Mar 31 2006

Greatness, Andante

Two years ago, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung began publishing a series of 50 great novels from the 20th century. It’s a good list, and I’ve been slowly reading my way through it. Emphasis on slowly. The newspaper never planned on keeping the editions in print indefinitely, and indeed, the smartly designed and inexpensive (EUR 4.90!) hardbacks are officially out of print. (The series’ original home page is now 404, just to add to the indignity.) The Sueddeutsche has followed up with series of popular music (mostly mediocre because of rights issues), children’s books (inviting, but not yet inviting enough for me to actually buy one) and now mysteries (a genre I tend not to read much of).

I’ve been writing capsule reviews periodically as I make my way — shortest to longest as a general rule — through the list. It’s been a while since the last installment, so here goes.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers, no. 35. Yes, I made it all the way through school and a bachelor’s degree in the South without reading this book. On the one hand, it might have been a formative experience, as it apparently is for many younger readers (though not as many as the other classic Southern one-hit-wonder, To Kill a Mockingbird). On the other, with a few more years’ perspective, I can appreciate the accuracy of McCullers’ portraits, how difficult it must have been to capture aspects of black culture as they were, not as white culture of the time would have seen them. The hard times in the South, the harshness, the peculiarities and the warmth of a vanished way of life, all of these are vividly presented; the human stories in the novel transcend their setting, but it is the note-perfect realization of that setting that gives them much of their power.

Sanctuary, William Faulkner, no. 25. If the McCullers was the Sueddeutsche‘s American South for beginners, this is the advanced book, though accessible compared with Faulkner’s more daunting works. (This last is presumption on my part, as I haven’t actually read any of his other books, even though my family comes, in part, from the Mississippi county that Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha is modeled on. It’s Yalobusha, though I can’t say anything about closer correspondences.) At any rate, I have a hard time seeing how this one will work in translation. It was hard enough as someone who knows the period and places intimately. That’s because much of the import of the action is in what people don’t say. Like another book in the list, Uwe Johnson’s Speculations About Jacob, you have to know a good bit about what’s not being shown on the page to get a firm grasp on what is. This is probably a good way to include a Faulkner book, pay homage to his innovations, introduce people to what’s great about his work, but not scare them off completely.

All Souls Day, Cees Nooteboom, no. 33. At first, I thought I had wandered into the book of a Wim Wenders movie, probably Wings of Desire because of the Berlin setting. The connection to film is no accident, as the lead character is a Dutch filmmaker who finds he is spending more and more of his time in the German capital. This book is one of the most recent on the Sueddeutsche’s list, and I’m glad they made this foray into the contemporary. The action also appears a bit aimless, as in Wenders’ movies, but plot is not what the novel is about. It’s all about getting to know the characters, seeing the world through their eyes, spending time with them as they interact. That’s all there is, but it encompasses a great deal of life, post-war Europe’s history, the uncertainties of love.

The Assault, Henry Mulisch, no. 19. In the waning days of World War II, the Dutch resistance attacks a German officer on a side street of a small suburb. His body is dragged from where it fell to a different place in front of another house. Shortly thereafter, other German soldiers retaliate. This is no grand action in the scheme of the war, but it is the starting point for a lifetime of repercussions. Who did what to whom, and what became of most of them in the decades that follow. Man’s inhumanity to man, but also mercy in the unlikeliest of places. Gripping. Challenging.

This last book is also a reminder of how many of the post-1950 books address World War II, directly or indirectly. Of the ones that I have read, or know enough to say something about, 13 of the 33 books published in 1950 or later center on the war.

Jurek Becker, Bronstein’s Kinder
Elias Canetti, Voices of Marrakesh
Friedrich Duerrenmatt, The Judge and His Executioner
Guenter Grass, Cat and Mouse
Graham Greene, The Third Man
Wolfgang Koeppen, The Greenhouse
Siegfried Lenz, German Hour
Primo Levi, The Periodic System
Harry Mulisch, The Assault
Cees Nooteboom, All Souls Day
Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
Jorge Semprun, What a Beautiful Sunday!
Andrzej Szczypiorski, The Beautiful Mrs Seidenmann

Perhaps it’s not surprising that World War II is so central, but sobering nonetheless.

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  1. […] Schulze even as he was writing its definitive chronicle. Simple Storys reminded me of Mutmaßungen über Jakob by Uwe Johnson, another great East German novel, but one that is also dependent on readers’ […]

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