You have better things to do with your time than read this book, or at least the latter two-thirds of it. The first-person narrator, Alexander, is interesting, and a bit odd in an interesting way. He’s a historian of sorts, unattached to any academic institute, specializing in the ancient Near East: Chaldean studies, Aramaic studies, and much more along those lines. He’s 60, though he thinks he can pass for 50 or perhaps a bit younger. He is alone at this stage of life, and he’s wealthy enough to possess a house in a central Munich neighborhood, a house he has decorated in what he thinks is a beautiful fashion but actually just reveals a peculiar devotion to the color moss green. Alexander is full of himself, and not self-aware enough to realize it. Early in the novel, Augustin is having him on every bit as much as he is portraying him as a sympathetic narrator.
The title translates as The School of the Naked, and the first scene shows what Augustin has in mind. Alexander is on the verge of visiting the nude sunbathing section of one of Munich’s outdoor public swimming pools. Nude sunbathing in Germany is known as FKK, “Freie Körper Kultur,” “Free Body Culture.” The movement started in the late 19th century, grew in the 1920s, was mostly repressed by the Nazis, and returned after the war in both East and West Germany. In Munich, naturists colonized parts of the English Garden, a large park in the center of the city. By the 1970s, two large lawns at the southern end of the English Garden were officially recognized as FKK areas, and were not sealed off — as was customary in many other places — by fences or shrubberies. In the years that followed, Munich (as well as other German cities) established nude areas attached to their outdoor public pools, although these were generally set apart by some sort of visual barrier.
Die Schule der Nackten begins with Alexander standing outside just such a barrier at the fictional Jakobi pool, contemplating entering — there’s a very German sign that says “Entry only allowed without clothing” — and then losing his nerve. After a day at his studies, he returns to the Jakobi, screws up his courage and enters the FKK area. Whereupon he immediately commits a faux pas by getting undressed inside the gate. Worse, he feels that every eye in the place is upon him. With a little more experience — once committed, Alexander becomes a daily visitor — he realizes that what people do is find a place in the FKK area to set down their towel and only then do they take their clothes off. Further, the way people face tends to move with the sun over the course of the day, so the initial impression he had of everyone watching him had everything to do with the sun and nothing at all to do with him. Lack of self-awareness strikes again, and not for the last time.
The next few chapters collect Alexander’s impressions of people and events at the FKK section of the Jakobi pool. Even with no clothes and very little talking, people’s personalities emerge. Cliques and hierarchies form, social structures accrue even in a realm that is theoretically free of all of that. As anyone who has experience with Germans and beaches will already have guessed, there are fierce yet passive-aggressive struggles about the placement of towels in relation to particularly good spots. Alexander — and by extension Augustin — is a careful observer of the small details that add up to impressions, and he makes the observations interesting. There’s the group of octogenarian ladies that he falls in with many afternoons, who have their own area between nursing home and pool, and who converse much more than the other guests. There’s the square-shaped man who has brief anti-social outbursts. The regulars seem to take it in stride, and even know how often he should take his medications to keep things from getting worse. This could have been the foundation for stories of close observation and human foibles.
The close observation includes quite a bit about the bodies in the FKK, and much of that is focused on the various visitors’ nether regions. Maybe I should have taken that as a sign that Die Schule der Nackten would go off the rails, because about a third of the way through its brief (186 pages in the Süddeutsche edition) length, whoosh, off the rails it goes. Alexander falls in love with a much younger woman because you’ve never seen that happen in a story before have you? To compound the surprises, he thinks she will fall for him if he offers “a first-class seduction.” In further unexpected developments, she is physically available to men who are not Alexander, and this makes him unhappy. Shocked, shocked I am to think that the difference between 32 and 60 might lead to such developments. Even if he thinks he can pass for 50.
Alexander is also something of a scholar of things Vedic, and Julianne (for that is her name) is into tantra. At one point, an instructor of hers also comes to the Jakobi pool, steals Alexander’s place in the sun (there’s Germans and bath towels again, also, metaphor!!), and the two of them have a literal, if distant and silent, dick-measuring contest. It’s one of the few funny episodes in a narrative that seems intent on demonstrating a remarkable density of cliches. Alexander thinks that he and Julianne are an eternal pair through multiple incarnations. There are also some peculiar dream sections that purport to show mythical conflict, and Alexander’s links to archetypical beings.
Fully half of the novel is taken up by a visit that Alexander and Julianne make to a week-long tantra seminar not far outside of Munich. This after various toxic scenes between the two of them, including him calling her at about 2am to shout, “And don’t call me again!” Guess who is the instructor at the seminar? No, really. Several days into the seminar, after an episode that instructor dick-measurer sets up to humiliate Alexander, he writes, “That’s when I first thought of killing her.” I thought JFC, the author isn’t going to add that horrible cliche as well, is he?
There were only about 30 pages left in the book, so I kept going instead of doing what a sensible person would have done. There’s a scene where Alexander threatens to kill the dick-measurer, in an echo of a previous dream sequence in which his mythical counterpart went through with the deed. After the disastrous seminar, Alexander hatches an improbable attempted murder-suicide scheme. On the one hand, he researches extraneous topics so that anyone following his electronic tracks will be thrown off; on the other, he engages numerous craftsmen to create an exceptionally unusual space within his home. On the one hand, he tries to disguise his purchase of large quantities of folic acid; on the other, he buys more of a particular kind of sand than the dealer usually sells in a decade. He is well off in cloud cuckoo land, and why is the author even telling the story of an older man obsessed with a younger woman to the point of plotting elaborately to kill her? It’s awful. Anyway, she falls for his offer, but his plot fails. They survive. Instead of dying, they boink. It’s a terrible ending for a book that started with some promise but got grosser as it went on. Feh.
PS: The epic and justly famous blog post “Slushkiller” has a hierarchical list of reasons that publishers pass on book manuscripts, beginning with “Author is functionally illiterate” and progressing upward in terms of both quality and publishability (the two are related but not congruent). Long about #8 there is the item “It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels.” Somewhere in the publishing process, this maxim should have been applied to Die Schule der Nackten, or at least to most of it.