A Viennese Odyssey: Ulysses by Nicolas Mahler after James Joyce

James Joyce’s Ulysses is a monumental work of Modernist literature, dense with detail and interior narrative,  so when an illustrator and author known for a characteristically minimalist style of graphic storytelling decides to reimagine this classic what could possibly go wrong? Nothing if it’s Austrian illustrator and author Nicolas Mahler holding the pen.

This ambitious volume is my second encounter with Mahler’s ebullient art and wit. The first was his delightful take on fellow Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters, a work that didn’t have to break with location or language in its reincarnation. However, this time he is transporting another equally idiosyncratic writer from Dublin to Vienna and from English to German (translated back into English in this edition by Alexander Booth). This is a retelling “after Joyce” as liberally inventive as the original. As one can imagine, the medium necessitates some streamlining of the story, so Stephen Dedalus is left out (although there is a nod to his tower abode) and some key scenes in which he appears are reimagined in a wild exposition of our German Bloom, Leopold Wurmb’s sexually frustrated, guilt-ridden fears and obsessions. But the parallels with Joyce’s masterpiece are wonderfully realized; after all, the visual medium can reproduce the overlay of experience and internal monologue in a remarkably efficient manner. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

So we find ourselves tailing along after Wurmb (who unfortunately resembles his implied namesake  Wurm” or worm) as he makes his way around Vienna on June 16, 1904. While Bloom was an advertising canvasser with the Freeman’s Journal in Dublin, Wurmb is similarly employed by the Viennese Neuigkeits-Welt-Blatt. Headlines, excerpts and image offsets from the June 16, 1904 edition of this paper are used to great effect in the chapter where our hero goes to the office. Mahler also draws on images and advertisements from some other Vienna publications from the same day and finds German names for key characters from the same archival sources. But he also adds a really special touch to his Ulysses. Joyce’s novel was first published in 1922, at a high point in the history of newspaper comics, so we find in the pages of this graphic variation many of the cartoon characters who were popular at the same time. Most notably, Olive Oyl stars as his secret romantic pen pal, while Popeye takes on the role of the garrulous sailor W. B. Murphy who regales Wurmb with unlikely tales of adventure in the bar.

If some of the fun of reading Joyce’s novel is looking for the echoes of Odysseus’ journey in the narrative, some of the fun here is marveling at how cleverly Mahler manages to echo key features of Bloom’s journey in his Austrian themed tribute. Wurmb, like Bloom, is trying to avoid going home, knowing that his wife Molly, a singer, will be having sex with her manager Berlyak that afternoon. The impresario’s posters haunt him on his wanderings and reminding him he’s a cuckold, while recurring thoughts of sexual frustration, bitterness and depression mark his day. He mourns his infant son, dead now eleven years, attends a friend’s funeral, takes care of bodily functions and finally, after a day of work, social engagements and some wild, guilt driven fantasy, returns home without his key and is forced to break into his own home. From her bed Molly then takes the stage, so to speak, with a version of her infamous soliloquy which, if necessarily abbreviated, is not devoid of much of the key imagery and sentiment.

Of course, Ulysses is a novel famous for the use of stream of consciousness. Bloom’s inner thoughts are injected into the events of the day (or vice versa). One might wonder if a graphic novel, and one that leans toward a relatively spare open form, can reproduce this effect. Mahler’s solution is to project Wurmb’s thoughts in large, bold letters, across sparsely illustrated pages and over cartoon-strip style interactions when his thoughts wander. Obsessions are illustrated boldly. Thus his inner world takes precedence, as it should, if you want to do justice to Joyce’s masterpiece. Mahler’s variation on this classic is inventive and funny without undermining the sadness and ordinariness of the Everyman at its heart and might even inspire a few readers who have not yet read (or, ahem, finished) the Irish original to pick it up.

Ulysses by Nicolas Mahler, after James Joyce, is translated from the German by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

“Quiet the evening through till dawn.” The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences by Jürgen Becker

Whenever a story began, he never quite understood where it was supposed to go.

After my father died I found, in his office, a journal he kept for the last full year of his life. He recorded each day’s trips, chores and purchases with occasional comments about my mother’s health, the quality of a restaurant meal, or some other personal detail like a book he was reading. He also tracked the weather and key stock market statistics. It demonstrates just how unwilling he was to let a day pass without a set of accomplishments, but captures none of his opinions, worries or hopes. However, it is one of my most precious possessions, a diary I read as a man in his eighty-eighth year trying to hold on to the passage of time.

There is an element of this kind of reporting the mundane ordinariness of the everyday in Jürgen Becker’s The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences, a fragmentary novel stripped to its most essential elements. Within the series of isolated sentences, phrases and brief passages that comprise this work, a regular report of the day to day flow of weeks, seasonal tasks, and observations of nature not only contribute to an atmosphere of place but speak to the desire to believe that some things stay the same, hoping that as long as this flow continues, the story will not end and one can defy death a little longer. But this novel does not recreate a diary as such, rather it constructs a picture of a village or community, past and present, as its residents age and face the end of life, as memories and images surface from a dark history that has left its mark on a generation that spent their childhood and youth during the war.

A train station appears in the course of everyone’s life.

Poet, writer and radio dramatist, Becker was born in Cologne but spent the war years in Thuringia. He was a participant in Gruppe 47, a collection of important German writers, from 1960 until their dissolution in 1967 and has long been involved with PEN Centre Germany and the German Academy for Language and Poetry. He is known for an open form of experimental literature set in opposition to narrative conventions. The Sea in the Radio (2009), perhaps the first of his prose works to be translated into English, reflects the importance of landscape seen in his later works as well as the tendency to cast side-long glances at the experience of growing up during the Second World War that drives so much of his prolific literary output.

This spare, evocative novel speaks, without a direct narrative voice, from the shadows and the corners of a world drawn with sharp, poetic precision. Unnamed characters, recurring motifs and locations and wisdoms build a tale that captures the ordinary business of every day against the long shadows history casts. It begins with bucolic imagery—snow in the winter woods, owls that call at night, the glow of the light—but an ominous tone appears early: the trains off behind the woods that one never saw, the off-road vehicle that is always moving from place to place, photographs showing people or houses that are gone, allusions to secrets lurking. Grammatical tense can be misleading. Is this a statement about the present or the past? Outside the odd quoted statement there is no “I,”, the closest one gets is with the indefinite, gender neutral pronoun “one,” otherwise we move between second, third, and first-person plural perspectives. Wordplay and aphoristic observations also appear, contributing to the overall poetic feel of the text. As we move through the three parts—three orchestral movements that each end with the acknowledgement of the relevant conductor—the story that emerges is dramatic and vivid, despite the fact that so much of it lurks in the silences and spaces between the sentences.

Fine, if you know everything already.

When it is hot and dry, you don’t see any snails in the garden.

What should one do? One does what one can. One does what one can’t.

Motorcycles whining through the village. It’s Sunday.

Watching TV for hours. And then what?

After the storm the sun, immediately humid again, the next storm.

A hissing. Gravel sliding of the loading bed.

He says, Night’s shorter when you can sleep.

The pace is not slow, but charged with a kind of quiet restlessness. This is a novel that invites you to listen closely. An acute awareness of the passage of time and circumstances permeates the work, seeding it not with nostalgia but melancholy. Motifs recur and sentences play off one another, often contradicting what has recently been said, small themes build across a page or two then fade into the background, and there is a knowing humour to some of the observations: “In the waiting room there are magazines that one would never read otherwise.” There is, decades after the years that haunt the aging children that people this landscape, no closure, only increasing decline, illness and loss. And a little wisdom.

When you are old yourself, you treat the old people who are already dead in a friendlier fashion.

Translated by Alexander Booth with an ear to maintaining the rhythm and flow of this fragmentary work, The Sea in the Radio is presented with a design of subtle beauty that features detail from Hokusai’s iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa and a pattern simulating water that runs across the lower edge of every page.

The Sea in the Radio: Journal Sentences by Jürgen Becker is translated by Alexander Booth and published by Seagull Books.

The disquieting terrain of loss: Grove by Esther Kinsky

I arrived in Olevano in January, two months and a day after M.’s funeral. The journey was long and led through dingy winter landscapes, which clung indecisively to grey vestiges of snow. In the Bohemian Forest, freshly fallen, wet snow dripped from the trees, clouding the view through the Stifteresque underbrush to the young Vltava River, which not had even a thin border of jagged ice.

As the landscape past the cliffs stretched into the Friulian plains, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had forgotten what it is like to encounter the light that lies behind the Alps and understood, suddenly, the distant euphoria my father experienced every time we descended the Alps.

The unnamed narrator of Grove arrives in Italy, fresh from the loss of her long-time partner, planning to spend three months contemplating the possibility of forcing her life “into a new order that would let me survive the unexpected unknown.” As she travels down from Germany, she stops in Ferrara, a town she had and M. had planned to visit on the Italian trip they would never manage to take together. But the literary landscape of Georgio Bassani will have to wait, at this time her destination is further south, a small village south-east of Rome. There she will walk the streets and roadways of the rolling landscape, orienting herself in relation to the house where she rents an apartment, the nearby cemetery and grove of trees. An anchor for an unanchored time.

German author and translator Esther Kinsky’s books cannot be rushed. They unfold slowly and linger in the imagination. Like her acclaimed novel, River, this meditation on grief offers an intimation of autofiction but I prefer to see her work as fiction bound to real-life experience and location that conceals as much as it reveals. Intimate yet not overtly confessional in nature. The focus is on immediate response to encounters, observations and memories, while autobiographical details tend to be limited, leaving both the author and her protagonist in the shadows. The narrator has recently lost her husband after a serious illness; Kinsky’s husband, Scottish-born German translator Martin Chalmers, died in October, 2014. The grief, the loss, is palpable, yet still too recent to be fully articulated, not only in the first section chronicling those early months alone, but in the third part set exactly one year later. M.’s memory haunts the narrator’s dreams, her attachment to an article of his clothing, his image. However, we learn very little of anything about him or their life together. Likewise, what the narrator is looking for and what she finds is unclear—as in River, it is the journey, or rather journeys, not the destination that guides the narrative.

In the first part of Grove, “Olevano,” one has the sense that the narrator is attempting to find herself in the landscape of a place where death is never far away. Cemeteries, the sellers of fresh and plastic flowers to mark graves, the sight of a body being removed from a house, memories of the Etruscan tombs her father loved, even trees being felled to combat the spread of disease all summon thoughts of morti, followed by sounds of vii—bird song, children’s voices, the daily ordinary routines of life. It’s a slow unfolding, gradual emergence from winter to the early signs of spring, that accompany the narrator’s wandering through the village, the countryside, to Rome, to the sea and back to her temporary refuge on the hillside. She is learning how to live again, awaking in an alien place, a stranger to each new day:

When after sweeping the landscape my gaze fell to my hands on the window ledge, I thought I saw M.’s hands beneath them, in the space between my fingers – white and delicate and long, his dying hands, which were so different from his living hands, and they lay beneath mine as if on a double exposed photograph. Then the coffee maker hissed, and the coffee boiled over, and my living hands had to break away from M.’s white hands in order to turn off the stove and remove the pot, but I inevitably burned myself, and this pain made me aware that I hadn’t relearned anything yet.

The flowing language, poetic, careful and observant, traces a slow burning existential pilgrimage. Kinsky paints a rich portrait, not only of the landscape and urban areas, but of the people—from the reticent village population to the groups of African migrants who cluster around marketplaces and bus stations, barely surviving on the outskirts of society, unable to leave, with no home to return to. As in River, a novel set on the edge of London along the Lea River, her narrator here similarly is attentive to the character and quality of place; she does not simply see, she feels her way through the misty months of early disorienting grief and necessary solitude.

I became dizzy looking at this unfurled country which was laid so bare yet remained so incomprehensible to me. A rugged terrain with a restless appearance – it presented itself differently from each side. On each side the routes drew a different script, the mountains cast different shadows, and the plains, foregrounds, midgrounds, and backgrounds shifted. A terrain that left traces in me, without a recognizable trace of myself remaining in it. Something about the relationship between seeing and being seen – between  the significance of seeing and being or becoming seen, as a comforting conformation of your existence – suddenly appeared to me as a burning question, which defied all names and acts of naming. If on that hillside some had told me that I might die from the inability to answer or simply even phrase this question, I would have believed them.

It is clear from the beginning that she is no stranger to Italy. Her father spoke Italian, was fascinated with the history of the Etruscans, and year after year family holidays were spent exploring the country. The second section of Grove begins with her father’s death, then revisits memories of trips taken over the years. Grief, through the lens of time and distance becomes an attempt to understand a somewhat elusive man against the backdrop of his knowledge of architectural sites, landscapes and bird calls, his tendency to disappear for hours and his penchant for outings that often led to the family getting lost. In the end though, this fascinating and recognizable account of lengthy family car trips reminds anyone with a similarly enigmatic parent that we can ever fully know them when so much of our experience rests deeply in childhood. Loss and mourning is perhaps always incomplete.

So we come to the third and final part of the novel which finds our narrator returning to Italy exactly one year after her stay in Olevano. Again it is January when a certain colourlessness and frosty otherness mutes the land. She travels first to Ferrara, orienting herself by the landmarks of the life and characters of Georgio Bassani, haunted more by the fictional environs of the Finzi Continis. From there she moves to Comacchio, on the Adriatic, where she spends her days walking through the stark salt pans, observing flamingos and other shore birds, and seeking out the site of a fabled necropolis. It’s a sad and lonely time to be wandering this place devoid as it is of tourist activity, but she seems to be approaching a new, peaceful meditative relationship with loss. If she set out to consider how she might force her life into a new order one year earlier, the apparent bleakness of this last stop in Italy carries the quiet promise of moving forward anew even if where she is heading and what she has learned is not clear, or not for sharing.

Grove by Esther Kinsky is translated from the German by Caroline Schmidt and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and as Grove: A Field Novel by Transit Books in North America.

Is he really gone: Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker

The loss, he says, the loss of someone so
close, the loss of a HAND and HEART
PARTNER is something so completely and
utterly devastating, yet it may be, we may be
able to keep right on speaking with this HEART and
LOVE PARTNER continue conversing and may
even expect a response from this person.

I’ve long had an interest in literary expressions of immediate grief, a much more elusive task than one might imagine until actually faced with the intensity of loss and the longing to express that experience at its most raw. Then it seems almost impossible, yet Friederike Mayröcker’s Requiem for Ernst Jandl may be one of the most successful unmediated responses to the loss of a loved one that I have encountered.

Paperback edition, German List

Mayröcker met fellow Austrian poet and writer Ernst Jandl in 1954. They both left marriages to be together, but did not marry or share a home. Theirs was a deeply creative lifelong partnership, they supported one another’s work and collaborated on radio plays and other projects over the next forty-six years. When Jandl died on June 9, 2000, she was devastated by the loss yet miraculously she was able to channel it into a series of poems composed within the first months after his death. The rawness and confusion of grief is evident. Her characteristic, experimental style which employs capitalization, italics and numerals, and often incorporates fragments of private conversations and excerpts from letters and diaries, serves to heighten the anxiety, confusion and emotion of this period of early grief. Also woven into the series of poems that comprise this requiem is an earlier piece that captures the nature of the interplay of the their creative energies.

There is a sense throughout this slender collection of words and emotion spilling out on the page, gathered up and coming loose again. The great love, the completeness of the loss, and the exhaustion of caring for a weak and dying man all have to be released, repeatedly, in the tumult of grief and guilt that colours these early months. Each poem approaches these conflicts, but the final long piece in the book, the prose poem “’the days of wine and roses’, for Ernst Jandl,” reflects this emotional urgency with particular power. Here Mayröcker seems to be sorting out a flux of memories, thoughts and feelings as expressed to a friend, Leo N.

And what about the pencil, I say to B., why
on the morning of his death did he draw a
pencil on a piece of note paper, I say to B.,
why did he ask for a pencil, there were
plenty of pens on the little table next to his
bed, the quill of the Holy Ghost lingered
longer on Job’s sorrows than it did on the
delights of Solomon, B. says, I tell Leo N.,
is he really gone, is he really in heaven now,
a heaven you yourself believe in, the
passageway into the other world, says Leo
N., is described as stepping through a
waterfall, and the vulture flies through the
sun, I went up to his room, up to a bed that is
empty and say to him I feel better today, but
I am thinking: I NO LONGER have any hope
for this life, at 3 o’clock in the morning…

In the crush of the weeks and months following Jandl’s death the voices of some friends and phone calls from others rise and fall. This is a loss both deeply personal and shared with a community of artists, and at times a tension is evident, one senses that the poet both welcomes the company and wants to be alone. Needs the comfort and doesn’t know what to do with it.

Of course, the death of her companion and creative partner did not silence Mayröcker. She continued to write startling, challenging and innovative poetry and prose right up until her death last year at the age of ninety-six. Jandl continues to appear and inspire along the way but never in such an open, unabashed lament as in this Requiem—one that fittingly closes with one of his best known poems, the humorous sound poem ottos mops complete with Mayröcker’s original reflection on the composition written in 1976, long ago she admits, adding that if she could have one single year from that now distant time back, “how intensively I would live it, how tenderly and how happily.”

Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker is translated from the German by Roslyn Theobald and published by Seagull Books.