Helen Garner: This House of Grief

Garner, Helen (2014), This House of Grief: Story of a Murder Trial, Text Publishing
ISBN 9-781925-240689

I had previously only read one other book by Helen Garner – and it was a novel. This House of Grief is a nonfiction account of a murder trial. And it’s so damn good that I now own three more books by Garner. I will admit, I have a soft spot for true crime and have spent too much time looking up details and backgrounds for all the various true crime accounts I have consumed – Podcasts, books, Netflix TV shows….but never once during or after reading Garner’s story was I tempted to draw in outside sources to fill in the picture. And that’s because this book lives somewhere outside of these concerns with crime and prurient interest. Somehow, Garner succeeded in crafting a mournful book about a murderer that exists on a different plane. This is a story about a man who murdered his children, yes, but it’s also the story of an elderly novelist and journalist who attends his trial, who tries to wrap her mind around this crime, around the man accused of it, and the doomed dance of his defender in court. Garner pays attention to voice and gestures, to faces and bodies, creating before our eyes a powerful portrait of an instance of humanity having failed – for whatever reason.

The father who killed his children never admits to his deeds, and so Garner – and we as readers – are never offered an explanation, there’s nothing relieving us from the darkness at the heart of this criminal act. There’s no Mindhunters-like psychological framing and explanation, no confession of passions run amuck. The prosecutor, Garner herself and some other people who have been drawn into the maelstrom of this trial, they all offer some small explanations. Frustration, jealousy, sadness, anger. These are all possibilities, but what unites them all is the shocking way in which they are insufficient to explain what happened here. None of these seem to be enough to explain why a man would drown his children that he appeared to love very much. And Garner isn’t alone watching this trial. She brings along a teenager who has the requisite time, and now and then she also talks to lawyer friends of hers. This constant dialogue with others creates a kind of chorus of people none of which have any doubt of the father’s guilt. He is clearly, obviously guilty, he smells of guilt to Garner – and thus to us. And all of it is told in a language that is almost without flaw. Elegant, clear, Garner summons an army of short sentences and phrases, only occasionally letting the spill all over the page in small poetic images and the author’s acute distress. This trial – and the book- must have been hard to live with. And we are fortunate that Garner persevered.

In this time of #metoo and the crumbling façade of violent and mediocre masculinity, this is a curious time to be writing this book. True, it came out in 2014, before the Zeitgeist shifted so significantly in 2017 – but still. I have not read Garner’s other nonfiction books, but from some overviews I saw that The First Stone, Garner’s 1995 study of a sexual harassment case, garnered the kind of critical attention that makes me suspect its implied thesis hews rather close to the one that Katie Roiphe centered in her own book on a similar topic, the now infamous The Morning After. Whenever Roiphe puts pen to paper these days to comment on sexual harassment, there’s a chorus from twitter, blogs and many such sources, reminding all of us that this is the author of The Morning After and thus we should be disregarding her writings and opinions. And it’s true that much of that book is unpleasant to read and distorted a very real problem. If Garner’s The First Stone went into a similar direction, it seems fortunate that writing the book didn’t tarnish her reputation. And in many ways, This House of Grief represents a kind of about-face, a shift in emphasis.

Garner’s book never leaves us in doubt: this man is guilty. And his guilt is connected to things Garner never really manages to suss out. The opaque horror at the core of the book is, however, insistently connected to various failures of masculinity, to male anxiety, to masculine violence and dread. This is where all of the explanations, however incomplete, inefficient, or unlikely they may be, lead. If this was a novel, you’d consider it overdetermined, too constructed, too constricted by the author’s will to make it all cohere. But here we are. From the unlikely name of the accused, Robert Farquharson, to the helpless dance of his defender and the wise voice of Garner’s teenage companion, it all coheres, in a compelling but distressing way. One of Garner’s epigraphs to the book quotes a lawyer “walking past,” who says that “[Robert Farquharson] can’t possibly have done it. But there’s no other explanation.” We get small snippets of crime scene investigations, of small doubts offered, but they are drowned in the better sense that the prosecution’s case makes. That man murdered his children – in part because he was a man and couldn’t deal with what was expected of him.

Gender is woven throughout the book. Later in the book we learn of the endless devotion shown to Farquharson by his sisters, and even, to a point, by his ex wife. We learn of the pitfalls of this kind of devotion, but mainly, we are explained, often implicitly, of the way Robert Farquharson fails to deal with his failures. Financially on the cliffs, left by his wife for the constructor who was employed by them, with severely reduced contact to his children, Farquharson doesn’t do anything sensible, he doesn’t pick himself up, he doesn’t move on, he doesn’t try other projects, he wallows in his failures. The trial specifically notes, absent any admission or confession by Farquharson himself, that driving a shabby old car would naturally feel emasculating and humiliating, an assumption that most people involved in the case seem to share. Garner includes a curious discussion of masculine attractiveness in it:

“But, having recently watched a bunch of blokes pour a concrete slab in my own backyard, I was equipped to imagine the effect of this sight in Cindy Farquarson’s stifling situation. A concrete pour is a dramatic process. It demands skill, speed, strength, and the confident handling of machinery; and it is so intensely, symbolically masculine that every woman and boy in the vicinity is drawn to it in excited respect. Spellbound on the back veranda between my two grandsons, I remembered Camille Paglia’s coat-trailing remark that if women were running the world, we’d still be living in grass huts.”

If Roiphe is a bit infamous among progressives, Paglia has, since publishing her (inexplicably) still-read tome on literature that’s short on analysis and long on caustic diatribes, become a veritable troll, intensely supportive of fringe anti-feminist opinions. Garner’s inclusion of Paglia here is curious. It makes no contextual sense that she’d cite Paglia as an authority here. Instead, what we are offered is a complicated tableau of masculinity, feminity and attraction that is presented as contradictory.

Farquharson maintains to the end, and one assumes, to this day, that what happened was an accident, that he blacked out due to a freak medical condition. We, however, stare at his horrible deeds, and try to understand them from the explanations offered, all of which somehow come back to notions of injured manhood. There’s a specific, unpleasant kind of violence that tends to accompany people socialized as male, at least in our societies, our kind of socialization. Helen Garner, as an observer in the courtroom, and her teenage friend, serves as a kind of Greek chorus to all this. Woeful cries, exclamations, repetitions. In a sense we don’t need to be told what Farquharson’s fault, his ἁμαρτία is. It is implied in the darkness under the words, under every gesture. The very inexplicability of it, which rubs up against the overall very simple case, the amplitude of evidence feeds this sense. Elisabeth Roudinesco, in an early chapter of La Part Obscure de Nous-Mêmes, points to the shifting explanations of what the “perverted” people are – how do we contextualize their missteps. And, she says, as divine explanations (with demons preying on those weak of faith, found themselves on the retreat, the answers came slower, and with more contradictions. Later chapters invoking Peter Singer point to how complicated, really, these explanations have become. In This House of Grief, on the one hand, we are given an extremely simple situation, a biblical scenario, if you will, but the father’s silence, and the terror that always comes with these stark, hard to understand these crimes, these inhumane human decisions hark back to Roudinesco’s discussion of the dark parts within us. Greed, anger, these are easy to grasp, but what happened in Farquharson’s head, in his car, seems more easily explained with demons, the devil, schizophrenia, one of these. But there are no demons, there’s no devil and Farquharson was sound of mind. So what now?

As it happens, Garner has a horrible little theory of her own, which the trial judge and defense lawyer both remove from the courtroom: “the long black thread of Farquharson’s ‘depression’.” It is not to be discussed, it is not to be presented to a jury. Much of the book is spent watching Garner watch the defense fail, in a kind of replication of Farquharson’s previous failures:

“the final fortnight of evidence was like watching, in ghastly slow motion, a man slither down the face of a cliff. Sometimes his shirt would snag on a protruding branch, or his fall would be arrested by a tiny ledge, a fragile outcrop; but the fabric would stretch and snap, the narrow shelf would crumble, and down he would go again, feet first, eyes wide open, arms outstretched into the void.”

But while watching this cascade of failures, by Farquharson, by his lawyer, by his defense, his humanity, Garner reaches into the bag of possibilities, and draws out the idea of attempted suicide. Taking his children with him, Farquharson attempted to remove his presence from the world, remove his failure, his inadequacy, and commit murder as a horrible way to wipe the slate completely clean. This idea Garner mentions fairly early, but she doesn’t let go of it. The only explanation she can think of to escape the horror of unexplainable murder is a more graspable, more understandable murder-suicide. There are books on this. This we can understand, this we have studied. Ultimately, it’s unimportant whether Garner is right. This House of Grief is only partially about Farquharson’s trial. It is about a writer trying to deal with something inexplicable and to contain it in clean, safe language. It is an enormous book.

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My Year in Reviewing: 2017

So after blogging 26 reviews in 2016 and 2015 each, I happened to post 33 reviews this year, despite some quiet months without any reviews. An alphabetical list of the books under review this year are below, with very brief commentary.

Melinda Nadj Abonji: Fly Away, Pigeon: A Swiss novel about a not entirely common immigrant experience. Solid writing, sometimes very good. Compelling discussion about how wars in their home country can affect immigrants, and how that might change our view of them.

Charlie Jane Anders: All the Birds in the Sky: Regrettably reactionary/conservative book that is wildly imaginative and entertaining otherwise.

Nina Allan: The Race

Nina Allan: The Rift: Nina Allan is one of the brightest stars in contemporary science fiction, although it’s maybe questionable to what extent her books are science fiction. The contrast with Anders’s novel highlights the missed opportunities in the latter.

Chetan Bhagat: The Three Mistakes of my Life: Oh God no. I regret reading this. The only book I read in 2017 that rivals this level of awfulness is Robert Waller’s bizarrely bad Bridges of Madison County, which I didn’t review on the blog.

Sophie Campbell: Shadoweyes: I admire Campbell’s art so much. She is one of my three favorite artists in comics. I bought a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trade paperback last month just because of her art. And somehow, improbably, Campbell’s writing is almost as good. This book is also beautifully produced.

Jacques Chessex: A Jew Must Die: Chessex is a great novelist and this is just a masterpiece of prose, control, tone.

Martina Clavadetscher: Knochenlieder: Imaginative, passionate, interesting Swiss novel about the near future, about communities, biology, inheritance, ecology. It’s not perfect, and it’s weaker in the second than the first half, but it’s darn good as is.

Paul Cornell: Witches of Lychford: Of all the books I read in this novella-sized TOR imprint, this one feels most like a genre exercise. I mean, it didn’t have to be a masterpiece like Kai Ashante Wilson’s book or Brian Evenson’s, but this is a bit thin, if very well executed. It could have been better: for example, Kij Johnson’s book in the same imprint, which I read but didn’t review this year, is a novella-length riff on Lovecraft that feels more relevant, necessary, interesting. Plus, there’s a bit of an ideological haut goût in Cornell’s book that didn’t sit well with me.

Wioletta Greg: Swallowing Mercury: Oh man. This is flat, and not great, and the translation feels dubious. Moreover, since writing the review, I read more books by and about Polish writer-immigrants in the UK which made me be simultaneously more interested in the topic and less interested in this particular book.

Dorothee Elmiger: Invitation To The Bold Of Heart. A young Swiss writer. Excellent, excellent novel. Dense, postmodern, but emotionally captivating.

Nathan Englander: Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Man, I love Englander. I don’t know that I can be in any way neutral about his work. Really enjoyed this novel. Really fascinated by the way it embedded borderline nonfiction elements like a biography of Ariel Sharon. A messy book about a messy conflict. Much better executed than his first novel.

Manuele Fior: 5,000 km per second. Fantastic, moving graphic novel. Written in Italian, translated into English. Everybody raved about it in 2016. Everybody was right.

Daniel Goetsch: Ein Niemand. No. One of four novels I read this year by a Bachmannpreis participant, and -hands down- the worst. His story that he read there was a bit worse still. The politics of who gets invited there puzzle me.

Nora Gomringer: Moden. Speaking of the Bachmannpreis: Nora Gomringer won it, she is fantastic, and she will be on next year’s jury. Here’s to hoping she’ll have better luck picking than 75% of her colleagues this year. Oh, also, someone go and translate her books already.

Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman. 2017 is also the year where I became a fan of Shirley Jackson. This is fantastic. Unbelievable. She is fantastic. Saving up to get the LoA edition of her short stories next year. There’s also a recent biography of her that I need to read. Man.

Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept. Another one of the TOR novellas. This one is among the very best I have read. I have admired Jones for years. So should you.

Theodor Kallifatidis: Masters and Peasants: Greek immigrant, living in Sweden. Today, people read mostly his crime novels because of the whole Nordic Noir thing. This is a very very interesting sorta-kinda autobiographical novel. Funny, devastating, strange.

Meral Kureyshi: Elefanten im Garten. Recommended to me by Adrian Nathan West, whose excellent novel I have read this year but not reviewed. This book is another Swiss immigrant tale. Not as strong as others I have read, and it often echoes other writers in the tradition, but still good, and certainly better than many books that have been winning awards for German-language literature these days.

Manu Larcenet: Ordinary Victories. This is unbelievably good. I was recommended this, and boy is this good. I have since read two more books by Larcenet, both of them excellent. One is the funny Bill Baroud, about a portly secret agent, and the other one the dark Blast, about, man. Things. Go and read Ordinary Victories. You will not regret it. I promise.

Barbi Marković: Superheldinnen. Another Bachmannbook. This one much stronger than her story. I adore this writer. Someone should translate this book into English.

Ben Mazer: February Poems. I greatly admire Ben Mazer’s poetry, and this is his best book. This year, Mad Hat Press published his Selected Poems which everybody should read.

Wyl Menmuir: The Many. Eh.

Denise Mina: Still Midnight. Denise Mina’s novels are a masterclass in how to write mystery fiction with meaning and a backbone.

Jerry Pinto: Em and the Big Hoom. Mediocre book about a shitty son. It has been reviewed extremely positively, so who knows. Maybe it’s me. (it’s not).

Sasha Marianna Salzmann: Ausser Sich. One of the best books I read all year, and almost certainly one of the three best German-language novels of the year. The other two are Michael Roes’s Zeithain, and Peter Handke’s elegiac Die Obstdiebin, neither of which I reviewed here.

Samanta Schweblin: Fever Dream. One of two fantastic Argentinian books I read this year. The other one is Mariana Enriquez’s story collection Things we lost in the fire, which I didn’t review but still might. Both books were translated by Megan McDowell, and while the translations seem a bit off here and there, the books themselves are extremely strong.

Luan Starova: My Father’s Books. A Macedonian memoir-novel. Lovely. Read it.

Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton. A book with many plaudits. Didn’t particularly like it. Strong execution. Hollow core.

Walter Tevis: The Man Who Fell To Earth. Fantastic science fiction classic about alienation, loneliness, hope and loss. Essential.

Lewis Trondheim/Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrisson. French graphic novel about a female private detective-in-training. Writing and art are lovely. Cannot wait to read more.

Juan Pablo Villalobos: Down the Rabbit Hole. Really good Mexican novel about the drug trade from a child’s eye. This tired trope is invested with some interesting new energy in this book. Good not great. If you look for something to fill that Yuri Herrera shaped hole in your life, this ain’t it.

Klaus Cäsar Zehrer: Das Genie. Interesting story. Terrible, boring, blasé execution. Someone, please, someone write a novel about the same person, but with some proper literary skill.

So that’s that. I’m incredibly grateful for every reader and commenter on this blog. Thank you.

#GermanLitMonth

This year I participated in Lizzy Siddal‘s #GermanLitMonth

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

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

Nora Gomringer: Moden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.)

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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Klaus Cäsar Zehrer: Das Genie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.)

Nina Allan: The Rift

Allan, Nina (2017), The Rift, Titan Books
ISBN 978-1785650376

20171111_122327443566726.jpg I love Nina Allan. You can read my review of her debut novel The Race here. Go ahead. And this week, I am pleased to tell you that Strange Horizons has published my review of Nina Allan’s excellent sophomore novel The Rift. You can read the whole review here. Below an excerpt from my review. You should read the whole thing though. And the novel. Nina Allan. She’s the real deal.

This is additional language that enhances speech, enhances empathy, and allows for other, different, and kinder connections between people. Nina Allan’s vision of what science fiction can do is unique, and if the improvement she offered from The Race to The Rift holds, she may be one of the more important science fiction writers of our time.