So, my first post of 2016 is a look at the last book I read in 2015. In truth I read it throughout the last month of the year, although not a little each day as intended, my father’s illness has interfered with all of my best laid reading plans of late. However I could not allow the year to draw to a close without finishing this book of calendar stories marking a passage through the month of December in the unique and inimitable style of Alexander Kluge, complemented by the haunting wintery forest scenes captured by Gerhard Richter.
This slim, elegant volume is my first encounter with the work of the German writer and film maker Alexander Kluge. The 39 stories, many less than a page long, are presented in a straightforward manner with a humour so subtle and wry that it simmers below the surface, blurring the perceptual line between history and speculation. Kluge offers a chronicle of an alternate reality so close to our own that it can catch you off guard. A flimic sensibility permeates each entry.
December is divided into two sections. The first part contains a series of dated entries, one story, or a cluster of stories, for each day. The years assigned to the dates vary. Many of the scenarios are set in or around the years of the Second World War. Others tend to be placed in the latter part of the first decade of the twenty-first century. But there are forays far back into prehistory and looking off to a distant future. Characters wander in and out from historical factual reality, war themes of conflict and destruction recur, as do images drawn from concerns about climate change and the fallout from the economic collapse of 2008. The ageless question of the nature of good and evil is a prevalent theme – “evil proves to be good displaced or straying in time” – as is the measure of the passage of time itself, whether measured on a global scale or at a much more personal, intimate level:
“The uncertainty, above all the lack of influence on whether and when someone will be struck down by the war, makes the soul bold. There is nothing to be lost any more.
So, after an air raid in 1944, which went on for hours, Gerda F. did not save herself up any longer. No thought of waiting for one of the returning warriors, whom she still knew and who would ask for her hand. She didn’t want to get to know any better those left behind in the armament factories of the place. All were looking for closeness. She took a man who was passing through town up to her room. They never saw each other again. There was nothing about it that she regretted.”
The second, shorter section is titled “Calendars are Conservative”. They form a series of reflections on the way time – days, months and years – are recorded, calculated, and, as in certain situations such as during the height of the French Revolution, manipulated and distorted. The revolutions of the earth on its axis and the passage of the planet around the sun may be measurable with relative consistency, but that has not kept humankind from trying to understand, articulate and contain the progress of time, again in both the macro, political sphere and in the individual philosophical context:
“What manifests itself in my story, the story of a living person, is not COMPLETED PAST (what was, because it no longer is), also not the prefect tense of what has been in what I am but instead the OTHER of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”
To spend a month, dipping in and out of the stories, anecdotes, and reflections Kluge has assembled to mark the end of the year is a treat. Although the images are often sombre, the atmosphere is contemplative. Gerhard Richter’s accompanying photographs enhance the measured tone. If you have ever experienced a day of heavy and unexpected snowfall, those days in the Northern Hemisphere that can bring all but the most essential services to a halt, granting a welcome reprieve from school or work for many; you will know how time can slow to a leisurely pace while the thick blanket of white muffles the day to day noise of the city. That is the sensation captured in the muted monochrome images of snow laden branches in silenced forests. This is the December we hope for but, caught up with the demands of year end and pressures of the holidays, frequently fail to achieve. A time to contemplate the past, for better or worse, speculate about the future and pull another calendar year to a close.
Translated from German by Martin Chalmers, December is published with the expected fine attention to detail by Seagull Books.