Apr 22 2005

Catching up with Greatness

Not mine, of course, the 50 novels from the Sueddeutsche Zeitung‘s list. Since several of my recent book reviews have been negative or lukewarm, I’ll say here above the fold that the latest batch has indeed brought me in touch with literary greatness.

In the order I have read them, not of publication or anything else:

The Lover, Marguerite Duras, no. 49. As slender, lithe and desirable as its protagonist in her youth, as insightful as she became in her later years. Steamily tropical, rooted in its era, a topical examination of colonialism and exploitation. Yet also a timeless story of love, growth and madness.

The Judge and His Executioner (Der Richter und sein Henker), Friedrich Duerrenmatt, no. 42. A much more tightly crafted whodunit than the Simenon book that preceded it in the series, Duerrenmatt’s book follows a murder in a Swiss village not far from the capital. The location allows him to contrast his country’s self-image to its actual situation, with the country-city divide paralleling many others in Swiss society. He also sketches the Swiss role during the war: his protagonist was fired from a position in Germany for an anti-Nazi remark–an unbelievable affront in the mid-1930s, understandable if tactless by 1942, and by 1945 the only honorable course for a Swiss policeman. The title is also a play on a common statement about Germany’s transformation after 1933, that the land of poets and thinkers (Dichter und Denker) had become one of judges and executioners (Richter und Henker). The story is ultimately less political than psychological, as themes of morality, guilt and greed come to the fore as the action proceeds. (Unfortunately, the summary on the dust jacket gives away a little too much of the plot; skip it if you don’t want to figure out who committed the crime a little more than halfway through the book.)

Under the Wheel (Unterm Rad), Hermann Hesse, no. 46. When I was drafting a stand-alone review of this book, I called it “Old Europe,” for the world that Hesse sketches is what the phrase conjures in my mind. Small villages, horse travel, pervasive influence of one church or another, generations passing with little change. Three of the four Hesse books I have read (this plus Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund) try to paint some sort of timelessness. The book is heavily autobiographical, and the plot is predictable. On the other hand, Hesse subverts the timeless vision as well, showing the cracks in the setup through which modernity will soon come bursting through: the trains, the new ideas of science, the application of historical scholarship to the Bible, the decline of the guilds and the rise of technology. Though he could not have known it, the Great War was less than a decade away. But looking in the other direction, Hesse’s idea of an unchanging society proves an illusion, too. Less than a hundred years before his story is set, Napoleon’s armies had marched through the area, upending the political order and much besides. The mid-century revolutions had not left this corner of Germany untouched either. The only way he can present a tableaux as enduring is to ignore the evidence all around. The book is much better at painting a picture of Europe at the start of the twentieth century than, say, The Magician, but its aspirations are all askew.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, no. 20. One of Brad DeLong’s commenters wrote that no one can appreciate Marlow before reaching age 40, but I think I’m early. This is a great book, and the overlay from having seen “Apocalypse Now” only adds to it. In the framing story he suggests there is not much difference between what the Belgians did in the Congo and what the Romans did in Britain. The lead character isn’t all that keen on Brussels either, calling it “the sepulchral city.” Brilliantly written, portraits of greed, privation and madness, provocative about the meaning of civilization itself. Maybe I’ll try it again when I’m 40 and report back on what strikes me anew.

Couples, Passers-by (Paare, Passanten), Botho Strauss, no. 38. Clever, deft, but I’m not sure what it adds up to. Microportraits from the late 1970s, headed mostly nowhere. A timelessness not unlike Hesse’s, one in which the Wall would be up forever and the problems of consumerism would be much more pressing than the great questions of history. Also like Hesse’s, it outlasted the publication of the book by less than a decade.

The Periodic System, Primo Levi, no 48. Levi, a Jewish Italian chemist from Turin (though not necessarily in that order) tells his story, that of his forefathers, his extended family, his profession and much of his surroundings in 21 exquisite chapters. Each one is named for an element in the periodic table, and the metaphor organizes not only the book as a whole but each section. Precious metals, many of the chapters, rare earths that yield jewels of expression, of human stories and the press of time. He brushes lightly on his time in Auschwitz, which he wrote about in another book, yet that fate is constantly present, and the dramatic climax of the book involves a later encounter with someone from that time. This is one of the books from this list that I would move into the adjacent list of the 50 greatest novels of the twentieth century.

The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman, Andrzej Szczypiorski, no. 41. Szczypiorski saw the war from another of its hottest forges, Warsaw. The novel’s main action follows how Mrs Seidenman, who is Jewish but living in disguise outside of the Warsaw Ghetto, falls into the clutches of the Gestapo and emerges shortly afterward. That she survives is told in the first pages, but the questions of how, and perhaps why, are engrossing throughout. This small story is the springboard for encounters with almost every type of person present in wartime Warsaw, from Volksdeutsche who have lived in Poland all their lives, to young religious, from revolutionary workers to petty spies. Yet none is purely a cliche. Szczypiorski follows many of his characters to the end of their lives–some ends much closer than others–so that the arc of the story seems to have rays springing upward from it, some reaching into the mid-1980s. The book was published in the emigre press, as it has scathing things to say about Communism, too. (Szczypiorski was elected to Poland’s Senate as a Solidarity candidate in the first free elections.) Each of the characters is a rounded person, and Szczypiorski does not present any easy answers. In fact, Mrs Seidenman’s survives because of a particularly unlikely person. A metaphor for Poland?

About the author

Doug Merrill

Writer, editor, translator, project manager, reformed bookseller. Currently based in Berlin, following stints in Moscow, Tbilisi, Munich, Washington, Warsaw, Budapest and Atlanta. Also blogs at A Fistful of Euros, though less frequently than here these days.

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