Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig

GermanLitThis is my first review for November’s German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy for the fourth year running. I’m delighted to be taking part, after enjoying the reviews posted by participants in previous years.

What a brave choice this was for Peirene Press in their second year of existence to choose this collection of short stories by relatively unknown Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig (impeccably translated into English by Tess Lewis)!

I say that because these stories are seriously strange, unsettling, disturbing. It’s like going to sleep in a familiar world and waking up in a dream-like, trance-like state, where everything seems just slightly off-kilter to start with. Odd, certainly, but still harmless, relatively benign. And then, slowly but surely, you sink into a treacle-like nightmare. The more you try to shake yourself free, the deeper you fall – and there’s no escape.

The author has been compared to Kafka and Thomas Bernhard, but there are few similarities (except for the fact that they are all Austrian and that there are certain passages in Kafka’s diaries, where he describes his dreams, which may sound familiar). I am reminded more of Freudian analysis, of the absurdity of Eugene Ionesco and the surrealist riffs of the short stories of Haruki Murakami. The narrator in virtually all of these stories is an unspecified male who seems to be struggling to understand the world and his own place in it, who seems to have some difficulty relating to others.

HotschnigThe shorter stories are perhaps more forgettable: they feel like warm-up exercises to the longer ones. Even so, they bring an interesting twist of perspective from this author who clearly sees things differently from the vast majority of us. The close observation of the struggle for survival amongst creepy-crawlies in ‘Encounter’, for instance, the sense of foreboding in ‘Morning, Noon and Night’ and stepping into the mind of a paranoid stalker (or is he?) in ‘Two Ways of Leaving’. The longer stories allow for gradual build-up of tension, while still leaving so much unsaid or merely hinted at.

In ‘Maybe This Time, Maybe Now’, a family’s gatherings are suffused with the joyful expectation and then anguish of their wait for the mysterious Uncle Walter, who never shows up, who perhaps doesn’t even exist. So you begin to wonder at the possible metaphors there: a family searching for perfection, a nation waiting for a saviour, the origin of religious belief? In ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’ the narrator is accosted by an old woman on the street and invited into her house to admire her doll collection. One of the dolls resembles him but, instead of running away, he finds himself oddly attracted to the creepy experience the woman has to offer (older, more threadbare versions of himself).

Each time I left her house, a part of me remained behind, and I could feel its absence when I was not with her I didn’t know her at all in fact. She was a stranger to me in so many ways. Nothing bound me to her other than her knowledge about me and her ability to reveal me to myself to an extent no one else ever could.

In the first story, a man becomes obsessed with spying on his neighbours but ultimately only succeeds in delving deeper into himself.  In ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’, a man seems to be suffering from amnesia and finds – with surprise – a name on his front door that others have been calling him, but of which he himself has no recollection.  He is being taken for a person he believes he is not. This, I think, hints at the unifying aspect of all these stories: a search for identity. A feeling that, beneath all of the masks that the modern world forces upon us, there is something deep and enduring, if only we could find it. But is that indeed the case, or is the narrator forever doomed to be disappointed and betrayed – by himself and others?

Author photo in Wikipedia - and doesn't he look nice and smiley?
Author photo in Wikipedia – and doesn’t he look nice and smiley?

This is a book which left me nervy and anxious, but also inspired (for my own writing). Still, it was with some relief that I turned to the more conventional love stories of Bernhard Schlink for my next read.


20 thoughts on “Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig”

  1. Great review. I loved this collection; just the strangeness of these stories and the way they blur the lines between reality and the imaginary. I like the way you describe them as feeling a bit like waking-up in a dream-like, trance-like state. At one stage, I thought I might be trapped in a David Lynch film: something like a cross between Lynch’s Lost Highway and Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Quite disorientating!

    Loved the one with (or should I say without?) Uncle Walter.

    I’m delighted to hear you found the stories inspiring for your own writing!

  2. I’m not a short story fan but your review and Jacqui’s comment have pressed quite a few of my buttons. I’ve recently subscribed to Peirene but won’t start receiving books until January so it seems I’ll have to add this one to my list.

    1. Since many of the stories have a rather same-ish unspecified male narrator, it can almost be read like a novel (albeit, a fragmented one), with different stages of a man’s life, searching for meaning and his place in the world.

  3. Marina Sofia – Oh, this sounds like a really compelling set of stories, even if disturbing. Just the snippet you’ve shared is intriguing. And I think short story collections can be excellent ways to get to know authors’ styles.

    1. You are so right, Margot. It certainly gives me a taste to seek out the two novels by Hotschnig (one of which has been reviewed by Tony Malone, who said it was ‘hard going but rewarding’). But I need to space out his books, I think!

  4. Recently I have read so many chunky novels that right now I am more in the mood for something shorter. Haven’t read anything by Hotschnig so far, but your review sounds appealing.

  5. This sounds like a great short story collection, so it goes straight on to my TBR pile. It reminded me also of E.T.A. Hoffmann and maybe Robert Aickman.

    1. I haven’t read Aickman – and this is the beauty of online book blogging, that we exchange ideas and recommendations, and so we always discover something new. Yes, I can see some resemblance to Hoffmann, although the latter is more overtly satirical and (frankly) funnier.

  6. I love the books I’ve read from Peirene Press. They seem to publish outstanding, thought-provoking, unsettling stuff which sticks with me for a long time. I’ll never forget The Mussel Feast, for example.

    1. That was really moving, wasn’t it, as was the Veronique Olmi. I liked the fact that there was so much ambiguity about these stories, so much left unfinished and open.

    1. And no easy answers or interpretations. The Schlink I’m reading now seems very keen to dot his ‘i’s and make sure you ‘get the point’ in comparison.

  7. that sounds very interesting… i have read some kafka but the stories go too much under my skin… i’m way sensitive in this regard… the search for identity…def. you have me curious… will check out the link as well

    1. Kafka is perhaps the writer that has affected me most profoundly, so I completely understand. This is more detached (or else I was more detached) – felt more like experimentation. Eine gute Abwechslung, I would say, from the usual prose out there.

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