Suspended in time: The Nameless Day by Friedrich Ani

Although there was a time when I would read occasional police procedurals, somewhat like a palate cleanser between what I might called “more serious” reads, my reading focus has shifted over the past decade or so and, consequently, it’s been a long time since I picked up a crime novel as much for lack of time than anything. However, when The Nameless Day by German writer Friedrich Ani arrived at my home wrapped in a stunning Sunandini Banerjee-designed dustjacket, I thought that, after so long, it might be a refreshing change of pace. What I found was slower-paced, more character driven, less solution focused read than I might have expected and, in my case, it was a good fit.

Recently retired, police detective Jakob Franck is looking forward to settling into an existence that will, he hopes, no longer be haunted by the mournful presence of ghostly visitors from the past challenging him with their unresolved secrets. Instead, he is unexpectedly contacted by a living herald of a case he had not directly investigated but had never forgotten. Twenty years earlier he had been charged to deliver to a family the news that their seventeen year-old daughter had been found hanging from a tree in the park. This particular task, the bearing of unbearably painful news, had become one that Franck seemed to excel at and so he had agreed to make the call. Only the mother was home. As she registered the news, Doris Winther collapsed into the arms of the detective and he ended up holding her, just inside the doorway, for seven long hours. The sort of unprecedented, irregular occurrence that leaves its mark. A little more than a year later, mother would follow daughter, recreating the act in the yard of the family home. Both deaths were declared suicides.

Suddenly, after two decades, Ludwig Winther, widow and bereaved father, re-enters Franck’s life clinging to a desperate conviction that his daughter was in fact murdered. He beseeches the former detective to have a look at the matter just one more time. Old habits die hard, Franck’s professional instincts are readily aroused:

Once again Franck caught himself thinking like an interrogator with only the admissible conclusion of an investigation in mind. But the man sitting in front of him, broken and bent by the leaden emptiness of his life, was no witness, he was a relative, a surviving dependent, the father of a daughter, the husband of a woman who had also hung herself and left behind a man who ever since had been wandering through the cages of his questions.

What unfolds is a re-awakening of memories, Franck’s own and those of the various people he contacts as he moves through a re-examination of those who knew Esther Winther—her classmates, her maternal aunt in Berlin, family friends, and neighbours. The narrative holds close to his perspective, and that of her diminished father, who, having been informally held responsible for his daughter’s and his wife’s deaths, has been reduced to living in an attic flat and working as a part-time delivery driver. Both men are in their sixties, divorced and widowed, and they have each chosen to remain unattached, but their loneliness is palatable. Around them the varied secondary and peripheral characters also echo various degrees of emotional isolation, grief and guilt linked back to either Esther’s unexplained suicide or to their own private tragedies. The world Ani so skillfully brings to life is not a happy one; the depth of family trauma reverberating throughout:

The silence, Franck thought, had driven that family into an inner and unsurmountable homelessness. The time to make a wish had never arrived for any of them; not even, he thought, looking towards the door again—no sound came from the other room—for Winther’s sister-in-law in Berlin. Inge Rigah had escaped the approaching shadow in her family’s world rather early, but in the place she had freely chosen to go she had instead become a prisoner of her dream, which she refused to realize or allowed only to remain as a sketch. In Esther she saw herself as a free spirit that no one could cage; and so, after her niece’s death, all that was left was the wrinkled anger she had carried around from the very first time she ever met Ludwig Winther.

As Franck works his way through the circle of connected individuals, concerns and accusations routinely circle back to the very man who initiated the reinvestigation of his daughter’s death. If not entirely sympathetic, Ludwig Winther is the tragic victim here. He had wanted to provide a good life for his family and in the end he lost everything—his daughter, his wife, his career, and his home. He became the focal point of anger and blame, accused of being inadequate at the very least, of rumoured unspeakable acts at the worst. Twice bereaved he was never granted the respect and space to grieve. His wife, sister-in-law, his daughter’s classmates all believed that he was directly or indirectly responsible for driving Esther to the point of no return. After twenty years, a small and defeated man, his attempt to find closure by proving to himself, at the very least, that fault belonged to someone else.

Whether anyone will find closure at the end of The Nameless Day is debatable. For some crime fiction readers that may be less than fully rewarding. For me, the questions that arise from the facts that we do learn are far more fascinating for the lack of resolution, for fate, and for the things we can never know. The dead may come to visit, but they tend to keep their secrets to themselves.

In the end, The Nameless Day is a satisfying, psychologically engaging read. Translated by Alexander Booth, the language is rich and poetic, and Ani’s willingness to leave room for what is unspeakable, unknowable and unsettled makes this a novel that will potentially appeal to a wide audience.

The Nameless Day by Friedrich Ani is published by Seagull Books.

*Read for German Literature Month 2018.

Nameless, neutered and neurotic: The Females by Wolfgang Hilbig

Over the past four years, five works by German author Wolfgang Hilbig have appeared in Isabel Fargo Cole’s lucid, evocative translations, each release bringing the late writer—always a literary outsider in life—an expanded following. The most recent offering, the fourth from Two Lines Press is the earliest, chronologically speaking. Originally published in 1987, The Females is an unrepentant portrait of a man burdened by a deeply and darkly distorted sense of shame and self-loathing. Classic Hilbig protagonist on one level, yet embryonic relative to the more abstract introspective narrators who move through many of his subsequent works.

This novella is set, like so much of Hilbig’s fiction, in a small industrial community in postwar East Germany. The narrator is, by his own description, a rather foul and socially inept misfit, a middle-aged man who still lives with his mother and harbours a troubled and seemingly stunted adolescent notion of women. He is not simply unnamed, but acutely aware of having been rendered nameless. Within the context of Hilbig’s shorter works this story is more explicit in its anger toward the state with its control of desire, creative and sexual. The recent history of his country, the ruins of war and the politics of the National Socialism, looms large. The imagery is gritty, coarse and vulgar, but the narrator’s desperate search for identity lends him a level of sympathy. He feels ashamed at his own corruption—especially a youthful turn at pornography, yet feels neutered and powerless. In the bluntness of its  approach, The Females seems somewhat less refined than Old Rendering Plant and the Tidings of the Trees which follow several years later, but having this earlier work published in English at this point allows readers familiar with his oeuvre to see developmental themes at play.

True to form, this is an absorbing, compulsive read, one that slips regularly into a nausea-inducing, full-frontal assault on the senses. The opening passages are fair warning. The protagonist is working at a pressing shop in a former munitions factory. The shop floor is entirely staffed by women and, confined to a dank basement room, his task is to clean the molds. From his subterranean vantage point he watches the women work the machinery:

Through the grating above me, damp, smoldering heat flooded down with steady force. I sat on a chair beneath the grate amid this hot tide, hidden in semidarkness, several bottles of beer by my chair; when I drank the beer seemed to gush instantly from all my pores, lukewarm, not even changing temperature inside my body. It was ceaseless strain—my head constantly tilted back—to stare through the grate into the light, always hoping to see the women up there step across the bars.

He obsesses over every movement the women make, sexualizing the physical routine of the manufacturing activity, longing for a fleeting taste of femininity, and masturbating in his gloomy enclosure. Needless to say, he is employed on borrowed time. “I had gradually begun to transform into a sickness,” he tells us, one that is characteristically “utterly excessive; an agony not quite human, it was no longer that of an animal either.” Dismissed from his job, he takes to wandering the streets at night and notices, that something has suddenly been drained from the atmosphere. As an aspiring writer, the only vocation he has ever truly desired despite the disdain this ambition evoked in his family and society alike, he had once been able to look at the dismal world around him and, as he puts it, “make the filth glitter”. Now, either in reality or in his madness, his environment had been altered.

Much to his dismay, he becomes convinced of a most horrifying truth:

It was no help at all to sense I was possessed by an obsession, in my overpotent head a cascade of letters blazed: all the females had vanished from town, and with them had fled every trace of femininity.—Not only that, I felt that even feminine nouns had fallen out of use; I thought I suddenly noticed people in town referring to trash cans as der Kübel instead of die Tonne. When I saw those trash cans from afar, set up in long rows along the curbs that summer—something unlikely to change, as the trash collection service was still more dysfunctional then than in the winter—at first I’d think a line of unshapely females was loitering there, dully iridescent in the bluish streetlights, and I’d hurry toward them. I’d realize they were just the trash cans I saw every night, from their gaping orifices hung rubbish that looked hairy, that had an undefinable evil about it.

His desperate, guilt-ridden efforts to make sense of this situation, to set it right somehow, drives the nonlinear, obsessive, self-deprecating and bitter narrative of The Females. Some of the imagery is harsh, off-putting, and sexist. In his defence the protagonist blames the psychopathology of the state under which he was raised, one in which “the sex drive was declared to be abnormal…and sex to be capitalistic”. He clearly has had no real, substantial and healthy relationships with women. He wants to be loved, longs for normal human contact, but fears that his anxious desire will drive others away, that as his desperation becomes evident, he grows increasingly hideous—“A monster with putrefaction written in the crannies of its skin as hectic red blotches, with uric acid drying and itching on its pate, a madness no longer stoppable as damp tufts of hair began painlessly detaching themselves.” His frustration is redirected back at women—his mother included—and it his inability to conform to the expectations of those around him. To see the world as he is supposed to see it.

At the core of this novella lies a crisis of masculinity. Hilbig, like many of his generation grew up fatherless. His father had disappeared at Stalingrad and he was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents. His characters often struggle with the rigid expectations of manhood in their closed society. As men who are naturally drawn to creative pursuits, they react against the predetermined factory life by trying to find their missing role models among the social outcasts—garbage men or the workers at a rendering plant. In the world Hilbig presents in The Females, the State is the all-powerful progenitor, women are brutish and masculine, men are soft and delicate, psychologically castrated. His protagonist is criticized by his family for failing to live up to an ideal set by his father, though it is not clear that his father is more than a myth he has no real memory of. He is seeking an absolution through the women who have controlled, avoided and now eluded him, longing to heal a wound with roots, ultimately, deep in childhood memory and buried national history. He chooses to work in a factory staffed by females to try to be near their presence and feels cut off from a vital reality when he is cast out. In the shadowy depths of the town’s laneways he is searching for a feminine presence which he can only vaguely remember, distrusting his imagination and distorting reality into misplaced freakish phallic and vaginal imagery.

His is a strange, and strangely fascinating existential pursuit. “The world outside my window,” he is inclined to tell himself, “lacks the gaze that is mine”:

But I’d had to realize that I was no one.—I didn’t know whether I existed; the fact of my birth had been kept secret from me. They kept it secret to punish me, for I hadn’t turned out to be the thing they’d hope to bestow upon the world. Yes, I’d made the mistake of having myself be born, having myself be raised by the state and its pedagogy, by pedagogy and its state—I’d practically volunteered for it—but then I turned out differently. And so I had to be nullified, voided; there was neither a womb nor a pedagogy nor a state for the creature I’d become. I didn’t even have a name to lay claim to.

The Females is a challenging read in today’s climate of gender sensitivity. But emerging at a time when Germany was still divided (though Hilbig was by this time already living in west Berlin), its message’s bold, brutal delivery possibly reflects a more immediate frustration. Either way, it is a powerful short work that takes no prisoners.

Deftly translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, The Females by Wolfgang Hilbig is published by Two Lines Press.

*Read for German Literature Month 2018.

A tragic-comic turn: Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić

Croatian writer Daša Drndić, who died of cancer just this past June, was a formidable and singular literary voice. Her novels challenge expectations, blending fiction with historical fact and archival material, often in ways that break up and defy narrative conventions. Her central concerns circle around the impact of the Second World War on the former Yugoslavia and on European Jewish populations. Hers is a literary act of remembering. One which she approaches explicitly, implicitly and sometimes head-on and unadorned, as in the list of  names of 9000 Jews deported from or killed in Italy and Italian occupied regions between 1943 and 1945 that stretches over more than forty pages midway through her novel Trieste. Her work is bold and uncompromising—she does not shirk from horrific detail, and sees no need to comfort her reader, but that does not mean her work is devoid of humour and beauty. And, if she had high expectations of her readers, she was equally demanding of her translators. A recent article in Granta reports:

She gave clear indications that the translation of her works into other languages should not stray from her intention, form or style. Dialogue is in italics, always. Inverted commas are reserved for irony, ridicule. Word order is carefully chosen, for stress, and should not be transposed. There should be few commas and even fewer semi-colons. ‘I evade semi-colons when I want my protagonists to speak in a breath – so, comma, comma, comma.’ She often talked about dialogue this way, as a breath. Sentences should not be broken up; she was not in the business of making things easier for the reader: ‘The rhythm and repetition are meant to irritate.’ She abhorred qualifiers which might ‘sweeten’ the text. Her language was not to be sweet, nor soft, nor ornamental, because her subjects were not sweet, and she rarely used ellipses, let alone exclamation marks. Everything should be said, not evaded, and the simpler, the more concise, the better: ‘I weigh words, I respect them, I work with them. Where there are repetitions, they are there for a purpose (rhythm and context).’

If her novels are necessarily complex and formidable, what then, might one expect form a shorter work? A “simpler”, more accessible experience? Well, yes and no.

Doppelgänger, a shorter work from 2002, newly released from Istros Books, is likely to surprise readers familiar with Drndić and possibly leave newcomers completely uncertain what to think. And that’s where the quote above is useful. Stylistically, this two-part novella is simpler, and, on the surface, a more absurd and tragic-comic work, but it is equally unapologetic, incorporates lists and digressions, and is firmly rooted to her common themes—the impact of World War Two and its aftermath on the former Yugoslavia. It is almost an exercise in miniature. Her stories are at once deeply distressing and deviously playful.

Composed of two very loosely connected, yet contrasting, long stories, Doppelgänger opens with “Artur and Isabella”, translated by SD Curtis. We meet the two main characters, an elderly man and woman, separately. Artur, watching life from the window of his apartment, thinks about his aged body, incontinence, adult diapers, and the warm shit in which he is sitting. He is unsentimental, cynical, and yet judgemental in his thoughts and observations of others:

Nappies. Incontinence, incompetence, incompatibility. He watches grey-haired ladies weeing in their nappies and smiling. They smile tiny smiles and they smile broad smiles. When they give off big smiles, old ladies quiver. Old ladies in aspic. In buses they piss and smile to themselves. In coffee shops, in cake shops, in threes, in fives, sitting at small marble tables nattering, some are toothless, nattering over cakes, secretly pissing and smiling. Great, happy invention. Nappies. Each one of them is warm between the legs. Just like once upon a time. In their youth. In joyful times. Long ago.

Isabella we meet in the bath. She thinks about her body too. And herself. She also thinks about art and photography. It is New Year’s Eve, 2000, and these two lonely people, both in their late seventies, are preparing to go out to take in the spirit of the occasion. Later in the evening, they will meet.

The account of their encounter and subsequent sexual interaction is interspersed with excerpts from police surveillance files that detail their pasts (and unfortunate ends), facts collected with cold, clinical precision. Artur is a former captain in the Yugoslav Navy, and a dedicated collector of hats. Born in Germany, Isabella is the daughter of a Jewish shoe factory co-owner, who manages to escape the fate of the rest of her family members by obtaining false documents and making her way to the Croatian island of Korčula. After the war she marries a chocolatier and moves to Salzberg where she lives until her husband’s death in 1978, when she returns to Croatia and opens a photography studio.

Isabella and Artur happen to cross paths, two strangers out alone on the deserted town streets at four o’clock in the morning. There is an instant attraction; geriatric flirtation ensues. Isabella smiles widely, showing off her real teeth which is immediately noted by the other. Their conversation is awkwardly endearing:

 Those are your teeth? Artur asks anyway. Are those your teeth? he asks nervously, and without waiting for an answer he decides: I’ll tell her everything about myself. Almost everything.

They are walking. Along streets empty and littered from the New Year celebrations. Artur says: I’ll tell you everything about myself. We’re not children. The night is ethereal.

You don’t need to tell me everything, says Isabella.

Artur says: I used to work for the Yugoslav Navy. I was stationed on Vis. That’s where I met my wife.

Isabella asks: Were you a spy?

Artur thinks: That’s a stupid question. He says nothing.

I adore spy stories, says Isabella, and skips like a young girl.

They talk about hats, chocolates, Isabella’s garden gnomes and Artur’s epilepsy. They make out in the park, fumbling beneath one another’s (thankfully dry) nappies. And as the narrative progresses we are offered insights into their lives as flashbacks and documentary evidence is worked in. What unfolds is a simple, heartbreaking tale about two lonely old people who chance to meet on the eve of a new century. Separately they go home to make similar choices, their desire spent.

The second, longer story, “Pupi”, is translated by Celia Hawkesworth. The protagonist is Printz, a 50 year old man who lives in Belgrade with his father, Rikard, a chemist and former spy. Born in 1946, Printz (Pupi is a nickname he doesn’t like) had wanted to become a sculptor, but ended up following his father’s dual career path, presumably without great success. Now he no longer works; he has been pensioned off after a breakdown while on assignment in Bali. When we meet him he is watching rhinos in the zoo—a common refuge at times of stress. His mother has just died after a lengthy illness. It is never made clear exactly what sets Printz apart, but he does report that his birth was difficult, and although he has access to boundless amounts of knowledge on a wide range of subjects, his thoughts tend to race at times and he is aware that bits and pieces of his past are getting mixed up in  his head. A lengthy discussion about bipolar disorder (echoing Artur and Isabella’s discussion about well-known people thought to have had epilepsy) suggests that or a similar condition might play a part, which would not be out of step with some of the thinking and behaviour he demonstrates. But, for the most part, the fates he and his father face are representative of those of the Yugoslav middle-classes as their Socialist dreams, served by property taken from the Jews, is  crumbling under the materialistic pressures of a new generation. Any promise he may have once had has ebbed away.

The third person narrative shifts back and forth through Printz’s life. As a child he falls in love with a neighbour who will leave for a successful career as an artist; he marries twice and walks away from both marriages. Moving back in with his aging parents, he helps care for his mother, a one-time opera singer, as she is dying of cancer. And then there is his nemesis, his younger brother Herzog, a self-serving modern man who buys their father’s house, and, once their mother has died, begins restricting Printz and Rikard’s room as his own family expands, renovates and consumes the space. After the old man’s death, Printz soon finds himself with no home at all.

Although lists and historical and scientific details are woven into “Pupi”, this story is, for Drndić, a relatively conventional narrative, albeit one that employs her idiosyncratic rhythms, repetition, and italics. Printz is an engaging anti-hero—a damaged man with a good heart. War is in the background, colouring his dreams and imagination, even if joining the battle in reality is not practical or possible:

Pupi also often goes to war. That gives him inner satisfaction, that going off to battle sometimes across soft borders, sometimes impenetrable ones. Pupi no longer knows whether he is going to help the people from Vukovar or the ones from Sarajevo, he does not know. But in this war he becomes a hero and is proud of himself. He saves people, takes them out of their hiding places, bandages their wounds, tells the children stories. Sometimes he sees fields of unscythed wheat, sometimes streets flooded with plastic bags in which frozen faeces are thawing, human. He listens to people saying This is a terrible war, it is a small war and it will soon be over so Pupi is calm, he knows that he will survive. But still, in this war there are dead people, too many dead people.

Intelligent but easily disoriented, he is a lost soul and yet a strangely resilient one. However, in the end, even poor Printz has his limits.

Reading Doppelgänger is not unlike exploring the short works of one of Drndić’s heroes, Thomas Bernhard. The flow, mechanics and dynamics of his characteristic novels are all evident on a small scale in his short stories. Likewise, this novella stands in a similar relation to the Croatian novelist’s masterworks. There is humour here, and great humanity. Further, this unusual little piece was apparently a personal favourite. Her characters—Artur, Isabella, and Printz—are all eccentric, with peculiar obsessions that give their rather dismal lives meaning. They have all experienced trauma and hardship, and yet harbour little bitterness or anger. They seem resigned to their fates. Which makes their lonely ends that much more tragic.

Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić is translated by SD Curtis and Celia Hawkesworth, and published by Istros Books.

Just the right touch: A few thoughts about In Every Wave by Charles Quimper and a link to my review at The Temz Review

It is a distinct challenge to attempt to write about a novel that is so delicate and spare, almost gossamer-like, without crushing it beneath the tip of your pen. In Every Wave, the latest offering from Quebec-based publisher, QC Fiction is such a novel—or rather, at just 80 pages—novella. To write too much, to attempt to over read it in the analysis, would not only spoil the emotional experience of encountering the novel without any specific expectations and, most critically, risks colouring the hauntingly open-ended conclusion which I feel can be rightfully read a number of ways.

When I write a review of a piece of fiction, I try to offer a way into the text—enough I hope for someone else to know if it might be of interest to them—but I try to be careful not to explicitly state how I understood the book. That kind of discussion is fine for a book club, even for a friendly online debate, but not for a review. There are several reasons for this. One is that my own feelings toward a work might not fully gel until weeks or months after I’ve finished reading it. The other, more important, is that the books I am most inclined to want to review, especially for publication elsewhere, have a level of ambiguity, an openness to multiple interpretations. That is what makes me want to go to the extra work involved in reading a text, often several times, and attempting to bring to it to life—just a little—on the page.

The premise of Charles Quimper’s In Every Wave (translated by Guil Lefebvre) is simple. After his young daughter is tragically lost on a summer holiday outing, a father’s world starts to crumble. The narrative, presented as an internalized monologue directed at the protagonist’s missing daughter, is fragmented, nonlinear, painfully realistic and disturbingly surreal in turns. Nothing is entirely certain—nothing but the aching, overwhelming grief that consumes the bereaved parents and destroys their relationship, altering their lives forever.

This brief, but indelible story is best approached without too many preconceptions, so I felt that writing about it necessitated the lightest touch. I hope I achieved that. My review, for the latest issue of The Tℇmz Review, is now online here.

A chronicle of madness? One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello

To be born is a fact. To be born in one period rather than another, as I’ve already said; and of this or that father, and in this or that condition; to be male or female; in Lapland or in central Africa; and handsome or ugly; with a hump or without: facts. And if you lose an eye, it’s a fact; and you can even lose both, and if you’re a painter it’s the worst thing that can happen to you.

Time, space: necessity. Fate, fortune, chance: all snares of life. You want to be, eh? There’s this catch: in abstract, you cannot just be. The being must be trapped in a form, and for some time it has to stay in it, here or there, this way or that. And everything, as long as it lasts, bears the penalty of its form, the penalty of being this way and no longer being able to be otherwise.

In a world obsessed with identity politics, there seems to be a considerable currency placed on defining and understanding oneself in relation to others. To be authentic. But implicit in claiming, or rejecting any identity, is the assumption that we can know our own selves, and have that knowledge accepted and validated by others. Yet what if that is impossible? What if the image we have of ourselves is at once entirely singular, unverifiable, and at odds to some degree, great or small, with the multitude of images everyone else has of us?

Then you have the crux of the crisis that befalls the protagonist of Italian writer Luigi Pirandello’s classic 1926 novel One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, newly released by Spurl Editions, the inimitable little US publisher of nearly forgotten literary and photographic treasures.

The premise is simple, if, at first blush, a little contrived. The narrator, Vitangelo Moscarda, is a proud but unambitious twenty-eight year-old, heir to a considerable fortune, who is content to allow others to manage the bank his father founded while he enjoys a life of self-satisfied leisure in the town of Richieri. One day, while he is examining his face in the mirror, his wife offers an unexpected observation about his nose—it tilts to the right—and, wounded by this previously unnoticed imperfection, he quickly finds more to fault: his eyebrows look like two circumflex marks ^^, and his ears are poorly placed, and examination of his hands and legs revel further defects. An innocent remark thus sets off a crisis of identity that quickly escalates, ultimately ending with the complete psychological dissolution of character. As his grasp of reality spins out of control or, perhaps, becomes so precise that he can no longer surrender to the illusions that had previously buffered his existence, Moscardo carefully details the progress of what he calls “his sickness” and the remedy he believes will cure him of it.

Since he first becomes aware that his own view of himself is lacking, it troubles him that his wife is apparently in love with someone else—a construct of him, “her Gengé”—whom he now can only pretend to be. He blames his passivity and indecisiveness on a fault in his character and upbringing:

Unfortunately, I had never been able to give any sort of form to my life; I have never firmly wanted myself to have an individual nature, on my own, both because I had never encountered obstacles that aroused in me the will resist and to assert myself somehow in front of others and myself, and because my spirit tended to think and feel also the opposite of what it thought and felt the moment before. It tended, in other words, to dismantle and separate in me, with assiduous and often opposing reflections, every mental and sentimental formation. And then, finally my nature was inclined to yield, to give way to the discretion of others, not so much out of weakness as out of indifference and resignation in advance to the troubles that could then come to me…

The more he thinks about it, the more he comes to resent the way she manipulates this other version of himself, and grows jealous of this shadow of a being who has now come between them. The one she really loves. He has begun to disassociate.

The narrative is presented as a dialogue of sorts with an audience, the protagonist anticipating objections, inviting attention to certain observations and considerations. Pirandello (1867-1936) was a prolific playwright, and this interactive form of monologue reflects that. But this is an intense and deeply internal journey, one that, once in motion, the narrator is unable or unwilling to halt—even as he is aware of the self-destructive nature of his actions. After all, “self” destruction is his ultimate desire. If he is simultaneously one, nonexistent, and a multitude, he reasons that he should be able to break his various selves apart, shatter the impressions others hold of him—prove that he is not what they think he is.

The scheme Moscardo concocts leads him to engage in irrational, cruel and reckless behaviour and, of course, his goal is not appreciated. Because he has become especially concerned with the widespread reputation, inherited from his father, that he is a usurer, he turns his attention to the financial affairs of the bank in an especially reckless manner. And when money is involved, everyone pays attention. But not in the way our poor hero imagines. His friends and family respond by seeking to have him declared incompetent, a fate he is keen to escape.

Following Moscardo’s misadventures is akin to witnessing an existential train wreck. However, his insights into the limitations of self-awareness, and the nature of being in the world are profound. And, his observations of others are, for a narrator whose world falls apart with the  revelation of his own physical flaws, filled with vivid, typically unflattering, detail:

To judge by his appearance, Canon Sclepis didn’t seem to contain all that power of authority, that stern energy. He was a tall and thin priest, almost diaphanous, as if all the air and light of the hilltop where he lived had not only faded him but had also rarified him, and had made his hands almost transparent in their tremulous frailty and his eyelids finer than onion skin over his pale oval eyes. Tremulous and faded was his voice, too, and his smiles were empty on his long white lips, from which often a little blob of saliva would hang.

In navigating a very fine line between wisdom and madness, Pirandello has, in Moscardo, crafted a protagonist who is complicated, tragic, and strangely sympathetic.

Most famous perhaps, for his plays  “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and “Henry IV”, Pirandello was known for his ability to parlay his acute psychological insight into entertaining drama. That talent was recognized with the 1934 Nobel Prize for Literature. But he was also an important novelist and writer of short stories. This, his last novel, took him more than a decade to complete. Although it harvests territory familiar to Pirandello’s greater body of work, the tone is pessimistic, the style spare and the setting abstract. In that way it foreshadows the Theatre of the Absurd, in particular the work of Samuel Beckett. As translator William Weaver notes in his introduction, One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand was not well received when it was first released. It was, he suggests, ahead of its time. In 1990, when this translation was initially published, Weaver recognizes that “(t)he terrible honesty of the novel and its protagonist has, with time, become all the more desirable and impelling.”

How then, will today’s identity obsessed climate respond?

An excerpt from the opening chapters of One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand can be found at 3:AM Magazine.

 

Comic relief: Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard, Illustrated by Nicolas Mahler

Anyone familiar with the unbroken, single paragraph monologues that characterize the typical novel by late Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, might find it hard to imagine how his work could be realized in the medium of the graphic novel. I mean wouldn’t there be too many words to corral on the blank page? How could the intensity of the original be translated? For Austrian cartoonist and animator Nicolas Mahler it’s simply a matter of focusing on the essentials of the story and letting his quirky illustrations and creative use of space do the rest. As a result, his graphic interpretation of Bernhard’s Old Masters: A Comedy is, well, something of a small masterpiece. One suspects that the author himself, and his alter ego characters, Reger and Atzbacher, would secretly agree, despite their shared conviction that a true artistic masterpiece is impossible to achieve, let alone imagine.

Rendered in stark black and white drawings playing on extremes—massive architectural details, characters who are tiny and squat, elongated and thin, or large and corpulent, often grotesque, appear against golden yellow highlights (a distant echo of the artwork in Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline series)—Mahler allows his images to complement and amplify the ridicule, humour and disgust so intrinsic to this and the majority of Bernhard’s idiosyncratic prose. Frequently recurring of images—the museum security guard, Irrsigler, seems to spend an inordinate amount of time disappearing into the men’s room—visually mimic Bernhard’s fondness for repeating phrases and motifs. As the blurb on the back of the newly released English language translation of this comic-book take on a comic classic states: “The Master of Overstatement meets the Master of Understatement.”

And it’s a match made in, well, the Art History Museum in Vienna.

There is precious little action in Old Masters and little obvious plot. It is, however, a spirited takedown of Bernhard’s favourite targets: the Catholic Church, the State, the arts and artists—his characteristically dark, satirical look at the world in general and Viennese society in particular. But it is also, in the end, a touching, sad and surprisingly romantic tale.

The story unfolds, if you will, at the musem, on a bench in the “so-called Bordone Gallery” directly across from Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. Here sits Reger, as he is wont to do every other day. Meanwhile, the narrator, his long-time friend Atbacher, observes him, just out of sight, from the “so-called Sebastiano Gallery” waiting for exactly eleven thirty, the time at which the two men have agreed to meet. Reger’s invitation is out of character because the they had met there just the day before and this second consecutive rendezvous was not in keeping with the typical pattern of either man. Curious as to the reason for Reger’s invitation to break from habit, Atbacher has arrived an hour early so as to watch his friend undetected. Naturally, this provides him the opportunity to launch into a lengthy account of Reger’s family history, his opinionated views, and his predilection to spend every other day at the museum, seated across from Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. In the novel this monologue consumes the bulk of the text. The same is true in this version which contains roughly the same number of pages, but much, much fewer words!We learn that Reger, the museum regular, has been visiting the Art History Museum for over three decades. Yet his attitude toward great art, the work of the “so-called” old masters, is one of disdain. Philosophically, he muses that a detail might be perfected, but the whole of any painting, sculpture, or other artwork ultimately leaves us appalled:

There is no perfect painting and there is no perfect book and there is no perfect piece of music, said Reger, that is the truth.

None of these world-famous masterpieces, no matter who did them, is actually something whole and perfect. That reassures me, he said. In essence, this makes me happy.

Only when we unswervingly come to the realization that there isn’t this whole or perfect thing do we have a possibility of survival.

And that has been the reason why I have gone to the Art History Museum for over thirty years…

As one might a expect, a number of artists, writers, and thinkers are subject harsh, and often hilarious, criticism as Reger, speaking through Atbacher’s account, expresses his unbridled opinions. Nineteenth century Austrian author, Adalbert Stifter, for example, is written off as a “kitsch master” with “enough kitsch on any random page to satisfy more than one generation of poetry-thirsty nuns and nurses” and then, strangely, compared to Heidegger, that “National Socialist, knickerbocker-wearing Philistine.” No one tosses out an insult like a cranky Bernhard character!There is, of course, much more below the surface than insults and irritation. That is where his peculiar wisdom lies. And, in this story, we learn that our irascible main character Reger’s antipathy to the old masters, and artists in general, has its roots in an emptiness they cannot fill. One that speaks to his, and our, need for love.One does not need to be familiar with Old Masters in its original form to enjoy this book (I wasn’t), but exposure to Bernhard in his full verbal intensity probably is. The satire, the heartbreaking warmth of the ending, and the sheer feat of rendering the mood and spirit of the Austrian writer’s pessimism and bleak humour into a graphic novel is not likely to be fully appreciated otherwise. I am a huge admirer of Bernhard, but I confess I’ve never really been drawn to graphic novels (pardon the pun). But the other night, when my son found this book on the doorstep of my old house where it had been left by a courier, I was immediately captivated. It has been a difficult few weeks and Bernhard’s misanthropic humour, oddly, is always strange comfort at such times. The beauty of this book is that it is not only a delight to read and look at, but I can imagine myself returning to it and rereading it many times (after all it doesn’t take very long—it’s akin to an instant hit of Bernhard relief).

Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters, illustrated by Nicolas Mahler, is translated from the German by James Reidel, and published by Seagull Books. Essential medicine for any Bernhard fan, I’d say.

This is my first offering for German Literature Month 2018.

Honouring a singular Slovak voice: The Bloody Sonnets by Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav

Before it came to an end one hundred years ago this November, The Great War, that rapidly escalating clash of empires—the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian—would not only reshape the map of Europe and impact the distribution of power on a global scale, but fuel a new sense of national purpose and identity among the citizens of the countries pulled into the conflict either directly or by virtue of pre-existing alliances and obligations. It also unleashed, in very short order, the potential for destruction and violence on a scale previously unknown. With Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia on July 28, 1914, nations started to line up with their allies and declare war against one another. By the end of August, Germany, Russia, Britain, France and Japan were drawn in to a battle that was immediate, bloody and exhausting. And, as everyone soon realized, it was only just beginning.

It is easy to look back with hindsight, knowing the costs of this war and the ones that have followed, but in the opening moments of, and well into, what would become known as the First World War, the fervor of patriotism and passion to fight for God and country ran high. And this was well reflected within a realm one wants to imagine associated with “higher” ideals:

Despite its unparalleled horrors, the war had already produced something of immense value to humanity: namely, unforgettable poetry. This, at least, was one rather amoral commonplace from the early months of war. If poets had all too often been shut in their ivory towers, they were now quick to see that they could and must speak with the voice of the people. As Europe’s nations rediscovered their souls, they also rediscovered poetry. [1]

With few, cautiously voiced exceptions, the poets who responded to the unfolding drama of war, many of whom were themselves conscripted, were aroused with a new sense of purpose. Much has, of course, been written about this literary movement. Many collections and anthologies have been published over the years. However, one prominent, remarkably prescient poetic voice was raised against the prevailing sentiment, and his name is curiously absent from most of the annals and assessments of World War I poetry, such as the relatively recent text quoted above. In August and September of 1914, Slovak poet Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav composed a sequence of thirty-two poems, The Bloody Sonnets, expressing his passionate response to the growing hostilities into which his native country, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was bound. It has been largely overlooked. Now, a handsomely presented volume, published by the Centre for Information on Literature in Bratislava, seeks to bring renewed attention to this important collection of anti-war poetry as the centenary of Armistice approaches.

Born in 1849, Hviezdoslav  (a pseudonym appended to his birth name) worked as a lawyer and banker in Dolný Kubín in northern Slovakia before leaving his administrative career behind to devote himself entirely to poetry and translating. Writing in his native, endangered language, he was formally and thematically ambitious, exploring questions of Slovak society and culture, while weaving neologisms and elements of dialect into his work. At the outbreak of the First World War, he was sixty-five years old. While the poets and artists of Europe turned their attentions to creations charged with nationalistic rhetoric, his reaction was decidedly different. As one who aspired to a feeling of shared kinship between Slavic nations, the notion that Slovak and Czech soldiers would be called into action against Russia was deeply upsetting. With The Bloody Sonnets he set out first to decry the mounting bloodshed, and then to venture beyond that to imagine how the conflict might end.

In his introduction to this special edition, translator John Minahane marvels at the acuity of Hviezdoslav’s vision and his willingness to engage in a polemic against the prevailing poetic climate:

Hviezdoslav has such a powerful sense of the war’s scale and destructiveness that at first I found it difficult to believe that the Bloody Sonnets could have been written in August and September 1914. Surely, in their final version at least, they must be from 1916 or even 1917, when the full horrors had unfolded? Today when we read that “the human slaughterhouse is [everywhere: / on earth, upon the ocean,] in the air”, we are bound to think of how World War I introduced the most appalling form of modern warfare, aerial bombing. Already by 1916 there were signs of its potential: at least twice airmen killed almost one hundred people in single missions. But the aerial campaigns, though long-prepared, got underway only in 1915.

In reading The Bloody Sonnets, one is continually impressed by the vivid images painted, at this early juncture, of the blood-drenched reality of warfare. The first seventeen sonnets resound with an angry, at times despairing, evocation of the brutality, agony and immorality of this escalating tragedy—one so fundamentally at odds with the Christian values its perpetrators and champions are claiming to profess. The poet’s contempt is palpable, heightened by his adherence to a formal structure. The sonnets follow course, each one building on the intensity of the one before. His view is strikingly, terrifyingly universal. Take, for example, “Sonnet 13” where Hviezdoslav asks:

What caused this wreck, this brutal and ignoble
collapse of morals? What provoked the breach?
What led mankind, in spirit grand and noble,
to plunge in the mud? What vampire? Oh, what leech,

sucking the sap of life out of the breast,
constantly thirsting bloody parasite?
Ah, selfishness! — and to destroy this pest
today we have no troops, no heroes to fight.

Yes, it will twist and tear and rend, and fall,
a tyrant, on the weak and innocent;
although the world is wide enough for all,
it would have sole control of earth’s extent
and even possess the universe, no less,
pitching the other into emptiness —

Leading into “Sonnet 14”, his imagery, and his scorn, is unambiguous:

This puffed-up arrogance that’s dressed in iron
and, armed with lethal weapons, lurks in wait;
that bulks like stormy clouds on the horizon,
each move a threat, with wide eyes full of hate;

that hangs above the earth like punishment
and keeps peace powerless: it coarsely swears
that it fears God alone! — But this is meant
contemptuously: in truth it does not care…

Then, midway through the sequence the tone and energy shifts as Hviezdoslav turns his attention to the possibility of peace and the role that his own people, the Slavs, and most specifically his disadvantaged Slovaks, might have, in days to come, as a voice for justice. “Sonnet 17” marks the transition, as the poet wonders aloud if there is anyone who will stand up and call for ceasefire:

Whether your wisdom comes of silver years
or you’re a man in bloom, cry to them all,

“Enough!” — and you’ll be a champion of the world.
Offer your enemy a brother’s hand,
a white flag over red ruin unfurled!
Or… must the violence constantly be fanned

till it burns out?

It is not a question easily resolved, in real life or in verse. From this point onward, Hviezdoslav directs his queries to the Lord, looking to God for answers and guidance. These poems are filled with a Biblical humility that stands in direct contrast to the self-righteousness he challenges in the first half of The Bloody Sonnets. Cautiously he ventures to question whether lessons may be learned from this legacy of conflict and carnage. Yet, however sceptical he is about the salvation progress and civilization might offer, he wants to believe that God has higher plans:

— forever save the Slavs (Lord, hear my prayer!)
from being nothing but a heap of dung
on foreign fields, where the thin native layer,
craving fertility would have them flung. (“Sonnet 27”)

The fate of Slavdom, and of Slovaks in particular, is of abiding concern. He belonged to a tradition that had, during long years of cultural suffocation under Austro-Hungarian occupation, looked to Russia as their hope for liberation. But, because Russia had never committed itself to justice, he feared that smaller Slavic populations would be absorbed and lost within the larger entity. Ideally Hviezdoslav wants to see a Slavic Europe emerge in which each of the nations is allowed to maintain its uniqueness while benefiting from the association afforded by their shared kinship—a future in which the Slavic streams are allowed to follow their own courses without, as Pushkin envisioned, necessarily being merged into the Russian sea.

This powerful sequence comes to an emotional climax as, in “Sonnet 32”, as the poet bids his own bloody cycle of songs good-bye with the wish that that they may be “read by many a tearful eye”. As much a patriot as his fellow poets who were at this time still trumpeting the glories of war, his own desire is simple:

I too have had my inward battleground,
I too am wounded, and my heart’s pierced through;
just once to see my people and feel proud:
redress for all their injuries long due

As an opponent of the war, Hviezdoslav was at risk of being branded as pro-Russian and, thus treasonous. Consequently, The Bloody Sonnets existed only in limited manuscript and presented as performance pieces during wartime. It was not until 1919, two years before his death, that the sequence was finally made available in print. However, in the decades that followed, his work fell out of fashion and was forgotten. It is only in more recent years that Hviezdoslav’s rightful position of respect has been restored in his homeland.

This English edition of The Bloody Sonnets will hopefully go a long way to ensuring this important Slovak poet is finally recognized for his contribution to anti-war poetry more than one hundred years after he poured his heart into this cycle—his last great poetic project.  Translator John Minahane has taken on a formidable challenge here. Hviezdoslav, working within the constraints of the Petrarchan sonnet, was trying to express the intense emotions welling up inside. Rhymes are never easy to accommodate across linguistic borders but the results sing with overwhelming power, energy, and passion.

And then there are the illustrations. Artist Dušan Kállay’s black and white drawings practically burst with violence and depictions of evil. They speak to the senseless destruction of war without uttering a word—a perfect complement to a cycle of poems unjustly silenced for so long.

This title can be obtained through the Martinus online bookstore in Slovakia. The site is in Slovak but they are able to communicate in English and ship anywhere.

[1] Geert Buelens. (2015) Everything to Nothing: The Poetry of the Great War, Revolution and the Transformation of Europe. (Trans, David McKay) London: Verso Books