Nolte, Jakob (2017), Schreckliche Gewalten, Matthes & Seitz
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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