Daniel Goetsch: Ein Niemand

Goetsch, Daniel (2016), Ein Niemand, Klett-Cotta
ISBN 978-3-6ß8-98021-9

So you may remember my posts about the BachmannPreis earlier this month – I always try to read books by authors involved in it but I don’t always manage. This year I came away with four novels by four of the writers, and the very first one I read was a big dud. Daniel Goetsch’s reading on Day One of the Bachmannpreis was dull, sort of competent, but incredibly boring. It was inconceivable that he had read an excerpt from a novel, i.e. that there was a whole book of that material out there. A case for the Geneva conventions? I had had a look at his 2016 novel Ein Niemand by the time he read his story and it started very promisingly – derivative, but interesting, and I was looking forward to challenging my negative opinion of his writing. Maybe, in book-length form, he was a much better writer? I’m not good with very short fiction anyway. So ahead I went and took a plunge into Ein Niemand (~ A Nobody) and, man, I wish I hadn’t. If you write a story about mistaken identities, conspiracies, economic fanaticism, suicide, love, desire and more, there should be no way to make the book a punishingly boring reading experience, and yet, Goetsch succeeded. Maybe that is his superpower. What’s more, the book is competently written throughout, though more in a journalistic rather than literary way. How can this go so bad? There’s a bit of research that went into the book and it’s presented to us like a high school recapitulation of knowledge gleaned from Wikipedia – nothing is at stake here, except a case of very fragile masculinity. If you ever wanted to read a book where a man regrets not having the wherewithal to sexually assault a woman who denied him sex, and where this “failure” is shown to be indicative of other kinds of weaknesses of character, look no further. If you want a book that is largely set in Prague and has a sense of place that smells of a well annotated Lonely Planet guide rather than of observation and description, halt, you have your book! If you crave a book that borrows from various European traditions heavily, but comes off as an improvised pastiche by a high school student (who doesn’t get laid) – I have just the book for you! Should you read this? GOOD LORD no. At the same time, I can’t say whether it wouldn’t work in a translation, if by translation we include the Deborah Smith school of light to heavy editing of the original text. Because the structure isn’t all bad – after all, many other books have made this work. As it is the best thing about the book is the lovely cover. Maybe Klett-Cotta should invest in editors.

The structure is that of an interrogation: the German police, on the eve of Romania’s joining the EU, have caught a Romanian who they believe is in the country illegally. The man, who they believe is someone named Ion Rebreanu, proclaims to be, in reality, a German citizen named Tom Kulisch. Most of the novel is written in Tom/Ion’s voice and is written in a very “written” way, but the information contained therein is also information the policeman receives in the sections that are set in the novel’s present, and are narrated from the policeman’s point of view. The reason, I suppose, why the story of Tom/Ion is not told more orally is due to the overarching theme of the novel: the play of identity and narrative. We, like the policeman never know what’s happening, and some of the novel’s fictional games are on the surface, some more submerged. Some of the novel is set in an area of Bucharest called Gliulamila, which, as far as I can tell, is completely made up. It’s not entirely clear whether that’s intentional, as a fictional game, or not. With overall awful books, one is always tempted to assume incompetence, not intention, but I’m not sure here. After all, the novel is completely based on providing layers of unreliable information told by various characters to various other characters. The book offers us Tom/Ion’s story as one of confusion, of being misidentified by many people, of lying about his past, about his present, the fear of being found out connects with the fear of not being found out etc. There are other characters who did a name-change like Tom/Ion, and again other characters who are living a lie. The constant elements are sex, violence, hunger, as well as a curious copy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies that the protagonist carries around with himself. We are frequently cautioned to assume none of the story told is real, with a strong vibe of The Usual Suspects about some of the writing, but for a possibly invented narrative, intended to stall the police for a few hours, Daniel Goetsch spends an awful lot of time engaging in describing male malaise. The novel moves either too fast (the final chapter of Ion/Tom’s story reads like a deadline needed to be kept for the manuscript) or too slow, as in the truly excessive and languid examination of the relationship of Tom/Ion to a mysterious woman named Mascha.

The deficiencies of the novel are obvious just from reading it, enough to make me worry about the sanity of Klett-Cotta’s editors. They become particularly glaring if looked at in context of their literary forebears. JMC Le Clézio’s only true masterpiece, Le Procès-verbal, as well as some of Modiano’s work (particularly Boulevard de Ceinture, maybe?) appear to have provided some inspiration – the major connection however is the Swiss tradition of examining identities. Goetsch, himself a Swiss writer, was clearly influenced by some of the giants of Swiss literature, particularly Max Frisch and Adolf Muschg. Muschg’s Albisser’s Grund (inexplicably untranslated into English) is an absolutely brilliant novel about a foreign-born psychiatrist named Zerrutt who is one day shot by his patient, Albisser. The police starts questioning the victim, because as it turns out not everything is as it seems. Albisser’s Grund is roughly twice the length of Goetsch’s book but so much more captivating. For Muschg, writing, narrative, personal identity are all at stake in the book, and he manages to create a book that is both highly constructed and symbolic and emotionally relevant at the same time. He also makes use of the element of foreignness and how that changes how we construct our narratives and read others’. There is very little evidence in Goetsch’s book of an awareness of the same thing, or in any case, it is badly executed. The major example of the kind of writing we find in Ein Niemand, however, is Max Frisch. I don’t, personally, love Max Frisch, apart from Montauk, which I think is a flawless piece of prose. But, in particular in Stiller and Mein Name ist Gantenbein, Frisch provides a skillfully executed example of how identities and narratives are connected, and how telling stories of ourselves can often also just be us telling stories, both to ourselves and to others. Political, personal and social expectations are all part of this narrative game. Less relevant to the novel under review, there are many other Swiss writers engaged in this kind of writing, with Dürrenmatt, playwright, novelist and theorist, as a particularly notable example, though in Dürrenmatt it has an absurdist angle that we don’t find here. It makes you wonder what’s in that water there, doesn’t it. Then again, whatever’s in the water clearly doesn’t confer talent – because for all the similarities to other books, be they French, Swiss or German, Goetsch clearly doesn’t hold up his end of the tradition.

The only tradition where he does hold his own is that of tedious masculinity. I cannot tell you how tiresome it is to read book after book of men worried about their dicks. Invented or not, Ion/Tom’s story is to a large part one about impotence, in a framing that reminded me a lot of Grass, particularly late Grass. In Grass’s work, which I admire almost unreservedly (while pretending he only wrote one and a half books since 1999), there’s a strange obsession with masculinity and male genitals, both literally and symbolically. I mean, really. Dicks and memory are the two overarching themes of his work. Grass connects masculinity all the time with the act of writing and with literary tradition (Bloom, anyone?), and sexual potency always doubles as creative potency, too. And that’s fine if you are a preternaturally talented artist (see my obit here for some more fawning). It’s more of an irritation with Daniel Goetsch. The story Ion/Tom tells has multiple beginnings. It begins with a suicide, or it begins with witnessing a deadly accident, or – and I think this is the real beginning: it begins with Tom’s failure to translate a manual from English to German. There’s a sentence in it, “The image that has been adjusted will not be reflected even if it is captured,” which eludes him. His inability to render it in German leads to a kind of mental breakdown and then sets in motion all the rest of the story. Now, this has multiple uses in the book. The sentence itself reflects the way the story is built; but also, on a less metafictional level, this failure to translate the sentence is repeated in his failure to “man up” in his subsequent dealings with women. After his breakdown, Tom witnesses an accident, pickpockets the victim, and takes on his identity, to go to Prague where he lives as Ion Rebreanu for a while before moving to Bucharest and eventually back to Berlin. Rebreanu is a “real man,” who has a woman for his passions and a woman to talk to, although he apparently has sex with both. In one of the strangest scenes of the book, Tom’s inability to fuck one of the two women, is then followed by recriminations – had he been a real man he would have just forced her, he would have taken her. The book doesn’t use the term friendzone (thank God), but Ion/Tom is constantly stymied by being considered a friend by a woman he’d really, really like to fuck, which, I mean, thank you but no thank you?

The rest of the story is full of strange clichés about Czechs, Russians, Roma and Romanians, to the extent that the few genuinely good observations are startling, unexpected. There is a two page rant about Romanian politics, by an interesting (but unexplored) character which is startlingly interesting to read, although it is couched in Wikipedia’d information about Ceausescu and his reign. I mean, the book’s decisions of what to dwell on for pages and pages and pages, and what to sketch in half a sentence are confusing. I mean, yes the book is bad, and yes, the only other text I know by the author is worse, but there are many solid ideas here, and it’s inexplicable that Goetsch didn’t have an editor who told him to cut the genital self-examination and expand on some, hell, any of the other elements. I mean Goetsch is a competent writer. How did this happen? And why did I have to read this? And what do I do with my copy of the book? Questions raised by a questionable book. Here’s to hoping the other three Bachmann-inspired purchases are better!

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Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation To The Bold Of Heart

Elmiger, Dorothee (2010), Einladung an die Waghalsigen, Dumont
ISBN 9-783832-161941
[translated into English by Katy Derbyshire:
Elmiger, Dorothee (2011), Invitation To The Bold Of Heart, Seagull Press
ISBN 978-0-85742-019-0

This is a curious little book. Dorothee Elmiger’s debut novel Einladung an die Waghalsigen, translated by Katy Derbyshire as Invitation To The Bold Of Heart, is often billed as “postapocalyptic” and many German critics have expressed irritation at its constructed form, an irritation that I think is gendered. Elmiger’s novel sits somewhere between modernism and postmodernism, realism and metatextualism. It uses the tropes of exploration and of rugged reality in the same way postmodern novelists have done for a long time. But she does it without being male. One reads in review after review, the disappointment over the lack of realism, authenticity, of felt, emotional truth. A critic called it “arrogant” – but unless, like Gore Vidal, they reject postmodern literature out of hand, there is no obvious reason to be hostile to this book. Because whatever you might think of what it does, it does what it does with extraordinary skill. Sure, you can see the MLA-schooled writer here, you can see the excitement of a young novelist trying out a new idea, playing with literature, tradition and form, and not always hitting the mark. But of all the authors who graduated from Leipzig and Hildesheim, the awful German MFA mills, Elmiger’s book actually feels like she has something to say. There is a forcefulness to the book that dives deep into our shared sense of cultural heritage, and what it is lacking in emotional immediacy, the novel replaces with the emotional repositories of music, childhood and literary classics. This is on the surface a novel about a vanishing village in the mining areas of West Germany, but it is also a novel about loneliness and selfhood, about the way we as readers and writers need to connect – to reconnect – to a world sometimes burning up around us. And literature is an extraordinary way to do this. The writing is simple and direct, but it doesn’t slip into the shoddiness of style that is apparently taught in Hildesheim and Leipzig as a stand-in for simplicity and directness (see Hischmann, Fabian). Elmiger’s style is always weighed and exact, carefully shaped and directed. The titular invitation doesn’t come until the end of the book, but in a way the whole book is an invitation: to all of us. I’m glad Katy Derbyshire (whose taste in picking translations has to be commended. I already reviewed Inka Parei’s The Shadow-Boxing Woman on this blog, also a Derbyshire translation) accepted the invitation and translated the novel, a mere year after the original translation.

The book’s plot – itself a metatextual device – is swallowed by the many textual references (listed in the appendix), allusions and tricks the text plays with its readers. Like many German writers in the 2010s, Elmiger opts for an apocalyptic scenario (the list of writers to choose a science fictional/postapocalyptic setting includes young writers like Elmiger and Leif Randt, as well as stalwarts of German literature like Jirgl and Georg Klein.), but the predominant, I think, reference for the novel is one not named in its appendix: Arno Schmidt’s Nobodaddy trilogy. Like Schmidt, Elmiger’s scenario draws on the imagery and tropes of the postapocalypse, all while feeding it with elements of the real: there’s a true sense of place, in Schmidt’s case, the Lüneburger Heide specifically, in Elmiger’s case a sense of the Ruhrgebiet, the vast mining areas along the river Ruhr, comparable maybe to England’s north, from Newcastle to Manchester. The Ruhr area is so undertunneled with mining that occasionally streets will collapse. The novel is set in a village devasted by a fire where a coal seam underground has started burning and the burning has started affecting aboveground life. As a Goethe quote in the novel shows, this is not a fantastical invention, this sort of thing can happen – at the same time, Elmiger does not examine a specific event in the Ruhr area (as far as I can tell). Instead, she assembles a dusty, dirty, firm sense of an abandoned village in the area, affected by some real event. The postapocalyptic feeling is fueled by the strange sounding local catastrophe, but also by the images of an industrialized area that’s largely empty of people. There are still normal people beyond this particular village, normal life, but in this village, the narrator, her sister, and some occasional strangers are the only ones left. And this is important: postapocalyptic literature is often too liberal in deploying that metaphor to do a minor point. Elmiger by contrast is exceptionally precise: the very real abandonment of old industrial areas, abandoned by young men, by companies, and by the benevolent hand of the state is recreated here in miniature format. The book’s final invitation for the bold to come back, to join the sisters on their fantastical discovery of an underground river, in a way it is a call against the way capitalism has chewed up and abandoned the working class of vast areas – again, people living in the north of England will understand which social stratum I am referring to.

Another writer whose presence I feel in this book (and maybe that’s just because I am currently re-reading his work) is Andreas Neumeister. This writer, as of yet untranslated into English, is one of the few living German masters of prose, as in, writers from Germany, not writers writing in German. The deplorable fact that Neumeister has not won the Büchnerpreis yet, but Jan Wagner, the Billy Collins of contemporary German poetry, has, explains much about this country’s literary culture. Neumeister’s novels show a steady development towards a sense of how speech and language shapes our perceptions of places and memory in a way that I should write about at length some other time. When I was reading Elmiger’s novel, I got a sense of a similar investment in reality, language and literature from her. Neumeister uses music in interesting ways, employing both cultural connotations and rhythmical implications in his work, and Elmiger, though to a much less experimental and forceful degree, also uses music in her references (she quotes from Godspeed! You Black Emperor) and rhythms. That said, with Neumeister as with Schmidt, there’s always a connection of writer and place. But Dorothee Elmiger was born in a rural part of Switzerland. She’s not from the Ruhr area – and the sense of dedication to and evocation of a specific place isn’t part of an authentic discourse about a specific home. On the contrary: what we encounter is a discourse about home itself. Elmiger draws in her quotes from 19th century ethnologists to evoke a specific view of reality, turning the imperialist gaze of the profession to a piece of European heartland. The search for a secret river interiorizes the mythological narratives of 19th century imperialism without actually needing to overtly interrogate that tradition. Much of what she uses, even when she uses well known texts, relies on us understanding the texts immediately, implicitly. She marks quotes in the text, but some of the sources are obscure and she doesn’t offer a source for each quote (there’s a list of texts in the appendix, but no correlation of quotes and text). What she wants us to see, instead, is what musical and cultural quality each quote adds to the text, with its unique rhythms. We can sort of tell where everything is from, even if we cannot pinpoint the exact source. Elmiger is appealing to our cultural understanding, while making this method explicit in the marking the quotes as quotes.

Let me, finally, return to the question of autobiography and authenticity. I’m not doing this because I have a personal obsession with the topic – it’s because so much of the text is artfully woven around these questions. I just said that sources are marked but not named – that is true except for a small handful of exceptions, three of which are the epigraphs to the novel. Of those three, the longest is from Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit. Now, if you followed me so far, you might think it’s cited here because of the book’s central position in the canon of the classics of autobiographical literature – more than that: Dichtung und Wahrheit moves away from the immediate personal memory as the sole source for autobiography. Goethe in fact makes heavy use of other people’s statements and in his time, the book was criticized by some as too artificial. But the quote in the epigraph isn’t about life writing at all: it describes a coal seam burning and affecting life aboveground. The very “postapocalyptic” description of life in the novel is taken from this classic of autobiography, allowing Elmiger, as the author, to create a complex building of references, and hide herself and her remarkable voice in between the walls. It is, ultimately, the urgency that fuels the eponymous invitation, that makes the book worth reading, that makes it more than an idle game of postmodern chess. Indeed, another reference of the book, marked but not annotated, is from Ferdinand Bruckner’s play “Krankheit der Jugend” (“The Sickness of Youth”) – the play dates back to 1926, but its searing evocation of young love and desperation leads to occasional revivals on German stages. A character in it says “you either become a part of the bourgeoisie or you commit suicide.” This tension, between becoming part of the adult world as it is constituted by capitalism (Elmiger also quotes Engels), and of giving up on life, voluntarily leaving this world, is, in a way, also felt in this book. Trying to fight for their reality, their place, the characters of the novel marshal the magic of myth, of books, of our shared magical memory to save their village, but also to save them. A task that requires, truly, boldness.

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Jacques Chessex: A Jew Must Die

Chessex, Jacques (2009), Un Juif Pour L’exemple, Grasset
ISBN 09782253129615-4
[English edition: Chessex, Jacques, A Jew Must Die, Bitter Lemon Press
ISBN 9781904738510
translated by W. Donald Wilson]

I’ve long meant to write something about the Swiss novelist and poet Jacques Chessex, whose work I admire greatly. Today’s election pushed me to reread the last novel he published during his lifetime (it’s not his final novel, two additional novels were published posthumously), the searing and quite excellent A Jew Must Die. The sensational English title hides the matter-of-fact nature of the book. In French, its title is Un Juif Pour L’Exemple (~ “a Jew to make an example of”) and while some of the leading characters in the book are indeed subsumed by hate, the murder at the center of the book is based on political calculations, in addition to antisemitic hatred. The story had been told in a book and documentary in the 1970s (“Le crime nazi de Payerne – Un juif tué pour l’exemple”), hence the title of the original novel. The murder and its description is horrifying, but this is not about the murder per se. Chessex wrote a novel about the village he was born in and the social context in which a murder like this could have arisen. The novel shows us the complacent, maybe complicit village population, and a police force that doesn’t particularly care about the fate of this missing Jew. The reaction to the novel’s publication, finally, that treated Chessex with anger and derision, confirms the quiet anger that spurred Chessex to write a book about an event that both anticipates the Shoah and exemplifies much that led to it. Chessex’s writing in the novel is excellent, using a nominally neutral, sober style, but infusing it with passion, with occasional cascades of rhetoric and description. The description of the murder, with its three entrances, like a dark mirror of a fairy tale quest, is terrifying and compelling. Everything about this novel, except for its size, is enormous; towering above it all is the conscience and care of Chessex and his literary and historical conscience. I don’t think it is his best novel necessarily (from the ones I read, I think both L’Ogre and Hosanna are slightly better?), but it is a very good novel and certainly better than most fiction that is published about the Shoah these days. Chessex was a great writer and this novel shows why: a sharp intelligence, sense of style and conscience combined to create this dense but essential book. I have not read the translation, and while the change in titles makes me worry a bit, the novel doesn’t pose obvious linguistic puzzles, so I can’t see why the translation shouldn’t be fine. Read this book in whatever form you can find it. It is very good.

A Jew Must Die is based on a true story which the inhabitants of the village in question would love to forget. It’s ancient history! tells him one of the antisemites he portrays in the book upon meeting him 25 years after the events (though this particular person regrets nothing). An ardent Nazi, an antisemitic priest, and some farmers get together and decide to murder a Jew as a sign to all the other Jews who are sucking the lifeblood from the country, as they see it. Chessex is clear to distinguish between the general opinion and resentment towards Jews, which is generally shared in the area at the time, and the gruesome murder of the specific Jew in the novel, which is undertaken in secret by a small group of people. They decide to make an example of one of the Jews and pick a local merchant. After murdering him (in a spectacularly written scene, as I said), they cut him up and stuff him into milk cans like the one on the cover of the English edition. I’m not really spoiling you here – Chessex doesn’t rely on that kind of suspense. He introduces the Jew who will be murdered pretty late – he’s more interested in the social and psychological description of the murderers. Villages being villages, eventually they are found out, and convicted to jail sentences of varying lengths. The antisemitic priest fled the country and moved to Germany where he was arrested after the war and extradited to Switzerland. Yet there is no sense of relief in that. No jail can erase the tragedy from history – and moreover, the fellow villagers, murmuring assent to calumnies hurled at Jews in bars and casual conversations, have not been jailed or even prosecuted, not having committed a crime in the conventional sense.

While the events have happened as described, and all the people in the novel go by their real names, Chessex never makes the documentary character of the novel into a character in the book that competes with the horrifying events described within, in stark contrast to the vain self-reflections in books like Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which I like less with every year that passes. My too favorable review is here. There are a few asides, some conversations with the reader about plausibility but they don’t serve to undercut the story, they just underline the authorial urgency that powers the whole novel. Chessex never discusses or cites his sources, but since he was a boy when the murder happened, and the principal actors all went on trial, he has access to both firsthand knowledge and an obvious source of documentation. Yet by not discussing this, we are not asked to admire his skill or ability to research or present the information, we are free to deal with the nature of what happened. He devotes one single chapter to reflections about himself and his motivations in writing the book, but he closes with remarks on the murder victim’s funeral. The self-reflections are primarily meant to assuage the writer’s guilt – not in inventing details, but in writing fiction about the Shoah at all. “Je raconte une histoire immonde et j’ai honte d’en ecrire le moindre mot,” he writes, and it is a testament to his writing that we fully believe that he feels conflicted and shameful about writing this book. In Binet’s book, an assertion like that would have smelled of a performance of shame, and yet in Chessex writing, it becomes part of the urgent fabric of the book. Writing about the events makes the author complicit, in a sense, but coming from the same village, going to school with the children of the murderers already puts the author in a difficult situation. The novel ends on a prayer for forgiveness and we understand. There are people who are able to shrug off the way they are complicit in the horrors of this world, and it never fails to stun me. Chessex goes down a different path: understanding what happened and why it happened is step one to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

I may have reread the book today because of the possibility of Marine LePen becoming President of France, in connection with the French language of the book and the rural support of the FN in France. It seemed fitting. However. Chessex is a Swiss writer and the two books that most came to mind upon rereading this one are also Swiss. They are two plays by Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, two of Switzerland’s best writers in all of that country’s literary history. Both spent a good deal of their writing life criticizing Switzerland, and criticizing the Swiss role during the Third Reich. Frisch’s play Andorra, read by practically all German high school students at some point, focuses on the mob mentality of hate, as does Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit. Frisch doesn’t name anyone, in fact, his play is a thought exercise, not even naming Jews as the persecuted group, and Dürrenmatt’s play is even further removed from the historical background. Both, however, manage to describe with remarkable skill how volatile villages and small towns can be if given the right ideology and the right solution to perceived problems. However, their playful distance to historical events, the authorial insistence on cleverness and skill over historical urgency has always felt a bit off to me. If you look at Frisch’s reaction to and treatment of Celan, you should feel an even stronger sense of unease. Jacques Chessex wrote a novel that insists on the historical and local roots of the events that happened; you can’t abstract from the facts without losing some vital elements. Both Frisch and Dürrenmatt’s plays are important, but the extraordinary quality of Chessex novel becomes more pronounced when you compare it to the work of fellow French writers.

Chessex’s novel caused outrage in his home village. Insults rained, ranging from articles, speeches to a carnival float showing the writer pulling a bunch of milk cans out of which bones poked, in essence confirming much the author didn’t make entirely explicit. Payenne, even many decades after the murder, is still Payenne. There is a straight line leading from the events of the novel to us today, the contingency of history, and this book, quiet and angry, gruesome and sad, offers us a link. As a German, this link between 1940s hate and today’s population rings true, as does the wish to forget about history. My East German grandmother’s village used to have a small, but infamous concentration camp but nobody in the village ever mentions it or likes it being mentioned. It’s a village full of people complicit in unbelievable crimes against humanity where nobody ever talks about it, except to discuss tales of being sometimes hungry during war time. Today, the village’s youth is full of current or former neo-nazis and nobody sees the connection. German culture and literature performs shame, dishonest, with a slight self-righteous twist. It is what makes so much of German literature not written by immigrants so dull, as I’ve noted here and there. Care and honesty in this literature is rare these days. So as someone feeling the need for an écriture like that, Jacques Chessex’ achievement shines even brighter. Jacques Chessex was a fantastic writer and Un Juif Pour L’Exemple is an important, a great novel – and I’m not sure the title and layout picked by Bitter Lemon Press are entirely appropriate, but my misgivings are entirely overshadowed by the gratitude I feel for the fact that they translated this book to begin with. There’s also a movie out, directed by Jacob Berger. I have not been able to get my hands on a copy, virtual or physical, yet, but as far as I can tell, Berger includes the reaction to the novel as part of the movie’s story, which is an interesting and laudable decision. I cannot vouch for the movie but I can vouch for the novel. Read it. That is all. PS. If you have an idea how I can get my fingers on that dang movie, please tell me.

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Dana Grigorcea: Baba Rada

Grigorcea, Dana (2011), Baba Rada: Das Leben ist vergänglich wie die Kopfhaare, KaMeRu Verlag
ISBN 978-3-906739-67-0

dg_babarada-202x300I will say this. We all have blind spots for texts if they hit our sweet spot very precisely. I mentioned that in my review of the most recent John Irving novel. In those situations, we (or at least I) can just throw up our hands and say: hey, I like it. Is it good? I don’t know. Sometimes there are texts that come close to checking all the boxes, but don’t hit the sweet spot quite that exactly, so that you’re left with a vague unease. Jim Jarmusch’s most recent movie Only Lovers Left Alive is, for me, that kind of movie. On the one hand, it’s exactly the kind of movie that would appeal to me (take from that what you will), but I have enough of a distance, however tiny, to have some msigivings about the way it’s constructed (and Hiddleston’s acting). Dana Grigorcea’s debut novel Baba Rada has a very similar effect on me. Despite the author’s name and the book’s main title, both of which are obviously Romanian, the book itself is written in German. It’s a very unsubtle German, but suffused with a clearly understood sense of what it can mean to be poetic while writing prose. Make no mistake: this is prose clearly intended to be “poetic” – but Grigorcea pulls it off most of the time, using the inversions, odd subjects and unusual choices of verbs and adjectives to build atmosphere. That’s relevant because for much of the novel that’s the main task of the prose: building atmosphere. The plot happens almost imperceptibly. People die, marry, cheat, in what’s ultimately a fairly short a mount of time, but somehow we don’t feel hurried through a plot. Instead we see episodes bloom in each short chapter, as if staged. Into these short episodes and the overall plot Grigorcea puts ample servings of politics, history, and questions of gender, nation and travel. It’s far from a perfect book, but it’s the debut novel of a very young woman, and the potential here is immense. And as a book, even without the potential, it’s an absolutely lovely book, and if you are a translator looking for your next project, why not take a look at this book, which you should translate at your earliest convenience.

In the next weeks, I will review two or three or more novels written by immigrants (judging from the half written reviews on my desktop), but this is the only one written by a Romanian. Dana Grigorcea was born in Romania, where she studied German and Dutch languages and literature. At the age of 23 (she’s 35 now) she moved first to Belgium, then to Austria, where she finished her M.A.. Eventually she settled in Switzerland where she published her debut novel with a small Swiss publisher. As a Romanian writing in German, she’s part of a long tradition, but at the same time, she’s also part of a much younger tradition. Let me explain. For decades, German literature has been enriched by writers from Romania. Paul Celan and Rose Ausländer on the one hand, and more recent authors like Herta Müller and Oskar Pastior on the other. The commonality between Celan and Müller is that neither of them is ethnically Romanian. Both of them grew up speaking German. Paul Celan in the Jewish community of Czernowitz and Müller in the German community of the Banat. It’s been that way for a while until a more recent wave of writers from Romania arrived on the literary scene. Of the ones I read and remember, there’s Catalin Dorian Florescu, born in Timișoara, there’s Aglaja Veteranyi, born in Bucharest and finally there’s Dana Grigorcea. Interestingly, all three eventually settled in Switzerland. Florescu and Veteranyi are/were extraordinary writers and Grigorcea looks to continue this new tradition. But in a way, tracing this lineage is misleading. All of the writers in this paragraph wrote (or are still writng) in German primarily, and all of them do or did an exceptional job. Except for one odd mannierism in Grigorcea’s novel, there’s really no reason to tie any of them to their country of origin except in how it influences their choice of subject matter etc. If anything, these writers are better prose writers than their contemporaries (well, I have some misgivings re: Florescu), regardless of where they were born or which language they spoke in school.

Baba Rada is a strange little book. Split into tiny chapters, each of which has a title that’s a kind of summary of the events about to transpire, it tells us the story of an older woman/grandmother, whose life somewhere in the south of Romania, is about to be thoroughly shaken when an acquaintance (as well as the father of her grandchild) drops off a “terrorist”, and is subsequently murdered himself. The unfolding story involves her daughter, Baba Rada’s hopes for the future, the terrorist and Baba Rada’s long amorous history. Much more important than the story are the numerous small descriptions that Grigorcea peppers her book with, the odd characters and the shards of memory and dream that keep surfacing. Violence barely makes a dent in Baba Rada’s life, which is the life of a survivor. She knows how to deal with hardships and has acquired the reputation of a hard-nosed, quick-witted and sharp-tongued woman around the village. Some chapters are written from her perspective, some are not. Those that are not, invariably contain a phrase to the effect that “if Baba Rada had heard of this, she would have had something sharp to say.” If this description makes you infer a certain oral quality to the work, you’re both right and wrong. Yes, the book is clearly supposed to be spoken loud by at least two speakers. This is a story told, not a story written. This effect is buttressed by the limpid quality of the stories told. Digressions, strange details, angry remarks and sometimes seemingly superfluous characterizations abound. Early on, a female character is introduced through a long, evocative description, only to be unceremoniously murdered off stage two short chapters later. It’s equally important that we add a character to our mental map of the landscape as it is what eventually happens to said character. A minor male character remembers a long period of his life in less than three small pages, yet the author offers us two full paragraphs within that small bit of text to emblematically describe just one, admittedly brief, sexual act. Why? Because Grigorcea’s writing is so dense and evocative that these two paragraphs are enough for us to understand the great love between the two lovers of the scene, as well as the sense of tragic passion, and commitment to art, that pervades the whole book.

Grigorcea's forthcoming sophomore novel - a sober novel aabout a childhood in Bucharest

Grigorcea’s forthcoming sophomore novel – a sober novel about a childhood in Bucharest

It is admittedly a bit much sometimes. Baba Rada is enormously rich, which isn’t helped by the fact that despite all the hints at orality, the writing is actually highly artificial and self consciously “poetic”, sometimes in an almost saccharine way. Grigorcea makes the rookie mistake of debut novelists and tries to just cram everything into the short span of her books. From a highly literate style to light, humorous phrasings we find everything in the book, except badly written prose. The book might be overwritten in parts, but it’s never underwritten, never sloppy. The author’s attention is always with us. Which makes two odd artifacts more interesting. They concern translation. One is a stylistic quirk that the adept reader of literature written in- and translated into- German will recognize: the typical translation choices of translators to render certain Russian phrases into German. That’s one of the reasons that some reviewers contextualized this novel not with the Romanian culture of its setting, but with the Russian culture of some of its phrases. It’s am intriguing choice which also fits the Baba Rada / Baba Jaga correspondence, and one wonders whether it might not have been intentional. This muddying of the Romanian context is made even stronger by the author’s decision to employ a very strict idea of translation throughout the book. There are not “ethnic” phrases in the book, no token Romanian phrases, titles or terms. If not for the proper names, one would be excused for being confused about its setting. Instead of “mămăligă” (which is a kind of basic Romanian national dish), for example, the book uses “Maisbrei” throughout, which is actually slightly less exact, since Mămăligă is a kind of Maisbrei. The word “Mămăligă” however, literally translates to “Maisbrei”. The author translates everything like this, with imprecise results like this one and some downright strange ones. At one point, Baba Rada mentions her father, “the singer Romeo Fantastisch” – for a German audience, it’s just a name. But in Romania, there’s a exceptionally popular singer called Romeo Fantastik (click here if you dare). Speaking of music, there is the “popular song” that gives the book its subtitle. As far as I can tell, the song (unless it’s an invention by the author) is “Aşa-i viaţa, trecătoare” by Maria Ciobanu (click on this link at your own risk), and if that’s true, the author has intentionally stylized its refrain to be more artificial German. I could probably write another 1000 words on the utterly fascinating way Grigorcea obscures and toys with the Romanian contexts of her story (to give just one more example: at one point she refers to the daughter Ileana as having a “fairy tale princess name”, an odd claim for a German (or English) audience. For Romanians, however, this makes a ton of sense, because it feels like all Romanian fairy tale princesses are called Ileana). The book sometimes reads like translated from Romanian, sometimes it reads like written by a German who has never been to Romania. Linguistically, it’s genuinely exciting.

In a way, it’s fitting that German critics have read this book not just in Russian contexts, but also in German literary traditions. Every single review I found referred to Baba Rada as a “Mother Courage” type character, referring to Bertold Brecht’s epochal play. But it really goes beyond that. Brecht’s play, set in the 30 years’ war, is the story of a female merchant who travels through war ravaged Europe, trying to make her way by hook or by crook. In the process she loses all of her children, but survives herself. The parallels are clear. Like Mother Courage, Baba Rada is a survivor, and like Mother Courage, she sometimes plays fast and loose with her own offspring. But Brecht’s play is intensely didactic, intensely moral, really quite dour, to be honest. The vibrant, evocative novel that Grigorcea wrote seems hard to reconcile with that. Those critics where, not, however, far from the truth. Brecht’s play is in turn based on a classic baroque novel with the (very long) title Trutz Simplex oder Lebensbeschreibung der Ertzbetrügerin und Landstörtzerin Courasche, commonly known just by the name of its protagonist Courasche. It’s a much more intense, much less openly didactic episodic baroque masterpiece. The fitful nature of Grigorcea’s style makes much more sense if compared to the vibrant baroque picarescque novel. And it explains other things as well. Grigorcea’s novel is also, in a subdued but clear way, a criticism of the masculine ways of writing and conducting history. The cipher-like “terrorist”, and the unfulfilling, brutal and strange heterosexual affairs of the book contribute to this. Similarly, Courasche is a picaresque novel that was conceived by its author as a counterweight to his first novel, the more widely known Simplicissimus, a picaresque novel set in the same period, but narrated and led by a male character.

polaIts use of feminity as structuring the narrative, and frequently undercutting the male authority figures like cops is something that turns up in German emigré literature again and again. It’s so common that it now turns up in a reasonably executed by flat way in the books of deeply mediocre novelists like Katerina Poladjan’s disappointing debut novel In einer Nacht, woanders. Poladjan was born in Russia, and wrote a novel about the tension of living in Germany with roots in Russia. As the book progresses, we find ourselves in a dark swamp of sex, rape, jealousy and incest. Poladjan does not have the literary skill to moderate, to adapt and elevate these topics into a coherently written novel. We are left with the intention and the raw tropes of feminity, loss and sexuality. Grigorcea, by contrast, has created a book that, despite its rookie mistakes and the overdetermined writing, has still room for subtle discussions of politics and alterity. Behind her story is the question of American torture and secret CIA prisons (Romania housed some of them) and how they link up to Romania’s own totalitarian past. It employs the unnamed, dark figure of the terrorist as a figure of alterity that only functions if we read it in extratextual contexts. There are allusions that we don’t understand if we don’t know where he’s likely from, that he’s likely Muslim etc. As for Grigorcea’s use of death, religion and sexuality, I would not be surprised to learn that she has read or studied the work of Michael Taussig, especially Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. The way death and religion are used to destabilize easy signification, the way sacred spaces and discourses of healing, dying and resurrection keep coming up in the narrow frame of the book, it reminds me of Taussig’s powerful classic study. Everything is somehow connected in the book, which would have been a significantly better book if the author had had more patience, given herself more space, more words instead of piling interpretations one on top of the other.

Look. Baba Rada is a dense novel by a clever, talented and erudite author. It’s easy to read too much into these kinds of books, but it’s to this novel’s credit that there’s enough substance for me to make these readings. Overall, there’s just too much in this book. Too many odd characters, too much “poetic” phrasing, just too much that doesn’t get room to breathe. But this is a singular talent and a very good book despite all. Her new novel will be published in August. I, for one, can’t wait.

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Elias Canetti: The Voices of Marrakesh

Canetti, Elias (2005), Die Stimmen von Marrakesch, Fischer
ISBN 978-3-596-22103-5

In the decade after the second world war, Elias Canetti,winner of the Nobel prize for Literature in 1981, was then a somewhat unknown expatriate writer living in London, a man born in Bulgaria, who was raised in Switzerland and Austria and became a writer in the 1930s, just before the Nazis bundled existing forces and convictions in Germany and Austria and took power. In 1938, he left Austria and went to live in England, where he met many people; two of his friends, about to shoot a film in Morocco, invited him to come along. So, in 1954, Canetti joined a film crew and traveled to Marrakesh in Morocco. Over a decade later, in 1967 he published Die Stimmen von Marrakesch: Aufzeichnungen nach einer Reise, (translated into English by J.A. Underwood as The Voices of Marrakesch (Marion Boyars Publishers)) his travel account of that journey. The book, which describes an immersion into a palpably alien culture, is remarkably short at about a hundred pages. It consists of fourteen short chapters, several as short as three pages, each of which seems independent of the others, creating the impression of loosely connected stories, interlinked by a general sense of chronology and build, but these links are not necessary to understand and interpret each, let’s call them: vignette. These are short, concise description of a certain aspect of Marrakesh, of a certain event, smell or sound, of a certain person or group that the narrator met.

I admit, I have not always been the greatest of fan of Mr. Canetti’s work. When I first read it, I have found his autobiography, published in three volumes from 1977 to 1985, somewhat overlong, rambling and self-indulgent, although fascinating and full of arresting episodes and images. I have come round to it in the meantime, appreciating it for the masterpiece it is. I am still not convinced by much in his major philosophical non-fiction work, the massive (and certainly brilliant) Masse und Macht, published in 1960. I cannot, however, find fault with Die Stimmen von Marrakesch. Each of its chapters is written with a precision and economy of means that makes them less like reportage than like prose poems. In the few pages over which Canetti has spread his account, there is enough material to fuel books twice as long. At the same time, reading it, one doesn’t feel the economy, the book has a sumptuous, easy feeling to it, evoking the Suks and mosques of Marrakesh, its merchants, mendiants and its mad people. All of this is structured by an emotional and spiritual hunger, an openness to shock, to violence, to the Other, that is directly transmitted to the reader, who cannot put down this slim book until he has devoured every last page and then puts it away, deeply moved and in deep thought. At least that’s what happened to me.

There are many concerns in Die Stimmen von Marrakesch, but the most central one, as in all travel accounts, is the yearning to understand this alien country, to read it in a way so it makes sense to you. Canetti differs from many writers in that he doesn’t want to understand it, he doesn’t learn the language or get a translator whom he drags around with him on his tours through the narrow and dusty streets of Marrakesh. At one point he outright declares his preference to hear speeches, prayers and entreaties with his bare ear, so to say, to hear the sounds, the raw emotions as they are rasped through the vocal chords of the natives. That said, Canetti speaks French and English perfectly, and most natives can understand and speak French, so his communication with the natives, inasmuch as food and similarly important issues are concerned, is not impeded in a significant manner. His decision not to learn Arabic only concerns his observations, his scrutiny of his environment. He may not be driven by a wish to understand, but his eye is that of a classic ethnologist, and Marrakesh is his village. Nothing enters or leaves this village except him and others like him.

This immobility is encapsulated in his account of a destitute and clearly desperate woman at a bar, who is being pimped out to rich and ugly men by her lover. The men need to be ugly so his jealousy is not awakened. She gets beaten if she recoils from sex and she gets beaten if she takes pleasure in it. Meanwhile, her lover has his own income as the gay lover of the son of a local potentate. This son has had to leave the country at the behest of his father and the strange couple is thus left to their own devices, which mostly means a live in poverty. He won’t leave, and she can’t. Canetti’s village is in a state of stasis and even though foreigners pass through and can even become part of it all, the city has an internal logic all its own: everything points back to Marrakesh. Canetti, in passing, mentions money, touches upon issues of wealth and poverty, implies exploitative mechanisms, hints at problems brewing beneath the surface, but hints they remain. Canetti’s book isn’t a journalistic account of a country and it neither possesses nor aspires to possession of a journalistic or even scientific precision.

In these accounts there is always a danger, to an extent inescapably, of colonizing the alien, the strange country, to read it in terms of your anatomy tables and take heed not of the country as it meets you, but to read it only in terms of difference, to remark upon that which is strange, with reference to one’s own everyday givens. Many of these accounts go even further than that: by not reflecting one’s own situation, situatedness, they colonize everything off the self-established norm as deviant. One luminous, problematic example of such a writing is Goethe’s massive, brilliant account of his travel to Italy, which implicitly treats women, effeminate men and similar ‘deviants’ as symptoms of the foreign country. In Die Stimmen von Marrakesch Canetti shows himself quite aware of this problem, quite aware, too, of the alterity of that other country. Aware of the anatomical function of language, of the interpretative and defining power of translation, Canetti decides to skip language. With an enormous spiritual appetite, he opens himself up to the sounds of Marrakesh.

There are the noises of begging children, chiding, playing, laughing, begging, even instructing him how to perform a religious ritual. There is a madwoman on a balcony, who whispers to him, words in different shades the tone of which he fails to read in a consistent manner. The chapter that is about her shows a progression from bare listening to an effort to understand, which makes him, in the end, read her as a madwoman. The interconnectedness of some processes of thinking and the establishment of certain categories is demonstrated by chapters like this, where we see Canetti’s thoughts move from gentle questing, questioning, to a full interrogation. Whenever he enters this last state, he either starts to categorize people in a way that he, quite obviously, is himself uneasy to do, but which may be, to an extent, inevitable, or, as in a later chapter, he is moved to disgust by what he readily recognizes as his own morals (and there is quite a bit of patronizing inherent in the explicit stating of this, too).

None of these are flaws of this, really, flawless book. These are flaws inherent in the process, and it’s one of the book’s main strengths that it provides a structure and a context for these flaws that it makes them part of its rhetorical thrust and construction. The titular voices appear and reappear in different contexts (a screaming camel in the powerful first chapter that is dragged to be slaughtered is another memorable one), but as the book progresses, we find that they gravitate around two centers. One is belief, the other is fear. Belief is always present in that country, which wears its convictions on its sleeve. There is the belief in God, transmitted through public prayers and through numerous beggars who repeat the word Allah, all day, chanting themselves into a trance. All this, Canetti feels, is powered by a general belief in the power of the word. When he discovers a corner of the town where the story tellers gather a large following around them, and the writers sit stoically, waiting for people to service with their pen, he is profoundly humbled. His mistrust in language, in words, well-funded though it may be, appears to make him a coward, compared to these people who throw their words into the air, or rather: their voices. His emigrant’s voice, filtered through several layers of language, is hidden, artificial, his tongue divulges its truths only with care, bit by bit, as evidenced by the temporal distance between the journey and the publication of this highly artificial book, which, as the title also tells us, is an account after a journey. Not of, not during, no, after. As if he needed the time to render the unspoken, unspeakable, into literature.

Fear certainly plays a role in this. The two central chapters are not about Marrakesh proper, they are about the Jewish community in the city, in the mellah. Canetti is astonished by the fact that Marrakesh is a Jewish melting pot, where Jews from all nations live, peacefully, side by side. The mellah, the Jewish quarter, is a colorful, rich island of Jewishness in a Muslim country. One of the most powerful descriptions in the book is in the first of the two chapters handling the mellah. Canetti describes the Jews he sees sitting by the road and describes how they all watch foreigners, unobtrusively, carefully. The merchants among them possibly in the hope of finding customers, but that is not the main reason, Canetti decides. These people are afraid, their whole existence is governed by the need to be careful, to live in a way that doesn’t challenge the natives and keeps them safe. This story is one that we have heard many times over, by Jews from all over the world. Fear is all over the map, in Die Stimmen von Marrakesh, Canetti’s account of that town at a certain, pivotal point in its history, but it is a way of life in the mellah. Is the publication, in 1967, at an important point in the history of modern Israel, when its Arabic neighbors attacked the young Jewish state for the second time in a few years, accidental? Canetti describes the pride and happiness of Marrakesh’s jews not for being respected and/or equals but for not being persecuted. The fear, the care, that the Jews along the street in the mellah manifest, is something that marked Jews all around the world.

In the end, their fear and their beliefs (well-known to Canetti as they are) and the other citizens’ beliefs, alien and beguiling, full of a confidence that Canetti can only envy them, all these are equally important to the construction of this marvelous book. It turns out that the hunger and appetite behind it, and the unspeakable things Canetti found, were in need of the precision and poetical prowess that Canetti brought to his travel accounts. Although I did not want this book to end, it appears to be in such a perfect equilibrium, that I could not wish it to be any longer. It’s perfect. Read it.

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Wild at Art: Gottfried Keller’s “Der Grüne Heinrich”

Keller, Gottfried (2007), Der Grüne Heinrich (Erste Fassung), Deutscher Klassiker Verlag
ISBN 978-3-618-68023-9

This extraordinary novel, translated into English as “Green Henry”, is generally acknowledged to be one of the great novels of World Literature (we’re not getting into Canonization etc. here, a’ight?), and while I find ranking literature difficult, especially over a large period of time, after finishing “Green Henry” I could not but concede the justness of such a categorization. Please take heed: there are two editions of “Green Henry”, one published in 1854/55, with Gottfried Keller, at 33, still a young, energetic man. The second edition was published 25 years later, its author a settled, paunchy old man, almost as old as me. I read both editions a dozen years ago, this time I only reread the first edition. There are significant changes between the two editions and much of what distinguishes the first edition has been changed in the second, especially the dark ending, “dark as a cypress”, as Keller himself put it. I advise anyone who considers reading this book against reading the second edition first. Alas, I have not been able to find out which edition the English translation is based on.

“Green Henry” is not a perfect novel, far from it. Compared to perfect novels such as “The Good Solder”, this one is almost a formless, youthful, overcooked piece of prose. Keller was writing and drafting the novel while the presses were running, his publisher taking the drafts straight off his hands. Immediately after publication Keller expressed his distaste with the outcome of his work. He planned and drafted this novel for over ten years, assembling odds and ends, shifting parts to and fro. The only thing that stayed constant over all these years was the basic idea and the ending. When explaining why he did not discard the novel instead of trying to revise it into a bearable edition, Keller said that there are parts of the novel which he cannot explain, which he cannot reproduce. There are parts of the novel that “one can only have once, and only give once”, as he wrote. After finishing the novel, the reader will feel himself able to point to phrases, chapters, scenes the writer may have meant. I think this says a lot about the book and the impression it makes on its readers.

The plot is not particularly noteworthy, per se. As a classic Bildungsroman it follows the general rules of the genre. It follows Heinrich Lee, a young man from Zürich, through the first stages of his education, academical and sentimental, up to the dark last pages. One of many remarkable aspects is the structure. After twoscore pages Keller inserts an autobiographical récit. It is referred to as a “Youth history” (Jugendgeschichte) in the novel and makes up roughly half of the length of the complete novel. This section is written in the first person singular; the narrator is Heinrich himself and throughout the rest of the novel he carries the manuscript of the Jugendgeschichte everywhere with him. When he, in the later stages of the book, travels back to Zürich, poor and disgraced, he owns nought but the clothes on his back and the manuscript that contains his Jugendgeschichte. The beginning and the rest of the novel is narrated by an omniscient third person narrator, who is, true to the time, quite judgmental, but he is just judgmental enough to balance the cocky voice of Heinrich which has accompanied us for such a long time. The novel as a whole sometimes feels like one of the long, elaborate dreams related during its course, but it feels eerily balanced. Characters move in and out of it; the Jugendgeschichte starts at the beginning of one volume and ends in the middle of another; the third person narrator is sometimes annoyingly interested in Heinrich’s thoughts and feelings and sometimes he barely registers the existence of these things in Heinrich, but it all, miraculously, seems to cohere. And it’s Keller’s voice and thinking that makes it cohere, not the plot, not the writing and certainly not Heinrich the self-important twat.

Heinrich is driven by an ardent wish to become an artist; he has considerable talent and finds at home in Zürich several teachers to help him on his way. When the Jugendgeschichte sets in he is without a father. His father used to be a famous and brilliant man, and his fame is both a help and a hindrance for Heinrich in his days in Zürich. Heinrich’s mother is a dear, caring, thrifty woman, one of the most endearing characters I have ever encountered in literature. She manages their household money, pays for Heinrich’s lectures and, when he’s of age, endows him with enough money to enable him to move to Munich where he intends to pursue a career as a professional artist. The Jugendgeschichte suffers from having a first person narrator, because Heinrich (the protagonist) is a typical teenager, a know-it-all, who pities himself almost as often as he envisions a golden future; the fact that Heinrich (the narrator) wrote the Jugendgeschichte shortly before leaving for Munich, casting judgment upon his younger self, is making it worse.

There are two basic concerns in the Jugendgeschichte: art and love. Heinrich is a typical teenage boy who vacillates between pining for girls, which includes writing poems and drawing pictures of and for the loved one, and acting cool, in order not appear vulnerable towards the girl who obviously cannot feel anything for him. Granted, my own youth may have been a particularly pathetic specimen (which I still hesitate to turn to for in my writing, no matter how much I’d like to tap that source) but not much appears to have changed, once you subtract obvious (positive) changes in a society’s mores, such as teenage sexuality and the influence of Christian thought on your average thinking teenager. In this, we never see Heinrich grow up. In his infatuations and affairs with girls in Munich, he never stops being his teenage self. If a Bildungsroman charts a maturing of the main character, not just an education, “Green Henry”, I think, violates that rule. His behavior towards the first girl in his life and his behavior towards the last girl are strangely similar. Heinrich, called nicknamed ‘green’ because of the green clothes his mother sews for him, remains green for all his emotional life. He’d rather evade confrontations than talk or sit through them. If he has the opportunity to not open himself up to hurt, he will take it. As someone who can understand the logic of that, I could have told him that hurt is not easily put off one’s tracks; someday, it will catch up with you. Heinrich has this lesson driven home to him again and again yet he doesn’t learn, he remains green Henry.

It is completely different with art. Art, for Heinrich, is a continuous learning process. First he learns from teachers, then, upon visiting relatives in the country, he starts to learn from nature. The Jugendgeschichte is crammed with Heinrich’s ruminations about what real art should and should not do, it discusses the relation between art and nature, between copying a picture and creating one oneself. Time and again we see Heinrich torn between the easy solution of drawing an idea, a cliché ridden image, with no connection to the natural world, and what he sees as the ethos of art, trying to provide as truthful a picture of nature as possible. We find that his relatives in the country, even his peasant uncle who has not seen much art in his life, can easily spot the artifice, the ‘wrong’, the dishonest kind of art. All this is spread heavily throughout the Jugendgeschichte, and it’s tedious. As mentioned, we have two Heinrich’s in the Jugendgeschichte, Heinrich the protagonist and Heinrich the narrator, one more self-important than the other, and their combined odds and ends of education add up to this huge amount of vapid lecturing. The tediousness, however, has a function in the novel. We’re supposed to feel the stupendous amount of youth that lords over all of Heinrich’s actions so as to feel him growing in the second half of the book.

And, in contrast to Heinrich’s emotional life, his understanding of his own creativity and his art really matures and grows. His career as an artist never takes off because Heinrich isn’t willing to make it work, but at the same time, cut off from his home, cut off from nature, he digs deep into his creative urge and instincts. He understands, what works for him and what doesn’t. In a clear contrast to the Jugendgeschichte we barely see him drawing, painting, reflecting. What we get are dreams, where the cultural history of his country and the angsty swamps of his unconscious play out, we see him try to wake up after a year of doing nothing, try to tap into his creativity again, breathe into himself. In a pivotal scene he sits down to draw but he produces an abstract painting. His friends ridicule him, but neither they nor Heinrich himself can help being affected, if only for a moment, by the power of the painting, which is subsequently discarded. It does not fit the idea of good art, and good art, then and now, is equal parts accomplishment and market value. Heinrich admires crassly commercial artists, who are able to make any idea or sujet work with little effort: they just put their usual spin on it and it sells and sells and sells. Heinrich, on the contrary, is still searching for the perfect means to express himself.

Much of this novel seems run-of-the-mill, after all, it’s 1854, some of the most important and well known Bildungsromane have been written and provide a subtext for the novel: Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, Wieland’s Agathon or Jean Paul’s Siebenkäs. Keller clearly has no ambition to better them or to innovate. This novel turns, to look not at the world or literature or things like that, it turns inward. The way that the Jugendgeschichte is strewn over the 4 volumes in which the novel was published originally is significant: Heinrich’s quest is clearly also a formal imperative for this novel, which doesn’t present one long, convoluted plot as a series of skirmishes or battles with Heinrich’s art or himself, and he loses all of them. How ironic that, midway through the novel, he is to win the only actual fight he is in. Heinrich’s character makes us doubt his accounts in the Jugendgeschichte, too often Heinrich appears to exonerate himself from tougher charges; so while we read about his youth, we are constantly doubting the veracity of the Heinrich’s reports of the events relayed to us through his voice and when we watch him bumble through Munich, we are armed with the discussion of nature and artifice, shaken by the long dream sections which sometimes appear to be seamlessly blending into reality, and we start to doubt the evidence of our own ears, which makes for fascinating reading, although you don’t HAVE to read the novel that way. It doesn’t force any reading on you; you are perfectly free to read it as an example of the Bürgerlicher Realismus (bourgeois realism, a genre that dominated especially German 19th century novels in the second half of that century (Same time next week this blog will feature a review of another famous specimen of that genre, Wilhelm Raabe’s popular novel “Der Hungerpastor”)). Fact is, it drew me right in and especially the first and last third just flew by. Highly recommended (but only the first edition, remember!).