Nora Gomringer: Moden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Martina Clavadetscher: Knochenlieder

Clavadetscher, Martina (2017), Knochenlieder, Edition Bücherlese
ISBN 9783906907017

Sometimes a book is so surprisingly good that you stop reading and go online to look up what other books the author has written and how on earth this is the first time you read their work. At least for me, this is sometimes the case. This happened to me when I read Martina Clavadetscher’s debut novel Knochenlieder, a novel about inheritance, language, uncertain futures and how communities persevere. This is a very good book. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Swiss Book Award and should have won it, too. Clavadetscher employs all kinds of registers, from poetry to cyberpunk, from JG Ballard to fairy tales. Her novel, the title of which can be translated as “Bone Songs,” is part of the current wave of German-language dystopias, but she manages to produce a text that is both science fiction – and not. There are portions that seem a bit off as science fiction, strangely anachronistic discussions of digital matters that are supposed to take place roughly 60 years in the future, but sound outdated today. But Clavadetscher incorporates these anachronisms as a gesture, as an element of the text that tells us that this isn’t really about the future. Knochenlieder is about the linguistic way we construct the future, the way we conceive and shift our sense of home, our sense of ourselves. In this, Clavadetscher ressembles no writer as much as JG Ballard, whose work is echoed all over Knochenlieder. Ballard had also always been uncomfortable with suggestions that he wrote prescient literature. Ballard’s work engages our collective memories as humans, and the collective memory of life on earth. Clavadetscher’s novel is more personal, and she doesn’t appear to subscribe to complicated theories such as those that undergird Ballard’s novels, but it has been awhile since I’ve read a novel about the future that so powerfully engages our present and past instead. And on top of all this, Clavadetscher’s language, despite the occasional slip into sentimentality, is clever, musical and sharp – and should be fairly easy to translate because she achieves all that with a more limited vocabulary than you’d expect of what is essentially a novel in verse. Knochenlieder is always a balancing act – had it been written with less skill, it could have failed in numerous ways. Instead, it seems very successful in what it attempts to do. A good writer. A good book. Read it. Translate it.

I mean, this is not to say that the book doesn’t have blind spots, but its clever construction makes you at least question whether what you see are indeed actual blind spots or whether you diagnosed something intentional as a blind spot. The novel has three parts, set in a chronological sequence. The first part is set in 2020, so in the very near future, in a small commune of sorts, a group of people who decided to escape the increasing awfulness of the world by going mostly off the grid. This commune is a group of families, who informally renamed themselves after colors and painted their houses that way. Clavadetscher combines different things in her commune. They are off the grid, but in a very specific way that distrusts not just the increasingly unsafe world (there’s a war going on outside, we eventually learn), but they also fit a kind of state of mind that is common today too: people who distrust modern medicine, focus on “natural” remedies and solutions. If you look at these communities today, they are often white, privileged, and focusing on notions of family and heritage that are politically unpleasant sometimes. When the “Green” family, long unable to conceive, manage to engender a pregnancy with the help of medicine, other members of the community attack them for introducing the “stachelkind” – a barbed or thorned child, an unnatural, cursed child. This phrasing recalls, in fact, the recent-ish comments by Sibylle Lewitscharoff, an important contemporary German novelist. In a speech in 2014, she referred to the abominations of children conceived in unnatural ways, like in vitro fertilization. She called them “Halbwesen,” chimeras: “They are not quite real in my eyes, but dubious creatures, half human, half artificial Godknowswhat.” Since Knochenlieder was originally written in 2015, and its themes overlap with some themes of Lewitscharoff’s novels, it’s hard not to see a connection. Mind you, I think the scope of criticism is wider than one novelist: it’s about a problematic mind-set.

Clavadetscher’s choices here are intriguing. Setting up such a community could have made her novel approach fiction like Sarah Hall’s good The Carhullan Army, stories about communities off the grid, often governed by a fundamentalist secular ideology of sorts. Instead, she barely touches on the ideology, thus asking us to implicitly associate them with the groups and ideologies we already know. She focuses on the human aspects, because ultimately, her novel is about how we relate to one another and how we make a home with one another. Additionally, the science fiction doesn’t end with this (near-)future community. The more science fictional elements, including some not-quite-right technobabble, follow this. Doing this creates a tension. On the one hand, the second part, set in a metropolis, among hackers and computers, makes the simple, poetic, pastoral first part resonate as a kind of ideal, idyllic place before modernity breaks in. At the same time, we are shown that it is already broken – not by modernity but by lack of empathy, love and community spirit. Clavadetscher evades simple dichotomies, lifting her discourse into language itself.

And indeed, the language of the novel is remarkable. Clavadetscher writes a prose that is lyrical, but not excessively so. She uses line breaks to speed up and slow down her narrative. It allows her to create palpable, sensuous scenes of action and seduction. Her language allows for a clear treatment of hallucinations as well as of realistic observations without really including a linguistic shift, there’s enough room in her language for both. She does, and it’s almost impossible not to, I think, with this kind of writing, sometimes slip into sentimentality as well as a kind of poeticism that echoes Günter Grass’s very specific phrasings extremely strongly. But those moments are an exception. Novels in verse are often either banal or horribly burdened by self-consciously poetic language. Clavadetscher’s prose has a purpose, there are muscles working under the surface, and the effect is extraordinary. One such effect is that the poetic and allusive style presents a kind of discursive “home,” a fixed point of emotional reference as the world described degrades into dystopian awfulness. As the novel slowly turns into the search of a daughter for her mother, Clavadetscher increases the amount of fairy tale motifs, enriching and affirming the book’s basic linguistic direction as the lingistic search for home starts corresponding to a narrative search for home. My intuition to search for a language based solution to some of the novel’s intricacies is confirmed, I think, by what I called “technobabble” in the novel’s middle section. The protagonist of the second section is a hacker, but written the way old people imagine hackers. It uses current vocabulary and offers a kind of hacking that we do now, and indeed have done for a while now. The novels and movies of the 1980s and early 1990s, though more mid-career Neal Stephenson than William Gibson, are clearly echoed in these lines, though brought slightly up to date. The 1995 movie Hackers, which isn’t actually that awful of a portrayal of hacking resonates throughout. In no way would hackers 60 years from now go about their business the way that is described in the book. However, I don’t think we’re supposed to read this as a realistic hard SF speculation. Yes, it sounds outdated for 2017 – but it’s supposed to sound that way, I suspect. The novel pushes its readers onto the level of language, allusion and discurse.

If I was reticent about plot details, it’s because the plot of the book is good fun, I think, and there’s no need to spoil it. Ultimately, Clavadetscher has written an engaging, intelligent book that is more original that the vast majority of contemporary literature in German, particularly the prize winning kind written by non-immigrant writers. The Swiss Book Award was won, eventually, by Jonas Lüscher’s most recent awful novel, one of many praised and shortlisted novels about male professors and their righteous ruminations. Knochenlieder doesn’t really add to important political discourses, despite alluding to a future with camps and wars. Nevertheless, there’s something at stake here, this is literature that takes risks, that is fun to read and sometimes disturbing to ponder. This is an unusual and exciting voice. Translate it already.

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Melinda Nadj Abonji: Fly Away, Pigeon

Abonji, Melinda Nadj (2010), Tauben Fliegen Auf, Jung und Jung
ISBN 978-3-902497-78-9
[Translated into English by Tess Lewis
Abonji, Melinda Nadj (2014), Fly Away, Pigeon, Seagull Books
ISBN 9780857422125]

German language literature is full of tales of migration – often these are among the better books published in the language. Melinda Nadj Abonji is a Swiss writer and performer, and her second novel, Fly Away, Pigeon, is such a tale of migration and identity. It was also a runaway success – winning two German language book awards, garnering praise from critics and readers alike. And it’s been translated into English. There’s no doubt: Fly Away, Pigeon is a lovely book. It is very smart, well written, and moving. And yet – at slightly above 300 pages it is twice the size of Abonji’s 2004 debut novel and her third novel, published just this year. That her sophomore novel is sandwiched between two such significantly shorter publications suggests that writing novels longer than 300 pages doesn’t come naturally to the author. Indeed, the novel sometimes feels a bit padded, a bit overlong, stuffed here and there with slightly too much detail, slightly too much sentimentalism. It’s true, the novel tells a story about the dissolution of Yugoslavia, about communism, about immigration, about integration, and about the way all these stories contribute to identity formation. You’d think this does require some space – but Abonji doesn’t always use the space well. Her debut novel, while a bit flashy and melodramatic, showed the author’s skill for using allusion and fragments to tell a deeper story than the words on the page appear to tell. Somehow, despite the fragmented, back-and-forth seesaw structure of Fly Away, Pigeon, one never feels that a story was left untold, or was told only partially. It feels as if we were told everything, exhaustively. And yet, obviously, we have not, but something about Abonji’s calm style in the novel makes us feel as if we are told a full complete story. I feel framing this as something bad, because I wanted the book to be more. At the same time, the kind of story it tells is fairly unique and Abonji has a clear sense of how languages and nationalism and identity interact. The book is very clever and a very pleasant read, despite some harrowing stories within its pages. I guess this is a kind of literary comfort food. A well executed story with a relevant subject, by a writer in control of her prose and her thinking. Honestly, it’s hard not to recommend this book.

In some ways, Fly Away, Pigeon provides a contrast to some of the German language books I reviewed here recently. It discusses the way an immigrant family attempts to become Swiss citizens, a theme that also comes up in Meral Kureyshi’s Elefanten im Garten. But in that book, the process is humiliating and alienating, whereas Abonji’s characters are accepted by their village. You may not know this, but in Switzerland, the individual communities get a vote as to whether foreigners living among them get Swiss citizenship. And these villages are quick to reject foreigners if they, for example, wear, O sin of sins, sweatpants around town. Or if they don’t like to go for hikes in the mountains. Or if they are vegan. As we know from Swiss writers like Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and from the success of the SVP party, bigotry bubbles just under the surface in Switzerland. But Abonji’s novel is like a calming balm, in contrast to Kureyshi’s irritant. Abonji’s family is accepted, and the handful of bigots in the village are presented as exceptions. The reason Abonji’s family does so well can maybe be traced to another difference. In contrast to Barbi Marković’s Superheldinnen, the family at the heart of Abonji’s novel are stable and secure economically. They worked their way up to owning a café in their Swiss town, overcoming early skepticism and gaining economic and social success. It’s hard to believe that Abonji’s novel is particularly representative of the immigrant experience – but then again, as a novel it doesn’t have to. And this choice of economic comfort – it’s clearly a choice. Because in her debut novel Im Schaufenster im Frühling, Abonji discusses a much more difficult, marginalized existence. Migration only enters the novel in passing, but it is connected to that novel’s themes of exploitation, loneliness and violence. There are no rose tinted glasses in that book, which packs a punch, but is also freighted with the melodrama and eagerness of a debut novel. It follows, then, that the choice to depict a family rising to comfortable middle class status has a specific literary value rather than merely reflecting the author’s views on immigration.

As it turns out, Abonji uses the calm waters of the immigration narrative to hide some darker stories below the surface, lifting them out of the water one by one as the novel progresses. This allows her to focus on certain issues without having to to make them stand out against a loud background. In many ways, Abonji’s calm look on language and nationalism makes her work an apt comparison to the many German takes on immigration by writers with no immigration background. In those books, there’s often a disinterested, distanced, almost pathologizing view of that Other, the migrant and their culture. It’s not that it’s critical and negative – it’s often benevolent, in the most condescending fashion. That condescension explains why critics can feel insulted when a foreigner, who won one of their coveted awards, isn’t properly grateful to their Germanic munificence. Abonji’s novel shares some of the distanced intellectualism, but she never condescends to her characters. We are always aware that their issues are important, urgent and are in no need of anthropological curiosity. Abonji approaches the whole topic intellectually – in another essay, published by Volltext, she discusses her multilingualism, and starts toying with language, layering puns and allusions. She does the same in her novel: almost bemused, characters remark on the way words in one language echo words in other languages, she uses multilingualism for puns, for allusions and the like. But within the glitter of language games, there’s always the core of identity and belonging.

The family at the heart of Fly Away, Pigeon are Hungarians from the Vojvodina, which is an autonomous region in Serbia today, and was then part of Yugoslavia. The father of the family in the novek was horribly mistreated by Tito’s pseudo-communist dictatorship (the grandfather was tortured and interned in a work camp), and doesn’t leave out any opportunity to malign the man and his reign. He’s also our main window into how the novel views nationalism. He views himself as Hungarian, and often praises the food and cultural achievements by Hungarians, but whenever he visits the Balkan, he brags with the cleanliness and efficiency of Switzerland. He equates Yugoslavia with Serbians, who he hates with a fiery passion. His view of his nationality is one where he as an individual is front and center – his identity isn’t constructed by nationalist discourses: it’s the opposite, he constructs national narratives to fit his identity, to distinguish himself from others, to elevate himself and denigrate others. Even if I may make it sound bad, the book doesn’t judge him for it, but on the contrary uses him to make a larger point about how identities and national narratives interact. The question is always the amount of agency an individual has in the overall scheme. The father of the family in Abonji’s novel has the most agency, the most freedom to act as he sees fit. Meral Kureyshi’s characters, by contrast, have much less agency, have to undergo more pressure and parry more attacks. Even within Abonji’s novel there are differences. The protagonist, the daughter of the family, is much less able to move between national identities. In fact, at one point a love affair appears to trap her between loyalties and nationalisms. That the book ends with her moving out (no spoilers there) supports my feeling that some of the book’s themes are about individual identity and freedom. These tensions are brought to a boil during the Yugoslav Wars, which happen at the same time that the family receives plaudits for integrating so beautifully into the life of the Swiss town they live in.

Another theme of the novel is memory. Melinda Nadj Abonji herself moved to Switzerland at the age of 5. Her memories of Yugoslavia are by necessity flawed, but the novel provides a model for how first and second generation immigrant memory can work. A tapestry of languages (the novel is written in standard German, but it contains words and phrases in Hungarian, French, English and Swiss German) foregrounds the oral nature of the novel’s narrative. Most of the novel’s stories are not told in flashbacks, but are told to someone. There are three generations of storytellers in the book, and between them, they create this curious amalgam of memory, with the book itself, published years after the end of the Yugoslav Wars, an extra layer. The optimistic view of culture, of the possibilities of immigration and the endurance of memories are not undercut by doubts, cynicism or criticism. Explicitly, Abonji presents many of the stories of the past as constructed, sometimes offering conflicting versions of the same story, but the higher (or deeper, depending on your choice of metaphor) truth survives even this construction. In this time of anxieties, with its rising tides of bigotry, the calming voice of Fly Away, Pigeon is welcome. We will go on, we can go on, and we will talk to each other about where we have been so we can see where we need to go. Do I have some skepticism? Sure, but this is well executed literary comfort food, with a pulsing core. Before you pick up someone like Ingo Schulze, go and read Melinda Nadj Abonji.

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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.)

Meral Kureyshi: Elefanten im Garten

Kureyshi, Meral (2017), Elefanten im Garten, Ullstein
ISBN 978-3-548-28849-9

This is a good book. Meral Kureyshi is a Swiss-Albanian writer who is part of that country’s Turkish minority. At the age of nine, she moved to Switzerland, where she still lives and writes. Her novel Elefanten im Garten, which someone should be translating into English ASAP, talks about a girl with similar experiences. At the center of it are the feelings of displacement and alienation that accompany many refugee narratives. The novel’s protagonist is a refugee, who, when she loses her father, goes into a bit of a tailspin, reevaluating her life. The novel recounts that life in fits and starts, moving back and forth through time, offering us a disjointed chronology that reflects the disjointed biographies of many people who have left their home without being allowed to find a new home in the place they arrived. Kureyshi offers us a novel written in a poetic style, although you can tell the MFA trained writer in the self-conscious way she sometimes presses the poetic elements to the point of offering the occasional Coelhoite banality in the guise of a moving sentence. The flourishes that permeate the book are not its best element – she is best when she allows her observations to stand on their own, but she also has an interesting gift for structure and how to make stories like hers cohere. Her tendency to offer a pretty poetic bow to the sharp unsalted substance of her tale is regrettable, because it keeps us from finding her voice in the text as much as we should – it also invites comparison with other, somewhat better texts and writers, the most obvious of which -to me- was Aglaja Veteranyi. Veteranyi was exceptionally skilled at giving us a moving tale with political relevance, where poetical flourishes enhance rather than cloud the author’s work. You can get Veteranyi’s slim oeuvre in English, and one wonders whether the loud echoes of her work in Kureyshi’s book are an indication that her work is taught in MFA courses and schools as one way to deal with this specific kind of material. Don’t get me wrong – I may have complaints, but Elefanten im Garten is definitely a good book, and one that is both moving and – especially given today’s politics- politically relevant.

The book is structured in many small blocks of text, too small to be called chapters, although they are themselves structured in larger groups which resemble chapters but are never named as such explicitly. These groups advance a topic, or an element of the plot, and within the groups there are bits set in the past, bits set in the present, offering, in effect, a sort of complete set of the protagonist’s context for a specific observation or memory. There is this strong sense, within each of these groups that we are the sum of our memories and to understand an emotion in the present we need to understand the deep impression left on us by the weighty pressure of the past. This coherence then allows Kureyshi to be much less obviously structured in the way she arranges the groups. It is only after a while that we notice we were slowly fed more and more details, that Kureyshi slowly builds one element on the other. Much as they do in Veteranyi’s work, repetitions start to weigh on us as we make our way through Elefanten im Garten. We learn that the protagonist’s father died early in the book and that this precipitated much of the soul searching, the “Das dreißigste Jahr”-styled attempt to find herself which comprises the events in the novel’s present. Only as we pass through the novel do we slowly understand why that death was so shattering. And we really do – the impatience of the writer to make us understand, to show us, to point to the important thing can be irritating, particularly at the beginning, when all the pointing is unearned, and in retrospect, when we see how the book itself does such a good, gentle, and moving job at pointing us in the right direction. One sentence early says “I looked for you in your diaries, but I found myself.” This is not a good sentence, and thank God the book doesn’t crawl with them. But that is an example of the author not quite trusting herself. We understand as we go through her memories and vignettes that understanding the things her father -Baba- did is also a mirror to her own life.

One feels with some unease that the author was taught that this material would benefit from this kind of language, and this kind of obviousness – particularly since the work of Dorothee Elmiger, which I reviewed a few months ago, doesn’t contain any such superfluous pointing and waving. Elmiger is content to let the material accrue, to let the information and the stories and the allusions do her work for her. And Elmiger went to the same MFA program, the Literaturinstitut in Biel, but her material and approach is different. The heavy traces of Veteranyi in Kureyshi’s book leave me, as I said, uneasy. But maybe it’s not the MFA – maybe it’s just this incredibly talented debut novelist’s impatience to really make the book work, make the book speak to its audience. In a book I’ve been reading recently, Anne Katrin Lorenz discusses parrhesia and the way Foucault’s work shifts in relation to it. Ultimately, Lorenz says, Foucault lands on the importance of open speech as a form of self-care, making one’s life into art. Given the biographical overlap between Kureyshi and her protagonist, it’s hard not to see some of the way the novel is written as a kind of performance, a sometimes regrettably overdetermined, but always exciting dance on the page of speaking out, and needing this transformation of self into art to work. Some of the connections she makes are breathtaking, but subtle. Or breathtakingly subtle? For example, the use of colors. In the same group of blocks where she discusses the letters her family would receive from the state announcing the rejection of their stay in Switzerland, she also mentions winning a bike at a fair. The envelopes of the letters are yellow, the bike is orange and the only other colors mentioned in the group are two shades of red. This may seem minor but the theme and symbolism is part of what ties that group together and Kureyshi keeps doing things like this, seemingly effortlessly, and you follow her until she drops one of those clunky-poetic sentences on you.

The poeticisms are all the more confusing because Kureyshi sometimes offers simple, plain sentences, simple, plain descriptions of things that happen, and these are among the most shattering parts of the book. She asks questions of her readers: what does it mean to be at home, if your residence can be revoked at any time. Do you understand the fear of living in suitcases, being prepared to leave the place whose language you know best? There is a lot of awfully complacent writing about refugees these days in German-language literature, and some confusingly clueless writing about Germans going abroad that would have been questionable in a 19th century novel. From Jenny Erpenbeck’s overwrought tale of German compassion and confusion to the traveling tales of Bodo Kirchhoff (whose offensively reactionary book Widerfahrnis won last year’s German Book Award) and Jonas Lüscher, whose debut Frühling der Barbaren feels like one of Fouad Laroui’s French characters wrote a book, and whose new book (longlisted for this year’s German Book Award) is another tale of an upper middle class German who feels put upon by women and travels abroad to find a solution to his very important problems. Writers like Kureyshi destabilize that literary complacence. Two other books on the topic, one that hasn’t come out yet (but is already longlisted), Sasha Salzmann’s Ausser Sich, and one that’s been out for a bit, Olga Grjasnowa’s Gott ist nicht schüchtern, are on my short short list of must reads. And Kureyshi should be on yours. None of the book’s minor shortcomings overshadow the book’s major virtues, and they are equal parts political and literary. This is the kind of debut novel that you squint at, saying: if this is her first book, how goddamn good will the next one be? And maybe graduating from the MFA school will reduce the group of teachers that push her to adopt other voices, like Veteranyi’s in this book, and increase the courage to push harder for her own.

Because her voice needs to be heard. There are scenes here that I have never seen described or written before, filled with an awareness of how our world works – or indeed doesn’t work. In one fragment, Kureyshi’s protagonist waits at a busstop with a man wearing the uniform of the Swiss army members of the KFOR soldiers stationed in Prizren. The man comes from the same village where the protagonist grew up, and Prizren is where her family is from. She makes him aware of this coincidence, and he nods and turns away. This scene is described in incredibly precise language, it ends on a simple declaration, but also contains a small borderline surreal element. I have never read a scene quite like this before – and for something to be entirely new to me, that’s not very common. Literature that surprises me, that moves me, that angers me – that’s literature I want to read, particularly when it’s mostly well written. German is a sickness, the protagonist says at some point, she cannot get rid of it in her head. Well if this book is the result I’m not sure I want to help her find a cure. Read this. Translate this.

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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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