Mathias Enard: Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants

41iZsXvfN4L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ Heads up: this is not a review – I reviewed the novel on this blog in 2010. My review is here. I just want to draw attention to it as a brand new translation of the book, by Charlotte Mandel, a very good translator who also translated The Kindly Ones, is about to come out. So if you click on the link you’ll find my 2010 review of the book. As you can probably tell, I had a bit of a mixed opinion of the book. And it is still my least favorite Ènard. I do like it more today than I liked it then. And Énard is generally speaking a very good writer I think we all agree, more or less. And while this is not a new review, I have blogged a couple of new reviews over the past week. You can see all of them here. How did you like this book?

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Lydia Millet: My Happy Life

Millet, Lydia (2002), My Happy Life, Holt
ISBN 978-0-8050-6846-7

So I have a lot of books in this apartment of mine, as I said yesterday. And this includes several books by whole writers. Those acquisitions were made on reputation alone (and usually favorable pricing situations). One such writer is Rachel Cusk. Another one is Lydia Millet. I own several of her books but haven’t read a single one. So I started with the one that seemed most obviously appealing to me from afar: the 2002 novel My Happy Life. This book is fascinating and absolutely brilliant – and it works with a naïve protagonist – or someone who prefers to tell their story as if they were one – and includes the resulting lacunae of details that are part of our stories and memories – the exactness of fact. Writing like this requires a stylistic discipline and a different exactness of detail that makes this kind of fiction extraordinarily hard to pull off. The easiest out is to use a child or a mentally ill person (or both), because that lets you off the hook in a lot of ways. The resultant bright eyed look at what is often a dark story can be effective, but has a whiff of gimmick about it. When it comes to mentally largely competent adults, the results are often a bit flat and boring or tired – and, most importantly, muddled. I think there’s a misunderstanding about these kinds of narratives. Just because someone doesn’t understand the world as we do, they are not looking at it through a mist. Children are extremely sharp observers.

What Millet pulls off in My Happy Life is a story about a woman who presents to us a world view that is more gentle than the common way we view the world, but she does this in layers and layers of observation, allowing us to see not only that her life is clearly anything but happy – in fact a continuous nightmare – but also how it has become what it is. At its core, it is about the female experience, or a female experience – how power and men grasp at the totality of womanhood – in its essential, basic elements: presentation, representation, self-reliance and biological reproduction. At every step of the way, society grasps at Lydia Millet’s protagonist and fucks her over, denying her agency, free will, and the most basic amount of empathy. In fact, that is what’s ultimately the toughest part about the book – all the men who are unable or unwilling or both to provide some empathy for this put-upon, strong, resilient woman. Why not say your life was “happy” if saying otherwise does not have any advantages among people socialized as men, or socialized to support or defend men. The exactness of detail and style throughout this book is nothing short of brilliant. Millet pulls from multiple registers, uses them all expertly, has always complete mastery of plot, dialogue, and the empire of signs that constitute our reality. In a blurb on the back, someone calls it a “dreamy whirl” – but there’s nothing dream-like about it. Millet’s protagonist may not call a spade a spade, but she describes the spade extremely well, and the distance from what she describes with utmost realism to the name she uses for it has its own literary function.

I mean, before I melt further into this puddle of praise, here’s what the book is about: it is the bildungsroman of a woman who grew up in an orphanage and ended up locked in an empty, abandoned former mental hospital. Her present situation is the framing narrative, that’s where we begin and end. We also stop there in between. From her cell in the mental hospital, she tells us about her life. Her happy life that begins in an abusive orphanage. There are things you don’t think at the beginning that become really clear towards the end of the book – everything in this novel is anchored to wider literary discourses, talks to a broader tradition of literature, a very Irigaray kind of project, overall. So this orphanage is also, of course, all the other orphanages and all their other orphans. And reading it this way recasts various characters in her novel in a different light. The bully – because each bildungsroman set in an orphanage has this morality play about masculinity in it and early fights to persist – here is simply allowed to do what he must, and the woman lets him do that for his own good. Nobody stops him, nobody asks about the beatings and their physical traces on the young girl – things just happen. What the protagonist is taught is how to apologize. She learns to say “excuse me.” She learns to cloak things in a different light. She learns that if she speaks up, if she steps out of line, she will be blamed. At school she is raped – and as a punishment, she’s kicked out of school. She attempts suicide a bunch of times, attempts for which she is punished. She is assaulted and abused by various boys and men early in her life – and that’s how she learns to look at things from a brighter side – it makes things more bearable. These are just a handful of pages that I am summarizing in such detail because what Millet does is a recasting of the common theme of orphanage abuse into the situation of a female protagonist who cannot expect empathy from her readers – much as she cannot expect empathy from people around her. Millet shows how these narratives curdle into terror when you change parts of them.

I mean the Irigaray-like “mirror” is one thing, but My Happy Life reads throughout like a conversation with various feminist theories. But it’s also a critique of pure intellectualism – the protagonist’s pain and trauma are things she learns from – and constructs a view of reality that seems disturbing. Early on she calls abusers “warriors” who “will not be stopped by skin” because “they want to catch the soul. They think that souls are heart and bone, residing in a certain place, and can be known by traveling.” She closes with a declaration of love for the abuser du jour and as a reader you have a couple of options here in how to parse this. One thing is off the table – the naivete of the uneducated, the simple of mind and brain. Throughout her life, Millet’s protagonist is seen reading books. It’s never specifically stressed, but unflaggingly mentioned, in all parts of her life, the protagonist is reading books. She’s clearly not stupid – nor uneducated in a practical sense. What Millet presents to us, instead, is the uselessness of pure knowledge. The protagonist’s knowledge is also embodied – how you deal with the world and how the world deals with you. Much later, the novel’s doublespeak is given a different analogy: on a Polynesia-sounding island (“huts on stilts”?) she learns various words in the local language and reflects on the distance between words, meaning and representation. And as we move from orphanage and school to various phases of her adulthood, Millet engages in similar doublespeak of her own, giving us examples of different power structures that we easily recognize, from capitalism to imperialism, and equating them to the abuse of patriarchy, which the early sections of the book taught us about. This, we learn, is all related – the abuse of power taken by men is replicated in the abuse of power in capitalism, which is replicated in imperialism. This is like that, and the protagonist moves through all of it until she ends up, for no good reason, in a mental hospital. She does acquire occasional problems, but when she describes what could be a delusion, and someone takes her literary, she corrects her interlocutor: this is just a figure of speech. So much for naivete.

And she undergoes all of this explicitly as a woman. Her attempts to find a job land her jobs as a maid and a cleaner. She is repeatedly raped, for a good portion of the book she is continuously raped by an industrialist who keeps her locked up and takes some kind of whip to her body that ends up covering her whole body in scars. This section reminded me of another book I meant to review. Stephen Graham Jones’s book The Least of My Scars is a masterpiece of thriller writing, about a serial killer who is completely without remorse. He is kept as a kind of pet in a house by some rich guy who hand delivers his victims to him and, one assumes, takes his pleasure from that. Like Millet, Jones’s style is masterfully precise, but the obscurities are different, what Jones does is invert externalities into this small apartment, rewriting serial killer narratives, inscribing them into the walls and architecture of one house. Jones uses various serial killer tropes and shifts them around. I should have reviewed that book first, however, since reading Millet makes me see what Jones doesn’t really touch: gender. Women in his book are objects – objects to be murdered (The Least of My Scars is extremely graphically violent), but also objects to be owned. There is an interesting differentiation he makes, but it pales when compared to My Happy Life – the various rooms and enclosures of Millet’s book mirror the rooms and enclosures from literary history, and as much as Jones condenses typical narratives, and violently savages the assumptions of interior monologue and serial killer psychology with his protagonist who has no inner life, his novel stretches into the psychology of those around him – but not into the women. Millet’s protagonist is colonialized top to bottom, from her psychology to her womb. In something of a particularly dark part of the novel, she gives birth to a son, who is then taken away from her. So maybe there’s another similarity between Jones’s book and Millet’s – Jones’s serial killer protagonist uses all parts of his victims in his acts – and Millet’s protagonist is used completely, by a patriarchal society that has no respect or patience for those among it who are assigned female at birth – and immediately, like Millet’s protagonist, shunted into the machine of patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. That Millet connects all this to a mental hospital suggests that we should interrogate the nature of trauma, oppression and mental health.

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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.

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.)

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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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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