‘… I am a voluntary exile, a wanderer by design, unwise with a purpose, everywhere a stranger and everywhere at home, letting my life run its course where it will, rather than trying to guide it, since, in any case, I don’t know where it will lead me.’
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey
How often is the main character of a novel a city and not a person? In Adam Scovell’s new novel How Pale the Winter Has Made Us, the first thing we see (after the epigraph from Goethe quoted above) is a reproduction of a 19th century photographic postcard of the cathedral of Strasbourg, France towering over the roofs and chimneys of the city. Isabelle, our narrator, who is staying in Strasbourg while on break from her university, has just learned that her father has committed suicide back in London. She is living at her partner’s apartment while he is conveniently on business in South America. Stunned by the death of her father, a failed painter, and at war with her “harridan mother,” Isabelle contemplates extending her stay in Strasbourg indefinitely. The idea comes to her “to stay in the city, and in some sense map it.”
And so it is that Isabelle spends the winter alone in Strasbourg, exploring its streets and its history. As a scholar, perhaps it’s natural that she pours herself into research as a way of dealing with the mixture of grief and guilt she feels over her father’s death and her failure to return home to help her mother deal with the estate. Isabelle wanders, sits in coffee shops, and examines antiques. Eventually, a sense of melancholy settles in as Isabelle begins, in a strange way, to enjoy her isolation and loneliness, as she explores the lives of some of the intriguing citizens of Strasbourg’s history, several of whom Scovell has conveniently invented.
As in Scovell’s previous novel Mothlight, his new book is partly structured around reproductions of photographs. On several occasions the photographs that Isabelle collects or sees during her visits to antique stores and flea markets serve as the pretext for Scovell to invent characters that are supposedly from Strasbourg’s history, such as the “celebrated” photographer of trees, Oliver Franck, or “the Keller Group,”
– a mixture of explorers, botanists, geologists and artists, all from the city of Strasbourg – [which] was one of the key instigators of the Naturkunst revival of the last century. The group produced visual art and writing with a basis of creative endeavour in the rigour of natural history and science, but in a more casual and empathetic way than such individual fields often required.
The “Keller Group”
But most of the characters that Isabelle researches were once actual residents of Strasbourg, like Johannes Gutenberg, who lived in Strasbourg in the mid-1400s for about fifteen years before inventing movable type; or Jean-Baptiste Kléber, the famous General of the French Revolutionary Wars; or the French artists Gustave Doré and Jean Arp, who were both born in Strasbourg.
Isabelle’s wanderings and research seems aimless, yet she also feels that something is steering her. “Perhaps it was the Erl-King guiding my hands.” The Erl-King, or Erlkönig, is central to Isabelle’s story. She seems to see or sense the elf-king everywhere, and as she studies the history of this bit of folklore, she discovers that Johann Gottfried Herder and Goethe, the two German poets who wrote the most important poems about the Erlkönig, met in Strasbourg in 1770 in what might be described as one of the most momentous events in German literary history. Isabelle is irresistibly drawn to the past as a form of escape. “History was always more tangible than the present,” she says.
Ironically, Isabelle has rich, meaningful encounters with some great contemporary characters—with antique dealers, a skate boarder, and with others she meets on the streets of Strasbourg. There’s the homeless guy named Michel who likes heavy metal music and calls her “the Duchess.” She gives him food and they talk about the lyrics he writes in a notebook. “Every vulnerable man is my father,” she decides. These seemingly incidental episodes are, to me, some of the best and most interesting pieces of writing in the novel.
As spring approaches and Isabelle feels that “the streets were now mapped over my skin,” she has a critical revelation: “I was not mourning, I was petrifying.”Her experiment in isolation is coming to an end.
I could feel my country many miles away slowly sinking into the abyss as my quiet tears fell onto the stone floor. I had mourned through the tramping of pavements, through conversations with the elderly, through strange and wonderful objects and the history of Strasbourg. I wanted to die, for my body to follow my mind in finality towards darkness along with the Erl-king on his journey back through the void, feeling that there was no more that I could know or learn. There were no streets upon my arms really, just a collection of red scars and lines on a thin-looking layer of skin, so white as to almost seem translucent.
How Pale the Winter Has Made Us is a big step forward from Scovell’s first novel Mothlight. The underlying connective tissue is more substantial. There’s much more for the reader to ponder and in so many more directions. The writing, though it still reflects Scovell’s signature tendency towards restraint, is getting looser and more emotive. I also have a theory that as he becomes less reliant on the use of photographs as a stimulus, the writing gets better. This is one of those novels I enjoyed even more on the second and third readings.
Adam Scovell. How Pale the Winter Has Made Us. London: Influx Press, 2020.