Dec 17 2004

Halfway There

This spring, the German newspaper whose web site isn’t quite as bad as another’s began publishing a series of 50 Great Novels from the Twentieth Century. It’s an admirable project in many ways — not least a cover price of EUR 4.90 per hardback. Thirty-seven books have been published so far, and I’ve now read about half of the whole list. Which is as good a point as any for taking stock.

I haven’t quite read 25 of the 50, but let’s face it, with Deutschstunde (German Hour, Siegfried Lenz, no. 28) clocking in at nearly 800 pages, and hefty volumes such as Jorge Semprun’s What a Beautiful Sunday! (Was für einen schönen Sonntag, no. 17) and Juan C. Onetti’s The Short Life (Das kurze Leben, no. 11), it’s going to be quite a while before I manage all of them.

As noted previously, I’m mostly reading shortest to longest. Maybe not the most ambitious approach, but there it is. I’m also not reading the German translation of books that were originally written in English. And I’m a bit agnostic about books that are translations from third languages. I’ve read Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, no. 1) and Peter Hoeg (Smilla’s Sense of Snow, upcoming in deep winter at no. 47) in English, but Marguerite Yourcenar (Coup de Grace, no. 15) in German.

It’s a strong, interesting and quirky list. I still find it charming that the editors making the selection deliberately chose great novels and not the greatest novels. That freed them considerably, and spared us in the audience a number of tiresome debates. Still, there are a number of gaps.

The most troubling of these is the shortage of female authors. There are only four. What gives? No Iris Murdoch? No Toni Morrison? No Virginia Woolf? No Willa Cather? No Margaret Mitchell? No Margaret Atwood? No Doris Lessing? And that’s quite literally just off the top of my head in about two minutes, and only novelists writing mainstream fiction in English. The selection is otherwise so interesting, so erudite, so intriguing that I have a really hard time squaring it with the near-total male dominance. Readers are surely missing out on great works, which is a pity.

The other gaps — Africa, Asia, anything fantastical — were mentioned in my first piece on the collection. Enough of what’s not there. On to the delights. Here are brief reviews of the novels that I’ve read so far, not all of which I’ve read recently.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I had my Kundera phase while the Berlin Wall was still standing, so recollection is a little faded. In dissident literature, Unbearable Lightness was a good place to start, capturing the absurdity of late Communism and the struggles for life and authenticity behind the Iron Curtain, but I preferred The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The story was tighter, the epigrams pithier. On the other hand, the film adaptation of Unbearable Lightness is one of the most successful I’ve ever seen, and dead sexy. Finally, speaking of dissident literature, it’s odd that there are no Russians among the Sueddeutsche 50. Was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich too true to rate as a novel?

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose. There’s such a vast critical literature about this one that it’s hard to add anything except an unhesitant recommendation. Memorable characters, tight plot, surprises at the end, a font of erudition, symbolic levels that repay close attention. Eco recently wrote a book about translation as negotiation, and he is fluent in numerous languages, so I suspect that whatever tongue you find this book in it will be full of unexpected delights.

Günter Grass, Cat and Mouse (Katz und Maus). A good place to start on one of postwar Germany’s seminal authors. The style is dense and unforgiving, and a friend quit reading it because, he said, “Nothing happens.” Ah, but it does. The characters grow up in wartime Danzig, and the most important action takes place out of sight. Why does the narrator still admire his school friend decades later? What drove the friend to heroism, and other things? Grass wrestles with duty and friendship, love and loss, faith in wartime, nation and more, all in less than 150 tightly written pages. Worth taking the time to think about each step.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. If you didn’t read it in school, now is as good a time as any. The prose isn’t demanding, but the portrait is rewarding. One of the books that non-Americans constantly cite as defining America. I’m not sure of the causality involved, but this is part of how others see us.

Thomas Bernhard, The Loser (Der Untergeher). Scurrilous and yet congenial. Three pianists, two unknown, the other Glenn Gould. Gould’s talent annihilates the other two, one quite literally. Told with no paragraph breaks over its entire length, presented by an entirely unreliable narrator, initially off-putting and at the end simply enticing. Like spending an evening with a garrulous, slightly tipsy, disreputable cousin who regales you with tales that are probably lies but they’re such pleasure to listen to that you don’t care. Also says things along the way about the price of art and competition among the creative.

Paul Auster, City of Glass. Supposedly a meditation on language and identity in the Big City, but in the event just tiresome. Maybe in the mid-1980s its form was innovative; I doubt it. How many times does one have to encounter the device of inserting the author into the fiction before it becomes tiresome? For me the answer was twice, and I read both of them more than a decade before I read City of Glass. Once the initial tricks had been played out and this novel was plodding along, the only interesting question was whether the main character will have an affair with the only female character. He doesn’t. Not quite as bad as the Handke book, but not time well spent.

Elias Canetti, Voices of Marrakesh (Die Stimmen von Marrakesch). Here’s what I wrote previously: I hadn’t read Canetti before, but had bumped into him in Peter Conradi’s biography of Iris Murdoch. Reading German is enough of an effort that I prefer short books, and Voices of Marrakesh is helpful here. It’s also apparently simple, a series of sketches of the city from Canetti’s stay while vaguely attached to a film company. The sketches start short, and outside the city’s gates. Each grows a little longer and moves to the heart of the city. One of the longest passages concerns a visit to the Jewish cemetery where none of the gravestones remained standing.
“But in this desert cemetery for Jews there was nothing. It is the unvarnished truth, a moonscape of death. The beholder does not care in the least who lies where. He does not stoop to look, and he does not try to solve the riddle. They are all there like rubble, and one wants to scurry away like a jackal. It is a desert of the dead, where nothing ever grows, the last, the ultimate desert.”
Camus came to mind, but a Camus in which the plague does not recede. Gradually, Canetti works his way back out, the sketches shortening again, echoing the first pieces in subject but refracted by his experiences in the heart of the labyrinth.

Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story (Traumnovelle). Later novels that plumb the dark side of domestic life, gripping tales of obsessive love, and stories that frankly address the power of sex all probably owe a little something to Schnitzler’s work in general, of which this is a good example. A Viennese doctor in the era of Freud, Schnitzler delved into the unconscious, explored unexpressed urges and made stories from their consequences. If the acts in Dream Story seem a little tame, that’s probably because we’ve had another 80 years of writing that has plowed similar fields. Still, the characters are well drawn, the language compelling and the symbolism apt.

Peter Handke, The Keeper’s Fear of the Penalty (Die Angst des Tormanns vor dem Elfmeter). Terrific title. Rotten book.
(In something like fairness, I note that the commenters said Handke can do much better.)

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. One of the nice things about this series choosing great novels rather than trying to pick the greatest novels is that the Joyce pick isn’t Ulysses (though the edition of Portrait was published the week of Bloomsday). That said, I read the book before 1990 and haven’t re-read it for this edition, so all I have is a fuzzily fond recollection. It didn’t make an impact on me like Dubliners did, though probably for reasons outside of the novel itself.

Marguerite Yourcenar, Coup de Grace. All is not quiet on the Eastern Front. An unusual love triangle collides amidst the debris of two crumbling empires, the end of the ancien regime in the Baltic hinterlands. A reminder of how Germanic Baltic Europe once was. Classically constructed in its dramatic unities, the main story is bound in a frame that reminds readers of how unclassically the twentieth century unfolded. The shots fired in the novel?s pages echo in anyone who has visited the Baltics and noticed the silences left by the peoples who no longer inhabit the region.

Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr Ripley. The mystery genre approaches high art. Ripley brings the portrait of the killer as a disturbingly reasonable disturbed young man. The book also offers the period delights of a carefully observed cocktail society post-war America, and its refuge trying to find Bohemia in the south of Italy. It’s not so much a whodunit, but a how will he get away with it. Tense, as a good thriller should be, and filled with convincing characters, as too many thrillers are not.

Uwe Johnson, Speculations About Jacob (Mutmassungen ueber Jakob). The only one I’ve actually definitively stopped in the middle of reading. The fault is entirely mine, because the book is good. It’s about a young man who dies in peculiar circumstances in East Germany, shortly after a brief visit to the West. It’s told through the eyes of two investigators trying to piece together what happened. But truth gets slippery quickly, as befits a setting in the late-Stalinist German Democratic Republic. Are the investigators looking for what happened? Or are they trying to cover something up? How much are the other characters lying? Who is hiding what, and why? Johnson captures all of this, and it is easy to see why the book enraged the East German authorities at the time. The problem is that, like many things about communism, you have to listen to the silences as much as you listen to what is said. (You also have to know a good bit about the setting, history and political conditions, which makes me think that this book unfortunately will find fewer readers as communism receded further into the past.) I found I wasn’t able to concentrate enough for sustained periods of time to keep things straight, so I put the book aside. I have no doubts about its greatness, I’m just not up to it right now.

Julio Cortazar, The Pursuer. A thinly veiled biographical sketch of the last days of Charlie Parker, The Pursuer grapples with the price and the mysteries of art. Where does creativity come from? What toll does it take? What personal failings can the creation of the new excuse? Deft writing, a clear-eyed invocation of the beauty of jazz, the destruction of drug abuse, and the relationship between writer and subject all pack this slender meditation. Unlike the sax player’s verbal solos that melt into air when his biographer leaves his presence, Cortazar’s insights and questions persist like a note held long after the end of the performance.

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge). The book jacket claims that Rilke fretted for years that he would not live up to the poetic achievement of this book, and it’s easy to see why. Lushly written, demanding and enticing, the book circles around the childhood of a down and out Danish nobleman, eking out an existence in bohemian Paris. At times as vivid and fantastic as a fever dream, Brigge’s stories sketch his path from luxury to penury. More importantly, though, they explore his inner states, constructing a psychologically true portrait where the line between reality and fantasy is thin indeed.

Wolfgang Koeppen, The Greenhouse (Das Treibhaus). Terrific novel of the early days of the Bonn republic. Germany is just getting re-established as a democracy, and a loner social democratic parliamentarian fights remilitarization. Just as much, however, he fights his own moral battles about political action. What is a vote of conscience? What is grandstanding? Keethenheuve hates the latter, is driven to the former and is plagued by the apprehension that they are one and the same. He sees people from the Third Reich rising again in the postwar period, and opportunists of all stripes chasing power and money. Koeppen captures the political side of the Wirtschaftswunder, and his MP is nicely drawn, no cardboard hero but a man of many faults. The book also sketches many types recognizable in German politics today and nourishes a number of myths still present.

Graham Greene, The Third Man. Slight but compelling. Love, intrigue and espionage in the ruins of postwar Vienna. Read it ages ago, but remember it as not as preachy as some of his other novels with a riveting story and as fine a portrayal of the aftermath of war as could be wished.

Eduard von Keyselring, Waves (Wellen). The vanishing morality of nineteenth century nobility takes center stage in the collision of families vacationing on the Curonian spit, a barrier island off the coast of what is now Lithuania. Thomas Mann famously took holidays here (his house draws many mostly German tourists), and it was a fashionable summertime retreat at the end of the nineteenth century. One sprawling noble family takes up residence near the hut where a former countess is living with her artist lover, and numerous romantic entanglements ensue. Driven more by character than plot, the book also meditates on art and meaning, all the while giving a strong sense of the clash of land and sea that is the backdrop for the more human conflicts of its drama.

Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden. Still slightly scandalous, McEwan’s tale follows four orphans immediately after their parents’ demise as they lose their way and try to recreate something approaching normality. The sense and setting are similar to what led punks to shout “No future!” in a Britain where decline was not an issue but pervasive. Strange, salacious, superb.

Franz Kafka, America (Amerika). An odd choice among Kafka’s works. Unfinished, set far from his home turf, and a bit unstructured even for him. I suspect it’s on the list just to provoke people into reading an unexpected Kafka work, although it’s not like the editors felt compelled to include works from all the canonical German writers (Thomas Mann is conspicuously absent, for example). Kafkaesque, of course, even without bugs.

Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines. Another odd choice, in that it was listed as non-fiction, travel literature when I read the book, which was ages and ages ago. A vivid evocation of another way of seeing the world, an exploration of dreams and reality. Not much else remains in memory more than a decade after reading the book, other than fondness and willingness to read it again.

John Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat. Another one that I read long before the turn of the century. A good place to start with Steinbeck. It’s merged a bit in memory with Cannery Row, with which it shares, I think, a setting.

Peter Hoeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Another mystery novel that escapes into highest art, with the help of a particularly deft translation into English. A peculiar death in Copenhagen’s close-knit community of Greenlanders reveals darker sides to Denmark’s apparently tidy and egalitarian society. Hoeg writes brilliant action and spins out a gripping plot, but it’s his command of language and image that struck me continuously throughout the book. His evocation of mood, his rendering of light and his eye for physical detail add to the delight of a story well told.

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