July 22, 2010

Lee Rourke: The Canal

Posted in Melville House, Rourke Lee at 8:00 am by John Self

Lee Rourke’s debut novel is one of those books I knew I had to read. I’d been meaning to get his collection of stories, Everyday, which was praised by trustworthy sources. When I discovered that his novel was to be published by the reliable Melville House, that sealed the deal.


The Canal is a novel about boredom which, through some alchemy, manages never to be boring, even when it seems to aim that way. The language used by its nameless narrator is plain, even deliberately banal.

It was good sitting there, watching the world go by – saying nothing, doing nothing. It was really good.

‘There’ is a bench by a canal in North London, where our narrator, like Reger in Old Masters, goes regularly to sit. (“I’ve often thought that we seek reality in places and not in ourselves.”) The location is grounded in reality but anonymous, specific but vague. The canal is a place defined by function but largely unvisited; blank but threatening. Unlike Reger, our man is not contemplating a work of art but the routines of life, and he is filled not with splenetic rage but with apathy and even a sort of pleasure at the littleness of his existence.

I liked being bored – I liked what it was doing to me. The word “boring” is usually used to denote a lack of meaning – an acute emptiness. But the weight of boredom at that moment was almost overwhelming, it sure as hell wasn’t empty of anything; it was tangible – it had meaning.

People who embrace boredom, he suggests, avoid becoming “lost in superfluous activity,” like the multitudes who “are just as bored as I am, only they think they’re not because they’re continually doing something.” He embraces his boredom so enthusiastically – if that’s the word – that he gives up his job. “I am bored with work full stop. Not your company, but work.” Like Melville’s Bartleby, he would prefer not to. His rewards are the mesmeric routines of existence by the canal: the swans; the building overlooking his bench, with the office workers who never look out; and a mysterious young woman who joins him and with whom he strikes up a rapport.

Violence enters the narrator’s longed-for stasis as he is confronted by a group of youths. Like many elements of The Canal, these encounters recur and rerun, the teen argot of the attackers becoming a sort of unmusical overture, repeated from four angles each time. The threatening atmosphere they bring with them is present too in the subdued violence of the young woman the narrator befriends. She tells stories of her experiences, of mechanised killing which recalls a Ballardian worldview.

And as our world becomes increasingly boring, as the future progresses into a quagmire of nothingness, our world will becoming increasingly more violent. It is an impulse that controls us. It is an impulse we cannot ignore.

These worthwhile touchstones – Ballard, Melville, Bernhard – do not mean that The Canal has no identity of its own. In fact it is an idiosyncratic book which is likely to linger in memory whatever the reader makes of it. It has teasings of traditional novelistic concerns, but delivered in a welter of blank style, forceful repetitions, naturalistic blunted dialogue, and ready-made controversies like the woman’s paean to suicide bombers (“They … excite … me”). This last is not lazy tabloid-baiting but ties in with the book’s theme, the dangers of unaccepted boredom:

“It’s interesting to note that a sizable minority of extremists are recent converts. They have nothing else to do. We are empty.”

What these elements mean is that The Canal is a novel which forces the reader to engage with the book on its own terms. In a world where many books conform to expectations and run in the ruts of their predecessors, this is an unsettling and at times confounding experience. Like many of the books I recommend these days, it is likely that The Canal will not please everyone – but what worthwhile book does? Nonetheless, its rarity, its persistence – its brevity – make it a valuable addition to that shelf of books which tackle real life, our daily existence, head-on, rather than wrapping it in the distracting ribbons of so much fiction.

October 22, 2009

Tao Lin: Shoplifting from American Apparel

Posted in Lin Tao, Melville House at 8:00 am by John Self

Tao Lin is a writer I’ve been meaning to read since seeing praise for his novel Eeeee Eee Eeee. Lin is a self-made phenomenon, seemingly as interested in presentation of himself as in his work, perhaps as keen on ‘being a writer’ as in being a writer: he sold shares in his forthcoming second novel (to be called Richard Yates), and reading his irony-laden interviews, it’s easy to see why various publications have seen in him little but “vacuous posturing” or have considered him “the single most irritating person we’ve ever had to deal with.”  Still, the publication of his new novella Shoplifting from American Apparel in Melville House’s Contemporary Art of the Novella series, meant the time to read him was finally here.

Tao Lin: Shoplifting from American ApparelA way into Shoplifting from American Apparel might be found in Lin’s blog.  Just take a look at that URL.  Depending on viewpoint, it is stupid, or funny, or – just possibly – a clever reflection on the replication of everything online: the copy-and-pastes, the clicking links, the lack of original content (nobody, after all, is going to be typing that URL in afresh).  More than that, the importance of the tiny details also matches the content of the book.

Shoplifting in its opening, reminded me of the first lines of the first story in Bret Easton Ellis’s The Informers, ‘Bruce Calls from Mulholland’.  Lin’s opening shares Ellis’s knowingly blank, mesmerising poetry (“Bruce calls, stoned and sunburned, from Los Angeles and tells me that he’s sorry”) – but without vampires.

Sam woke around 3:30p.m. and saw no emails from Sheila.  He made a smoothie.  He lay on his bed and stared at the computer screen.  He showered and put on his clothes and opened the Microsoft Word file of his poetry.  He looked at his email.  About an hour later it was dark outside.  Sam ate cereal with soymilk.  He put things on eBay then tried to guess the password to Sheila’s email account, not thinking he would be successful, and not being successful.

The book continues in this affectless style, which becomes strangely funny when Sam engages in long Gmail chats with his friend Luis.

“I’m going to watch cartoon porn,” said Luis.  “No I’m not.  I’m going to look at Indian women.  Have you ever fucked an Indian girl.”

“No,” said Sam.  “Native American or Indian.”

“You are awesome,” said Luis.  “Is her picture online.”

“I’m confused,” said Sam.  “What are you talking about.”

“How did you meet her,” said Luis.

“No I haven’t,” said Sam.  “You’re confused.”

“What are you talking about,” said Luis.

“I haven’t had sex with one,” said Sam.

“Okay,” said Luis.  “What are you talking about.”

(The lack of question marks is key, I think, to why I find this funny.)  We are in a world where everything is simultaneously uninflected and endlessly reflected upon, which is not surprising given that Sam is a writer very like Tao Lin.  “If I’m having a shitty time with Sheila’s mom I think about writing it in my novel later.  I think about that the same time it’s happening.”  We only occasionally find out how Sam is feeling.  “I felt emotional today thinking about the past, like a year and a half ago, at Sheila’s house,” he tells a friend.  “But there was nothing I could do with the emotion really.  It just went away after a while.”  It’s the lack of disclosure which packs a – bit of a – punch.

Everything here is dealt with in the same manner, almost.  Sam’s online chats (which seem a timely acknowledgement of how, these days, so many of us get to “know” others – via social networking sites or blogs like this one – without ever meeting them) are presented with no more or less significance than his arrest for shoplifting from American Apparel.  Yet the scales don’t quite balance.  When Sam is with his friends, who are as languid and ‘alienated’ as he, the dialogue is pertinent because it’s so cutely banal (“I mean, I feel okay, or something”). In the police holding cell, by contrast, Lin introduces genuine ‘characters’ (“‘I don’t hold in farts,’ said a bony Hispanic lying on his stomach”), who invariably speak more fictionally (in a sense, more truthfully, for the purposes of a work of fiction):

“I am going to kill everyone here,” said the drunk man.  “Is everyone okay with that?  Is everyone in this cell okay with that?”

Is it a weakness when a book becomes too entertaining?  Is Lin adopting a pose, or doing the best he can, and does it matter?  The spirit of Shoplifting from American Apparel is that the minutiae of our lives are rarely dealt with in fiction – that the things which take up most of our time are deemed unworthy of writing about.  Lin suggests instead that everything is worth writing about, and the result is maddening, saddening and short enough to digest in between reading blog entries and updating your Facebook status.

August 24, 2009

Art of the Novella Giveaway

Posted in Melville House at 8:00 am by John Self

I’ve raved before here about Melville House’s The Art of the Novella series. The line includes essential short fiction such as Joyce’s The Dead, Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, as well as less known (to me) but equally brilliant works such as Maupassant’s The Horla (a highlight of my reading year so far) and Heinrich von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas (the latter I include by reputation, although I haven’t read it yet, as everyone who has seems in awe of it). The pleasure of the series lies not only in the selection and production but in the very delight of being able to pick up a book which can be read, entire, in an hour or less.

Art of the Novella

Recently five new titles were added to the series. Melville House generously sent me a set at the weekend, unaware that I already had them all (I wrote about one of the new titles, Fitzgerald’s May Day, just last week.) So I thought I would distribute them to willing readers of this blog. I’ll give one each to five winners, so please leave a comment below saying which one you would like to receive, and I will draw names from the ether after midnight BST on Saturday 29 August. The draw is open to entrants worldwide.  The five titles are:

Astute readers will note that by opting for a less popular title, you increase your chances of winning it. Unless everyone does that. Good luck.

PS – I forgot to put in the usual rider before the first ten entrants commented below … but if you’re a winner, it would be nice if you’d come back here and tell everyone what you think of the book once you’ve read it.  Or do so on your own blog if you have one, or on Amazon or the like.

August 17, 2009

F. Scott Fitzgerald: May Day

Posted in Fitzgerald F. Scott, Melville House at 8:00 am by John Self

Melville House’s Art of the Novella series just gets handsomer and handsomer. Of the five titles recently added, I decided to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s May Day. My previous experiences of him were limited to a couple of reads, in my younger and more vulnerable years, of The Great Gatsby, and abortive attempts to get through the many-feted Tender is the Night. (There was also the Pat Hobby stories, but what remains in my mind is not the stories but the introduction, detailing Fitzgerald’s relentless pleas for more money for their publication in Esquire. “I wish you’d wire the money if you like this story. … I’d like to do some more of these if your price made it possible.”)

May Day (described by the author as a ‘novelette’) first appeared in 1920 and was collected in Fitzgerald’s 1922 volume ‘Tales of the Jazz Age’, but this Melville House edition is the first time it has been published alone. There is to me something inherently satisfying about reading a story published alone – the sense of completeness and even occasion which it carries with it is something like the difference between seeing a film in the cinema rather than on TV.

We are introduced to a wide range of characters, though really there are only two types: the fortunate and the unlucky, the haves and have-nots. Fitzgerald could hardly make the distinction clearer than in the substantive opening chapter, which reacquaints old Yale graduates Gordon Sterrett (“his eyes … framed below with the blue semicircle of ill health, heightened by an unnatural glow which coloured his face like a low, incessant fever”) and Philip Dean (“blond, ruddy and rugged … Everything about him radiated fitness and bodily comfort”). Sterrett is down on his luck, and Dean finds that “there was something in his present misery that repelled him and hardened him, even though it excited his curiosity.” By the end of the chapter, when Dean has loaned Sterrett five dollars, “they quite suddenly and definitely hated each other.”

The setting is New York City at the end of the First World War (“There had been a war fought and won and the great city of the conquering people was crossed with triumphal arches and vivid with thrown flowers of white, red and rose”). The conflict is not only between rich and poor but also between soldiers returning from war and left-wing journalists. In the offices of the New York Trumpet, one of the journalists, Henry, explains to his girl Edith why the crowd of soldiers are shouting and yelling in a demonstration outside.

“All crowds have to howl. They didn’t have anybody with much initiative in the lead, or they’d probably have forced their way in here and smashed things up. … The human race has come a long way, but most of us are throwbacks; the soldiers don’t know what they want, or what they hate, or what they like. They’re used to acting in large bodies, and they seem to have to make demonstrations. So it happens to be against us. There’ve been riots all over the city tonight. It’s May Day, you see.”

Edith is one of those characters Fitzgerald does so well, probably because his satire of them only thinly masks a real fascination and affection. She is a sort of prototype Daisy Buchanan, her language “made up of the current expressions, bits of journalese and college slang strung together into an intrinsic whole, careless, faintly provocative, delicately sentimental.” Edith, who knew Gordon too, is in love with the memory of him, which doesn’t match the reality when they meet again:

“I was always queer – a little bit different from other boys. All right in college, but now all wrong. Things have been snapping inside me for four months like little hooks on a dress, and it’s about to come off when a few more hooks go. I’m very gradually going loony.”

Fitzgerald would soon know about what he wrote. His own distanced privilege is given a nod in one of the soldiers who appears in the story “named Carrol Key, a name hinting that in his veins, however thinly diluted by generations of degeneration, ran blood of some potentiality.” (Fitzgerald’s full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.) In the introduction to May Day for Tales of the Jazz Age, he described it as a “somewhat unpleasant tale”, and was not satisfied that he had woven the elements of the story into a satisfying “pattern”. I can see what he means, as there is a messiness to the story (which nonetheless may diminish on rereading), but much of this is forgotten in light of the dramatic ending, which unfortunately is famous enough that I knew it before I got there. It may have inspired another American short story with a similar, and similarly famous, ending, though to say more than that would risk ruining both.

July 10, 2009

Hans Fallada: Little Man, What Now?

Posted in Fallada Hans, Melville House at 8:00 am by John Self

Following the success earlier this year of Hans Fallada’s rediscovered novel Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone, I was keen to read more. Step forward Melville House, who have obliged by reissuing Fallada’s most famous novels, The Drinker and Little Man, What Now? To me, the latter had always been a Morrissey song. In the song, the ‘little man’ is a faded star (a very Morrissey motif), whereas in the book, a glorious past is more than the central character could hope to attain.

Hans Fallada: Little Man, What Now?
Little Man, What Now?
was a success on publication in 1932, serialised in over 50 German newspapers and selling half a million copies worldwide in its first two years, by which time it had been filmed twice. This was surely due to its forthright presentation of the woes of millions of Germans in the dying days of the Weimar Republic, with massive unemployment and hyperinflation; Fallada presents the latter in the confused words of an old woman, who has her own explanation for where all her money has gone (“Can a pound of butter cost three thousand marks?”)

‘I’m going to tell you. I now know that my money’s been stolen. Somebody who rented here stole it. But I can’t recall the names, so many people have lived here since the war. I sit and brood. I also realize it must have been someone really clever, because he falsified my housekeeping book so I wouldn’t notice. He turned three into three thousand without me realizing.’

Listening to this are our little man, Pinneberg, and his Lammchen (‘little lamb’), his recently pregnant girlfriend with whom he now needs to set up home before their ‘Shrimp’ is born. He’s sure he’s in love with her: well, fairly sure. When she throws off his compliments about her prettiness (“Who’d want to dance with a nanny-goat like [me]?”), “[a] feeling he didn’t quite like came over Pinneberg. ‘She really oughtn’t to be telling me this,’ he thought. ‘I’d always thought she was pretty. Perhaps she isn’t pretty after all.'”

The main problems they face, however, are those which every little man of the day faced: the scarcity of work, the worthlessness of money, and the uncertainty whether their future would best be secured by the Communists or the promising-sounding National Socialists. The book was written before the rise to power of the Nazis, and they feature rarely in the book (Fallada would make up for that in Every Man Dies Alone). Instead, his concerns are the quotidian struggle. “Everything gets more complicated when you’re poor.” Even when Pinneberg finds work, and “he really is happy … behind that happiness lies the fear: will it last? No, of course it won’t last. So, how long will it last?”

Daily labour – one might say the pleasures and sorrows of work – is something which Fallada represents very well (and made me realise how rarely work is realistically represented in novels that are not explicitly about work). He gets a job as a menswear salesman, and the tedium, camaraderie, fear and occasional victories of working life are beautifully done. It has the ring of experience, as do Pinneberg’s struggles with fatherhood when (and just before) ‘the Shrimp’ is born: and my judgement on their authenticity is born of experience too.

The Shrimp screamed! The small bright room re-echoed with his screeching; his little voice was extremely loud and piercing. He was getting bright red. He’s got to draw breath some time, though Pinneberg.

There is comedy too – the essential comedy of hard times – with naturists, businessmen’s power struggles, and a surprising secret about Pinneberg’s mother. All that is seeded within the context of an immersive story, realistically appalling characters, and heartfelt empathy for the little man. Pinneberg buttonholes a famous actor who comes to the gentlemen’s outfitters, an actor in whose art he has found consolation, as millions of Germans would in Fallada’s book:

‘You know things aren’t going at all well for ordinary people like us, and it seems to me sometimes as though everyone and everything is making a monkey of us. Life in general, you see what I mean, and one feels so small…’

Included in this edition is an exemplary afterword by Philip Brady – at 20 pages, a mini-essay on Fallada and Little Man, What Now? which greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the book. It places the book in its social, political and literary context, and in a curious way was a highlight of my reading experience. As with their edition of Every Man Dies Alone, Melville House have done full justice to Fallada’s work.

One of the most affecting phrases in the book is not from the text of the story at all. After the slings and arrows suffered by Pinneberg and Lammchen (“Down the slippery slope, sunk without trace, utterly destroyed. Order and cleanliness, gone; work, material security, gone; making progress and hope, gone. Poverty is not just misery, poverty is an offence, poverty is a stain, poverty is suspect”) – after all this, after the relentless difficulty of everyday existence – particularly at this time, in this place – what most touches the heart is a chapter heading near the end of the book. it reads: “Epilogue: Life Goes On.”

June 13, 2009

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla

Posted in Maupassant Guy de, Melville House at 8:00 am by John Self

After reading three books in a row that I had mixed feelings about (and one or two more that I didn’t even finish), I needed a palate cleanser. Melville House came to the rescue with their ‘Art of the Novella’ reissue of Guy de Maupassant’s astonishing The Horla: a wonder in a few dozen pages.

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla
This volume contains three stories: two versions of ‘The Horla’ from 1886 and 1887, and ‘Letter from a Madman’, first published in 1885. The two earlier stories work at the themes but only in the final version of ‘The Horla’ – presented here first – does Maupassant achieve a thoroughly satisfying telling.

Our unnamed narrator begins with unexplained mood swings: “Where do these mysterious influences come from that change our happiness into despondency and our confidence into distress?”

I wake up full of joy, with songs welling up in my throat. Why? I go down to the water; and suddenly, after a short walk, I come back disheartened, as if some misfortune were awaiting me at home. Why?

It is his desire to find an explanation – for what we might otherwise call the affliction of being human – that drives him to further anxiety and despair. He begins to believe that another being is accompanying him and influencing his existence (“My nights are eating up my days … Last night, I felt someone squatting over me, who, with his mouth over mine, was drinking in my life through my lips”). He sees sinister occurrences in displays of hypnotism, and even in nothing at all: when he arrives home, filled with premonitions of horror, “there was nothing there, yet I was more surprised and anxious than if I had had another fantastic vision.”

It is a perfect exploration of human irrationality. Lack of evidence makes the narrator more fearful still: knowing the limitations of our senses, he wonders what else is happening which could only be judged by senses we do not have. He imagines otherworldly beings:

What do the sentient beings in those distant universes know, more than we do? What more are they capable of doing than we? What do they see that we have not the least knowledge of? Some day or other, won’t one of them, crossing space, appear on our earth to conquer it, just as long ago the Normans crossed the seas to subjugate people who were weaker?

We are so infirm, so helpless, so ignorant, so small, we others, on this spinning grain of mud mixed with a drop of water.

(This passage, particularly with its ending on “a drop of water,” seems such a proto-H.G. Wells idea – so close in spirit to the opening of The War of the Worlds, published a dozen years later, that it cannot be coincidence. Did Wells read ‘The Horla’?) The whole story is a perfectly judged crescendo of fear’s cannibalism. “After mankind, the Horla”:

Oh my God! My God! Is there a God? If there is, set me free, save me! Help me! Forgive me! Have pity on me! Mercy! Save me! Save me from this suffering – this torture – this horror!

Charlotte Mandell, whose translation reads faultlessly, suggests that Maupassant was “haunted by his own dementia” and reminds us that he died in a private asylum a few years after completing ‘The Horla’. If it is true that Maupassant took his own suffering and made art from it, then what greater gift can a writer leave us?

May 21, 2009

Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener

Posted in Melville Herman, Melville House at 8:00 am by John Self

What to say, how to begin, on a piece of writing which, says Patrick McGrath in the introduction to the Hesperus Press edition of ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, “one of the great achievements of world literature”? In fact he doesn’t quite say that: he simply says that this high praise is “the judgement of many readers”. Get off the fence, Patrick: it is.

bartleby

‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ was published in 1853 but it forges a path ahead, and is such a keystone of modern literature that to admit not having read it before is akin to proclaiming ignorance of ‘Metamorphosis’ or Waiting for Godot. (Rest easy: I have.) But it is one of those works whose reputation precedes it so handily, and which seems summable in such straightforward terms, that it almost feels unnecessary to read it. Do I need to read it? With all the other books pressing on my time, I would prefer not to. So confident was I that I already knew it, that I even read a novel inspired by it – Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co - without having read the source material. In the end, like all classics, ‘Bartleby’ defies expectations, and expands before your eyes.

A mere 40 pages in the above edition (or 80 in the handsome Melville House one below, for those who like good value: though the Hesperus edition also includes the story ‘Benito Cereno’), this is a story which unpacks several times its bodyweight. The essence is simple to summarise. A lawyer on Wall Street, “filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best,” employs a new copyist, Bartleby: “pallidly neat, pitiable respectable, incurably forlorn!” All goes well until one day, when asked to read over a document, Bartleby responds: “I would prefer not to.” Soon it becomes his answer to everything. You can see where this is heading.

This mild statement, through repetition, becomes sinister and frightening. “I would prefer not to.” Why not? Bartleby never explains. His story is twofold: of Bartleby himself, and of his effect on others. It unnerves his employer, forcing him to move offices (“I would prefer not to quit you,” is his reply when the lawyer asks him to go). His response is inhuman – uncooperative, alien – but normal in its civility and its intention: all humans must struggle against the desire to stop, to step off the treadmill. Bartleby is frightening because he dares to.

Bartleby the Scrivener (Melville House)

He clashes with his employer also because he – like all lawyers – likes the definite and concrete, where Bartleby is “more a man of preferences than assumptions.” But his preference is not a statement in favour, but a statement against, a denial: not what we think of as a ‘preference’ at all. His choice is to decide not to choose; to take his fate out of his own hands by stoutly insisting on his desire “not to”. “I like to be stationary,” says Bartleby late in the story. “But I am not particular.” Meanwhile his employer decides that Bartleby is his fate.

‘Bartleby’ – like Bartleby – is endlessly open to interpretation. Patrick McGrath outlines them in his introduction to the Hesperus edition. Bartleby is a Christ figure. He is the narrator’s alter ego; he is Melville’s alter ego (trying to recover from the commercial failure of Moby-Dick and Pierre). Or, more satisfyingly, it is about power and submission, where here the potent employer becomes entirely submissive to the decisions Bartleby makes – or refuses to make. It is the endless unfoldings offered by a book which is so short, on the surface so simple, which is one of the marks of its greatness. That it laid the foundation, and led the way, for much essential 20th century literature, is another.

April 9, 2009

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone

Posted in Fallada Hans, Hofmann Michael, Melville House, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

Midway through Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Alone in Berlin (US title: Every Man Dies Alone), a character gives up on reading a book. He’s asked if he isn’t enjoying it.

Ach, you know, not really … They’re all such terribly good people, and I get bored. It’s too much like a proper book. Not a book that a man can sink his teeth into. I’m looking for something with a bit more excitement, you know.

How kind of Fallada to incorporate that passage to make it easy for people like me to say: he should have read Alone in Berlin then. Here there is plenty of excitement to sink your teeth into – even though it is very much like a proper book.

Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin

And the beauty of it is that most of the characters are not “terribly good people”: and we’re not even talking about the Nazis. Alone in Berlin is “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis” (Primo Levi), but it is its open-eyed realism which makes it shine. The characters are venal, selfish, chaotic, not types but real people. (Indeed, the book is based on true events.) There is the ineffectual and emotionally incontinent Enno Kluge; Emil Borkhausen, whose loyalty lies with the highest bidder; Karl Hergesell, former resistance organiser who gave up for the comforts of a secure home life (“My happiness doesn’t cost anyone else a thing”). Even the heroes of the story, the Quangels, are deluded about the scope of their resistance campaign.

As the book opens, Otto and Anna Quangel, living in an apartment block in Jablonski Strasse, Berlin, in 1940, have just learned that their son has been killed when fighting for Hitler in the war. It’s a merciful release, in a way, from the ever-present fear for him (“After each letter from the front you felt better for a day or two, then you counted back how many days had passed since it was sent, and then your fear began again”). When Anna, distraught, blames Otto – “you and that Führer of yours!” – this sets off an emotional journey in Otto which leads him to undertake a modest but life-threatening resistance campaign across the city. This, incidentally, is where I began to see more sense in the UK cover design, which initially seemed to be a dramatic lapse in the normally good taste of Penguin (if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that was Comic Sans). I still have my doubts, however, about the UK title. On the one hand, aloneness, as discussed below, is a central theme; on the other, the US title, Every Man Dies Alone, is a closer translation of the original German (Jeder stirbt für sich allein) and has a brutal relevance, as a chaplain points out to Otto Quangel when he doubts the value of the resistance.

Of course, it would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us. Such and such is what you have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone, or that our deaths will be in vain.

In fact the UK title and cover – and quotes on the back, where Alan Furst and Philip Kerr get precedence over Primo Levi – make clear that here, Alone in Berlin is being sold as a thriller. And it is: there is an excellent control of pace (over 570 pages), good and not-so-good guys in all shades of grey, and some genuinely thrilling moments such as the showdown between Escherich and Kluge at the end of part two.

Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone

Beyond that, Fallada displays an acute understanding of motivations. When Enno Kluge is being interrogated by a Gestapo man, he is so psychologically beaten by the experience that he offers a false confession as a “favour” – “he was terrified of antagonizing this nice inspector”. The inspector himself, knowing the confession is false, nonetheless comes to believe in Kluge’s guilt because “too many curious coincidences clustered round the fellow.” Fallada efficiently shows that of such illogical (in)humanity are life and death decisions made.

The book is not perfect. Fallada wrote it in less than a month, and it is an astonishing achievement with or without that knowledge. But sometimes his haste shows – tenses change mid-scene with alarming frequency – and too often his thumb is on the scales, with melodramatic chapter endings and authorial intervention. Even translator Michael Hofmann, never knowingly underpraised on this blog, makes a few odd choices, such as using words like “mate” which give the impression that the book has been translated not into English but into British. Curiously, the rough edges seem to enhance rather than detract, neatly meeting the book’s promoted status as an unearthed relic, written on the hoof (Fallada died shortly after completing it, having been incarcerated in a Nazi insane asylum during the war). We should be grateful to have it in translation at last. It’s hard not to see Alone in Berlin becoming a widely read modern classic.

Solitude – being alone, in Berlin or anywhere else – is foremost in the minds of many of the characters. One character longs for it – “perhaps when she’s alone she will amount to more: she’ll have some time to herself, she won’t need to put herself last”, while wondering when facing time alone, “what will I discover about myself that I never knew?” In a Germany “jam-packed with uniforms”, all the resistance volunteers are made to feel alone together. “No amount of reticence could change the fact that every individual German belonged to the generality of Germans and must share in the general destiny of Germany, even as more and more bombs were falling on the just and unjust alike.” The sense of oppression is well done, and all the better for its contemporaneity, which gives it the essence of reportage and the ring of truth. “Danger’s not on the doorstep,” Otto Quangel tells his wife. “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.”

June 18, 2008

Imre Kertész: The Pathseeker

Posted in Kertész Imre, Melville House at 8:01 am by John Self

Beaten but unbowed (well: perhaps a little bowed), I delved straight back into the literature of Nobel laureates after my recent failure. After falling in literary lust with Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, I was pleased to see them expanding into modern fiction, with the unsnappy but unarguable Contemporary Art of the Novella series. That, plus at just over 100 pages, I felt this was a Nobel winner even I could get through.

The Pathseeker

I have mixed feelings about the way I found this book. On the one hand, it was the blurb which interested me in it ahead of others in the series, and yet I know my enjoyment – and puzzlement – could have been enhanced if I had approached it cold. The description sounded, probably to misuse an overused term, Kafkaesque (Martin Amis points out that the word has become so devalued that a long queue in the Post Office is now described as Kafkaesque). Perhaps a better one would be ‘Ishiguroish': I’m thinking in particular of his wonderful but overlooked 1995 novel The Unconsoled. Its atmosphere of mystery and foreboding, an unknowable man with an unclear purpose in a strange town, seem just right for the blurb of The Pathseeker:

In a mysterious middle-European country, a man identified only as “the Commissioner” undertakes what seems to be a banal trip to a nondescript town with his wife – a brief detour on the way to a holiday at the seaside – that turns into something ominous. Something terrible has happened in the town, something that no one wants to discuss.

In quoting this I have stopped short of the giveaway words, of which there are two: one repeated just in case you didn’t pick up on it the first time, and one which kills stone dead the vaunted sense of mystery, the sort of word which comes with its own capital letter. For the blankness and openness of the story itself, the white, uncluttered cover seems to suit it nicely.

This is a new translation, but The Pathseeker is one of Kertész’s earliest works – though ‘early’ is not quite right, as it was published when he was 47, two years after his debut and most famous work Fatelessness (also published in English as Fateless). Tim Wilkinson has done a fine job as translator, and in the Michael Hofmann tradition has thrown in a free afterword, which helps the reader with some of the more obscure references in the book, and suggests a tangential connection with Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’.

So what can I say about this book, or story, without spoiling it? It has a dramatic opening, where the Commissioner, visiting the unnamed country and hosted in the home of a man named Hermann, in the middle of a friendly conversation, suddenly becomes an unwelcome guest.

He took the pipe from his mouth and cut him short with calm, premeditated hostility. He then informed him in a single terse sentence who he was and the objective of his mission and the investigation that he was to pursue. Hermann turned slightly pale.

The Commissioner proceeds with his investigation, and along the way Kertész makes references to relationships of predation and submission, and how willing people are to submit to power. Even passengers on a train – a symbol pretty heavy with meaning in this context – are “blind instruments of a higher design, they faithfully fulfilled their roles, dutifully meeting the calculation that was attached to them.” The Commissioner admits he wants “to make a splash with his presence, advertise his superiority, celebrate the triumph of his existence in front of these mute and powerless things,” which leads to notions of the objectification of human life. He visits a factory, with German language ironwork on the gates, and an exhibition of “defunct instruments of past ages, contraband curiosities … cheerfully illuminated.”

What could this collection of junk, so cleverly, indeed all too cleverly disguised as dusty museum material, prove to him, or to anyone else for that matter? Its objects could be brought to life only by being utilized. The only test of their efficacy could be experience.

The Pathseeker is both nebulous and forceful, obstructive and direct, which leaves room for the reader’s own responses while directing them artfully along Kertész’s chosen path. There is a ghostly creepiness to it, and the sort of calm silence around the setting which settles after a period of calamitous noise. Tim Wilkinson tells us that the story took twelve years for Kertész “to wrestle into a form he was happy with,” and was then rejected by the publisher he submitted it to. And more than three decades after that, it has been finally been translated into English, so we can benefit. The Pathseeker made it at last.

February 11, 2008

James Joyce: The Dead

Posted in Joyce James, Melville House at 9:18 pm by John Self

As someone who has failed over and over with Ulysses – but who hasn’t? – I couldn’t resist returning at the weekend to Joyce’s most famous story, which is that rarest combination of qualities: the work of a genius that you can get through in one sitting. I can’t resist a handsome volume, and ‘The Dead’ is published in a standalone edition by Melville House Publishing, in their series The Art of the Novella. (I hereby salute my fellow book blogger Lizzy Siddal for introducing me to them.) Is it really a novella, at 64 pages? More cost-effective anyway to pick it up as part of his collection Dubliners, or indeed there is no shortage of places where you can read it online for free. Anyway, this is the edition I read: plain and handsome, and irresistible with a matching design bar of chocolate. Both items now consumed.

It was years since I’d read ‘The Dead’ and I remembered almost nothing about it, apart from those extraordinary closing lines. And I don’t plan to say much more about it now, other than: read it. Despite its formal simplicity and beauty, I had to start it twice, just to get a handle on the flurry – one might say blizzard – of character Joyce refers to and introduces in the opening pages.

The setting, to try to whet the appetite without spoiling it, is a house party held by two elderly Dublin women, referred to as Miss Kate and Miss Julia, and their niece Mary Jane. Visitors are plentiful, including Freddy Malins (“they were dreadfully afraid [he] might turn up screwed”) and the hostesses’ nephew, Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta.

Where Joyce succeeds in ‘The Dead’ is in bring together so many elements almost in a showcase of virtuoso story writing. There is politics (this is Ireland, after all) in Gabriel’s confrontation with Miss Ivors, an Irish nationalist. There is psychological insight as Gabriel, who will be making a speech at the party, turns himself inside out with the fear that the erudite references he has planned will seem like snobbery, and alienate the other guests, drilling a perverse inferiority complex into himself as a result. There is brilliant rhythm in the prose:

Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of runs and difficult passages, to the hushed drawing-room. He liked music, but the piece she was playing had no melody for him and he doubted whether it had any melody for the other listeners, though they had begged Mary Jane to play something. Four young men, who had come from the refreshment-room to stand in the doorway at the sound of the piano, had gone away quietly in couples after a few minutes. The only persons who seemed to follow the music were Mary Jane herself, her hands racing along the keyboard or lifted from it at the pauses like those of a priestess in momentary imprecation, and Aunt Kate standing at her elbow to turn the page.

And wit too: when the music ends, “the most vigorous clapping came from the four young men in the doorway who had gone away to the refreshment room at the beginning of the piece but had come back when the piano had stopped.”

As well as this, Joyce nods toward his future flirtations with textual playfulness, when he has Gabriel reflect on seeing his wife, and “asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of.” The story, at the risk of demeaning it, could almost be written with study in mind, so plentiful are the interpretations of the snow, the guests, Gabriel’s intentions and motivations, and the subject of the title: the dead. This brings us to those famous closing words, and I hope it will count as an enticement rather than ruining the effect if I take the opportunity to quote them here. There is, after all, a great pleasure to be had in typing out words that you know you would never be able to come near in perfection of phrasing. Is it a novella or just a story? In truth, it contains more than many multi-volume novels. This, and all that above, among other things, is the beauty of ‘The Dead.’

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted upon the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly though the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

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