#EU27Project: Robert Menasse – The Capital

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.

Mistranslation of French Tax Forms

There is still plenty of unfinished business on the French side of my administrative papers, so I amused myself with some ‘literal’ translations of their menacing letters. Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf and wakes up at night panicking about fines and other punishments? Not me, not me!

 

Apple of the Côte, apples of all orchards unite!

Pursue this chance

limit the number of dates you go out on

keep your bearing regal

and return your ransom

in the envelope joined to the hip of this letter.

You major retard.

Even I can’t keep the imperatives and bad language out.

A man doing his taxes using a calculator and pencil on a white background

Womanly Wit, Satire and Compassion

Two books I read in September (but never got around to reviewing) have stayed with me for similar reasons, even though outwardly they couldn’t have been more different. The first was a family saga of sorts, seen through the eyes of three generations of women. The second book was a satire, a series of interconnected short stories set in a nameless (but easily recognisable) international organisation.

The obvious similarity between them is that they might both have been labelled ‘women’s fiction’ – but of course that is a meaningless term. What they both brought to me as a reader was a wit at once fierce and yet tender. So if there is such a thing as women’s fiction, is it possible that women are more prone to sharp observation of character flaws, but also more gentle and forgiving of them?

hadleycoverTessa Hadley: Everything Will Be All Right

Family sagas are so not my thing (although I did go through a brief period in my teens when I enjoyed the Cazalets, Flambards and the Eliots of Damerosehay). But this book is more about exploring what it means to grow up a woman in three (perhaps even four) different eras, each one with its own challenges, opportunities and limitations. Joyce grows up in the early 1950s and wants to break free of the constraints of the housewifely existence she sees in her mother’s and aunt’s generation. Art school seems to be her way out of suburbia, but then she marries her art teacher and has children. Very soon, she learns to content herself with dressmaking, homemaking and a less than perfect marriage.

Her daughter Zoe disdains these compromises and grows up in the more adventurous 1970s, with expectations of gender equality. Yet when she falls in love with fellow student, the scornfully intellectual Simon, and falls pregnant, she too struggles with the ‘tension between motherhood and intelligent life’. Finally, Zoe’s daughter Pearl is still a thoughtless teenager in the late 1980s or early 1990s: the only thing she is sure of is that she doesn’t want to end up either like her cerebral mother or her domesticated grandmother.

In her Q&A session in Morges, Tessa Hadley said that this was the most autobiographical of her novels. She certainly describes all the permutations of female emancipation in a no-nonsense Northern family, with memorable characters and sensitive descriptions of complex mother/daughter relationships. Throughout, she casts a remarkably lucid and critical eye on the shortcomings of each generation – there is none who seems to have got it entirely right. Women are all still chasing after their illusions and learning to live with disillusionment.

The multiple points of view, although the shift is a little jarring at times, allow us to see each character, warts and all. It could be argued that the men are particularly covered in warts in this story – useless, unlikeable and, above all, unreliable. Yet often, in their unsentimental, selfish way, they see things most clearly. Here’s what Simon has to say about studying with babies:

He had not wanted this baby. He had always had a horror of a certain kind of semi-academic domesticity, PhD students turned whey-faced and sour-tempered over their grubby-mouthed and badly-behaved offspring; rented flats filled up with a detritus of toys; typewriter and books pushed resentfully aside to make room for plates of baby pap. It seemed to him self-evident that intelligent women with minds of their own would not make the best mothers: how could they bear, if they liked room to think and breathe and read, to be constrained as the mothers of small children must be to the sticky and endlessly repetitive routines of domestic life?

I don’t know if it’s a sad indication of things not having moved on very much, that women nowadays still have to make those restrictive choices of hearth and career, life of the mind or domesticating the body, that motherhood still reverts us back to gender stereotypes.

glasshousesShirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses

Shirly Hazzard worked for the UN Secretariat in New York for a number of years, but was also familiar with diplomatic service and British Intelligence, so she had quite a choice of ‘organisations’ and ‘corporate nonsense’ to ridicule. This was probably the first book to lampoon organisational man (and woman) and the absurdities of the bureaucratic world. Yet the author reserves her sharpest arrows for the stultifying, soul-crushing organisation itself, its odd rules and procedures, the way it forces people to pretend and cheat. So many great insights into how organisations with their pretensions and doublespeak grind down and dehumanise people, how only the mediocre and ‘well-adapted’ or sycophantic survive.

The people themselves are mocked with compassion, perceived perhaps as victims. We see erudite, gentlemanly but rather slapdash Algie Wyatt being given the boot. Geeky researcher Ashmole-Brown is made fun of but then publishes his results and hits the bestseller lists; Swoboda, a Slav refugee during the war, has made up for lost educational opportunities through sheer hard work – yet is denied the promotion he feels he deserves and loses all respect for his bosses. Idealistic Clelia Kingslake flies out to Rhodes to deal with a crisis – but finds that no one seems to care about or rate her peace-keeping abilities.

All this in an elegant, uncluttered prose. The anger is toned down, yet with sly asides – a very British irony which reminds me of Barbara Pym.

Clelia Kingslake was happy because, first of all, she was a Canadian. Fished out of the Annual Reports Pool at Headquarters… flown to Rhodes at one day’s notice, arriving there to sunlight and sea, to trees in leaf, flowers in bloom, to the luxury of finding herself beside the Mediterranean – all this by itself might not have been thoroughly enjoyable to her strict northern soul had she not come to assist in a noble undertaking. She had been sent to serve the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean in their hour of need, and it was this that sanctioned her almost sensual pleasure in her surroundings…

Have you read these books or other books by these authors? I will certainly be seeking out more of their work.

Review of The Room by Jonas Karlsson (transl. Neil Smith)

It’s that time of year when Christmas revelry has given way to austerity, when budgets are strained and when the daily grind of work and commuting becomes very nearly unbearable. So much so that the last or last-but-one Monday in January is frequently (though controversially) cited as Blue or Suicide Monday, the most depressing day of the year.

THE ROOM cover (1)So what better time to read this short but deadly satire against cubicle life? It is a wickedly humorous analysis of the lows (and no highs) of office life, as encountered by rather strait-laced, deadly-earnest but initially naive protagonist Björn. His organisation, which goes by the rather sinister name of ‘The Authority’, looks favourably upon those employees who are positive, efficient, ambitious and meticulous. Björn feels he has all of these qualities, but none of his colleagues or bosses seem to agree. It’s only when he discovers a mysterious room at the end of their open-plan office, that he finds a congenial place for his finicky temperament, a place where he can get his best work done, where he can really shine. Unfortunately, none of his other colleagues can enter or even see the room. Suspicion, misunderstandings and office wrangling for power abound and fester. As readers, we are swept along with the torrent of acerbic, witty observations, always seeing a little beyond Björn’s blinders, but also acknowledging the justice and sheer fun of his observations. I love the way he pokes fun at corporate jargon.

I got an email from Karl the other day. It was a group email to the whole department. The introduction alone made me suspect trouble: We will be putting staffing issues under a microscope. Anyone with even a basic understanding of the language knows that you put things under ‘the’ microscope, with the definite article. (Sadly, this sort of sloppiness is becoming more and more common as text message and email are taking over.) I let it pass this time, but knew that I would have to act if it happened again.

We suspect he might not be a reliable narrator, but his colleagues’ reactions are inexcusable, veering towards bullying. Case in point: the incident with the ‘indoor shoes’, which the well-intentioned but weak boss Karl buys for Björn. This results in a murmur of discontent around the office. This passage illustrates perfectly the author’s minimalist style:

‘Well…’ Jens said from over in the corner. ‘I’d just like to know… how much those shoes cost?’

‘The shoes?’ Karl said, stretching to his full height.

Jens nodded, with a self-important expression on his face.

‘I mean, they weren’t free, were they?’

‘No,’ Karl said, picking up a pen, which he drummed idly against the edge of the desk. ‘I took the liberty of – ‘

Jens didn’t let Karl finish his sentence.

‘So how daft do you have to behave to get a pair like that?’ he went on, to scattered laughter.

The absurd situations described with a straight face remind me of Eugène Ionesco. We find in both authors the same feeling of alienation, that step back to examine the banal everyday things we take for granted… and seeing them afresh for the ridiculous and surreal experiences which they really are.  Another way to read ‘The Room’ is as a failure of imagination, the tendency of the mainstream to fear those who are ‘different’. It is clear that the office workers object to Björn’s behaviour not because it threatens them in any way, but because he refuses to conform and fit in, because he is not part of the herd.

This book falls into a long tradition of quiet but steadfast rebellion against the tyranny of work. In Balzac’s ‘The Physiology of the Employee’, we read about personal expenses of employees being thoroughly examined, benefits being cut, and my all-time favourite sentence about the door on which ‘the sign reads “Human Resources,” which really strictly means “Human Capital,” and in practice amounts to little more than “Slave” ‘. Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener is every bit as prickly, difficult and unknowable as Björn. ‘The Authority’ for which Björn works has echoes of Kafka’s faceless, relentless bureaucracy in ‘The Castle’ (and Kafka’s diaries are full of his exhaustion and revulsion for office work). More recently, Ricky Gervais as David Brent made us squirm in recognition with his mockumentary ‘The Office’.

For a taster of the book (read by the author with a wonderful sing-song Swedish inflection), try this:

 

https://soundcloud.com/vintagebookspodcast/the-room-by-jonas-karlsson-what-are-you-doing/s-IGmxT

And here is the prize-winning animation of the book’s theme by a group of students from Kingston University:

The book is published today by Vintage Books in the UK. Thank you to the publisher and to Netgalley for an advance copy of this essential reading for anyone who has ever despaired of corporate life.