NYRB Classics

Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz

Here is a book whose fearsome reputation precedes it – or should I say (spoiler alert) exceeds it? Berlin Alexanderplatz is a monument of modern German literature and, more prominently to me, a byword for fat unreadability. It’s not clear whether this is because of intrinsic qualities in the book itself, or the widely disliked first English translation by Eugene Jolas. The book is a running joke in Ned Beauman’s novel The Teleportation Accident, where the ‘hero’ Egon Loeser has been trying to read it for 30 years:

About a year earlier, he had taken a slow train to Cologne to visit his great aunt, and on the journey he had deliberately brought nothing to read but Berlin Alexanderplatz, on the basis that after six hours either he would have finished the book or the book would have finished him. He lasted one stop before turning to the other man in the carriage and saying, ‘I will give you fifty-seven marks, which is everything I have in my wallet, for that novel you’re reading.’

‘Don’t you care what it is?’

‘Is it by any chance Berlin Alexanderplatz?’ said Loeser.


‘Then I don’t care what it is.’

Six hours was an optimistic estimate by Loeser – it took me over a week to complete it – but otherwise he was unnecessarily gloomy. In this new translation by Michael Hofmann, Berlin Alexanderplatz is not at all difficult and rarely daunting, except in its length.


Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) was originally subtitled The Story of Franz Biberkopf, at the insistence of Döblin’s publisher Samuel Fischer, for whom (writes Hofmann in an excellent afterword) “‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ was the name of a railway stop, not the title of a book.” The subtitle is dropped in this new edition, but if another were to be added, I suggest The City. Just as Melville called his most famous novel Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, because it sought to reduce the entire concept of the whale to writing (though ‘reduce’ is probably not the word), so Döblin does the same not just for Berlin, but the modern city in general. Berlin Alexanderplatz is Europe’s Moby-Dick, a work of unified force whose story is intercut with advertising slogans, court reports, and all manner of found materials whose inclusion has the intended effect: it makes for a book as busy as the city.

The story of Franz Biberkopf (‘beaverhead’) is simple enough. At the start of the book, it’s the beginning of 1928 and Franz has just been released from prison, and immediately we see Döblin’s casual, reflexive style: “The awful moment was at hand (awful, why so awful, Franz?), his four years were up.” It’s awful because freedom is its own punishment, away from the routine and certainties of prison: now, terrifyingly, Franz is once again responsible for his own fate. He does try to go straight, initially through working in trade, selling laces door to door but with ambitions for more (“why not be the man to introduce garden statuary into small towns?”), but we are high in the Weimar republic, and the economic outlook is not favourable (“one and a half million unemployed, up by 226,000 in a fortnight”). It’s inevitable, then, that Franz finds himself falling in with a gang of crooks (“do I run, do I not run, what do I do”), whose company defines him for the rest of the book, through a car accident with dramatic consequences, to his involvement with a string of women – Lena, Eva, Cilly, Sonia (or is it Mitzi?) – none of whom he treats well, to say the least. But here he has – literally – form, as his prison sentence in the first place was for the manslaughter of his girlfriend Ida, to whose killing we get a flashback, in a depersonalising style that George Saunders might have been inspired by:

It only remains to list the further consequences of the process thus initiated: loss of verticality on the part of Ida, reversion to the horizontal, in the form of colossal impact, at the same time as breathing difficulties, intense pain, shock and psychological loss of balance.

Not that anyone else gets off lightly either. Part of the aim of Berlin Alexanderplatz seems to be to show how a great city can be terrible for so many of the people who live in it. To illustrate this, Döblin’s focus, apart from an ironic expression of concern for the impact that inflation is having on the middle classes, is on the down-at-heel and the down-and-out, the occupants of seedy bars and apartment blocks. The story at times threads through the floors of a building, passes from one consciousness to another, reading correspondence, eavesdropping in a pile-up of chaotic set pieces.

Yes, all human life is here, and not just human, as the glamourless locations include the local slaughterhouse (“courts of justice for the beasts”), which is portrayed in a loving four-page description. If Döblin gives the animals here as much attention as he does his humans elsewhere, it’s only to emphasise that the mass of the people in this economically stratified, still war-wrecked country are no better off than the “dear piggies” on their way to market. The ironic and amused tone Döblin adopts here (“We have come to the end of physiology and theology, this is where physics begins”) is common throughout the book, as he peeks out from behind the curtain – look! I am writing a novel! – and this is never better expressed than in the sub-chapter headings:

Markets opening directionless, gradually drifting lower, Hamburg out of bed the wrong side, London continuing weak

Victory all along the line! Franz Biberkopf buys a veal escalope

Keep your eyes on Karl the plumber: something’s going on with him

Reinhold’s Black Wednesday – but this section can be skipped

All in all, Hofmann’s casual style suits the looseness of the narrative (“the book contains a great deal that is simply there for its own sake” he writes in the afterword) pretty well. One of the difficulties for the translator of Berlin Alexanderplatz is the supposedly untranslatable idiomatic language of working-class Berlin, for which Hofmann says he has chosen what fellow German translator Anthea Bell calls “the regional unspecific,” though to me it seemed more directed than that, usually toward British speech (bunch a flars, nothink, facking, even leave it aht), though I suppose if you’re going to settle on a vernacular rendering, European English makes more sense than American. (In the second English translation, by Anne Thompson, northern English dialect was used.)

Berlin Alexanderplatz was a bestseller in its time, so much so that Döblin regretted the shadow it cast over his other work, but for years has been only patchily available in English. This Penguin Classics edition (the same translation is being released in the US by NYRB Classics) is part of a new look reserved for, I think, first publications and significant new translations, presumably to be followed in due course with a standard black Classics or Modern Classics paperback. The covers are colour-coded to indicate the original language, as with the Pocket Penguins series (olive here for German). The rough card covers and spartan design seem to communicate seriousness and significance, like a brown road sign that directs drivers to a destination that’s good for you. That gives it more the daunting quality of black Penguin Classics than the approachable coolness (to me, anyway) of Penguin Modern Classics. Probably either look would be suitable, for a book that is at heart both seriously significant and a great deal of fun.

John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing

John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner was the sleeper hit of 2013. A groundswell of word-of-mouth success in some European countries early this year coincided with the reissue of the book in the UK by Vintage Classics in December 2012 (having previously been published by NYRB Classics in 2006), and soon every UK newspaper wanted a piece of the action too. Attention is now beginning to turn to his other novels. This one was brought to us again by NYRB Classics in 2007, and next year it will be reissued, unappealingly emblazoned, in the UK.

John Williams: Butcher's Crossing (Vintage Classics, UK, 2014)

Butcher’s Crossing (1960) was Williams’s second novel, though he disowned the first, Nothing But the Night (1948), written in his mid-20s, so we might consider this to be his first mature work. It is written in a similar quiet style to Stoner, slips down just as delightfully, and has a likeminded lack of consolation. In subject, it is I suppose a western – check out that Panther Books edition from 1963, below – though I’m unsure exactly how to define that. It has men in battle: against the landscape, against animals and against one another.

Will Andrews is the reader’s eyes. He’s a 23-year-old Harvard dropout who has come west to find “his unalterable self”, and something related that he struggles to define: a “wildness”, or “a freedom and a goodness”, and in reality his quest may be more about evading than finding. It’s the 1870s, and he comes to Butcher’s Crossing in Kansas, not much more than “six rough frame buildings bisected by a narrow dirt street.” Encouraged by news of the burgeoning buffalo hide economy, and of one resident’s confident prediction that “this town’s going to be something two, three years from now,” he smooth-talks – and pays – his way onto a team of buffalo hunters, led by the experienced Miller.

John Williams: Butcher's Crossing (NYRB Classics, 2007)

What follows is pretty gripping, even as it takes its time. Miller takes on the role of a Captain Ahab, a driven, possibly demented figure who is determined to complete his quest whatever the outcome, and who drives the fate of the other, weaker, characters. The story is full of strong and immersive physical descriptions – a snowstorm, the skinning of buffalo, a journey across a treacherous river. At these times, Williams manages to enter some primitive part of the reader’s brain, to bypass reason, to grasp the reader by the tailbone and shake. This is impressive because the quietness of Williams’s style means that his story, horrifying though it is in places, lacks the sort of apocalyptic feel that Cormac McCarthy can whistle up. But it has a restrained power of its own.

During the journey, Andrews finds himself changing – “he thought at times that he was moving into a new body” – and the men on the hunt generally find that “rather than being brought closer together by their isolation, they were thrust apart.” The struggles through the journey are thrown cleverly into relief when the men discover near the story’s end that weather and landscape are not the only elements they cannot control, but larger challenges created by the mass of mankind – forces we are all prey to – may be even more difficult to surmount.

John Williams: Butcher's Crossing (Panther Books, 1963)

Along with Stoner, Butcher’s Crossing might cement Williams’s reputation as a man who wrote mostly about men. You could say the same about James Salter or William Golding, but when reading Butcher’s Crossing, I kept thinking about the accusations of misogyny laid against Stoner by writers and critics such as Elaine Showalter, Linda Grant and David Baddiel. Does Butcher’s Crossing fare any better? It’s not a good start to see that there are only two female characters in the book and both are, in the language of the men, “whores”. We don’t expect satisfaction of the Bechdel test from a western, any more than we would from Melville’s sea stories, but it’s more disappointing that the main female character (it’s a stretch to call her that) is not much more than a convenient vessel for Will Andrews, with uninspiring dialogue to match. (“I wanted you the first time I saw you. Without you even touching me, or talking to me.”) Williams does put some well-intentioned but clunky words in Andrews’s head – “He saw her as a poor, ignorant victim of her time and place” – which hardly helps. No real defence to those charges here, then. There is, it is true, one scene where women are discussed other than as an adjunct to men. High in the mountains, the crew discusses that the best way to draw the stiffness out of the buffalo hide is to pour urine on it. “Woman piss is best,” says one. “But we’ll have to make do with what we got.”

Robert Walser: Selected Stories

About a year into this blog – which recently passed its fifth birthday, but like all in middle age, doesn’t like to draw attention to the fact – I wrote about Robert Walser’s novel The Assistant. It attracted a surprisingly high number of page views and comments, though perhaps not so surprising when you consider that Walser is one of those badly kept secrets of literature, admired by Kafka then and Coetzee now. (And Hesse too: “If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place.”) It was the response to my blog post more than any appreciation I had for The Assistant that made me get this selection of his short prose shortly afterwards. And now, four years later, I have finally read it. (I’ve just had a shudder-inducing thought about what this means for the five hundred or so unread books I have at home. Let’s move on.)

I bow to no one – and it’s a crowded field – in my admiration for NYRB Classics, but even by that imprint’s exalted standards, Walser’s Selected Stories must be a high point. Ditto by their exalted design standards: look at that cover, the delicate green and purple like colorizing effects on a black-and-white film. And the composition, or cropping, of the photograph itself: the subject – the author – to one side, as though standing proudly (or tentatively?) by his title; or, not quite in the middle of the road; or, just about to go for a walk.

Walser loved to walk, or it might be more accurate to say he walked a lot, like Mr Sommer in Patrick Süskind’s story. He died walking, in the snow on Christmas Day 1956, a short distance from the sanatorium (“for people who were mentally not altogether at their best”, as he described such a place in one story) where he spent the last 23 years of his life, having given up writing. “I am not here to write, but to be mad.” (If I squeezed in the word ‘microscripts’, then the preceding sentences would contain all the keywords you’ll see in any potted biography of Walser.)

His contradictions are retained in the title of this volume, which more accurately would be called Selected – what? – Things. But who can blame NYRB? Just as novels are more saleable than stories, so too must stories be more saleable than things. (Robert Walser’s Things. I’d buy it.) The author referred to them as sketches: “For me the sketches I produce now and then are shortish or longish chapters of a novel. The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself.” That description accounts for the vertiginous feeling the new reader has on encountering what is apparently the author himself talking casually as he assembles the narrative of each sketch. He ponders to himself, reflects, wavers and settles. “I think he must have walked across a tiny bridge…” “As I believe I have been able to stress…” “Thun had a trade fair, I cannot say exactly but I think four years ago.” The ‘I’ in the sketches is always there, just out of sight and then appearing briefly with a disarming charm:

I am thrilled to be writing a report on such a delicate subject as trousers, and thus to be licensed to plunge into meditation on them; even as I write, a desirous grin, I can feel it, is spreading over my entire face.

It has a similar effect on the reader. The impression is of a writer with nothing to hide, guileless and at once hyperconscious and unaffected. Unlike many writers, he lays his uncertainties before the reader. (Thomas Mann: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”) This is sympathetic to the kind of character – or the aspects of himself – Walser presents in several of the pieces here. One narrator describes himself as “a dreamer rather than a thinker, a zero rather than a force”, without ambition. “The passion to go far in the world is unknown to me.” Another, Helbling, is “a small, pale, timid, weak, elegant, silly little fellow, full of unworldly feelings, and would not be able to endure the rigor of life if things ever went against me.” He is “not of coarse enough cut for this life.” These characters are observers, patients rather than agents, and it’s no surprise to have Walser himself as narrator take a similar line. “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.” When he writes about Cézanne, he imbues him too with similar unworldly qualities.

This is not to say that the writing is either fey or insubstantial. The longest piece here, ‘The Walk’, has sharp satire and a Pythonesque absurdity as the narrator enters a bookshop and asks to be provided with the most popular and critically acclaimed volume, which the bookseller does.

I considered the book, and asked: “Could you swear that this is the most widely distributed book of the year?”

“Without a doubt!”

“Could you insist that this is the book which one has to have read?”


“Is this book also definitely good?”

“What an utterly superfluous and inadmissible question.”

The story, as its title indicates, is a long walk, full of similar encounters. “On a lovely and far-wandering walk a thousand useful and usable thoughts occur to me.” But for Walser’s walkers, not too much action is desired. When, in ‘The Street (1)’, a man finds himself pulled along in a crowd, he finds that “in the midst of the unrelenting forward thrust I felt the urge to stand still. The muchness and the motion were too much and too fast.” This pace distresses him: in ‘A Contribution’ he refers to “the civilized world, which one might also call the impatient or rushing world.” Susan Sontag in her introduction calls Walser a “heartbreaking” writer, and we can see why: for his charm and innocence, his seeming struggle to fit, his determination to make the best of it regardless.

Walser and his various alter egos are unsure of their place, not just in the world, but in literature. “I have written books,” he writes in ‘The Walk’, “which the public unfortunately does not like, and the consequences of this oppress my heart.” Indeed, as Coetzee reports in his excellent essay on Walser (published in Inner Workings), what little income he was able to earn from his writing dwindled almost to nothing after the first world war, when the public appetite for Walser’s writing, “easily dismissed as whimsical and belletristic,” declined. His mental health became more precarious, and he attempted suicide. “I couldn’t even make a proper noose.” There is a desperation chiming with this under the surface of Walser’s stories, but it’s certainly tempting to accentuate a more cheerful reading of his books. And the portion of the public that fortunately does like his writing still persists, and shows no sign of disappearing. My own reaction to these odd, quixotic little pieces, satisfying and disarming, is in keeping with Walser’s more optimistic aspirations expressed elsewhere in ‘The Walk’: “I hope that this sentence pleases all and sundry, inspires satisfaction, and meets with warm applause.”

Andrey Platonov: The Foundation Pit

I’ve found myself reading more translated literature recently. (Four out of the last six books reviewed here.) This isn’t the result of a conscious policy, but I suppose there must be some underlying process at work in my choices. Perhaps it’s the notion that with foreign fiction, you’re getting the best of what’s on offer from other countries: the stuff has to pass through two selection processes rather than one. On the other hand, a fellow blogger has accused me of “over-celebrating marginal central European works.” Could this be true? Am I valuing foreignness as a quality in itself? These are questions which sprang to mind as I read Andrey Platonov’s recently re-translated novel.

The Foundation Pit has a complex publishing history. Written in 1929-30, it remained unpublished in Platonov’s Russian homeland until 1987 – 26 years after his death – but had previously been published (in Russian) in the USA in 1973. It was translated into English in 1996 by Robert Chandler for the redoubtable Harvill Press. However, the Russian publication on which that translation was based was heavily bowdlerised, and so when definitive texts became available, Chandler re-translated the book in collaboration with Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson. This is the version which now appears in NYRB Classics (in the US) and Vintage Classics (in the UK).

Those two imprints of course are recommendations to me in themselves, so I approached The Foundation Pit with high expectations. Robert Chandler in his substantial appendices observes that this is a book and author that give us vital information on Stalin’s collectivisation policy, which led to the systematic liquidation (dekulakisation) of the wealthy peasant class in the Russian countryside. “Platonov and his friend Vasily Grossman were the only two members of their generation to write about Total Collectivization—and about the still more devastating Terror Famine—both truthfully and in depth.” The question therefore is how can a book be, at the same time, hugely important and virtually unreadable?

Such a bald comment is of course the result of a subjective reading experience. Did a succession of early rises leave me too tired to get the most out of The Foundation Pit? Has Twitter ruined my powers of concentration? Am I suffering from foreign-lit fatigue? Whatever the reason, this short book (150 pages plus appendices) evaded my comprehension at every page turn. The cover blurb told me more than I got out of the text itself: “A group of Soviet workers believe they are laying the foundations for a radiant future. As they work harder and dig deeper, their optimism turns to violence and it becomes clear that what is being dug is not a foundation pit but an immense grave.”

The Irish Times describes the book as comparable to Godot and Lewis Carroll, and the absurd comedy suggested thereby is present from the first paragraph, where we learn that one of the lead characters Voshchev has been made redundant from a machine factory “on account of weakening strength in him and thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labour.” (“What if we all get lost in thought?” he is asked. “Who’ll be left to act?”) Without work, Voshchev feels himself not to be at a loose end, but to be a loose end, without purpose. “He did not know whether he was of use to the world or whether everything would get along fine without him.” Anyway, “happiness is a bourgeois business. Happiness will lead only to shame.” And so Voshchev joins the workers building the foundation pit.

The language is key to the strengths – and, for me, weaknesses – of the book. There are passages which get the feel just right:

Out in nature a devastated summer’s day was departing into evening: everything, near and far, was gradually ending; birds were hiding away; people were lying down to sleep, smoke was wafting up meekly from remote field huts, and there a tired and unknown man was sitting by his pot and waiting for supper, resolved to endure his life to the end.

Elsewhere, however, the tone is bizarre, either incomprehensible or ostentatiously clumsy. When one character calls another “You class superfluity!”, it may be faithful to the Russian, but it clangs in English, and it’s a worryingly common experience. “Oh, Olya, Olly, you darling dolly,” coos the character Pashkin to his wife, “your feel for the masses is simply gigantic! For that, let me organize myself close to you!” If the use of ‘organize’ is a joke, it’s one that works in only one register and deadens its own impact. These clumsy effects seem to be conscious, and indeed at times they communicated the desired effect to me – doublespeak, dictatorial cant – as when two characters die and are described not as being dead but “in eternal condition”. Such moments make me regret that the fault elsewhere was doubtless mine. Yet the Irish Times, this time in a review of the new translation, provides some helpful comparisons between the 1996 translation and this one:

“down cast eyes” becomes “down bent”; “an automobile that had been driven across open countryside was being repaired” becomes “an automobile was being repaired there from going without roads”; “our sense of conviction” becomes “our convinced feeling”; a brass band that had been “droning” is now “pining”; “a youthful march” is now “the music of a young march.”

The automobile quote is one of many phrases in the book which had me scratching my head: now at least I’ve had a translation of the translation and know what it really meant. I found myself rereading paragraphs just to get a sense of what was happening on the surface (not perhaps unreasonable, as Platonov deliberately “deforms language”, Chandler tells us – which should be joyous news to me – and brings in characters, such as a bear, without introducing them so that the reader is left wondering whether they missed the first appearance). What makes this particularly frustrating is the fact that even in crystal clear English, The Foundation Pit is a book which requires knowledge of the historical and political background to get the most from it (to get, I would say, anything significant from it at all). The afterword and copious notes are very helpful, but would be better as introduction, with the notes numbered through the text: as it is, there is no indication in the body of the book that there are any notes at all. Properly forewarned, I might have spotted any of the subtexts or references – to Dante, to the biblical Elisha, to Pushkin – and found the book more tantalising than frustrating. As it is I can only say that this is a book I found impossible to review, and so – with an irony worthy of etc. etc.! – I leave you with one thousand words explaining why I am unable to do so.

Edmund Wilson: Memoirs of Hecate County

I make no secret on this blog of my fetish for the NYRB Classics series.  But with more or less every title in their range exuding varieties of temptation, the decision on which ones to buy is always difficult: I mean, you can’t get them all. (Actually, you can.)  It was in the LRB Shop, where more or less everything on their fiction shelves pushes my buttons, where this title caught my eye.  How could it not?  The cover seemed to be one of the campest things I’d ever seen: it turns out to be an installation by Salvador Dali (“Dream of Venus“) at the 1939 World’s Fair.  These are the seemingly random influences which determine the books we read.

Memoirs of Hecate County
(1946) has the following CIP data on its copyright page:

1. Manhattan (New York, N.Y.)—Fiction. 2. Suburban life—Fiction. 3. Intellectuals—Fiction. 4. Middle class—Fiction. 5. Sex customs—Fiction.

My appetite for reading about the suburban life (and, well, sex customs) of middle-class New York intellectuals is not what it once was, though I retain a fair tolerance for it. In fact this offputting breakdown doesn’t really summarise the book’s most interesting aspects at all. It is a collection of six stories, linked by their narrator, a Wilson-like writer and critic who begins by reporting the idiosyncracies of his fellow Hecate County residents in a patrician manner, and ends up being the story himself.

The opening story, ‘The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles’, is a little piece of perfection, from its sneaky title to its classical ending, which seems to have Wilson flexing his fictional muscle to show the objects of his literary criticism how it should be done. I will say no more about it because the assumptions which the reader brings to the story from knowing only the title are part of the quality of the experience. It seems to deserve a place among the best American short stories of the 20th century (and probably already has it, as it’s been widely anthologised).

Perfection is easy in the short form, however – easyish – and the remaining stories in Memoirs of Hecate County are longer. ‘Ellen Terhune’, about “the first woman composer who had ever contributed anything to music of authentic value,” brings in unexpected elements which may be an attempt by Wilson to show H.P. Lovecraft (whose writing he called ‘hackwork’) how it’s done. But what strikes the reader is not the clever conceit, but Wilson’s insistence on having the narrator explain the purpose of the story in the closing pages, as though this literary critic cannot bear to his own fiction second-guessed.

Throughout, the setting is not really ‘middle-class’ at all, but of the moneyed, of society’s movers and shakers. In ‘Ellen Terhune’, our narrator looks forward to “one of those gatherings where great quantities of tan-backed girls and scarlet-faced men, with highballs fizzing in their hands, lift laughing and strident voices among glass-topped cocktail tables and lamps that give indirect lighting.” In the third story, ‘Glimpses of Wilbur Flick’, the title character is the heir to “a big baking-powder fortune” who “had really no notion of the existence of anyone but himself.” The story describes the narrator’s occasional encounters with Wilbur, from school to later life as an arch-conservative and capitalist (“that’s the trouble with all you liberals: you think that people ought to be kept alive just because they happen to exist”). Naturally, it’s simple for Wilson to set Wilbur up as a straw man in order to defeat his snobbery with snobbery of his own, as when he describes his collection of ostentatious glassware:

I thought it was characteristic of Wilbur that, in aiming to become a connoisseur, he should have gone for a kind of rarity which is not easily distinguishable from rubbish.

Yet even among the cheap shots (Wilbur thinks fascism “perfectly sound”), the writing and detail are always lovely (“he looked very smooth and soft, as if he had been bathed in milk and always kept at the right temperature”) and there is something like backhanded sympathy toward the character.  Wilbur’s father

was the son, as I afterwards learned, of a well-to-do Methodist minister; and poor Wilbur had behind him, I fear, no tradition of reckless adventure: his real heritage was a vague bourgeois feeling that he ought to be busy about something – an impulse which nobody had ever done anything to encourage or train him to satisfy.

This brings us to the central story (in fact, at 200 pages, a novel), ‘The Princess with the Golden Hair’, a story of erotic obsession. “I had found, in the course of the summer, that I was watching Imogen Loomis at parties.” I said above that Memoirs of Hecate County was published in 1946, but it was prosecuted shortly afterwards for obscenity because of the content of ‘The Princess’, and unavailable until Wilson reissued it himself in 1959. It’s easy to see why, when a central scene sees the narrator describe in exquisite detail his lover’s genitalia, and elsewhere the language is pretty frank for the times (“She is now so responsive to my kissing her breasts that I can make her have a climax in that way”). Louis Menand, in his introduction, tells us that the characters and lovers (our busy narrator has more than one) were based on real figures in Wilson’s life, and indeed that Wilson in his diaries recorded his own “amorous encounters in passages that no reader has ever thought insufficiently detailed”. Perhaps it is the story’s self-indulgence that led to disappointment for me, or its meandering length, or just the claims made for it on the back cover (“one of the great lost works of twentieth-century American literature”). It is filled with reliably fine writing, and even when describing post-crash 1930s New York, the prose is gluttonous and luxuriant. With its length, the story works like the tease the narrator himself experiences with his beloved, wanting her but not wanting to sully her (“I idealised her now as a wife; but she was actually the wife of Ralph Loomis; and if she had been unfaithful to Ralph, she would no longer have been the ideal wife”). The presence in the story of his other lover, Anna, enables the inclusion of a vivid portrait of immigrant America in the 1920s and 30s.

The difficulty for any collection with a major central story is how to follow it. (See David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide for a recent example.) This is an issue for the reader too; after reading a novel-length story within a collection, the most I want after that is a coda. But here we get another two stories totalling 140 pages. ‘The Princess with the Golden Hair’ seems to have softened Wilson up for making himself the centre of the remaining stories. They are set in the literary and publishing world, though with a devilish twist or two. One short passage describes a publisher being prosecuted for obscenity, which I took to be one of the ‘additions’ Wilson made to the book when he revised it for publication after its own legal wrangles. In ‘The Milhollands and their Damned Soul’, about a family hierarchy of publishers, we get an enticing glimpse at how things were, when our narrator suffers from the dumbing-down of mass culture:

when I proposed a new life of Thomas Eakins, they had asked me to do, instead, a short survey of American painting that could be disposed of more easily in the drug stores, the cigar stores and the railroad stations.

A short survey of American painting? Now, presumably, it would be a short survey of American Idol. Elsewhere, in the final story, ‘Mr and Mrs Blackburn at Home’, we are reminded of evergreen themes when one character speaks of “the iniquities of investment banking.” In this story, Wilson gives us twelve pages of untranslated French, which (albeit a sort of joke) at least made the process of getting through those last two stories a little briefer. One of ‘Wilson’s’ friends tells him:

The trouble is that in literature, just as in anything else that’s serious, nothing’s really any good at all that isn’t based on the recognition of the very best that’s ever been possible.  … The most immoral and disgraceful and dangerous thing that anybody can do in the arts is knowingly to feed back to the public its own ignorance and cheap tastes.

Memoirs of Hecate County, erudite, scintillating, overlong and self-indulging, combines the best and worst of this advice.

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver

It’s always heartening to see a publisher get behind an overlooked writer, particularly when they’re helping us (re)discover writers outside our usual English language limits.  Pushkin Press, for example, have done admirable work in resuscitating the literary corpse of Stefan Zweig. In the UK, Sort Of Books have been reissuing – or in some cases commissioning first translations – of the adult fiction of Tove Jansson, best known for the Finn Family Moomintroll series of children’s books.  Two of the titles have also been picked up in the US by NYRB Classics, who use Jansson’s original cover illustrations.

The True Deceiver
(1982, tr. by Thomas Teal, 2009) drops the reader in the middle of a Finnish winter, where in the village of Västerby, “it had been snowing along the coast for a month … never stopping for even an hour.  … The continuous snowfall carried with it an imprecise darkness that was neither dusk nor dawn.”  Ideal conditions, then, to introduce the character of Katri Kling, a young woman who lives with her brother.  Katri is trusted by all in the village (largely for her numerical skills), but is cold and unclubbable.  When she offers to take the mail up to the home of reclusive writer Anna Aemelin, her exchange with the village postman is illuminating:

“Don’t you trust me?” she said.  “I can take the mail up to Miss Aemelin.  It’s important to me.”

“Are you trying to help?”

“You know I’m not,” Katri said.  “I’m doing it entirely for my own sake.  Do you trust me or don’t you?”

Katri’s purpose, stated in the opening pages of the book, is to work her way into Miss Aemelin’s life, and for her and her brother Mats ultimately to live in her home, a lighthouse known as “the rabbit house” after Miss Aemelin’s celebrated books for children.  (She “could render the ground in a forest so faithfully and in such minute detail that she missed not the tiniest needle.”)

The trouble with Katri is that she doesn’t seem to know when to rein in her ‘honesty’.  When once she brokered a deal between feuding families, she “helped both save face, but she also articulated their hostility and so fixed it in place for all time.”  As one villager puts it to another, “Why do you go to her?  Yes, she puts your business to rights, but you no longer trust anyone when you come back.”  Miss Aemelin objects to Katri pointing out how the storekeeper has ripped her off for a few pennies: and anyway, Katri has a grudge against the storekeeper, which may be clouding her judgement.

The beauty of The True Deceiver is how it fits so much into 180 pages, without making any of the elements seem discordant.  Katri is paired with her brother Mats: he is as “undisturbed in his clean, simplified world” as she is troubled by her mistrust of others.  He reads boys’ adventure stories, while she urges him to read what she considers to be literature: “I read them, I do,” he tells her, “but I don’t get anything out of them.  Nothing much happens.  I understand they’re very good, but they just make me sad.  They’re almost always about people with problems.”

For this Mats has an ally in Anna Aemelin, whose children’s books are considered charming by some, and ‘”stereotyped” by others.  She shares his love of escapist books, seafaring adventures mainly, and Jansson sets her in opposition to Katri in a power struggle for control of Anna’s house, trust in the villagers, even the loyalty of Katri’s dog.  The assistance which Katri offers Anna, such as with her finances, is primarily for her own benefit, or at least satisfaction (“Every time she wrote a captured sum of money into her notebook, she felt the collector’s deep satisfaction at finally owning a rare and expensive specimen”).

It’s not difficult to see Anna Aemelin and Katri Kling as representations of the warring instincts in Jansson (who lived in solitude): a successful children’s writer who nonetheless spent the last thirty years of her life writing darker adult books (like this one); the two characters’ respective approaches to the fan letters Anna receives from her readers are illuminating and even amusing (“Politeness can almost be a kind of deceit”).  What unites Anna and Katri is that they are both isolated, one by her fame and success, and the other by her distrust of people.

The True Deceiver is as oxymoronic as its title: calm and clear in its prose, but turbulent in the emotions depicted; a seemingly simple story which resists bashing the reader over the head with obvious conclusions.  It is a perfectly brittle, crystalline tale for the cold winter months ahead.

John Williams: Stoner

The cover design of the NYRB Classics edition of John Williams’ novel Stoner might have been expressly chosen to emphasise that, even though the book was published in 1965, this is not a sort of literary Cheech and Chong.  It is a sober study of one man’s slow journey to finding out who he is, and it is quietly magnificent.

John Williams: Stoner

Williams hits the reader straight away with a devastating summation of William Stoner’s career in the University of Missouri:

Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

This is a tease, because the next 278 pages explain why such a dismissal is unwarranted.  It gives us a chronological account of a life, and of a man, who grew up on a farm, with a father “stooped by labour” and a mother who “regarded her life patiently, as if it were a long moment that she had to endure.” The anticipation of a life with little expectation and fewer rewards is withdrawn from Stoner when, in the year 1910 aged 19, he attends the University to study agriculture at his father’s suggestion.  Standing on the campus for the first time, “he had a sudden sense of security and serenity he had never felt before.”

Stoner switches from agriculture to English, and realises that he will never return to the farm.  This is a ‘talky’ book, with a good deal of the development coming through dialogue – a difficult and welcome achievement.  First is when Stoner’s tutor, Archer Sloane, takes him aside for a conversation.

“But don’t you know, Mr Stoner?  Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.”

Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” said Sloane softly.

“How can you tell?  How can you be sure?”

“It’s love, Mr Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully.  “You are in love.  It’s as simple as that.”

Already we see a pattern developing, of Stoner following the direction of another. However he does often branch out from these directions and make his own decision in the end.  He comes to see the future as “a territory ahead that awaited his exploration.”  When the First World War breaks out and the US becomes involved, his colleagues sign up to fight, with one saying, “I suppose I’m doing it because it doesn’t matter whether I do it or not.”  Not for Stoner such a spirit: he remains in Missouri and courts, and then marries, a girl called Edith.

John Williams: Stoner (Vintage Classics, UK)

His marriage starts out as lukewarm and follows the laws of thermodynamics, and so it is through his work that he finds it “possible to live, and even be happy, now and then.”  At home, his refuge is his study.  “It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

Work means the university, and if you thought that ‘electrifying scenes of campus politics’ was an oxymoron, then you need to read Stoner.  It is a book which is structurally unadventurous but emotionally and intellectually engaging.  We see a man struggling to be allowed to do the one thing he has learned to do well, and to find the dignity in labour (“I think he’s a real hero,” said Williams of his creation), and to exercise love in the only way he can.

The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and the heart showing themselves in the minute, strange and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print – the love which had to be hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, at first tentatively, and then boldly, and then proudly.