This is a good year to be reading Marlen Haushofer: 100 years since her birth and 50 years since her death. I wasn’t aware of these anniversaries but finally got to read her best-known work The Wall a few months ago and was blown away by its mix of vivid description, eerie atmosphere and philosophical/ecological musings. I’ve been keen to read anything and everything by Haushofer since, but was disappointed to find that, although her output for adults is reasonably small, it is not exactly easy to find even in German. I think her biographer Daniela Strigl is quite right to criticise the publishers for falling asleep on the job and missing this opportunity.
The truth is that, beyond her tales for children, which were frequently read in Austrian schools when I was a child, her work has always been a minority taste. She was very much admired but not widely read, although she enjoyed a brief renaissance as a feminist icon in the 1970s/80s. Her current book covers don’t do her any favours either, as they make it look like romantic (which many people misread as sentimental) fiction for and about women. Not that there is anything wrong with that kind of fiction, but it puts off a wider audience.
So I should say that Haushofer is in fact the anti-romantic writer. She depicts human loneliness (yes, particularly for women, but more generally as well) like no other writer I know. The loneliness can be physical (as it is in The Wall), but, equally, it can be the devastating loneliness of being in a relationship, or living in a crowded city, or being in a group of friends and still feeling misunderstood.
Die Tapetentür (translated as The Jib Door, but I have no idea what that means so I translated it as The Wallpaper Door – a concealed door in the wallpaper) is the story of Annette, a quiet, introverted, solitary librarian. She has had some relationships with men, but is quite relieved when things go nowhere or the men move away. She enjoys her life and routine, has one good friend and a few acquaintances whom she either respects or secretly mocks.
She is shaken out of her contentment when she meets the lawyer Gregor, who is temperamentally almost her exact opposite – extroverted, a womaniser, a bit of a macho man, who doesn’t enjoy reading or being quiet. In spite of her misgivings, she marries Gregor and expects a child. She is not entirely convinced she will be a good mother, but she is both fascinated and repulsed by the animal response and change in her body. She seems resigned to the traditional division of labour and gender roles in the household, even though she resents Gregor for cheating on her and not being more tender and understanding.
The narrative switches between close third person POV and Annette’s diary entries, so we get to see both her behaviour in social situations, but also see her anxieties and doubts reflected in her journal. She also muses about life more generally and makes some witty observations about society, single and married people, even wealth and poverty. The concealed door that Annette suddenly sees in the wallpaper (she is the only one that notices the door, so it probably is a metaphorical rather than a literal one) represents perhaps the wall that Annette has put up between herself and others, and a door that she is unable or unwilling to walk through in the battle of the sexes.
It’s not often that you have the privilege and delight to start off the Women in Translations with two books of such high calibre, books that will stay with you forever. After Tokarczuk’s modern fable about humans vs. animals, I moved on to The Wall by Austrian Marlen Haushofer. Once again, it was a book that so many people had been recommending, including my childhood friend who now lives in Berlin, so that’s where I finally bought it a couple of years ago.
This time my reluctance to read it was not because I thought I’d enjoy it, but because I feared I might not (and I’d have to admit that to all my friends who loved it). I thought the premise sounded deadly dull: a woman wakes up to find she is the only survivor in a small portion of the Austrian Alps, sealed off from the rest of the world by a transparent wall. The rest of the book describes her daily life over the course of the seasons, her struggle to survive, a sort of female Robinson Crusoe, with only a dog, a cat and a cow as her companions, and a lot of hard work that she has to learn to do: chopping wood, growing potatoes, scything the long grass to produce hay and so on.
And yet this relatively short and simple story is anything but dull. She keeps a sort of notebook of her experiences, not a diary but a story written a couple of years after she started her hermit lifestyle, so there is a sense of foreshadowing throughout. Both the unnamed narrator and the reader are forced to slow down, to think about time in a very different way, to become one with nature and the seasons. The descriptions of the natural world and the loving observations of animal behaviour are very moving, almost magical. The empathy that the woman develops with her animals, choosing her duty towards them over any attempt to ‘escape’ from the enclosure, is one of the things which reminded me of Tokarczuk’s work (and I wonder if the Polish writer was inspired by the Austrian one). Haushofer’s father was a forest ranger and she spent her summers in early childhood roaming on the Alps a bit like Heidi, which would explain her profound love of nature (although she admitted she relied on her brother’s expertise in botany and animal husbandry while writing the book).
The narrator shares this quiet sense of acceptance and even contentment with the author. I gather Haushofer’s life was not all that happy. Growing up and studying during the Second World War in an Austria that rather conveniently forgot its Nazi proclivities after the war, she divorced and later remarried her dentist husband, helped him out in his work and raised two children. She was hugely respected by her contemporaries, won several literary prizes, but (whether out of a sense of bourgeois guilt or whatever), always put her family first. She was frustrated that she did not have enough time to write but, modestly, never made a big fuss about it. She was a contemporary of Ingeborg Bachmann, but was forgotten for a while, although Elfriede Jelinek considered her a source of inspiration.
The book has been interpreted as a description of some sort of psychological breakdown or depression. It has also been interpreted as a feminist or ecological tract or anti-nuclear manifesto. It can be all of those things, but to me it’s about a journey of self-discovery: just what are you capable of in extremis, what inner reserves can you have and how do you find peace despite suffering pain and loss, despite being confronted daily with your mortality.
Time is the main character really in this book: it seems to stand still, and yet we can feel its passing, in the seasons, in the animals and the body growing old.
I sit at the table and time stands still. I cannot see it, smell it or hear it, but it surrounds me on all sides. The stillness, the lack of movement, is frightening. I jump up, run out of the house and try to escape it. I do something, things move on and I forget about time. But then, all of a sudden, it surrounds me once more. I might be standing in front of the house and looking at the crows, and there it is again, invisible and silent, holding us firmly – the field, the crows and myself. I’ll have to get used to it, to its indifference and constant presence. It spins out into infinity like a spider web…
It was particularly moving to read this book in a state of almost lockdown, alone in the house without the children, merely the cats for company, but overall I did not find it depressing, although I may have cried once or twice when I heard about the fate of one or the other of the animals. I read the book in German, but it has been translated into English by Shaun Whiteside and published by Cleis Books and then reissued in 2013 by Quartet Books after the success of the film adaptation.
I enjoyed this book so much that I instantly ordered a couple more books by Marlen Haushofer (unfortunately, only available in German). What is it about these Austrians, that they seem to see into my very soul (or has my soul been corrupted by growing up in Austria)? It’s a book that will certainly stay with me all my life.
If you’ve ever come across Thomas Bernhard, you’ll know that he’s often called ‘the grumpy old man of Austrian literature’. He seemed to revile so much of Austrian society, history, smugness and hypocrisy, especially that of Vienna (which seemed to him the culmination of all things Austrian), that he even asked in his will that none of his works should be published (or his plays performed) there after his death. But he was far from the only Austrian writer who had a love-hate relationship with Austria – and with Vienna in particular. Nobel Prize winners Elfriede Jelinek and Peter Handke often launched into bitter invectives against the city, as did Karl Kraus. Even those who mourn the faded splendours of the city (and the death of a particular way of life) have very ambivalent feelings towards it: Elias Canetti, Joseph Roth, Schnitzler, Zweig. In fact, you can read a whole article about it in the Paris Review.
At a recent reunion with my international friends who all grew up in Vienna together, we realised that we all love the city, its beautiful architecture, the hills surrounding it, its rich cultural heritage, and above all its food (‘Mehlspeisen’ is the Austrian name for desserts, literally ‘floury meals’ and I’ve yet to meet someone who does not yearn for those extremely filling childhood joys). What do we remember less fondly? The rules and regulations, the ‘alles verboten’ draconian mentality, and the Viennese themselves. While I hesitate to put all Viennese in the same pot (some of my very good friends are Viennese), it’s undeniable that there is a schizophrenic element to the Viennese personality. Their renowned Gemütlichkeit (warmth, friendliness, geniality) and politeness makes you feel initially much more welcome than you might do in the northern reaches of Germany, but then you realise that hypocrisy, pretentiousness and a deep-rooted suspicion of strangers (which seems bizarre in a diverse former empire) are equally engrained. Give me a rude, straight-talking but honest Berliner or Hamburger any time, you might be tempted to say.
And yet, reading Thomas Bernhard‘s hilarious send-up of the Viennese artistic circles in Woodcutters (in the translation of David McLintock), I couldn’t help but fall in love again with that particular Wiener Schmäh – the black humour, often charming, frequently vicious – that is so characteristic of the city. The novel has the subtitle ‘eine Erregung’, which is usually used to describe sexual arousal, but could be translated in this context as an irritation or agitated rant. And this is exactly what it is. Our narrator is back in Vienna after a long period away. He runs into the Auersbergers, an artistic couple he used to be friends with three decades ago, and allows himself to be invited to a dinner party, which keeps getting postponed because the guest of honour, an actor at the Burgtheater, is late. While everyone is waiting and getting increasingly hungry, the narrator spends most of the rest of the book and the party seated in a wing-backed chair (the repetition of this phrase alone makes for a great comic effect), moaning and complaining about the people there and wondering why he ever accepted the invitation into a house and milieu that he thoroughly despises. He has been unnerved by the funeral of a formerly close friend who committed suicide (another staple in Bernhard’s fiction) and he really lets rip about his hosts and their guests.
… to think what these people have made of themselves in these thirty years!… All these people have contrived to turn conditions and circumstances that were once happy into something utterly depressing, I thought, sitting in the wing chair; they’ve managed to make everyting depressing, to transform all the happiness they once had into utter depression, just as I have…. All these people had come to Vienna in the fifties… hoping they would go far, as they say, but the farthest they actually went in Vienna was to become tolerably successful provincial artists, and the question is whether they would have gone any farther in any other so-called big city…
Of course, there is plenty to satirise in the vacuity and pretentiousness of the Viennese literary, musical and theatrical circles. Vienna is in many ways not a big city, not one of the world capitals. It is a city that was once the capital of an empire, but has now become a pretty piece of scenery and a backwater. None of its inhabitants accept that, of course. Culturally, at least (they tell themselves), they are still the belly-button of Europe. A new theatre director or conductor is headline news in Vienna, and everyone has an opinion about it. Apparently, the characters Bernhard mocks are so thinly veiled that they would have been perfectly recognisable at the time to any Austrian reader. The publishers feared libel suits and it was indeed soon banned.
Vienna is an art mill, the biggest art mill in the world, in which the arts and artists are ground down and pulverized year in, year out; whatever the art or whatever the artists, the Viennese art mill grinds them all to powder… and the curious thing is that all these people jump into this art mill entirely of their own volition…
But Bernhard does not just mock the guests. The narrator himself is also on the carving block. The way he paces up the Graben and down the Kärntner Strasse, then up the Kärntner Strasse and down the Graben again (two famous pedestrian streets right in the centre of Vienna), only to be accosted by old friends he supposedly wants to avoid, is very typical of the small-town mentality of promenading up and down the main road (what the Italians call the passeggiata). This habit is still alive and well in Vienna and you are likely to meet anyone who is anyone there in the centre sooner or later (plus a whole load of tourists nowadays). The grumpy passive-aggressive muttering in the corner is also typical of the Viennese personality. The actor, who at first seems to be a self-satisfied twit, then expresses a flight of fancy which captures the narrator’s imagination and pity. He says how much happier he would have been with the simple, lonely lifestyle of a woodcutter, and this yearning, although still dripping in Bernhardian irony, tugs a little at our heartstrings.
The final pages of the novel remind me so much of Cavafy’s poem about The City, the one you are doomed to always carry around with you, a burden and an ideal.
I ran away from the Auersberger nightmare and toward the Inner City, and as I ran I reflected that the city through which I was running, dreadful though I had always felt it to be and still felt it to be, was still the best city there was, that Vienna, which I found detestable and had always found detestable, was suddenly once again the best city in the world, my own city, my beloved Vienna, and that these people, whom I had always hated and still hated and would go on hating, were still the best people in the world: I hated them, yet found them somehow touching – I hated Vienna, yet found it somehow touching – I cursed these people, yet could not help loving them – I hated Vienna yet could not help loving it… This is my city and always will be my city…
It’s a very tongue-in-cheek novel, in which you must question nearly everything that the narrator tells you, yet there is also a lot of truth in what he says. While you may not find it quite as hilarious as someone who loves/hates the Viennese, it is a bright and short introduction to Bernhard’s work, far more accessible than some of his other works.
By pure chance, a few evenings ago I attended a seminar organised by the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies which confirmed the almost schizophrenic nature of Viennese society, especially in the 1930s. Entitled ‘A School turns Brown: A Micro-Historical Analysis of the Grammar School G3 in Vienna and the Expulsion of its Jewish Pupils in April 1938’, the historian Dorothea McEwan (who herself had been a pupil of that school in the 1950s and absolutely loved its humanist tradition and ethic) showed how it took only 6 weeks after the Anschluss for the ‘purification’ of the school. The curriculum was ‘cleansed’, Jewish pupils were expelled and teachers who were not loyal to the Nazis were suddenly moved elsewhere. Six weeks. It is frightening how easy it is to descend into blind obedience to the siren call of law and order and authoritarianism. And Austria has never been immune to that siren call…
This book by Austrian writer Robert Menasse (step-brother of Eva Menasse, whom I’ve mentioned previously on this blog), translated by Jamie Bulloch, is the quintessential novel for the #EU27Project – in fact, for the EU 28, because the capital city of the title is Brussels and the United Kingdom is still within the EU, albeit reluctantly.
I won’t say too much about the plot, such as it is: the European Commission is getting ready to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary and wants to boost its image in the public eye. Sadly, the preparations are in chaos, not only because of the usual infighting and stubbornness of competing egos, but because into the mix come runaway pigs, dead bodies and Auschwitz survivors who refuse to conform to the plan. Jamie Bulloch, as always, does an excellent job of making the vicious sound funny, yet injecting a tragic note into the proceedings as well.
The plot is essentially an excuse to send up the complicated hierarchical structures and nationalist impulses of the various countries and their officials within the European Commission. I particularly relished the description of the British delegate.
Like most of the British officials, George Morland wasn’t especially liked in the Commission. The British… only accepted one binding rule: that fundamentally they were an exception. In truth the British were always suspected of neglecting the interests of the Community for the benefit of London’s interests. In many instances the suspicion was justified.
Beneath the farcical situations and humour, there are sharp, swift arrows that pierce the pretentiousness of many bureaucratic ‘types’ as well as nations, not just the Brits.
Strozzi was just plump enough to demonstrate that he was no ascetic, a fact reinforced by the signal red of his waistcoat. Strozzi was an anomaly at this level of power, which was dominated by the ‘Enarques’, graduates of those elite schools such as the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, slim men in discreet, not-too-expensive suits (ascetic in every respect) capable of negotiating for hours on end and all night long too. They appeared to need barely any food and as good as no sleep, they got by with few words few gestures, they avoided sugaring their souls with the sweetness of empthy, they didn’t need a public arena… they eschewed the outside gloss.
Yet, despite the conformity of these faceless bureaucrats, there is a similar cloning effect within the British contingent, with all of the advantages that senior official Grace Atkinson believes it brings:
If the foreign secretary’s private office in London had to reach a decision, the discussion lasted half an hour at most, including all the rituals and small talk at the beginning and end. People there had the same background, they were of comparable stock, which meant they had also been to the same schools, spoke the same language with the same accent by which they recognised each other, they all had spouses from the same social class, between 80 and 90 per cent of their biographical details were identical… But here in Brussels? Around the table there were alwas people with different languages and of different cultural backgrounds, many from working-class and artisan families too, especially from the eastern countries, with very different experiences, and everything that Grace Atkinson was used to resolving in twenty minutes here took hours, days, weeks.
Tongue-in-cheek endorsement of ‘simplicity’ and ‘decisiveness’ over consultation and compromise, clearly!
There are also some idealists, who are about to become disillusioned. There are some outbursts which sound heartfelt, almost as if the author has gone on his own political rant through the mouth of one of his characters. There are opportunities to pause and reflect on the future of the EU – although any luminous vision is punctured instantly by ridiculous suggestions.
All in all, this is a wicked little satire, very similar in vein although less compassionate than the depiction of the UN in Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses.
Like her contemporary Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek is both revered and hated in almost equal measure in her homeland Austria. She is a Nobel Prize winning author, a beautiful writer and unafraid to experiment and tackle challenging themes, but she is also a sharp critic of the hypocrisy in Austrian society, its xenophobia and its unquestioning acceptance of Catholic authoritarianism. So an inconvenient thorn in the side of the establishment and the reputation of Austrian ‘Gemütlichkeit’ (warm, friendly, cheery mood). As recent election results show, her critique is entirely justified and the dark side of the Austrian soul is never too far from its more hospitable and charming surface.
In her volume consisting of three plays In den Alpen (In the Alps), Jelinek digs out the mountain of bones and darkness upon which resides that idyllic Alpine landscape her home country prides itself on. Not for nothing do the Austrians regularly refer to their country as the Alpenrepublik (a term which could apply to Switzerland too, but the Swiss like to think of themselves as a confederation).
Kaprun dam and mountain railway are part of the famous Salzkammergut tourist region in Austria. The first play entitled In the Alps looks at Kaprun as the scene of one of the greatest mountain disasters ever in Austria – in Nov 2000 155 people lost their lives in the railway tunnel when it caught fire, most of the victims being skiers and tourists going to visit the glacier. This play shows the contrast and eternal fight between technology and the environment, mass tourism and a healthy respect for the dangers inherent in nature. (See recent articles about not being able to see the lonesome beauty of Iceland or Peru because of the crowds of tourists). On the other hand, Jelinek also refers to the fact that Jews were excluded from the mountain-tourism associations in the early 20th century – as if they would taint the purity of the clean crisp mountain air. There is also the unspoken contrast between the pure Heimat (homeland) of the Alps, contrasting with the decadence of Vienna (full of Jews), a dichotomy which clearly influenced young Hitler as he was growing up.
The other longer play Das Werk (The Work) is about building the huge dam and power station, started in the 1920s and finished in the late 1950s with Marshall Plan funding. Before that, it had a bit of an inglorious past, with internment camp labour under the Nazis and later Russian POWs, many of whom died in avalanches and because of negligence in safety procedures. These two plays examine egos, ambition, exclusion and exploitation, natural and man-made catastrophes and the small, patient work of rebuilding. They are perhaps easier to read rather than to see performed: there is little action or dialogue – rather, it is more like a collection of long oratorios or tirades against industrial, political and military powers.
The plays have been performed in German (the first was premiered at the Munich Kammerspiele, the second at the Burgtheater in Vienna) but have not been translated into English. I found the volume by accident on the open shelves in the German studies reading room at the Senate House library (and read it there during my lunch breaks). An unplanned but lucky German literature month find!
Arthur Schnitzler is both fortunate and unfortunate in being very closely identified with his home town of Vienna. On the one hand, it means that publishers and readers think they know what he stands for, but on the other hand it has meant that he doesn’t travel quite so well beyond its borders. I grew up with him as part of my upbringing in Vienna, but I was not surprised that his star went into decline abroad (like Stefan Zweig), because he doesn’t actually fit in that well with the clichés people have of Vienna as the city of wine, women and song.
Schnitzler never quite belonged to the stuffy bourgeoisie of the Ringstrassenpalais times (1870-80) although he was born into that world, with his father being a prominent doctor. However, his parents were of Jewish and Hungarian origins, so he probably was made to feel that he didn’t fit in quite 100%. Nor was he quite the poor Bohemian living a ropey existence in the Depression era of the 1930s, like Joseph Roth. Yet he certainly pierced the gilded Jugendstil facades to show the agony and self-doubt underneath. In pre-WW1 Vienna, it was fashionable to be disenchanted and morose despite the high standard of living. It was the last dying gasp of the great empire, much like the death throes of the Roman Empire: the time of decadence (Schnitzler was often accused of pornographic obsession), fetishes and neuroses. It was the time when the psychoanalysis of Freud and agonised silhouettes of Schiele coexisted with the luxurious, settled art of Gustav Klimt and the genteel debates of the well-established café culture.
Schnitzler’s analysis goes deeper than fashion: he trained as a doctor himself and that enables him to understand psychology better than many others. He uses a fine scalpel to dissect emotions, as well as being an early innovator of stream of consciousness techniques. His prose is always limpid, clear, elegant, witty, yet with a certain easy colloquial charm and cadence that is typically Austrian – like characters from The Fledermaus. There is certainly something of the humour and lightness of that operetta in this novella Später Ruhm, with a strong dash of satire and piercing of egos.
Eduard Saxenberger is a mild elderly civil servant, quite content with his bachelor lifestyle and regular evenings out at the local pub. Back in his youth he had briefly flirted with poetry and even published a volume of poems, which sank without a trace. Until, that is, he receives a visit from a young poet, who is part of a literary circle who meets daily at one of the famous Viennese cafés. To his astonishment, Saxenberger discovers that these young (and not quite so young) writers venerate him on the basis of that rediscovered volume. He lets himself be seduced by the flattery and idealism of the group of artists and dares to hope for some late fame for himself… but, needless to say, he soon finds out that there is indeed such a thing as too late.
This is a merciless parody of wannabe writers and actors, and many critics believe that Schnitzler made quite sharp references to several of his contemporaries, such as Hugo von Hoffmansthal, Peter Altenberg, the actress Adele Sandrock but also himself. It also rings true of many writing groups you might have encountered, where egos are greater than actual output, where artists like to complain of being misunderstood by their contemporaries even though their art is mediocre. There are some very funny statements such as, when trying to select which of Saxenberger’s poems might best fit the printed programme: ‘all lyrical poetry is about morning moods or evening moods… or night moods’. A joy to read, but tinged with melancholy – perhaps an awareness on the part of Schnitzler where he might have ended up if he hadn’t given up practising medicine. A warning to myself, as well!
This novella was recently rediscovered in his archives, which had been smuggled out of the country after his death during WW2 (when his published works were burnt by the Nazis). He wrote it in the early 1890s, towards the beginning of his career, but was unwilling to cut it into 8 parts for serial publication in a magazine, so he put it in a drawer and forgot about it. It’s amazing that a young writer was able to convey so well the discontent and loss of hope of an elderly writer.
As an aside, when Schnitzler was training to be a surgeon, he studied for a year in 1888 in London. His uncle and aunt lived in Honor Oak, and he himself lived in a boarding house in South Kensington. He was not that impressed with the rather dry English types he met in the boarding house, disliked the weather and complained about the lack of cafés and places to eat outside in London. He also remarked that nobody seemed to just go for a walk through town, everyone was just rushing to and fro – sounds familiar!
I’m linking this up to the wonderful initiative of German literature month. You can find many more reviews on this page.
Yesterday I finally braved the loft again and got down a new set of book boxes. Sadly, quite a few boxes ended up with heavier boxes on top of them during 5 years of storage, so the books are not always in pristine condition. (Fellow booklovers who are equally obsessive about book spines remaining uncreased, corners unturned and therefore hardly ever lending books for fear of damage will understand my dismay!)
From the English collection: one of the funniest books about anthropologists and one of my favourite Barbara Pym novels; Sylvia Plath’s rite of passage, the Metaphysical poets (which we were not allowed to study at university during Communist times).
From the Austrian collection: the stories of Arthur Schnitzler and Elias Canetti’s first volume of memoirs (given to me as a present by a friend who said it was his favourite book).
From the French collection, a charming coming-of-age story by Colette (perfect summer reading) and a grim childhood memoir by Herve Bazin (required reading in French class, but nevertheless memorable rather than sheer torture).
One of my favourite Romanian poets: Ion Pillat (I don’t think he’s ever been translated) – a lyrical nature-loving poet.
And finally a book that I haven’t read (there aren’t many of those in my loft): Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, because I was translating a Romanian writer at the time who kept referring to Pessoa and was writing in his style.
Here are some excerpts from the Japanese collection against a background of bins:
Ugetsu Monogatari is one of the lesser-known classical works of 18th century Japanese literature. A collection of spooky stories, it is perhaps better known as a masterpiece of Japanese cinema. The flowery cover is actually the paper wrapping that you automatically get at the time of purchase in Japanese bookshops for all your paperbacks. It covers Banana Yoshimoto’s Tugumi, which I haven’t looked at since I was a student (and probably won’t be able to read anymore). Finally, we were very excited to read Norwegian Wood with our Japanese professor during our student days, but this is the English language translation. And what a beautiful edition it is too, with its two small volumes encased in a golden box.
Alas, alas, only a small part of the books have descended from the loft and we are already running out of space!
Some upcoming deadlines means that this may well be my last contribution to German literature month. I have enjoyed it greatly and will continue to read the reviews by other participants (and, of course, I will continue to read German literature throughout the year – in fact, I’ve just ordered two books for Christmas).
Stefan Zweig is an old favourite, but it’s been nearly two decades since I last read any of his work. I reread the ‘Chess’ novella and ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’, but I think it was the first time I read ‘Incident on Lake Geneva’ and ‘The Invisible Collection’. It’s these four I want to talk about.
‘Chess‘ is famous for being the only work openly addressing the interrogation methods and political persecution by the Gestapo. It has an interesting structure of a story within a story – or rather two stories within a story, as we also find out more about the background of the reigning world champion in chess, Czentowic – which serves perhaps to create a bit of distance and make the grim tale somewhat more bearable. (It did remind me of the structure of ‘Wuthering Heights’.) It was also the last complete work Zweig wrote before committing suicide and perhaps best conveys his feeling of hopelessness, his loss of idealism and how he felt the world of materialism (in the person of Czentowic) was winning over. Zweig commented at some point how he felt ‘so much of human dignity has gone lost during this century’. Most surprising of all, Zweig himself was not a good chess player at all – but clearly a keen observer of other players.
By way of contrast, ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman‘ struck me as a bit overblown and sentimental. It throws everything at us: passionate love, undying devotion, a child’s death and self-sacrifice. Yet the end rang true: that the writer to whom this is all addressed (the writer who is supposed to be such a sensitive, empathetic person) still cannot remember the woman whose life he has so dramatically influenced.
‘Incident on Lake Geneva’ is a very short tale which can be read allegorically. A naked man is fished out of Lake Geneva: he turns out to be a Russian POW who has escaped from camp. He is wild and unkempt, can barely make himself understood, but a hotel-owner who speaks some Russian finally manages to communicate with him. He was trying to swim eastwards towards Russia, which he thought was at the other end of the lake. When he is told that Russia is much farther away, that the country he was fighting for no longer exists, the Tsar is dead, the war not quite over and that he is not free to return home until he completes a lengthy bureaucratic process, he chooses to drown. A heartbreaking story of losing one’s identity and sense of belonging.
The last one I read was my favourite ‘The Invisible Collection‘: an art dealer visits the home of an old man, his father’s best client, in the hope of getting some valuable sketches and prints from his notable collection. But it turns out that the old man’s wife and daughter have sold the priceless sketches in order to cope with rampant inflation, relying on the fact that the collector is now blind and can no longer tell the real from the fake. A beautiful, moving scene follows, in which the collector leafs through his collection and describes each of his beloved pieces in detail, while the art dealer sees the feeble copies but tries to keep the illusion intact. This is a wonderful story about the power of imagination and passion, the joy that is within us rather than in anything we possess. Ultimately, an uplifting and hopeful story.
This 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.
The 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?
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.