For a while now I’ve been enamoured of the novella. I enjoy sparse writing styles (not so good at this myself 😉) and at its best a novella gives us a narrative distilled to its essence for maximum impact. To spread novella love I’ve decided to post about a novella each day for the whole month. There’s no fixed definition of a novella so for my purposes I’ve decided its longer than 70 pages and shorter than 200. This will definitely work! It won’t peter out and die in a heap by 5 May at all! Onwards…
The Game of Cards – Adolf Schroder (trans. Andrew Brown, 2008) 143 pages
The Game of Cards is not ostensibly gothic or a thriller, and yet it is both these things. The story of how student Markus Hauser is employed by Selma Bruhns for a week to put several trunks worth of letters into chronological order is truly creepy and suspense-filled.
Selma is a terse, uncommunicative employer, who lives in an old house with a vast number of cats at varying stages of disease. Markus is constantly at the point of leaving, unable to stomach the “stench” of the house, the feral occupants, his awkward employer and the seemingly pointless nature of his repetitive task:
“He squatted down between the piles of letters lying on the floor, but when her resumed his work…looking for the pile in which he was putting the letters from 1943, laying the pages of the letter on it and reaching out for the next one, he paused, as if he’d only just realised that he had absolutely no idea what he was doing”
Gradually however, Markus is drawn into the letters, all written to a woman named Almut. Very little is given away, but Markus finds himself compelled to continue, without really understanding why.
“Words from the letters that he had read came alive. He found himself in streets where he had never been, heard the shrieking and whistling of creatures that he could not see but whose presence he surmised, felt on his skin the burning sun whose strength he had never yet felt, saw a woman coming up to him who spoke in a language that he did not understand.”
This chronology is interspersed with the investigation being conducted by Superintendent Berger, who suspects Markus of having strangled Selma with her own scarf on his last day of work. Thus we are drawn into not only the mystery of who Almut is and why Selma is obsessively writing to her, but also who killed Selma and why. Schroder jumps between the two timelines without preamble and so the reader is drawn into the disorienting, imperfectly understood situation of the all the characters.
“With a sudden move that took Markus by surprise, she threw the animal towards him, it crashed into his chest, and only because Markus reacted quickly and caught the animal could he prevent I from falling onto the ground.
‘You are working slowly and without much concentration,’ said Selma Bruhns, turning round and stepping into the house.”
There is also the question of what happened – and what the stake was – in the titular match between Markus and Selma…
The Game of Cards is a deeply disturbing read, and a powerful portrait of enduring psychological trauma. It will stay with me for a long time.