Novella a Day in May 2019 #16

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler (2014, trans. Charlotte Collins 2015) 149 pages

After the traumas of The Blind Owl yesterday, lets all recuperate in a beautiful Austrian village😊 But that’s not to say that A Whole Life is a comfort read; it’s exactly what the title says – the tale of one man’s whole life, containing tragedy and joy.

Andreas Egger arrives in the village as a young orphan, at the start of the twentieth century. His uncle doesn’t really want him and he is bullied violently by him until he gets old enough to demand it stop, but not before his leg has been broken and badly reset, leaving him with a lifelong limp.

Nonetheless he is a strong and valued manual labourer in the village, later working for the cable car company, shinning up and down the mountains. Egger is a loner but not lonely; ultimately he is a man of the valley, mountains and meadow of his village.

“Sometimes on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, lie on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. And sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.”

From this small village Egger witnesses the many and rapid changes of the twentieth century. He participates in some – his only protracted period of time away is when he is a prisoner of war – but mostly he just observes. There are the major upheavals:

“The mayor was no longer a Nazi these days, geraniums hung outside the windows again instead of swastikas”

And also the social shifts, such as the quiet village becoming beset by tourists:

 “He had already been so long in the world: he had seen it change and seem to spin faster with every passing year, and he felt like a remnant from some long buried time, a thorny weed still stretching up, for as long as it possibly could, towards the sun.”

Egger also experiences some major changes in his personal life, but to avoid spoilers I won’t give details. I’ve seen A Whole Life compared to Stoner and while I do love Stoner I think this is quite different. Although both are about male, twentieth-century, somewhat isolated lives, I didn’t find this nearly so sad.

“Drops of water trembled on the tips of the blades, making the whole meadow glitter as if studded with glass beads. Egger marvelled at these tiny, trembling drops that clung tenaciously to the blades of grass, only to fall at last and seep into the earth or dissolve to nothing in the air.”

A beautifully written novella which demonstrates how a life can look quiet and small from the outside but be entirely rich and fulfilling. Above all, it’s about walking your own path.

“And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down onto one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone badly after all.”

Novella a Day in May 2019 #1

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman – Friedrich Christian Delius (2006, trans. Jamie Bulloch 2010) 125 pages

Dear Reader, I’ve been somewhat absent from the blogosphere recently and I’ve really missed it. This was because at the end of March I decided on the spur of the moment to apply for a PhD which caught my eye. I had no plans for further study and so this meant April was spent in whirlwind of desperately trying to get my reading up to date, meeting with old tutors to remind them who on earth I am and begging for a reference, and then writing my application. The deadline is this Friday but I’ve now submitted my application and I’m hoping I might regain my sanity in the meantime. I don’t think I’ll get it, but my tutors have been really supportive and its good to shake things up now and again.

Aaaaaaannnnyway, I really enjoyed blogging on a novella a day in May last year, so I’m throwing myself back into it this year. I had such plans…. NADIM this year was going to be carefully thought through, with a good spread of countries (last year I ignored the southern hemisphere completely and lovely Naomi pointed out I’d also skipped Canada) and a wonderful balance of styles and subjects… yeah, that’s not happening. Instead this month (and I really hope to make it to the end) will be hastily cobbled together posts which completely fail to do the wonderful form of the novella any justice at all. But I still hope I manage to spread some novella love along the way 😊

I thought it apt to start with one from a publishing house that has done so much to champion the form: Peirene Press, who specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas, aimed to be read in one sitting. I’m a big fan of theirs and so I swooped down on Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman when I saw it in my favourite charity bookshop.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is set over the course of one afternoon in Rome in 1943. Margherita is 19 years old, pregnant and alone as her husband is serving in the German army in Tunisia. She feels alien in a city where she doesn’t speak the language, and she is walking to a Bach concert at the Lutheran church.

“the immense city of Rome, still seemed to her like

a sea which she had to cross, checked by the fear of all things unknown, of the yawning depths of this city, its double and triple floors and layers, of the many thousand similar columns, towers, domes, facades, ruins and street corners, of endless number of pilgrimage sites for cultured visitors, which she walked past in ignorance, and of the faces of people in the streets, which were difficult to make out, in these stormy times of a far-off war which was drawing nearer every day”

And now, bear with me as I break something to you which you may have gathered from the quote above, which sounds awful but I promise it isn’t: the entire novella is one sentence. Wait, come back! It’s ok, really. Trust me 😉

There are paragraphs which make the whole thing easier, and Delius, possibly because he is a poet, has a great ear for rhythm. This means the sentence, broken by commas, works well in capturing the sense of someone walking, their thoughts falling into the pattern of their steps. I thought it was really effective and such an impressive feat of translation by Jamie Bulloch too.

“for two months she had crossed the Tiber almost every day via the Ponte Margherita, as if that were totally normal, but nothing was totally normal, especially not in these times, each day was a gift, each of the child’s movements in her belly a gift, each verse from the Bible and each glance across the Tiber”

Throughout her journey across the city, we learn about Margherita’s life in Germany and her new marriage. She is religious – daughter of and wife to clergymen – but not given to much reflection, preferring to stay silent in political discussions. Her husband and father are somewhat sceptical of the Reich, but Hitler has been in power throughout Margherita’s childhood and adolescence, she was part of the League of German Girls and it is only now, away from home, that she finds herself beginning to feel confused.

“On her own she could not work out what you were allowed and not allowed to say, what you should think and what you ought not to think, and how to cope with her ambivalent feelings”

Even though nothing of great note happens in the course of the novel, there is still an effective and believable character arc. Cut adrift, Margherita is beginning to learn who she is. There is a sense that this naïve, unquestioning woman is potentially quite steely, and as readers we know she will need that in the months and years to come.

 “She sensed something within her rebelling against the constant obligation to stifle the feeling of longing with her reason and her faith, because feelings were forbidden in wartime, you were not allowed to rejoice with happiness, you had to swallow your sadness, and like a soldier you were forced to conceal the language of the heart”

“Love does not dominate, it cultivates. And that is more.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

I’m managing to squeeze in one final post for German Literature month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.  Hopefully next year I’ll be better organised and able to participate some more, but for now I’m off to Austria, which is also another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Do join in with GLM next year or AW80Books, they’re great ways to read some wonderful books 😊

Firstly, The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (trans. Joel Rotenberg 2008) which was found amongst his papers after he killed himself in 1942. This is a melancholy tale of the impact of war on individuals, in this instance the First World War. Christine is a titular provincial civil servant, who finds herself in her late twenties having only known penny-pinching and drudgery.

“The war stole her decade of youth. She has no courage, no strength left even for happiness.”

Christine is plucked out of her ordinary life by her aunt who is visiting the Swiss Alps. She invites Christine to stay and the naïve woman is enraptured by the whirlwind of new clothes, fine dining and bright young things of which she is suddenly in the midst.

 “All the world’s sweetness might be in this one thin straw of scalding ice. Heart thumping, fingers trembling avidly, she looks about for someone or something to receive her overflowing gratitude.”

Christine is transformed from a drudge into a beautiful young woman that people want to be with.

“In this instant, shaken to her very depths, this ecstatic human being has a first inkling that the soul is made of stuff so mysteriously elastic that a single event can make it big enough to contain the infinite.”

Then, just as suddenly, it is all taken away. Back in her small Austrian town she finds herself unable to cope with the poverty of the people, her home and her job. She meets Ferdinand, a soldier whose war wound means he is unable to continue his work as an architect. He is cynical of governments and bitter regarding his experience:

“In our Tartar village we didn’t know if Vienna was part of Bohemia, or maybe Italy. And we didn’t give a damn. All we cared about was stuffing a crust of bread down our throats and getting the lice out of our hair and finding some matches or tobacco sometime in the next five hours.”

For Christine, this man is soulmate, but these two souls are so damaged, so hurt and isolated, that they can only offer one another the bleakest kind of companionship.

“Christine was taken aback. The man beside her had said just what she’d been thinking all this time; he’d expressed clearly what she’d dully felt – the wish to be given one’s due, not to take anything from anyone, but to have some kind of life, not to be left out in the cold forever while others were warm inside.”

Zweig is unblinking in his portrayals of people, showing them with all their flaws, vanities and foibles, but still with great compassion. You feel for the characters precisely because they are so believably imperfect. The tyranny they face from the ruling class – either elected or via money – is presented as inescapable. The Post Office Girl is a novel about desperation, and how financial poverty can wear people down to a poverty of spirit. It is beautifully written and absolutely devastating.

In the Afterword of my edition William Deresiewicz suggests the novel is unfinished. I’m not sure I agree. I don’t know enough about Zweig’s style to argue my point forcefully, but to me, the ending occurs exactly where it should. It is perfect: sad but defiant, with so much unknown.

Secondly, The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (1983, trans. Joachim Neugroschel 1988). Marina Sofia reviewed Jelinek’s volume of 3 plays In den Alpen for German Lit Month, do read her fascinating post which explains how controversial the author is in Austria due to her critique of Austrian society.  The Piano Teacher was the first of her novels to be translated into English and it was also adapted into a film in 2001, starring the wonderful Isabel Huppert and directed by Michael Haneke. I haven’t seen it but it looks a faithful adaptation:

I found The Piano Teacher an incredibly tough read. Jelinek does not pull her punches in any way. This tale of Erika, a woman living in a claustrophobic, abusive relationship with her mother, and her masochistic sexual desires seeking expression with one of her pupils is really hard going.

“They are enclosed together in a bell jar: Erika, her fine protective hulls, her mama.”

Jelinek creates the cruel, affectionate relationship between mother and daughter brilliantly. They are bound together in bitterness and a warped love.

“The daughter is the mother’s idol, and Mother demands only a tiny tribute: Erika’s life.”

Erika’s relationship with her mother and the abuse she suffers, and enacts, feeds into her sexual preferences, reminding me of The Blue Room. She is repressed (she shares a bed with her mother), and this expresses itself through the violence she metes out to her unsuspecting fellow commuters, and in one horrible instance, a pupil she is jealous of. She is a voyeur and attends peepshows and stalks couples in the park, but is incapable of becoming sexually aroused by what she witnesses. When a student, Klemmer, expresses an interest in her, the two begin a clumsy, stunted affair. It is no great love story:

“Klemmer is still concerned about that damned aged difference. However, he is a man, and that easily makes up for the ten years Erika has over him. Furthermore, female value decreases with increasing years and increasing intelligence. The technician in Klemmer computes all this data, and the bottom line of calculations reveals that Erika still has a wee bit of time before wandering into the tomb.”

The Piano Teacher is brutal. Jelinek’s imagery is disturbing, particularly around the sexual or body parts [the next quote is an example of this, don’t read if you think it will upset you, but I wanted to give a clear idea of a recurring theme in the novel]:

“Rot between her legs, an unfeeling soft mass. Decay, putrescent lumps of organic material. No spring breezes awaken anything. It is a dull pile of petty wishes and mediocre desires, afraid of coming true. Her two chosen mates will encompass her by crab claws: Mother and Klemmer.”

I was relieved to get to the end of The Piano Teacher, I don’t think I could have taken much more. Jelinek is a brilliant writer: her pacing and plotting are perfect and she has powerful things to say about the psychological warfare we wage on ourselves and others. But now I have to go and find a nice Golden Age crime novel with which to recover….

Regular readers will know that I do like to end on an 80s pop video and will shoehorn them into a post wherever possible. I’m delighted that my trip to Austria means I can end on this:

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” (Groucho Marx)

I’ve decided to give into the inevitable and make the theme of this week’s post politics. *sigh* But unfortunately it is what dominates just about everything at the moment. I went to a lecture last week which was supposed to be about The Merchant of Venice, but turned out to be about tolerance, accessibility of the arts and the power of the humanities to understand nuance, subtlety and multiple viewpoints and how this is needed now more than ever. The speaker was genius American academic Stephen Greenblatt who I’ve seen before but he’s never made me blub like a baby (my friend was also a total mess, I’m hoping he’s short-sighted and didn’t notice). The previous week I went to a talk about nineteenth-century European theatre, which included a determined assertion from a British playwright that he too was a European writer (cue cheers from the audience, I’m guessing there weren’t many Brexiteers present). Unfortunately at the moment, all roads seem to lead back to the horror show we’ve found ourselves in. In the words of Cher:

(Note to my brother: Cher is AWESOME. Accept that I am right on this.)

So, two novels about politics. Firstly, Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (2012, trans. Jamie Bulloch 2014), a satiricial novel which looks at what would happen if Hitler woke up in 2011 Berlin. Naturally there is fun to be had at his misunderstanding over modern life:

“ ‘But I still don’t recall seeing you anywhere, Have you a card? Any flyers?’

‘Don’t talk to me about the Luftwaffe,’ I said sadly. ‘In the end they were a complete failure.’”

And there is also poking fun at the self-aggrandizing former Fuhrer:

“Now my razor-sharp gaze pierced the darkness between a jar of bulls-eyes and one of sugar drops, where the bright light of the moon soberly illuminated my brainwave like an icy torch.”

But the bulk of Vermes’ satire is reserved for modern society, for this Hitler becomes a star. He appears on an alternative comedy programme and his rants become huge hits on YouTube. People think he is satirising Hitler and yet this means Hitler’s rhetoric is once again endorsed by the masses. Vermes challenges what we laugh at and why, and the unquestioning nature of modern media. As Hitler becomes more popular, it is so easy to see how he, or someone like him, could rise again, and also that some of what happened has never gone away.

“It still remains a mystery to me why that relationship never worked. How many more bombs would we have to drop on their cities before they realised that they were our friend?”

Satire is a demanding form and Vermes is not entirely successful. Look Who’s Back is a bit overlong and flags in places. Considering it’s about a fascist despot it all feels a bit too restrained at times and the plot doesn’t really develop beyond the original premise. But still a worthwhile read, and – in terms of showing how easily an insane media personality can achieve real power *cough* – a little bit terrifying too.

Secondly, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, which won the Booker in 2004. Set in 1983, 1986 and 1987, Maggie Thatcher’s government is systematically destroying Britain to extent from which it will never fully recover  elected by overwhelming majorities and Nick Guest is down from Oxford to stay with his friend Toby’s family, headed by an ambitious Conservative MP, Gerald Fedden.

 “Gerald was a knowing, self-confident speaker, trained at the Oxford Union, polished at innumerable board meetings, and his tone combined candour and insincerity to oddly charming effect.”

The ruling class, ladies and gentleman.

Nick is from an ordinary family and grew up in an ordinary town. He has a strong aesthetic sensibility and is carried away by the glamour of the Fedden’s money and power, and ability to surround themselves with beautiful things.

“Nick felt he had been swept to the brink of some new promise, a scented vista of the night, and then held there.”

Nick is also gay, and the story is about his sexual development within a backdrop of thinly disguised homophobia and fear of AIDS, which cut a swathe through the gay community during the decade.

 “It wasn’t their fault they didn’t know – Nick couldn’t tell them things, and so everything he said and did took on the nature of a surprise, big or little but somehow never benign, since they were the aftershocks of the original surprise, that he was, as his mother said, a whatsit.”

Despite being a fairly long novel (501 pages in my edition), The Line of Beauty is not overly plot-heavy. Nick stays with the Feddens and struggles for a sense of purpose beyond pursuit of various lovers, Gerald gets elected MP and enjoys his life of extraordinary privilege, and the 80s rumble on with cocaine fuelling a deregulated City. The novel is a mix of pithy attacks on political elites and the shallowness of relentless acquisition, whether of power, money or the next high:

“Gerald had still not received the accolade of a Spitting image puppet in his likeness, but it was one of his main hopes for the new Parliament.”

And a broader, more melancholy consideration of love and loss. The descriptions of the characters who succumb to AIDS are truly moving, and unexpected in this novel populated by self-interested self-promoters.

“He commanded attention now by pity and respect as he once had by beauty and charm.”

Like Look Who’s Back, I felt The Line of Beauty was overlong, and not the strongest Booker winner there’s been, but at the same time the characters were recognisable and fully realised, the 80s were brilliantly evoked in all their horror, and Hollinghurst is capable of writing truly stunning passages:

“He caught the beautiful rawness of those days again, the life of instinct opening in front of him, the pleasure of the streets and London itself unfolding in the autumn chill; everything tingling with newness and risk, glitter and frost and glow of body heat, the shock of finding and holding what he wanted among millions of strangers.”

To end, despite the horrific politics of the time, I’m finding 80s YouTube videos a good respite from all the madness of the world at the moment (as you may have gathered from the one at the start where Cher wears a costume made of black dental floss and sits astride a giant canon – what’s not to love?)  Here is another one I employ to great effect, but a word of warning: I am a hardened user of 80s pop-culture. If this is one of your first forays, you might want to ease yourself in by watching Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go Go video first, or else your eyes might start crying deely-boppers and mismatched fluorescent socks, or something. I’m not kidding – there’s a blouson leather dinner jacket at one point…