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Enrique Vila-Matas’s Old Married Couple

In the middle of Mac’s Problem, the recent novel by Enrique Vila Matas, Mac, our narrator, tells a story of two strangers getting drunk in a bar in Basel, Switzerland. One man tends to embellish every aspect of his story, the other sticks strictly to the facts. “Fiction and reality, an old married couple,” Mac remarks. At the end of the story, he tells us “fiction and reality fuse so intensely that, at certain moments, it seems impossible to separate them.” Like a torero and a bull, they “appear to be engage in a game of reciprocal influences.”

Mac’s Problem is full of short stories that are all stitched together with a narrative that primarily focuses on Mac (a man whose prosperous family business has just imploded) and his neighbor, Sánchez (the “celebrated Barcelona writer”). Mac, who has always aspired to be a writer, decides to keep a private diary, which is the book we are reading. One of Mac’s many problems is that the diary keeps trying to become a novel. It keeps drifting off into literature. And Mac is not too happy about that.

I’ve noticed that these two sequences together form a very slight novelistic plot: as if, all of a sudden, certain autobiographical incidents had decided to piece together for me a single story, and one with literary overtones to boot; as if certain chapters of my daily life were colluding and crying out to be turned into fragments of a novel.
But this is a diary! I shout. . .

Mac’s compelling fantasy is to take up one of Sánchez’s early, nearly forgotten books called Walter’s Problem, which Mac finds “insufferable,” and completely rewrite it. Every chapter of Walter’s Problem is a short story written “in a style reminiscent of” another author, a list that includes John Cheever, Djuna Barnes, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Jean Rhys, and Raymond Carver. Throughout the first half of his diary, Mac will very briefly outline for us his version of each of the ten chapters in Walter’s Problem. In the second half of his diary, Mac tells us what was wrong with Sánchez’s version and how he would write a story to replace the original. As Mac writes his own version of each story in his imagination, he is, in effect, erasing Sánchez’s version of the ten stories, one by one.

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Wolfgang Koeppen’s “The Hothouse”

Proud that he had survived the Second World War in his homeland of Germany without somehow having to serve in Hitler’s military, the German writer Wolfgang Koeppen once said “I asked myself what I had been waiting for all those years, why I had been a witness and why I had survived.” (From his obituary in The Independent.) The question I kept asking myself as I read the triptych of novels that Koeppen wrote in the early 1950s was: What did Koeppen’s role as a “witness” play in the outcome of these novels? What might we, as readers turning the pages of Koeppen’s novels, identify as evidence of “witnessing” Hitler’s rise to power, propelling the Nazi movement, and turning the German nation into sheep while he and his generals pursued the Final Solution against the Jews and a World War that killed tens of millions of people? Were these novels really different from those of someone who had not lived through what Koeppen had experienced, someone who might observed the Nazi years from Canada, say?

The first book in his trilogy, Pigeons on the Grass, set in postwar Munich (reviewed here), involves some ordinary German citizens—along with a handful of Americans. At most, this novel suggests that we don’t actually listen to other people very well. The final novel in the series, Death in Rome (reviewed here), involves several truly heinous Germans, including an SS officer who has been found guilty and condemned to death in absentia at the Nuremberg Trials. This novel, which I think is the best of the three, provides the most serious indictment of German mindset and German civilization through its critique of Teutonic ideals that extol dangerous hypermasculine traditions. The Hothouse, on the other hand, which is the series’ middle novel, is about bureaucracy of the postwar West German government in Bonn. It deals exclusively with postwar life and its main character, Herr Keetenheuve, was not in Germany at all from 1933 through 1949, but was in self-imposed exile in Canada.

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Death in Rome

From the title until the last words of the novel, Wolfgang Koeppen’s 1954 novel Death in Rome moves relentlessly towards its predicted fatal end. In our era, when novels so often consist of one digression after another, it’s a little startling to read a novel that signals its intentions from the start and never wavers for a moment. Like the first novel in Koeppen’s triptych, Pigeons on the Grass (which I wrote about recently), Death in Rome funnels everything toward one culminating event—in this case, a performance of a new piece of symphonic music by the young German composer Siegfried Pfaffrath, which will take place in a concert hall in Rome sometime in the years shortly after World War II. Siegfried doesn’t know it yet, but his parents, one of his brothers, and an uncle are also in Rome for a unique kind of family reunion. The most prominent of these relatives is Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS general who has been convicted and sentenced to death in absentia at the Nuremberg Trails, but who now runs the military of an unnamed Arab nation under an assumed name. The family hopes to convince Judejahn to return to Germany to help revive the struggling National Socialist cause. Unbeknownst to everyone, Judejahn’s son Adolf is also in Rome, waiting to be ordained as a Catholic priest. Throughout the novel, we will follow these family members as they explore the Eternal City, meet in various combinations, plot, sin, and discover family secrets.

No sentence is wasted in this compact book of a mere 202 pages. The opening sentences let us know right away that Koeppen is not likely to allow any of his characters get through his novel unscathed. A group of tourists passing through Rome’s Pantheon.

Once upon a time, this city was a home to gods, now there’s only Raphael in the Pantheon, a demigod, a darling of Apollo’s, but the corpses that joined him later are a sorry bunch, a cardinal of dubious merit, high-flying civil servants, scholars that made it into the reference books, artists of academic distinction. Who gives a damn about them?

It will be family secrets and irrepressible personal urges that will ultimately prove fatal in Death in Rome. Koeppen’s conceit is to bring a handful of Germans to Rome, a city “built on the bodies of its victims,” let them loose in an inviting atmosphere, and watch them self-destruct. In doing so, Koeppen intends to let everyone’s true nature shine through, exposing, if everything goes according to plan, whatever might have led the German people to go astray in the first place.

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Esther Kinsky Wins First Sebald Prize

Photo of Esther Kinsky
Courtesy Transit Books

The new W.-G.-Sebald Literature Prize, endowed with 10,000 euros, was announced earlier this year by the German Sebald Society in conjunction with the cities of Kempten (Allgäu) and Sonthofen and the municipality of Wertach, where Sebald was born and grew up. Now, the first winner has been announced: writer and translator Esther Kinsky has been selected for her text “Kalkstein.” The jury selected Kinsky’s text from 900 entries submitted anonymously. Authors from Germany and abroad were able to submit an unpublished German-language prose text dealing with the topic of “Remembrance and Memory.” The jury included: Hans Jürgen Balmes (S. Fischer Verlag), Prof. Dr. Claudia Öhlschläger (University of Paderborn), Prof. Dr. Jürgen Ritte (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris), Marie Schmidt (Süddeutsche Zeitung) and Dr. Kay Wolfinger (Ludwig Maximilians University Munich).

“We are really overjoyed to have found such a worthy and suitable winner. The award of a writer who began working as a translator in a competition dedicated to a writer who had a worldwide impact through the translation of his texts written in England into German is a coincidence that can almost be described as fateful, “explains Prof. Ricardo Felberbaum, the first chairman of the society. “We have selected a text that lets landscape and stone speak in a fascinating way and thus develops a new poetics of remembrance that can be found in a similar way in the work of W. G. Sebald,” says Dr. Kay Wolfinger, lecturer at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich and second chairman of the society. [Google translation of https://www.sebald-gesellschaft.de/preistraegerin-des-ersten-w-g-sebald-literaturpreises-esther-kinsky/%5D

This is the fourth prize Kinsky has won in 2020. The other three have been the Deutscher Preis für Nature Writing (German Prize for Nature Writing), the Christian-Wagner-Preis (Christian Wagner Prize), and the Erich Fried Preis (Erich Fried Prize).

Best Books from 2020

A few weeks ago, as I went through my own 2020 Reading Log, (a pull-down menu at the top of this page), I realized that some of the best books that I had read this year had never made it into my blog at all for one reason or another. This convinced me to do my own “best books of the year” list for the first time since I launched Vertigo in 2013. I wanted to create a truly manageable and readable list, so here you will find the eighteen titles I found most outstanding of the more than seventy books I have read this year. My list contains ten novels, three non-fiction titles, two volumes of poetry, one collection of essays, one book of detective fiction, and one collection of art journalism. Seven of the titles were published in 2020, five in 2019, and the remaining six are scattered across the years 1949-2016. So here goes, in order by author.

Rachel Cohen. A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Artists and Writers, 1854-1967. NY: Random House, 2004. Cohen is now much more well-known for her recent book about Jane Austen, Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels. But, not being much of an Austen fan, I prefer her earlier book of thirty-six short biographical essays about how writers and artists affected each other, how their meeting—chance or otherwise—changed their work or their life. One of the reasons I’m such a fan of this book is that Cohen is such a good writer. What she does so well is give sharply observed introductions to artists and writers we all need to know better or ones we should take a second look at, like William Dean Howells, W.E.B Du Bois, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Carl Van Vechten, Katharine Anne Porter, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Beauford Delaney, and Richard Avedon. It’s a bit like chemistry class; put two people together and watch for a reaction.

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Pigeons on the Grass, Alas

Eighty million Germans had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same self-deception, lies, and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s nature. These lies changed from year to year, and they frequently contradicted each other; moreover, they were not necessarily the same for the various branches of the Party hierarchy or the people at large. But the practice of self-deception had become so widespread—almost a moral prerequisite for survival—that even now, eighteen years after the collapse of the Nazi regime, when most of the specific content of its lies has been forgotten, it is sometimes difficult not to believe that mendacity has become an integral part of the German national character.” Hanna Arendt, “Eichmann in Jerusalem, The New Yorker, Feb. 16, 1963.

That was Hanna Arendt, the great political philosopher, as she observed the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the Nazi organizers of the Holocaust, play out in Israel in 1963. She came to think that the “self-deception, lies, and stupidity” of the German population had played an important role in the ability of the Nazi party to dominate that nation for more than a decade and lead it into a war that caused tens of millions of deaths.

A dozen years earlier, the German writer Wolfgang Koeppen was also thinking about his fellow Germans as he began writing a triptych of novels that would also explore the mindset of the nation during this same period. Pigeons on the Grass, just translated by Michael Hofmann (New Directions, 2020) but originally published in Germany in 1951, is the first of the trio. In this wonderful, often antic but deadly serious novel, we follow the actions of approximately two dozen characters through a single day in post-war Munich. The Germans, along with a handful of their American “conquerors” who now occupy the city, shop, have coffee, run errands, pawn their valuables, and generally go about their daily lives. Everything is leading up to one main evening event: a lecture by an important American visiting poet, Edwin.

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The Great Flood – The Link

A few days ago I wrote about the radio program being aired by Resonance FM called “The Great Tide: Flooding, Landscape and Memory. The Great Flood of 1953.” There is now a permanent link so you can listen to the program anytime on Mixcloud here.

And just to remind you of the topic: “The Great Flood of 1953, the combination of a high spring tide and a storm over the North Sea, causing a surge to sweep across the East Coast, was the worst natural disaster in Britain of the 20th century, in which 307 people lost their lives in England and over 1,800 people in the Netherlands. It also produced one of the great works of English social history, ‘The Great Tide’ by Hilda Grieve, which tells the story of the flood disaster in Essex. In this programme Patrick Bernard discusses ‘The Great Tide’ with writer and social historian Ken Worpole; Edward Platt, author of ‘The Great Flood’; and Anne Johnson, a storyteller who runs Everyday Magic, a London-based charity which sends storytellers into state primary schools, and who lived on Canvey Island at the time of the flood.”

The Great Flood of 1953

Resonance FM has another intriguing radio program coming up tomorrow night, October 27 from 8:00 to 9:00 pm, London time: “The Great Tide: Flooding, Landscape and Memory. The Great Flood of 1953.” That year, the combination of a high spring tide and a storm over the North Sea caused a surge to sweep across the East Coast, creating the worst natural disaster in Britain of the 20th century, in which 307 people lost their lives in England and over 1,800 people in the Netherlands. It also produced one of the great works of English social history, The Great Tide by Hilda Grieve, a 900-page tome that tells the story of the flood disaster in Essex. In this program, Patrick Bernard discusses The Great Tide with writer and social historian Ken Worpole, Edward Platt, author of The Great Flood, and Anne Johnson, a storyteller who runs Everyday Magic, a London-based charity which sends storytellers into state primary schools, and who lived on Canvey Island at the time of the flood. The program will be re-aired Wednesday 10:00 am.]

Sebald referred to the “catastrophic incursions of the sea” that happened century after century on the English coastline facing the Netherlands when he wrote about Dunwich in The Rings of Saturn.

Resonance FM is a 24/7 HD radio station which broadcasts on 104.4 FM to central London, nationally on Radioplayer and live streamed to the rest of the world. Their schedule is here. At a later date, the program will be made available for listening on Mixcloud.

Last year, Resonance aired a two-part program “Walking with Sebald.” Links to listen to it can be found here.

“Remember what it was like to be me”: Esther Kinsky’s “Grove”

When a scene has little or no apparent structure, we are likely to be confused and frustrated: the eye will roam fruitlessly seeking interest and points of connection, from one fixation to the next, without much success.” Simon Bell. Landscape: Pattern, Perception and Process.

The sublime prose of Esther Kinsky’s 2017 novel River has made it one of my favorite books of this still young century. The writing in River transformed ordinary moments—walking in a London park, taking instant photographs with a Polaroid-like camera, rummaging at a flea market—glimmer with the magic and potency of a Vermeer painting, suggesting that an introspective, watchful life could lead to small, miraculous epiphanies on a daily basis.

The events in her new novel Grove (Transit Books, 2020) take place in the first year or so after the death of “M.,” the partner or spouse of the German narrator, who has temporarily moved to rural Italy to try to reset her life. “Each morning I awoke in an alien place. . . Each morning it was as if I had to learn everything anew. . . Dressing. Washing. Applying bandages. The imposition of my hands.” It’s hard not to see Grove as an autobiographical novel, since Kinsky’s husband, the literary translator Martin Chalmers, died in 2014.

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Links, Sebald & Other – For October 2020

Barbara Kruger, Matchbooks, 1984

The world’s most comprehensive collection of concrete and visual poetry has been acquired by The University of Iowa, which has announced that its University Libraries have been chosen as the new home of the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. This website includes a number of entertaining short videos about the collection and a full-length documentary about the Sackners called Concrete. The collection contains over 75,000 items including books, periodicals, typewritings, drawings, letters, print portfolios, ephemera, rare and out-of-print artists’ books, and manuscripts that represents 20th-century art movements such as Italian Futurism, Russian and Eastern European Avant-gardes, Dada, Surrealism, the Bauhaus, De Stijl, Ultra, Dada, Lettrisme, and Ultra-Lettrisme.

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