that. The good reason is a discoursive one. It allows him to discuss feminism, by having the girl become part of a radical feminist group, and be engaged in mild acts of domestic terrorism, before getting caught up in other parts of 1970s radicalism and upping the ante. The boy meanwhile travels to Afghanistan, following typical male narratives of adventuring. While both children are sexually active, this, too follows typical patterns. There is a metadiscursive, critical element here – the gendered structure reflects and spotlights the gendered narratives that so many of the texts the book is built of are filled with. At the same time, Nolte keeps on doing this page after page, chapter after chapter to the point where you’re wondering how critical this is. He invents a female killer who is out to kill the mother, but instead begins an affair with the female twin. He writes sex scenes that are badly written porn manuscripts, and then “flips” them to show us clichés embedded in them, but these “flips” which he does a few times are so ineffective, and so transparently “clever” in a self satisfied way that they begin to grate.

Everything about the novel begins to grate at some point. There is a clever use of ethnicity, and a similar narratological use of problematic discourses on race and imperialism, but after a hundred pages of the same patterns repeating again and again, one tires of this too, and becomes maybe a tad suspicious of this blonde white young man who revels in his amusing games with fictionality and race. Particularly since he’s such a bad writer. There’s another thing. Pynchon’s best books are not just written in a dense, erudite prose, they are also endlessly inventive. Of the 350 pages here, Nolte manages to keep about 150 at a greater pace. Those 150 pages, in the middle, are where the book is most entertaining – he switches perspectives suddenly, moves in and out of characters and narratives, explains historical or invented literary facts, with just the tiniest hint of Vilas-Matas to make it just enjoyable enough – but he takes a bit to get going and runs out of steam towards the end. Everything, truly everything about this book screams “debut novel by precocious 19 year old Wunderkind novelist” – but while he’s young (*1988), he’s not that young, and this is not his debut.

And if he’s not a 19 year old Wunderkind novelist with his debut novel – what is this? My gut feeling early in the book that never really left me blames German translations of and reception of writers like Pynchon, DFW or Barthelme. This is what happens if an influential book or writer is only partially presented to their readers – as a maker of plots, say. I am sure that some of the influence of Dostoevsky, whose uneven, rough style is not always translated accurately as uneven and rough (again, German translations may be among the worst) can be charted similarly. I have also wondered whether the way Japanese and Latin American writers of late postmodernist periods have been translated into English has shaped certain stylistic pecularities of very literary young contemporary writers. But that’s only tangentially related to Schreckliche Gewalten. The book is too enjoyable in the middle to be really bad. But nobody in their right mind would call it good. At best, in its best moments, it is an interesting mess. At its worst, it is boring and boorish. Those two sides of it are not well balanced – which, in a novel about twins is, possibly, its own metafictional commentary. It doesn’t improve the book, however.

*

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Stephan Lohse: Ein Fauler Gott

Lohse, Stephan (2017), Ein Fauler Gott, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-42587-9

In my loose series of reviews of books by participants in this year’s Bachmannpreis, I continue to not necessarily pick the cream of the crop for review, by accident. Stephan Lohse is an accomplished actor – surely something that will help him in this competition that requires of its authors to perform the text. He’s also a novelist and the 2017 novel Ein Fauler Gott (~a lazy God) is his debut novel. He’s not the first German-language actor to turn to novels. Particularly notable among the recent actors-turned-novelists are Josef Bierbichler with his good novel Mittelreich, and Joachim Meyerhoff, with his ongoing, slightly dull, series of autobiographical novels. It is Meyerhoff that Lohse most resembles. There is very little heightened literary attention given to structure and characters in Lohse’s book, which relies mostly on theme, and the power of nostalgia and recollection. And sadness, I suppose. There are two protagonists in Lohse’s novel, one is a 11 year old boy, whose interior life is treated with detailed empathy and care – and his mother, who, as she unravels psychologically, is ushered through a series of scenes all of which might as well be subtitled “this is supposed to be sad.” Maybe it’s because I also read some books by fellow Bachmannpreis competitor Corinna T. Sievers, but the flat and frankly flippant way Lohse uses the mother’s psychological struggles didn’t sit right with me. It doesn’t help that the boy’s story, after a somewhat interesting beginning, slips into the most typical kind of adolescent boy’s coming of age tale imaginable. I know they are common in all the languages, but my God there’s maybe something especially dull about the German version, however widely they’ve been praised. If you have read any of these books, say Thomas Lehr’s Nabokov’s Katze, or literally any other book in this vein, you will not be surprised by Lohse’s book at any point. What’s more, his lack of empathy towards the mother is also mirrored in the odd way he treats the occasional racism of his characters. Saying “this happened in the 1970s, that’s just what people thought” is no excuse, my good dude. It strikes me as additionally dubious that the only other text I found online is a very very brief text about African child soldiers on the Suhrkamp blog, which, in its absolute inability to transcend its sources and add something to the material, seems appropriative more than anything else. In a way, after last year’s readings, Lohse seems to be a fitting candidate for the Bachmannpreis stage.

The novel is set in 1970s Germany, and spans one year in the life of Ben and his mother Ruth. The book opens as Jonas, Ben’s brother and Ruth’s son, suddenly dies of a mysterious illness. Stephan Lohse makes excellent use of this situation at the beginning. In fact, the first 50 or so pages of this book made me very excited. Too bad the rest of it is largely about penises and the disorderly mind of a slightly off-kilter boy of medium intelligence and observational skills. Jonas is an absence in the lives of boy and mother – and in the beginning, Ben imagines his brother around him, something his mother expresses jealousy of. This set-up is so rich with literary potential. Using the narrative of adolescent confusion, but lacing it with a non-supernatural imagined absent presence? It works extremely well for a handful of pages, until Lohse just drops it, and moves on to much more conventional tools and tales. I don’t understand this choice – the only way it makes sense to me is the author’s unwillingness to jettison the autobiographical connection. In fact, I don’t know to what extent the book is indeed autobiographical, but the choices seem to indicate such an inspiration. Why did the boy at some point replace his absently present brother with friends? Because…that’s what happened! It’s an awful excuse in a novel, but seems the best excuse for the choices here. The majority of the novel is a pretty straightforward year in the life of a slighty odd boy. He has odd neighbors, a grandmother with dementia, kisses a girl for the first time, and explores his own penis and the penises of several other boys, though apparently non-sexually. On a trip his accommodation burns down, and it ends on a mother-son roadtrip into the sunset, as if to say: look, look, this IS the kind of book you thought it was. The lack of a will to shape and push his material is never as clear as when, towards the end of the book, for no good reason, we find ourselves in a ten page summary of one (in numbers: 1) inconsequential game of football (or soccer, as you prefer) played among school boys. It leads to a revelation for the protagonist: he wants to become a goal keeper, but why should the reader care? These kinds of scenes are so common in young adult novels, or novels by adult men about their childhood that we’d recognize the scene and its emotional and literary significance in a two page summary, but God beware that Lohse restrict his – at this point – slightly unfocused ramblings.

Indeed, it’s not just the book that is chronological, it feels like the writing of it was too. The last things we read in the book strike me as the last things written for the book. All the ideas and structures that seemed to be interesting at the beginning fall by the wayside as the mother flattens into a caricature and the boy’s life paradoxically rounds into type. Some of this appears to be due to – to be fair – the writer’s inexperience or lack of skill. This is, after all, a debut novel, although Lohse isn’t a spring chicken any more. Here’s another aspect: the switch of perspective, the first two or three times it happens, is revelatory. The book’s first pages are written in the style of a child, and as a reader, I was immediately worried about the gimmickiness of this mechanism, but the first time we read the mother’s perspective, it beautifully balances out the boy’s language, and adds additional elements, like the jealousy of his imagination I mentioned earlier. This, too, passes. During this year of mourning, improbably (and unevenly), the boy’s language, almost like a literary mirror of his voice, changes, becomes more adult, and at the same time, some clusters of words that appear to be tied to the boy’s language, reappear in the mother’s perspective as well. For an actor, whose life is focused on words and voice, Lohse shows a curious disinterest in either of those elements. I think for debut novelists, the flow of words is something that is typical – indeed, beautifully contained debuts like Clemens Setz’s excellent Söhne und Planeten are more rare than you’d want them to be (but then, also, look at his second book). The untamed river of words also swallows up some interesting and some troubling aspects that you’d wish the novel made some more conscious use of. One is the mother’s past, who came to Hamburg as a refugee after the war. Some of Lohse’s comments about the GDR appear to be factually challenged, and some just biased. Similarly, the book contains off-hand references to Africans, to “Czech greediness” and to “drunk Russians in the woods.” It makes occasional fun of people for their disabilities (a woman’s harelip makes the boy think of a hippopotamus, for example) – none of which, I’m sure, is meant maliciously. The author just doesn’t particularly care.

The same is true for the question of queerness. I have always wondered about the penis-centric nature of male adolescent literature, which are full of cock, but even for the genre, this book quite overflows with teenage boy’s genitalia. There’s a constant tension of queerness throughout the book, which, after everything, is the most interesting part of it. A chaste, “accidental” kiss is reciprocated later. The boy, somewhat inadvertently, jerks off his best friend. Another boy, a bully, ends his beating of him by rubbing his crotch on him until he comes in his pants. Twice the author goes out of his way to mention that the male protagonist feels an unease with terms for female anatomy, and in the early parts of the book he also tries on make-up. The way the book deals with the protagonist’s queerness is maddening, because gay or not (the book doesn’t commit on this), it does inscribe a queerness into his adolescence, but it doesn’t quite manage to structure it into the narrative. It just keeps coming up. Again and again. The reason the boy starts playing football is so people won’t consider him “a gaylord” – but after the absolutely overdetailed account of the game, the author doesn’t return to it. It’s like seeing someone start a line of code without ever closing it, and you keep going down the code and – nothing. The way he ties some of his childhood to reading Karl May doesn’t help because the reader can’t help but think of the way Josef Winkler’s masterful autobiographical studies examined what being a reader of Karl May has meant to his adolescence – and how the sometimes difficult nature of it ties into his later obsession with Jean Genet, whose work on queerness and death could have provided the same clarity for Ein Fauler Gott that it provided for Winkler’s prodigious oeuvre. But it didn’t, and so what we are left with is a book both filled with good ideas and bad executions, a muddled book that is curiously self-satisfied. I don’t know.

*

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.)

#tddl: Germany’s Next Literary Idol, 2018 edition.

If you follow me on twitter, you’ll see a deluge of tweets this week from Thursday to Saturday under the hashtag #tddl, let me explain. I will be live-tweeting the strangest of events from my little smelly book cave.

Once a year, something fairly unique happens in Klagenfurt, Austria. On a stage, a writer will read a 25-minute long prose(ish) text, which can be a short story, an excerpt from a novel, or just an exercise in playfulness. All of the texts have to be unpublished, all have to be originally written in German (no translations). Also on stage: 9 to 7 literary critics who, as soon as the writer finishes reading, will immediately critique the text they just heard (and read; they have paper copies). Sometimes they are harsh, sometimes not, Frequently they argue among each other. The writer has to sit at his desk for the whole discussion, without being allowed a voice in it. This whole thing is repeated 18 to 14 times over the course of three days. On the fourth day, 4 prizes are handed out, three of them voted on by the critics (again, votes that happen live on stage), one voted on by the public. All of this is transmitted live on public TV and draws a wide audience.

This, a kind of “German language’s next (literary) Idol” setup, is an actually rather venerable tradition that was instituted in 1977. It’s referred to as the “Bachmannpreis”, an award created in memory of the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who was born in Klagenfurt. The whole week during which the award is competed for and awarded is referred to as the “Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” (the days of German-language literature). Since 1989, the whole competition, including all the readings and all the judges’ arguments are shown on live TV, before, the public was only shown excerpts. The writers in question are not usually unknowns, nor are they usually heavyweights. They are all more or less young writers but they don’t have to be novelists.

The 2016 winner was British expat writer Sharon Dodua Otoo (here’s my review of some of her fiction), who read a text that was heads and shoulders above the sometimes lamentable competition. And you know what, the German judges were still slightly upset about it last year, which explains why last year’s best writer by a country mile, John Wray, didn’t win. It’s the revenge of the Bratwurst.

This year’s lineup, with the exception of an interesting writer here and there, seems similar in quality, but whiter and more German than any recent line up. Although they did, similar to 2016 and 2017, invite a writer who hasn’t published anything originally written in German yet, which is always an intriguing proposition. It’s Ukrainian novelist Tanja Maljartschuk. Her fiction has already been translated into English and published by Cadmus Press – you should have a look.

Outside of this – there’s a bestselling novelist this time, some dubious looking male writers, Martina Clavadetscher, whose most recent novel I absolutely loved, and Jakob Nolte, who uses science fictional elements in his very interesting work. I have a weird gut feeling about who the judges might gravitate towards this year, given last year’s dubious choice, but since I’m awful at predictions, I’m not going to go all out here.

The real change this year is a shift among jurors. Nora-Eugenie Gomringer, whose most recent collection of poetry I reviewed here, joins the jury, as does Insa Wilke. Regrettably, they do not replace any of the lamentable jurors that made last year so frustrating (see particularly my account of Day Two of the competition). They do bring “the heat” – as they say. I read some of Corinna T. Sievers’s novels, an author invited by Gomringer, and they are excellent.

There are many bad signs. I had to put away a book by Joshua Groß after three pages due to its 1950s style sexism. It’s an overall very male, very white and very German list (the best German-language writers are not – in fact- German). And yet…I cannot help but be excited. Follow along! There’s a livestream! You can also read the texts during the competition here. So here’s the full list (I have written some comments or reviews for some of these writers, you can find those linked directly)

Bov Bjerg, D
Martina Clavadetscher, CH
Özlem Özgül Dündar, TUR
Raphaela Edelbauer, A
Stephan Groetzner, D
Joshua Groß, D
Ally Klein, D
Stephan Lohse, D
Lennardt Loß, D
Tanja Maljartschuk, UA
Anselm Neft, D
Jakob Nolte, D
Corinna T. Sievers, D
Anna Stern, CH

A Note on Özlem Özgül Dündar

Dündar, Özlem Özgül (2018), Gedanken Zerren, Elif Verlag
ISBN 978-3-946989-07-3

After a review of Anna Stern, who will read at this year’s Bachmannpreis, I want to turn to another very intriguing writer, similarly young, also slated to perform in Klagenfurt at the same competition. Özlem Özgül Dündar writes poetry, prose and drama. She’s roughly from where I currently live, and she studied philosophy in Wuppertal. Then she went on to study literature at one of our two dedicated MFA universities: Leipzig. She’s a translator, which is an excellent training for any writer. But of her own work, she has not as far as I can tell published anything in book form beyond this thin little collection of poetry, which came out earlier this year.

But what a poetry it is. Despite many many dissimilarities, the writers she immediately made me think of, in terms of poetry, are Wolfgang Hilbig and Said, but mostly the former. Dündar’s interest is not in an interlocutor, not in a playful encounter with music and tradition. In her poems all lines appear to be the same length, but that’s a trick – indeed, it’s an artifact of printing: they are all fully justified so that words line up evenly on left and right margins. The poems themselves are narrow, and the author sometimes breaks them up as if she was counting syllables or letters or some other Moore-esque approach to form, but I’ve gone through multiple poems now and I cannot get a consistent syllable length within the poems. What it is is a conversation with that kind of writing.

What’s more, her poetry almost monomaniacally obsesses over the distance between the self an others, about the way we move through space and how we limit our own spaces and how others limit our spaces. Words, in some poems become just as much of a spatial gesture as physical gestures do. And in her poetry, the way she treats line breaks, it mirrors that same interest or obsession. For a first collection, it’s an astonishingly smart and careful effort. The connection, to me as a reader, to Hilbig’s poetry is the interest in the self and its delimitations, the self and its necessities, and the many ways those necessities are broken up. In contrast to Hilbig, however, the language itself throughout Gedanken Zerren is fairly simple – the complexities of Dündar’s poetry, to my mind, come from repetition and her management of breath and speed. Hilbig made heavier use of pathos inherent to word choice, I think

Özlem Özgül Dündar has done well in open mic competitions, and she has also won serious literary awards – which suggests her work works well on the written and the spoken level. Since I have read this book in anticipation of her participation in a prose competition, there are limited ways in which this very impressive book can help me do that. She has written essays that share her poetry’s breathlessness, and there’s a chance her performance will similarly arrange simplicity against a complexity of structure and rhythm. Whatever happens, I am already intrigued.

 

Two novels by Anna Stern

Stern, Anna (2014), Schneestill, Salis
ISBN 978-3-906195-17-9

Stern, Anna (2016), Der Gutachter, Salis
ISBN 9783906195438

This coming Thursday, the Bachmannpreis will begin again and I will, again, follow along, glued to the TV screen. Excitement, excitement, excitement. I will write a separate post listing this year’s changes and authors, but this time I have read some of these writers in advance. One of them is Martina Clavadetscher, whose most recent novel I have reviewed quite enthusiastically here.

Another is Anna Stern. Anna Stern is a German writer who lives and studies in Switzerland. She has published, as far as I can tell, two novels and, most recently, a collection of short stories. To assess her performance in Klagenfurt reading those stories would have been most fitting, I did not, however, have enough time and money to purchase the complete oeuvre of Ms. Stern. Instead, I read her two novels. While I didn’t particularly like either of them, there’s an obvious, sharp progress between novel one, the 2014 Schneestill, a puzzlebox novel drawing on noir, on Auster, and probably also on Simenon, and novel two, the 2016 Der Gutachter, a more grounded, urgent book about a murder and people living off the Bodensee. There is more authorial control, depth, and narrative sharpness in the second book compared to the first. That said, both books live, in my opinion, in the boring wasteland between the fetid depths of “awful” and the airy heights of “great.” Both books are…ok. Difficult to distinguish from many other middle of the road crime novels published in Germany, and hardly among the more interesting.

Schneestill is set in Paris, and you can tell the author is very excited to share that with us, because there are occasional French words, dropped into the text for local color. People meet in cafés and while there’s a long noir tradition in German fiction connected to Chandler, Goodis and Hammett – this novel’s atmosphere seems specifically French. There’s the shadow of Simenon over everything in this book, with a postmodern admixture of Modiano – and his American progeny, Paul Auster. Simenon’s dense but short book live off a sense of absolut clarity, even if things are obscured, there’s always a sense that if you find out the right facts, or can shift your position to a more advantageous one, you can see how it all connects. There’s a moral imperative to that kind of structure in Simenon, or at least that’s how I remember his work. Modiano, whose masterpiece is a surreal alterative history of the Third Reich in France, destabilizes this clarity. In the trilogy immediately following his debut, he destabilizes the certainty of seeing clearly, of being able to remember clearly, of there being an obvious truth, and not just the muddle of history. And while his later work would work this search for a truth to a finer, clearer point, giving his whole oeuvre a certain urgency and direction, it is this trilogy that influenced a young American writer named Paul Auster, who stripped Modiano of the sense and weight and responsibility of history, and turned it into a career of writing clever, navel-gazing novels, often built like a puzzle, with mostly lamentable prose. While Anna Stern explicitly names Ian Rankin as one of the pillars of her work (in Der Gutachter). I cannot help but see Simenon, Modiano and Auster in Schneestill.

There are two different melodies woven through the book, something that Stern retains in Der Gutachter. One is a story about obsession, about gazes, about seeing, watching, interacting with people. A young man sees a mysterious woman in a café, immediately falls for her. As he comes home, he finds that she has just been released from prison where she had been sent for a murder a few years earlier. This does not dampen his ardor in the least – on the contrary, much as it would any of the five hundred indistinguishable protagonists of Auster’s novels, it increases his obsession. He tries to find her again, creates a web of gazes to trap her. In the end, and under curious, complicated circumstances, he meets her – and she tells him her story, like a charming Parisian Scheherazade. This melody is refracted in different ways, among them the obsession of another character which complements – and complicates – the original protagonist’s obsession. This search for the truth through an examination of the streets of Paris and the faces of its women, this is where the novel retains the closest ties to Simenon, as well as in the moral question that dominates this part of the book: what is a murderer – and can we trust, engage with, understand, and ultimately, forgive a murderer – even before we ever met them? Can I balance the evidence of my eyes and my heart – with the rational, bleak truths offered by the world around us? Stern’s protagonist, in his quest to find that woman, becomes a creep, and this is by far the most interesting part of the book, because Stern acknowledges this, though not for long. There’s a short period, just a handful of pages towards the end of the book, where you can almost read it as a criticism of not just the male-centric narratives of Simenon, Modiano and Auster, but also of the many many writers that followed in their wake. But regrettably, that’s not what Stern is interested in.

She’s more interested in memory and guilt, which is the second melody woven throughout the book, and this is sort of where we lose Simenon, and enter into Modiano territory, but it’s Modiano as seen through the lens of Paul Auster. I have to repeat: she mentions Auster nowhere in the book, but it’s hard not to see him as being an influence here, maybe indirectly, since Auster’s influence is felt in a lot of fiction, regrettably. The question of what happened, who is at fault in the murder case, and how does what happened change those involved becomes the most dominant one as the book rushes to a finish. Unlike Simenon, or some of the crime novels specifically cited by the author, the book isn’t really interested in the circumstances of what happened, it isn’t really interested in the awfulness of guilt and the way it deforms those that live with it. All of the book, including the knotted conclusion, seems to be more of a literary game with the various ways to express all these themes. It’s a riff on a couple of different writers, with the only thing that distinguishes this book from its predecessors being the flat writing, that sometimes morphs into a very poetic register, but without giving us a feeling of authorial control or interest. A smart, well-read writer, but a bland, not very well written novel, was my initial impression upon finishing it.

By contrast, the tone of Der Gutachter is much more consistent, and the novel is faster to summarize. It is not a complicated puzzlebox of conflicting melodies, it does not draw on a smorgasbord of writers. Instead it is something more simple: a crime novel with an environmentalist’s conscience. It begins as a story about a Gutachter, an evaluator, who suddenly goes missing, presumably murdered. The book’s protagonist is a police officer who takes roughly a week to find out what happened, and structurally, it shares the same weak ending that a lot of crime novels have – having a long explanation at the end that collects all the ideas and leads that we picked up along the way in a sufficiently dramatic way has always been a crutch for crime novels, and their main weakness. But as the detective finds out who killed the evaluator, he also takes the time to find out about what his last evaluation was about – giving expert testimony on the ideal phosphorus levels in the local lake. That seems simple, but as the police detective collects evidence, he also collects information about the complexity of the topic. Anna Stern has studied Environmental Science in Zürich, which explains why the detective’s enlightenment takes the form of didactic info dumps which we as readers cannot escape either. That said, the topic of what grounds one’s life, how livelihood can become more than just a job, but something ingrained in one’s identity, all of this gives an urgency and moral clarity to Stern’s second novel that the first one lacked. The style of the book, while still nothing to write home about, is much more consistent, a much better read overall.

There are no longer Simenon, Modiano or Auster in the background here. Au contraire, the writing has turned to much more Germanic sources. Although – sources less connected to her German origins and more to her present Swiss background. There’s a long tradition of Swiss (and Austrian) writers using a slightly distant, objective-seeming style, using the protocols of institution and office to create their stories. Despite the detective protagonist, Der Gutachter is not written in the style developed by German noir writers. Instead, I hear echoes of writers like Max Frisch, Hermann Burger, Albert Drach and Adolf Muschg throughout the book. I mean, obviously I mean no comparison – these four, particularly Burger and Drach, are absolute masters of their craft, but it’s impossible not to hear them here. Stern herself takes care to mention Ian Rankin here, and there’s absolutely a sense in which Rankin and the tradition of Scottish crime writing more generally (for example Denise Mina) have left their fingerprints here as well, though not necessarily stylistically. The Scottish tradition of crime writing strikes me, who hasn’t read that much of it, as being particularly interested in social backgrounds and social motivations, and these end up being essential to understanding the novel’s murder case. But it is the contrast between the institutional, careful tone of the detective’s narrative, and the wild, angry complaints from the local fishermen, that really encapsulates the book’s conflicts between disinterested analysis, and modern science and economy on the one hand, and one of the oldest professions on the other. Usually, especially reactionary writers will use peasants as a foil to criticize modernity, often with anti-Semitic overtones (think Hans Fallada). Anna’s use of fishermen is smart – it removes certain connotations and increases the connection to the land. That said – the style of Burger, Muschg or Frisch is hard to pull off. Burger is one of last century’s best German-language writers, and Frisch isn’t far behind. It’s hard to write like this without slipping into a certain blandness – and Stern does not succeed in evading this fate.

But all criticism aside: honestly, I am curious about where this writer is going. If I could do it again, I would read neither of these two books and I cannot see myself recommending them to anyone. But at the same time, I can see many readers who like these kinds of novels enjoying them, and as far as I can tell the books have been published to good reviews – and indeed, the author has been invited to participate at this year’s Bachmannpreis, after all, one of German-languahe literature’s most prestigious awards. There’s absolutely a good, solid chance that I am way off on this.

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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.

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Klaus Cäsar Zehrer: Das Genie

Zehrer, Klaus Cäsar (2017), Das Genie, Diogenes
ISBN 9783257069983

Sometimes, when I look askance at a book I dislike, I ponder the question of what makes a bad book. I don’t mean going down the Bourdieu/Herrnstein-Smith path – I mean it in a simpler way. My gut feeling as I read Klaus Cäser Zehrer’s 600 page debut novel was: this is an awful book. And yet, it’s also entertaining, but not because of Zehrer’s literary skills. It’s primarily entertaining because Zehrer takes a real person with an exciting life, and tells that biographical story with very few adornments. For those, like me, who had not known of this person’s life, reading the book was quite a rush and led to me looking up other biographies and studies. Zehrer’s main accomplishment is that he takes the life of William James Sidis and stays out of the way as it unspools on the pages of his novel. If you want to read literature – you won’t find it here. If you are a fiction reader who enjoys seeing a mind thinking as you follow the trail of words – you will be disappointed. If you want a streamlined biography without footnotes and told with the verve and speed of an adventure novel, this is probably for you. William James Sidis’s brief life became more and more complicated the older he got, but Zehrer is entirely untroubled by the possible complications. He picks a style and sticks to it, and nothing stops him. The style is 19th century bildungsroman, but without the baggage of symbols and interior life. It’s a tale of the rise and fall of a genius, told without any interest in women, minorities or, really, any other issues that would stop the rollicking speed of this book. Here’s the kicker: I cannot possibly recommend this book. But I might give it as a present to some people in my life who aren’t great fans of difficult literature. Das Genie is William James Sidis as re-imagined by Ayn Rand: a tale of heroism and failure that fails to do justice to its protagonist. There’s no critical distance or thinking involved in the book at any point, which is the most frustrating part. Zehrer’s style is competent and unremarkable, but at least it’s usually tight and sharp enough for his purpose. So is this a bad book? Or just mediocre? I don’t know.

Das Genie has three distinct sections. The first section is about Boris Sidis, an immigrant from the Ukraine who lands in the US to make it big. It’s written for an audience who already know that Sidis will become an important figure in 20th century psychoanalysis, and it’s the most Ayn Randian part of the book. We find that Sidis is a capital H Hero of intellectual prowess. He picks up English with ease, he starts working in a factory and after a handful of days is ready to lecture the factory owner about how to run that factory. He’s an Ivy League Hank Reardon: proud, uncompromising, and going from success to success. He goes to Boston where he teaches English to other immigrants, he impresses William James and Charles Eliot Norton into giving him a spot in Harvard, and he finds himself a wife. In a scene that could be straight from Atlas Shrugged, Zehrer explains to his future in-laws how useless emotions like love are and that it is not relevant whether he loves his future wifé, but whether she will be useful to him. And indeed, she becomes his biggest supporter, earning a PhD herself, and fighting for his vision and legacy for the rest of her life, inheriting even his struggles with empathy, as her interactions with her son show. Eventually he sires a boy, who he names after his benefactor William James and immediately tries to turn that boy into John Stuart Mill 2.0. He endows that boy with a lot of knowledge, but also with his Objectivist disdain for other people and authority. Why follow rules when those rules are stupid? The tale of the boy is the second chunk of the book, and the story of adult William James Sidis, called Billy, is the third. Even before getting into the meat of the book around the “Genius” of the title, Billy Sidis, the book becomes hard to take.

There’s no doubt – the book reads like a breeze, exactly like an adventure novel. But unlike modern takes on the 19th c entury adventure novel (I might post a review of Christian Kracht’s work here one of these days), there’s no sense of the author understanding the problems inherent in framing narratives this way. Zehrer doesn’t just present Sidis’s misogynist disregard for women, he mirrors it in his book. Sidis doesn’t have time or space for women – and Zehrer doesn’t either. That first section reads like a male fanboy. The two other sections are easily summarized: Billy gets into Harvard at 11, graduates with a Bachelor’s degree and leaves Harvard, disinterested in a formal education. Goodwill gets him teaching gigs here and there, but public attention, bullying and the oppression of gender roles and expectations lead to Billy trying to hide from the limelight, ending up as an anonymous accountant, hiding from journalists and his own family. He ends up writing three different books under pseudonyms, all three about his own strange obsession, like languages and train tickets, gets involved in communist activism, founds not one but two revolutionary societies and dies in his early forties of a stroke. I mean that last sentence alone should make your mouth water. What material! And you close the book almost heartbroken about this waste.

It’s true, the eventual failure of Sidis’s education philosophy in his son’s demise complicates the picture without Zehrer’s intervention, all by itself, but that’s not enough. And it’s true, the heroic tale of Boris Sidis very cleverly puts the failures of William Sidis in stark relief – but is it really clever? As the story of William James Sidis starts taking up speed and a sense of tragic inescapability, one always feels that Zehrer shares Boris Sidis’s lack of empathy. Zehrer’s biography of Billy Sidis is told from the outside, accepting all facts about his life as a given, and then chronicling his downfall with a cool distance. I’m not saying the book should have focused on Billy’s inner life. But Zehrer also never really pans out to include society or other people. His disinterest in people not named Sidis is carried over from the first section. Sidis’s life crosses that of Norbert Wiener, but the book isn’t interested at all in these two different versions of child prodigies. Does have Sidis’s disregard for authorities and his unease with less-than-brilliant people an equivalent in the famous mathematician’s life? There are women, activists and writers crossing Sidis’s path. A famous New Yorker essay on Sidis was written by none other than James Thurber. Zehrer mentions all of these things, with an almost blasé disinterest in expanding or even just thinking about these issues.

Late in life, William James Sidis wrote a long history of the United States from the point of view of Native Americans. The text is available online – Zehrer mentions it but barely deals with the interesting aspects of it. William T Vollmann built a whole career on working on American history from that angle – what are the intellectual aspects of Sidis’s book? How does Billy Sidis’s disregard for rules and mediocrity connect to his ideas about nations, narrative and history? How does he fit in the broader context? Was Billy Sidis truly as brilliant as his family claimed? I’ve listened to a talk about Norton’s tests for prospective Harvard students and there’s a lot of material there about what cultural expectations mean in that time. Zehrer has no doubt, never stumbles, never stops to think, consider or complicate. He is also completely disinterest in literary form. The book is written strictly chronologically, in the plainest structure imagininable. Closing the book, one wishes the life of William James Sidis had been told by a writer like E.L. Doctorow, for example. Or a writer interested in other voices. Zehrer’s book is almost offensively male and white, intellectually incurious, a journeyman work.

This is not what I expected when I saw that an older writer, who spent his life in journalism, published a debut novel this late in his life, and a thick, 600 page slab of a book to boot. I mean this brings me back to the initial question. Is this bad? I feel that much of what I would call bad (rather than mediocre) is colored negatively by my disappointment. This story could have been a better book. It should have been a better book. We rooted for you!

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