Two novels by Anna Stern

Stern, Anna (2014), Schneestill, Salis
ISBN 978-3-906195-17-9

Stern, Anna (2016), Der Gutachter, Salis
ISBN 9783906195438

This coming Thursday, the Bachmannpreis will begin again and I will, again, follow along, glued to the TV screen. Excitement, excitement, excitement. I will write a separate post listing this year’s changes and authors, but this time I have read some of these writers in advance. One of them is Martina Clavadetscher, whose most recent novel I have reviewed quite enthusiastically here.

Another is Anna Stern. Anna Stern is a German writer who lives and studies in Switzerland. She has published, as far as I can tell, two novels and, most recently, a collection of short stories. To assess her performance in Klagenfurt reading those stories would have been most fitting, I did not, however, have enough time and money to purchase the complete oeuvre of Ms. Stern. Instead, I read her two novels. While I didn’t particularly like either of them, there’s an obvious, sharp progress between novel one, the 2014 Schneestill, a puzzlebox novel drawing on noir, on Auster, and probably also on Simenon, and novel two, the 2016 Der Gutachter, a more grounded, urgent book about a murder and people living off the Bodensee. There is more authorial control, depth, and narrative sharpness in the second book compared to the first. That said, both books live, in my opinion, in the boring wasteland between the fetid depths of “awful” and the airy heights of “great.” Both books are…ok. Difficult to distinguish from many other middle of the road crime novels published in Germany, and hardly among the more interesting.

Schneestill is set in Paris, and you can tell the author is very excited to share that with us, because there are occasional French words, dropped into the text for local color. People meet in cafés and while there’s a long noir tradition in German fiction connected to Chandler, Goodis and Hammett – this novel’s atmosphere seems specifically French. There’s the shadow of Simenon over everything in this book, with a postmodern admixture of Modiano – and his American progeny, Paul Auster. Simenon’s dense but short book live off a sense of absolut clarity, even if things are obscured, there’s always a sense that if you find out the right facts, or can shift your position to a more advantageous one, you can see how it all connects. There’s a moral imperative to that kind of structure in Simenon, or at least that’s how I remember his work. Modiano, whose masterpiece is a surreal alterative history of the Third Reich in France, destabilizes this clarity. In the trilogy immediately following his debut, he destabilizes the certainty of seeing clearly, of being able to remember clearly, of there being an obvious truth, and not just the muddle of history. And while his later work would work this search for a truth to a finer, clearer point, giving his whole oeuvre a certain urgency and direction, it is this trilogy that influenced a young American writer named Paul Auster, who stripped Modiano of the sense and weight and responsibility of history, and turned it into a career of writing clever, navel-gazing novels, often built like a puzzle, with mostly lamentable prose. While Anna Stern explicitly names Ian Rankin as one of the pillars of her work (in Der Gutachter). I cannot help but see Simenon, Modiano and Auster in Schneestill.

There are two different melodies woven through the book, something that Stern retains in Der Gutachter. One is a story about obsession, about gazes, about seeing, watching, interacting with people. A young man sees a mysterious woman in a café, immediately falls for her. As he comes home, he finds that she has just been released from prison where she had been sent for a murder a few years earlier. This does not dampen his ardor in the least – on the contrary, much as it would any of the five hundred indistinguishable protagonists of Auster’s novels, it increases his obsession. He tries to find her again, creates a web of gazes to trap her. In the end, and under curious, complicated circumstances, he meets her – and she tells him her story, like a charming Parisian Scheherazade. This melody is refracted in different ways, among them the obsession of another character which complements – and complicates – the original protagonist’s obsession. This search for the truth through an examination of the streets of Paris and the faces of its women, this is where the novel retains the closest ties to Simenon, as well as in the moral question that dominates this part of the book: what is a murderer – and can we trust, engage with, understand, and ultimately, forgive a murderer – even before we ever met them? Can I balance the evidence of my eyes and my heart – with the rational, bleak truths offered by the world around us? Stern’s protagonist, in his quest to find that woman, becomes a creep, and this is by far the most interesting part of the book, because Stern acknowledges this, though not for long. There’s a short period, just a handful of pages towards the end of the book, where you can almost read it as a criticism of not just the male-centric narratives of Simenon, Modiano and Auster, but also of the many many writers that followed in their wake. But regrettably, that’s not what Stern is interested in.

She’s more interested in memory and guilt, which is the second melody woven throughout the book, and this is sort of where we lose Simenon, and enter into Modiano territory, but it’s Modiano as seen through the lens of Paul Auster. I have to repeat: she mentions Auster nowhere in the book, but it’s hard not to see him as being an influence here, maybe indirectly, since Auster’s influence is felt in a lot of fiction, regrettably. The question of what happened, who is at fault in the murder case, and how does what happened change those involved becomes the most dominant one as the book rushes to a finish. Unlike Simenon, or some of the crime novels specifically cited by the author, the book isn’t really interested in the circumstances of what happened, it isn’t really interested in the awfulness of guilt and the way it deforms those that live with it. All of the book, including the knotted conclusion, seems to be more of a literary game with the various ways to express all these themes. It’s a riff on a couple of different writers, with the only thing that distinguishes this book from its predecessors being the flat writing, that sometimes morphs into a very poetic register, but without giving us a feeling of authorial control or interest. A smart, well-read writer, but a bland, not very well written novel, was my initial impression upon finishing it.

By contrast, the tone of Der Gutachter is much more consistent, and the novel is faster to summarize. It is not a complicated puzzlebox of conflicting melodies, it does not draw on a smorgasbord of writers. Instead it is something more simple: a crime novel with an environmentalist’s conscience. It begins as a story about a Gutachter, an evaluator, who suddenly goes missing, presumably murdered. The book’s protagonist is a police officer who takes roughly a week to find out what happened, and structurally, it shares the same weak ending that a lot of crime novels have – having a long explanation at the end that collects all the ideas and leads that we picked up along the way in a sufficiently dramatic way has always been a crutch for crime novels, and their main weakness. But as the detective finds out who killed the evaluator, he also takes the time to find out about what his last evaluation was about – giving expert testimony on the ideal phosphorus levels in the local lake. That seems simple, but as the police detective collects evidence, he also collects information about the complexity of the topic. Anna Stern has studied Environmental Science in Zürich, which explains why the detective’s enlightenment takes the form of didactic info dumps which we as readers cannot escape either. That said, the topic of what grounds one’s life, how livelihood can become more than just a job, but something ingrained in one’s identity, all of this gives an urgency and moral clarity to Stern’s second novel that the first one lacked. The style of the book, while still nothing to write home about, is much more consistent, a much better read overall.

There are no longer Simenon, Modiano or Auster in the background here. Au contraire, the writing has turned to much more Germanic sources. Although – sources less connected to her German origins and more to her present Swiss background. There’s a long tradition of Swiss (and Austrian) writers using a slightly distant, objective-seeming style, using the protocols of institution and office to create their stories. Despite the detective protagonist, Der Gutachter is not written in the style developed by German noir writers. Instead, I hear echoes of writers like Max Frisch, Hermann Burger, Albert Drach and Adolf Muschg throughout the book. I mean, obviously I mean no comparison – these four, particularly Burger and Drach, are absolute masters of their craft, but it’s impossible not to hear them here. Stern herself takes care to mention Ian Rankin here, and there’s absolutely a sense in which Rankin and the tradition of Scottish crime writing more generally (for example Denise Mina) have left their fingerprints here as well, though not necessarily stylistically. The Scottish tradition of crime writing strikes me, who hasn’t read that much of it, as being particularly interested in social backgrounds and social motivations, and these end up being essential to understanding the novel’s murder case. But it is the contrast between the institutional, careful tone of the detective’s narrative, and the wild, angry complaints from the local fishermen, that really encapsulates the book’s conflicts between disinterested analysis, and modern science and economy on the one hand, and one of the oldest professions on the other. Usually, especially reactionary writers will use peasants as a foil to criticize modernity, often with anti-Semitic overtones (think Hans Fallada). Anna’s use of fishermen is smart – it removes certain connotations and increases the connection to the land. That said – the style of Burger, Muschg or Frisch is hard to pull off. Burger is one of last century’s best German-language writers, and Frisch isn’t far behind. It’s hard to write like this without slipping into a certain blandness – and Stern does not succeed in evading this fate.

But all criticism aside: honestly, I am curious about where this writer is going. If I could do it again, I would read neither of these two books and I cannot see myself recommending them to anyone. But at the same time, I can see many readers who like these kinds of novels enjoying them, and as far as I can tell the books have been published to good reviews – and indeed, the author has been invited to participate at this year’s Bachmannpreis, after all, one of German-languahe literature’s most prestigious awards. There’s absolutely a good, solid chance that I am way off on this.

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