I was going to do far, far better for German Literature Month, which is always one of the reading highlights of my year. But alas, this is only the second book I get to review, after stretching the definition a bit for Fred Uhlman’s Reunion.
I first came across Eva Menasse in an anthology of Austrian literature entitled Vienna Tales. I wanted to read more but her massive family saga about a Viennese family (entitled Vienna) seemed a bit too long. So I was delighted to find the slightly less intimidating book Quasikristalle when I visited Berlin, where Menasse now lives.
Quasicrystals are structures which are ordered but not periodic. They fill all available space but lack translational symmetry – in other words, the patterns do not match if reproduced or rotated. If we use this as a metaphor for a fictional character, we can say that this book allows us to see a woman, Xane Molin, from all angles, enabling us to get a composite but confused picture of her, since all of the different viewpoints contradict each other. Perhaps that is all we can ever hope to understand of ourselves and others – an incomplete picture, an approximation of identity, or guesswork? Or perhaps over time our characteristics change so much, that we can never fully grasp ourselves entirely, can only offer a snapshot at a certain point in time?
Xane seems to share some biographical elements with Menasse herself: a Viennese transplanted abroad, marriage to an older man, living in a blended family, successful career. Yet there is little attempt to present her in a favourable light. Instead, we see a complicated, contradictory, difficult and garrulous woman. There are 14 different points of view ordered chronologically, but only one of them is Xane herself, right in the middle, soon after she has given birth to her son after several miscarriages. Before and after that moment in time, we see Xane as a schoolchild, a student on a trip to Auschwitz, a tenant, a sister’s friend, a patient, a helpful chance encounter on the street that might lead to infidelity, a stepmother, a boss, a daughter, an old friend, a person glimpsed from a window and finally an ageing mother who refuses to conform to expectations.
What is striking about the book, however, is that Xane is most often not the heroine of each of these vignettes. Each character telling the story is so preoccupied with their own life that they often don’t have the time or the inclination to think deeply about Xane (unless they are falling in love with her or fighting with her over something). In several of the vignettes she makes such a tangential appearance that you might miss her if you blink.
But that’s OK, because she is not the most interesting thing about this book. Her life is scattered with the usual vicissitudes and triumphs as anyone else’s. She is as prone to jump to conclusions about people as others are to misjudge her. What I enjoyed far more were the descriptions of all the other people whose lives have come within Xane’s orbit, however briefly. Their petty concerns, their selfish pursuits, their idealism giving way to pragmatism, their disappointments – it all felt very relatable. Above all, I enjoyed the sly digs at the age-old rivalry between Austrians and Germans. A disgruntled German employee muses about the ‘all mouth and no content’ Austrian style and considers himself marginalised by the ‘Viennese mafia’ in the workplace. Meanwhile, the Austrians consider the ‘Piefke’ (nickname for the Germans) too staid, ambitious, corporate.
All in all, a fun, easy read, giving some pause for thought, but not a particularly memorable masterpiece. Still, I think it would do quite well if it were translated into English and certainly thought it was better than the exceedingly popular French writers such as Guillaume Musso or Katherine Pancol.