Thank you Mr. Setz

Due to the size of my audience and my irregular posting times I don’t get a ton of review copies (last one I got was the new Gila Lustiger novel, read my review here). This arrived last week and it’s lovely. Review forthcoming (after I finish my reread of Die Frequenzen, meanwhile here is my review of his debut):setz2setz1

Clemens J. Setz: Soehne und Planeten

Setz, Clemens J. (2007), Söhne und Planeten, btb
ISBN 978-3-442-73902-8

This is why I read books, this is why I follow contemporary literature. Söhne und Planeten, Clemens J. Setz’ debut novel is stunning in its accomplishments, announcing the presence of a writer whom we will not hesitate to call ‘great’ one day. In 2009, Setz published his sophomore novel Die Frequenzen, a quirky, smart, engrossing read of a book, some 700 pages of writing that was both accessible and assuredly literary; it was also a long book overflowing with stuff that was maybe a tad less disciplined than one could have wished it to be, continuing an intriguing trend in contemporary German-language literature. If his second novel was indulgent and effusive, his debut novel is strict and dark. Although, as a whole, it merits being called a “novel”, it consists of four shorter novellas, each of which is taut and cunningly crafted. The novel is emotionally moving, yet almost blindingly clever in its structure and slyly original. It has not been translated, so far, despite what Conversational Reading‘s Scott Esposito sees as a good time for translation, and despite a series of mediocre German writers already translated. This is one of the best debuts published in German in the past decade, and Setz is shaping up to be the finest novelist of his generation, and one of the best novelists of these past years in German in general, with fellow Austrian genius Thomas Stangl (also untranslated into English, so far, see here my review of Stangl’s shockingly great third novel) and the German prose wizards Hartmut Lange and Marcel Beyer (Beyer at least has been, partly, translated. Don’t miss out on his work). Although Clemens J. Setz’ second novel is flashier and maybe even livelier, his first novel is a much better candidate for translation and maybe the better novel, as well.

Steeped in German and American literature, Söhne und Planeten is a largely realist chamber play, set in the reasonably well off middle class, and is based on the tensions inherent in many father-son relationships, something that connects Setz to readers everywhere, regardless of language and culture. The book’s basic references are to writers like Kafka, Ashbery, Bernhard, Delillo, Stifter, Turgenev and Handke, i.e. American writers and those well known and translated in the US. Few of its strengths are specific to its original language; Setz’ characters’ ruminations on writing and literature, their fears and neuroses, their difficulties as fathers, as sons, with each other; their failings as writers, as persons, all these would make immediate, powerful sense in any skillful translation, well, as far as anything in the book makes ‘immediate’ sense. Reading Söhne und Planeten, which literally means ‘Sons and Planets’, means reading attentively, re-reading even, yet the book is not difficult, obscure or forbidding in any way. Like the aforementioned Hartmut Lange, Setz combines cleverness and craft with an accessible, fresh and clean language. In Söhne und Planeten (though somewhat less so in his second novel), Setz writes with an amazing literary sophistication, slipping in and out of various literary voices and modes; at the same time, he never loses sight of the simple basic story he’s got to tell, of men and their fears. This simple basic story is conveyed with simple enough words, and the closer the novel moves to its emotionally bruising finish, the clearer the language becomes. This book would be just as impressive in translation; what’s more, unlike writers like Thomas Bernhard or Andreas Meier, this book could almost be viewed as bestseller material, despite its author’s obvious literary finesse. It’s an excellent book, and one that should be translated.

I already mentioned the fact that Söhne und Planeten is composed of four sections that could be seen as separate novellas. As a novel, the book is devastatingly coherent, revealing its overall concerns and ideas only slowly, yet each of the four novellas is extraordinarily well crafted, and each of the four novellas is vastly different in the way it’s made, from each of the others. There’s no repetition, no sentimental whimsy, each of the novellas’ means are perfectly chosen, each novella is perfectly placed. The first and the last novella are relatively straight narratives of young men, the first focusing on the up-and-coming young novelist René Templ, the last focusing on Victor Senegger, whose suicide prior to the events of the book cast a shadow over everything that happens within the novel. The two middle novellas are composed of several points of view, providing more complex narratives, none of which, however, lacks the tautness and discipline characteristic of the German novella (think of Zweig, Storm or Lange). Like a finely composed piece of music, Setz aligns all of his characters, their thoughts and actions in a music that rises, in the end, to a moving crescendo. The last novella, a coda of sorts, the most sentimental, the most unvarnished piece of the whole novel, turns out to be a perfectly fitting capstone to a book where everything really is in its right place. In the middle novellas, in many ways, Setz pays homage to the vast canon of modern and postmodern American literature, somewhere between early-ish Don Delillo and Philip Roth, but it’s really the first section/novella that shows us the way, although it turns out to have been the least characteristic part of the whole book.

That first novella, called “Kubische Raumaufteilung” (~ Cubic Room Layout), and presented with a prefatory quote by a “V.S.”, presumably Victor Senegger, is basically an exercise in angst-ridden soliloquy massively influenced by Franz Kafka, although the book doesn’t restrict itself to obvious influences or homages. It also contains both pastiches and long, extended quotes, sometimes from surprising sources. “Kubische Raumaufteilung”, for example, borrows from Kafka more than the surreal manifestations of its protagonist’s neurotic fears; it also borrows, inconsistently, his exquisitely simple yet literary language, sometimes offering almost a direct likeness of Kafka’s tone and his turns of phrase. All this is coupled with a narrator who is often coarse, desperately coarse, even. René Templ is a fearful individual, a young father, an aspiring writer, a husband who cheats on his wife with another woman to feel better about himself, yet whenever he feels pressured or afraid, he shrinks to the size of a child, or at least he thinks he does. Fear, another character says, later in the novel, is just another way to deal with one’s own body, just as Celine maintained (quoted by Setz) that philosophy is just another way to deal with one’s fear. Templ is obsessed with his own body and its inadequacies. He masturbates thoroughly, and his obsession with his genitalia and bodily fluids isn’t just communicated plainly to the reader, it’s also part of why he appears to be failing as a father and husband. Templ attempts to locate himself in his own body but he can only find decay, piss and blood. A writer, his mind is only as strong as the weakest part of his body, and as a result, his writing, at least the one small bit of Templ’s work we’re offered near the end of the second novella, is a gleaming but useless prosthesis, bereft of any muscle or genuine substance.

It’s only slowly that we comprehend that Victor is really the book’s central character, his absence an important part of three of the four novellas. In some ways, the first novella centers on René, the one character that, in a skewed way, has taken Victor’s place with his father, old Mr. Senegger; at the same time, René’s about to enact a relationship with his son that has an uncanny similarity to the one, we gather, Victor and his father had. The second novella, then, moves closer to Victor by focusing centrally on death and loss. The setting of that novella is a dinner party at the house of Ernst Mauser, a friend of Senegger’s and Templ’s, who’s recently lost his wife. Present are a handful of writers, including both Senegger and Templ. It’s the most complicated and elaborate of the novellas; each of its chapters offers, Rashomon-like, a different account of the events at Mauser’s house, in different genres, from a chapter written as an essay, to one entirely composed of letters. Not that really a whole lot happens, per se; instead, the novella, called “Fuge zu Ehren des Sonnensystems” (~ Fugue in Honor of the Solar System), examines the shape of loss in a writer’s life, and the impact this can have on the way he deals with his art, and with other people. It also helps us to better understand each of the other characters, especially Templ and Senegger, both of which emerge from this novella as somewhat farcical, tentatively ridiculous characters, both laughably self-centered and devoid of self-criticism. Additionally, the novella continues Setz’ interrogation of fear and masculinity. All this, while tragedy -and victor’s story- is waiting in the wings. But there is no pressure within the careful pages of Setz’ novel, no urgency in the narrative, nothing that really tells to reader what to look for, what’s to come; instead, we often seem to be led into a pointless exercise in cleverness.

Upon rereading, the dense novel yields its complexities in a way that might not be obvious to the first time reader. The relatively autonomous nature of the novellas, their self-contained arcs and structure can seduce us into reading them on their own terms, without the larger connecting context (although that does eventually become rather difficult as the novel progresses). The impression of largely pointless cleverness is exacerbated by the way that Setz uses quotes, paraphrases and pastiches of other writers, from various literary contexts. We catch a phrase from Pound’s Cantos here, a lilting note from Musil, a whole page from Defoe and much, much more. I’m certain I haven’t caught the half of it, but the fact of the matter is that the book crawls with these. And lists, of course. The best poets to read in the spring (answer, by the way: “Jaroslav Seifert, Vicente Aleixandre und Ezra Pound”), favorite novelists, etc. As it turns out, the novel uses devices like that in order to mirror the poetical principles of Victor Senegger himself, and towards the end of the novel, Victor Senegger, lover, friend, and suicidal son, bleeds into and merges with Victor the writer, and ways to write and ways to live become comparable and interchangeable, even. In all of this, if we disregard the odd Kafkaesque interlude, Setz’ book is solidly conventional realism. The characters and their neuroses are often derived from or references to stock characters developed in a century of psychoanalytically influenced fiction. In its long quotes and giddy pastiches, Söhne und Planeten is almost contemptuous of the idea of producing something original, in the Romanticist sense of the word. But contempt is too strong a word.

The fact is, Setz often doesn’t seem to care where, within the gay mirror cabinet of literary genres and traditions, his novel can or should be placed. It’s overt simplicity does allow for easy pigeonholing, yet it seems to me that any closer look, any deeper analysis (and I haven’t even mentioned in how many ways Setz takes up the novel’s titular planetary metaphor and what use he makes of it) makes any honest attempt to do so impossible. The most remarkable thing however, and the last issue I’ll mention here, is the place it has within the corpus of Austrian literature. When Handke, Bernhard, Innerhofer and the other great post-war Austrian novelists and playwrights emerged and became a viable literary phenomenon in the 1960s, quite a few studies and essays pointed out how their kind of writing was a kind of anti-Stifter literature, a new tradition opposed to the massive influence of that titan of Austrian letters, Adalbert Stifter. And indeed, one can place a great deal of literary Austrian fiction in relationship to Stifter, yet some younger writers, especially Setz, don’t seem to fit that mold any more. In passing, Setz demolishes Bernhard just as calmly as he rejects Stifter’s ideas of order. Söhne und Planeten is a marvelous novel, one that’s worth reading and re-reading. It’s not perfect, but for a debut novel, it’s absolutely dazzling. Clemens J. Setz proves himself to be a master craftsman, even though, when he published the book he was no older than 25. The novel’s scope is small, its focus turned inward rather than outward, its basic story swaddled in several layers like an onion. If Setz keeps up his craft, care and attention, and adds vision and scope, he will become one of the best Austrian writers of our time. His second novel, however, much I love it, is not exactly encouraging, and his third one is even worse. Success may not help young writers keep up craft and care. But he is young and has endless potential.

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Translatables! (Part 1)


As I follow blogs and news, I see more and more mediocre writers in German being translated into English, whether it’s Pascal Mercier, Ingo Schulze or Thomas Glavinic; if we additionally consider how few German novels are translated at all, the fact that so many bad writers make the cut while so many good writers don’t almost amounts to a tragedy.

For what it’s worth, I decided to put up a list of writers or books who deserve to be translated into English, who deserve a wide audience, accolades and admiration, although they don’t, at the moment, get either beyond the borders of Germany, Austria or Switzerland. This list is made up of two times four writers/books. Four living, contemporary writers, and four ‘dead’, classical writers. Especially in the latter period there are countless more writers who deserve infinitely more recognition abroad than they have been getting (Christoph Martin Wieland and Jean Paul come to mind), but with these four writers and books it’s particularly appalling. I will try to keep my appeals short, in many cases they’re backed up by reviews I’ve already written for this same blog. This is Part 1 (here is part 2).

Part 1:  Contemporary Books!

Hartmut Lange, Das Konzert (1986)

Novellas have a long tradition in German literature, and nowhere in the world is this genre as highly regarded as here. From classical masters of the form like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theodor Storm, Stefan Zweig, to Nobel Prize winners Paul Heyse and Günter Grass, the novella has always been given full attention, and the writing of novellas has always been a task especially scrutinized and analyzed. The best living writer in the form is Hartmut Lange, and not only does he not have the international attention that he deserves, he’s also vastly underrated in Germany, where he has become a kind of “writer’s writer”. His writing is classically elegant, complex, yet always light and readable and his books are suffused with his concern with places, history and culture, as well as age-old problems of the human heart. He is easy to read, but hard to stomach sometimes. The same applies to what I think is his best work, the novella Das Konzert, a tale of ghosts living in modern Berlin. There are ghosts killed by the Nazis, and Nazi ghosts, who have been waiting to be forgiven, in a bunker under the earth. Lange projects a ghost Berlin over the real, modern Berlin, and demonstrates concerns with responsibility and guilt; it suggests how historical continuities, and individual, cultural ones mold a national and local consciousness. There’s not a spare line in it, but Lange writes as if he had all the time in the world. He is one of our living masters. Read him. Translate him.

Additional links

Read my review of Das Konzert? Link
Read my review of his most recent book,
Der Abgrund des Endlichen? Link
Buy his book on amazon? Link
Buy his book in French translation on amazon? Link
Read Lange’s Wiki page? Link

Patrick Roth, Christus-Trilogie (1991-1996)

This one requires a bit of cheating. It’s not one book. It’s three books, parts of a trilogy, they can be read individually, of course, but read together they form one of the most impressive works of art written in the German language in the 1990s. Patrick Roth blindsided me, I never noticed him, but suddenly, he was everywhere, holding the prestigious Poetics lectures in Frankfurt, publishing high-profile books about all kinds of topics: novellas dealing with Hollywood, books about movies, about identity, and, of course, the Christus Trilogie. The first of these, Riverside, subtitled “Christusnovelle”, was published in 1991, the second, Johnny Shines oder Die Wiedererweckung der Toten, in 1993 and the third, Corpus Christi, in 1996. Each of them is only about 160 pages in length, but the reader emerges from them mesmerized, reluctant, as if he was dipped into a different world. Roth manages to call up two very different registers: he writes in a very archaic kind of German, meant to imitate Lutheran tone and voice, and at the same time, in a very clear and modern kind of German. Miraculously, this really works, and envelops the reader in a linguistic tapestry that seems biblical, and yet filled with an easy, glittering suspense. The first and last of the books are concerned with Jesus himself; Riverside is about two men coming up to an eremite who reputedly has met Jesus himself, avid to find out more about that man, trying to sift truth from tradition. They are soon caught up in a net woven of language and mysteries. The same thing happens to the protagonist of the third book. Its protagonist, Judas Thomas is intent to investigate the so-called resurrection of Jesus. He finds an eye-witness and interrogates her, which develops into a discussion about truth and faith, which never becomes academical, and is completely mesmerizing. The middle one is set in Death Valley, California, and is about an oddball who regularly opens coffins, demanding the dead person inside to stand up and walk (not successfully), who becomes enmeshed in a murder and is interrogated by a police woman. Three books, three investigations. Every line shows that Roth is both a gifted writer of prose as well as of drama, maybe one of Germany’s best in the business. The rest of his fictional work is surprisingly weak, compared to the ravishing thunderstorm of Christus Trilogie. But it’s hard to compare to that singular literary achievement. It’s a shame that it hasn’t found an American translator so far. Everyone should read it, in German or in translation. It’s, and I don’t say that lightly, a masterpiece.

Additional links

Buy his books on amazon? Link1, Link2, Link3
Read Roth’s Wiki page? Link

Thomas Stangl, Was Kommt (2009)

Thomas Stangl is an Austrian writer, one of a whole range of promising young novelists, another of which would be Clemens J. Setz, who was recently nominated for the German Book Prize for his ok second novel Die Frequenzen, a sign of his diminishing skill that would only get worse in following years. The same year also saw Thomas Stangl nominated for his stupendous novel Was Kommt. With Stangl, the situation is different. Was Kommt is his third novel, and it’s proof that Stangl is one of the leading living prose writers in the German language, getting better with each book. Like many great writers, his work recounts his obsessions. With time, memory, and history, amongst other things. His prose went to the Austrian school of Bernhard, Innerhofer and Handke, but unlike the recently translated Andreas Maier, he is in full control of his style. He is able to make it work for him, perform the tricks he needs it to perform in order to convey his thinking. Stangl’s work, like Lange’s, examines historical continuities, by juxtaposing different time levels, and creating a gorgeous linguistic maelstrom that draws the reader into the histories and memories of Stangl’s characters. Stangl is a committed writer, committed to his ideas and to his places, there are few writers who can evoke places so uncannily and directly as he can, places as well as times. In Was Kommt, Stangl shines a harsh light on the 1970s, by superimposing one character’s life in the 1930s on another’s life in the 1970s, clearly highlighting connections and continuities, evoking a place and a period so precisely that he takes your breath away. He, like Lange, Roth, uses a rather simple vocabulary, but as far as syntax is concerned, his writing is very complex, and not an easy read necessarily. But an astonishing, mind-blowing one, that I’m sorry to see so many of my anglophone friends missing out on. If you can, read a book by Stangl. Or translate him. You won’t be sorry. If Stangl continues at this rate, he will become one of the language’s most important writers. Already he’s one of its best.

Additional links

Read my review of Was Kommt? Link
Buy Thomas Stangl’s book on amazon? Link
Buy Clemens J. Setz’ book on amazon? Link
Read Stangl’s Wiki page? Link
Read the official page of the German Book Prize? Link

Reinhard Jirgl, Abschied von den Feinden (1995)

This is a writer that you don’t have to introduce to book-loving Anglophone readers any more. Although he hasn’t been translated yet, his name keeps coming up in discussions of contemporary literature and debates over international awards like the Nobel Prize in Literature which he would richly deserve. Jirgl’s writing is indebted to such titans of modern German literature as Alfred Döblin, Arno Schmidt and Uwe Johnson, but the power of his narratives, the violence of his set-ups and the raw emotion and the brilliance of his thinking are all his own. Like many of the best contemporary German writers, he meets history head-on, interrogating its narratives, and the language in which these narratives were constructed. Abschied von den Feinden is not Jirgl’s best book, but it is the first book where he fully came into his voice, into that style that he made his own ever since. It introduces many of his topics, and unlike his other books, it even contains an explanatory section for all the symbols and typographical deviations he uses. It’s comparatively short and explosive, a story of two Germanys, two brothers, and a woman’s fate in the debris of a ‘better society’. It’s not his best novel, but one of his best. If you can, read Jirgl. He is the best living German writer. And for God’s sake, translate his books. (my review of Abschied von den Feinden)

Additional links

Read my review of Abschied von den Feinden? Link
Buy his book on amazon? Link
Buy his book
Die Unvollendeten in French translation on amazon? Link
Read Francois Monti’s review of that book/translation? Link
Read Jirgl’s Wiki page? Link

Read Part 2 here.