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Posts from the ‘Book reviews’ Category

“A hospital for fragments”: Annabel Dover’s Florilegia

According to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a florilegia is “a collection of choice extracts from literature; an anthology. . . a book describing choice flowers.” But this didn’t prepare me for what the narrator of Annabel Dover’s Florilegia throwing at me. Within the first few pages, she had referenced bear-baiting, the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, Derek Jarman, AIDS, something called the Paper Museum, Windsor Castle, David Bowie, and well more than a dozen other famous names and obscure subjects, not to mention a mini-history of the poppy plant. The narrator, a woman of indeterminate age, was veering from one topic to another, sometimes lingering for only a paragraph before moving on, constantly searching for something. She quickly sifted through history, the arts, and literature, sometimes simply listing a kind of daisy-chain of events, as if trying to understand the hidden mechanics behind history.

Mathematician and daughter of Byron, Ada Lovelace dies. The first public toilet for women opens as does Great Ormond Street Hospital and the House of Commons, designed by Barry and Pugin. Pugin dies. Thomas Edison draws a quincunx on his forearm with his tattoo pencil machine; maybe his wife Mina’s name in Morse code. The cicada grub that John Pelly Atkins brings his wife, Anna, back from Haiti remains underground, buried at the edge of the asparagus patch in their Kent garden for another 17 years. When the cicada finally hatches in 1869, it is surrounded by dahlias. Anna has two years left of her life. Rasputin, Edwin Lutyens, Typhoid Mary, Matisse and Gandhi are born.

We’ve seen these kinds of lists before, when an author is trying to take the temperature of an era. But something different was going on here. Trying to get my bearing amidst all that Dover’s narrator was skimming past, I started to jot down recurring themes: women, women’s bodies, pregnancy & ripening & bursting, collections, objects & their surfaces, plants, family, Anna Atkins. Ultimately, more space in Florilegia is given over to Anna Atkins than any other subject. Atkins (1799-1871), an unusually educated woman for her era, was a British botanist and photographer who also happened to be the first person to ever create a photographic book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, in 1843. She seems of personal interest to Dover, Florilegia‘s author, an artist who has been writing about Atkins in art magazines recently. (This is Dover’s first novel.) Dover’s photographic work has been done in cyanotypes, the same print medium that Anna Atkins used more than one hundred fifty years ago. Why does Dover’s narrator identify so closely with Atkins and her cyanotypes? Because Atkins made her cyanotypes by placing plant specimens directly on top of the photographic paper, before exposing her arrangements to light, a practice without camera or lens. In traditional photography, objects are never in direct contact with the photographic paper; whatever is being photographed is, shall we say, translated by the light which passes through the lens. But in a cyanotype, an object might be said to speak directly to the photograph, and Dover’s narrator intuitively suspects that she needs objects to tell her the stories she requires.

Anna Atkins, Cystoscura Granulata

The tempo of Florilegia eventually slows down, and throughout the book we see the narrator in the process of trying out and accepting Atkins as her artistic antecedent, the way you try on and acquire a new overcoat. The narrator also discovers several biographical parallels between herself and Atkins and, at times, the story lines of the two women start to blur.

But the narrator is also searching for objects that might help unlock her relationship with her mother and her father. About halfway through the book, she tries to delve into her history with her mother by recalling the artifacts and the pictures in her mother’s bedroom. This exercise leads to many memories but few revelations. “I wanted to break my mother’s paperweight apart, to find the living breathing truth within. But when I tried to get to the heather which, magnified, looks fresh with ecclesiastical purple flowers, and bubbles of dew upon them, it was just a dried piece of twig fused to the glass forever.” Later on in the book, she tracks down her father, who has been missing in her life since she was thirteen. He’s a man in his seventies, watering his garden in his torn underpants, with a paunch and “a huge fuzz of white hair and beard.” She can not identify with this man who is her father. But buried in his house, amongst the towers of old newspapers, are a few objects which bring memories flooding back of her childhood, of her sisters, and of how strange her parents seemed to her and her siblings.

The objects that she has both sought out and remembered from her family home have served as catalysts for memories, memories that can be scrutinized and interrogated, that may now be written about, and that sometimes conjure up images of flowers, artworks, animals, and strange, sometimes fantastical objects. These images are represented in the book by nearly one hundred small, b&w photographs. Even though the book’s photographs are identified with figure numbers, they rarely correspond exactly to the surrounding text. Instead, they often tease us to make some blind leap of faith at the poetic connection between the image and the text. (The figure numbers are only used to link to the List of Illustrations at the back of the book.) Some of the images in Florilegia are by Anna Atkins, many are by Dover herself. Other photographs are from sources such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, film stills from Jean Cocteau and Alfred Hitchcock & others, and various art museums.

In the opening sentence, the narrator offers an alternate description for her book, beside a florilegia. She describes the print room at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum as “a hospital for fragments,” reflecting the many centuries’ worth of disparate and often fragile collections held there. Originally, it had seemed to me as if she hoped to heal her relationship with her mother and her father. But, in this novel of many small discoveries, perhaps the most important one was for the narrator to become reunited with memories of her sisters, with whom she joined in childhood rebellion against her parents. The book’s ending, an observation on how Anna Atkins organized her albums of cyanotypes of algae, seems to confirm this. “Anna, following Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature, which presents plants as belonging to various branches of a family tree, with a ‘mother’ (genus) and a ‘father’ (family) arranges her algae into groups of siblings.”

This is a daring first novel, one that packs many micro-packets of information on every page and yet feels like an efficient, brief, novel. (The novel, which has no page numbers, is only about 120 page long.) Florilegia is published by the brand-new Moist Books, a Nottingham-based publisher which currently issues only three books a year. You can view a complete copy of Anna Atkins’ book Photographs of British Algae here. Annabel Dover has an extensive website of her artwork.

My Favorite Books From 2021

All things considered, 2021 was a very good reading year. What follows are the eighteen titles that I found outstanding or memorable in some way out of the eighty-plus books I managed to read in the past twelve Covid-clouded months: ten novels, seven non-fiction titles, and, just for fun, one work of detective fiction. Six of the titles were published for the first time in 2021, while the remainder range from 1925 through 2019. If you want to see everything that I read throughout 2021, you’ll find that list here underneath the tab for Old Reading Logs. I keep a running commentary on every book as I read it in my current annual Reading Log, which you can find as a pull-down menu elsewhere at the top of this page. So here’s my 2021 Favorite Books List, alphabetically by author.

Renata Adler. Speedboat. NY: New York Review Books, 2013. First published in 1976, Adler’s novel center’s around Jen Fain, a journalist and member of an unnamed New York City English faculty/ It’s the model for a whole genre of novels that consist of seemingly disconnected paragraphs or short sections, such as Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights or just about anything by Maggie Nelson. It’s brilliant and funny and cutting and the whole is much, much more than the sum of its parts, even if it is difficult to say just what the book is about. But it’s clear that Adler nailed the 70s without ever leaving her novel feel dated. “There are only so many plots. . . Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta; they are shuffled and dealt, then they do or they do not come out. Or the deck falls on the floor.”

Carole Angier. Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald. London: Bloomsbury, 2021. For those expecting a traditional biography, refereed by a neutral and omniscient power, Speak, Silence will be seen as flawed. Angier was hobbled from the start by powers beyond her control: several key people would not speak to her and the Wylie Agency would not grant her permission to quote from many of Sebald’s letters or from his books and interviews. I, however, am terribly glad she persisted with this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Limited as it is, it’s still is a remarkable and welcome achievement, chock full of new biographical information from start to finish. For my much longer review, see here.

Anuk Arudpragasam. A Passage North. NY: Random House, 2021. A Passage North is in the running for my book of the year. The plot is simple: Krishan, working for an NGO in Colombo, Sri Lanka, takes a long train journey north to attend a funeral. But the book is a complex meditation on freedom, men and women, duty, the aftereffects of war, and so much more. Arudpragasam is a student of philosophy, a stunning writer, and a very observant human being. I was bowled over by his powerful first novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage (Granta, 2016), which follows roughly twenty-four hours in the life of Dinesh, a young man living in a desperate refugee camp of some tens of thousands of people in Sri Lanka, and this is even stronger.

John Banville. Athena. NY: Knopf, 1995. I first read Athena twenty-five years ago and it entranced me even more this second time around. There are times when I wondered if Banville ever met an adjective he didn’t like, but I really admire the power of his prose style in books like Athena and The Book of Evidence (1989). Their long spiraling sentences, written with a robust vocabulary that make me keep my dictionary by my side, are perfectly fitted to Banville’s quirky story that blends snobby art history and Dublin criminal underworld. So when Banville breaks stride and writes a simple declarative sentence, it stops you dead in your tracks and you realize you are in the hands of a master writer at the top of his game.

Michel Butor. Passing Time. Manchester: Pariah Press, 2021. First published in France in 1956 as L’Emploi du Temps. Pariah Press has undertaken the wonderful job of republishing for the first time the 1960 English translation by Jean Stewart, which has long (and criminally) been out of print. Passing Time tells the story of Jacques Revel, a Frenchman who arrives in the English city of Bleston (modeled after Manchester), having been hired by a small company for one year to translate business documents. Over the course of his year he makes a few friends, starts to fall in love with one woman, then shifts his attention to her sister, all the while exploring the city on foot and by bus. Midway through his term, one of his new acquaintances is nearly killed by a car in a hit-and-run accident, and Revel believes that something he did may have set off the chain of events that led to the attempted murder. So, halfway through his year, he sets out to play detective and to see if his actions were in any way connected to that event. He tries to remember everything he can about his stay in Bleston and, to aid himself, he decides to document it all in writing, which becomes the book we are reading. The result is that time—past, present, and future—forms the three interwoven strands of the text we are reading. Passing Time is genetically related to two important artistic movements taking place in the mid-1950s in France—the New Novel (or Nouveau Roman) and the Situationist International. I think it’s one of the great novels of the twentieth century. See my longer review here.

Laynie Browne, ed. A Forest on Many Stems: Essays on the Poet’s Novel. Brooklyn: Nightboat Books, 2021. I couldn’t resist a book with this title, even though it was 580 pages long. It has fifty-some-odd essays, each discussing a single author and usually a single book. What is a poet’s novel? Well, too many of the essayists tried to answer that question to let the reader come to any clear conclusion. But here’s how the book’s editor tried to answer that question: “The texts represented in this book are the result of writers who are not content to reside in the known, who in the face of limitations of one form will create another. The leap from one textual behavior to another suggests an emphasis on process, and an impulse against completion in favor of detour, fracture, digression, displacement and discontinuity.” In other words, it’s a bit like trying to nail ice cream to the wall. A few too many of the essays are too hyper-academic for my taste, but the great joy of reading A Forest on Many Stems is that it led me to look into novels I had never heard about or considered reading before. There are essays on writers as disparate as Lewis Carroll. H.D., Lyn Hejinian, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Mina Loy, Michael Ondaatje, Fernando Pessoa, Leslie Scalapino, Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, Rosemarie Waldrop, and Phillip Whalen. Dan Beachy-Quick writes about W.G. Sebald’s book The Ring of Saturn. He suggests that “one marker of a poet’s novel is a willingness to trust distraction, to follow digression.” So true.

Edmund de Waal. Letters to Camondo. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. The British ceramicist and memoir-writer Edmund de Waal writes some fifty-eight “letters” to Moïse Camondo (1860-1935), who had been a friend and neighbor of his relative Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905), who featured prominently in his earlier book The Hare with Amber Eyes. During World War II, Camondo’s daughter Béatrice, her husband, and their two children, all Jews, were deported and sent to Auschwitz, where all four perished. In this beautiful and haunting book, we learn a fair amount about Camondo and about the French decorative arts, which he collected passionately. But we also learn about the French antisemitism which affected the lives and deaths of the Camondo family. Today, the Camondo mansion in Paris is the Musée Nissim de Camondo, a branch of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

Percival Everett. Erasure. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2001. In the first of Percival Everett’s two novels on this list, Thelonius “Monk” Ellison is a an academic and a novelist accused of writing “dense, obscure novels.” He’s initially scornful, when he sees the kind of money and movie offers thrown at the authors of books like We Lives in Da Ghetto. But eventually, under personal economic pressures, he writes a ghetto novel of his own in pseudo-vernacular Black argot under a pseudonym and strikes it rich. The dialectic between his academic desire to remain a pure, marginalized novelist read by an elite few or to be an economically independent black entrepreneur who caters to popular demands, becomes a fascinating tug of war in Everett’s hands.

Percival Everett. The Trees. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2021. I binge-read Everett’s satirical novel about lynching and Emmett Till and two weeks later I could barely remember many of the plot details. That’s the risk Everett takes in this farcical, biting book. The gruesome murders of white folks, accompanied by the bodies of seemingly lynched Black corpses, are offset by Everett’s almost breezy narrative, with its Keystone Kops, stereotypical hillbilly rednecks, and characters with names right out of Thomas Pyncheon—delicious names like Delroy Digby, the Doctor Reverend Fancel Fondle, Philworth Bass, Junior Junior, Chester Hobnobber, McDonald McDonald, Helvetical Quip, Pick L. Dill, and Pinch Wheyface. But the book is deadly serious and, like America itself, we have to ignore a world of distractions if we’re going to be able to see Mama Z’s filing cabinets, where there is a record of “almost everything ever written about every lynching in these United States of America since 1913.” Powerful. Read it twice. See my review here.

Ruth Franklin. A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. An exceptional book about some of the writers who ignored Theodor Adorno’s infamous maxim that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” although in this case Franklin focuses on novelists. A terrific writer and a judicious thinker, she studies six “witnesses” (writers who have written novels about their own Holocaust experiences), four “who came after” (writers who didn’t experience the Holocaust first hand but still wrote about it, including W.G. Sebald), and a couple of second- and third-generation writers (Jonathan Safran Foer, etc.). One of her main achievements is to try to untangle the various ethical conundrums that hover about these books, deserved or not.

Dan Gretton. I You We Them. Journeys Beyond Evil: The Desk Killers in History and Today. Volume 1. London: William Heinemann, 2019. This true doorstop of a book (1,089 pages) is an extended attempt to understand how people “sit at desks” or otherwise act remotely at jobs that knowingly result in the deaths of people, whether these people are Nazi criminals ordering the Final Solution or are corporate executives making decisions that will kill locals in the Niger Delta or some other far-off location. Gretton’s book is simultaneously an act of research (who knew what? who did what?), an exploration of the psychology of desk killers, and a tentative exploration into the subject of repentance. Needless to say, this is a tough book to read and it must have been even tougher to spend twenty years or more researching and writing it. But Gretton wisely intersperses the tough stuff with both snippets and longer pieces of memoir-like writing that are more or less unrelated to the bulk of the book. At first I thought this was really gratuitous, but I came to see that, amongst a thousand pages of horrendous acts, we need to see what normalcy looks like now and then.

Wolfgang Koeppen. Death in Rome. NY: Norton, 2001. Translated from the 1954 German original by Michael Hofmann. Throughout this novel, the reader follows members of the Pfaffrath family members as they explore the Eternal City of Rome, meet in various combinations, plot, sin, and discover family secrets. The two most prominent family members are 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, and Siegfried Pfaffrath, a young German composer whose composition is having its premiere soon at a concert hall here. But family secrets and irrepressible personal urges will ultimately prove fatal. It is Koeppen’s conceit is to bring these Germans to Rome, a city “built on the bodies of its victims,” let them loose, and watch them self-destruct. In doing so, everyone’s true nature shines through, exposing the forces that Koeppen felt led the German people astray. Full review here.

Wendy Lower. The Ravine: A Family, A Photograph, A Holocaust Massacre Revealed. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021. A discomfiting detective story. Historian Wendy Lower takes a single newly-discovered photograph of the horrific final moments when a mother and two children are actually being shot by German officials and local collaborators and tracks it back to the site where the murders occurred in 1944 in the Ukraine. Along the way, she discovers the identity of the photographer, the shooters, and the likely victims. This is how Holocaust research is really done. A short, utterly fascinating book. Thanks to Dorian at https://eigermonchjungfrau.blog/ for pointing me to this one.

Javier Marias. Berta Isla. NY: Knopf, 2019. Translated from the 2017 Spanish original by Margaret Jull Costa. In many of his books, Javier Marias is obsessed with the trappings of traditional marriage. He has found ways to put the marital ideals of faithfulness and trust to the ultimate test through infidelity, murder, and other trials. Here he tests a marriage by dishonesty, disappearance, and silence. A Spaniard, Tomás Nevinson, is a spy for Britain’s MI6. He’s married to Berta Isla, has two children, and goes off frequently for weeks or months at a time on jobs he is not permitted to explain to her. Much of the book is told from her perspective as she tries to cope with a husband she can never really, truly know. And then, without warning, Tomás disappears, apparently for good, and with no explanation from MI6. This thought-provoking and compelling novel, which returns to some of the characters of his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy from a decade ago, is set among the ethical uncertainties of post-Franco Spain.

Ali Smith. The Accidental. NY: Penguin, 2005. A young woman’s car breaks down near the rental home of the Smart family during their summer holiday in Norfolk. Amber, youngish, but of indeterminate age, serves as the agent of change who transforms each member of the Smart family into a magnified version of themselves. Thirteen-year old Aster, teen-aged Michael and the parents, Eve and Michael, each become individually ensnared in Amber’s world in different ways, until the summer comes to a dramatic and traumatic ending. I’ve tried and failed to like two previous novels by Ali Smith, but this one, her breakthrough novel, hit it out of the park. It’s formally inventive, if not groundbreaking, and it’s terrifically funny and nicely cynical. It’s one of those rare novels that seems as if it must have been absolutely thrilling to write, day after day.

Rebecca Solnit. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. NY: Penguin, 2001. Solnit gives the reader much, much more than you would expect from the title. In addition to a history of walking, hiking, pilgrimages, marches, and just about everything else that happens when people move their two feet, Solnit deals with the issues women face on the streets, the problems of the suburbs, and recent attempt to curb walking on sidewalks and other normally public thoroughfares through a variety of legal means. Any book by Solnit is a winner as far as I am concerned.

Charles Todd. A Test of Wills. NY: HarperCollins, 1996. The first of the Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries takes place in Warwickshire, just after WWI. Rutledge has to deal with a death in a small village where the primary witnesses seem to be an unreliable war veteran with shell shock and a hysterical child. But Rutledge also has to deal with his own war-related issues: is he still the detective he was before enduring the trenches of France and coming home to find that his fiancé has left him? This is the best writing I have run across in a mystery in some time. Rutledge is a well-rounded character, the time and place seem realistically portrayed, not set pieces, and the key characters are given psychological depth. I look forward to more of these pleasant escapes, although, sadly, one half of the “Charles Todd” team has just passed away as I write this.

Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. This is a re-reading and it still astonishes. Every page is a delight to read. Mrs. Dalloway is even better than I remembered, though I think Woolf struggled to make the party section work as well as the rest of the book. What I had forgotten was how little of the book is seen through Clarissa Dalloway’s perspective—maybe one-tenth?

Everett’s Risk

“We got ourselves some kind of crime here, Lordy.”

If it weren’t for the subject of Percival Everett’s novel The Trees, it might be tempting to think it slightly off-beat like Thomas Pyncheon’s comic, conspiratorial The Crying of Lot 49, with its two-dimensional characters and the loopy names that Everett doles out, like Junior Junior, Delroy Digby, the Doctor Reverend Cad Fondle and his wife Fancel Fondle, Philworth Bass, Chester Hobnobber, McDonald McDonald, Helvetica Quip, Pick L. Dill, and Pinch Wheyface. On a superficial level, The Trees (Graywolf Press, 2021) is a loose parody of the classic murder mystery. Who murdered Junior Junior, Wheat Bryant, and Granny C and left the bodies of the men genitally mutilated? The local “idiot deputies” are inept—and racist, to boot—so a couple of African American Special Detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and a Special Agent from the FBI are brought in to try to solve the case. But Everett keeps upping the ante. Why are there Black corpses next to each of their bodies? Bodies that keep disappearing from the morgue or from police custody! And what’s with the copycat murders that start cropping up all over America? What’s in Mama Z’s back room? For a short spell, this could almost pass as a Pyncheon novel.

Except that The Trees turns out to be about lynching. It’s also about a particular lynching. The first clue, which I didn’t catch, is the novel’s location: Money, Mississippi (“named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony”). It turns out that the fathers of Junior Junior and Wheat Bryant—men named J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant—were the two men who belatedly confessed to the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, after being found innocent at trial. Granny C is Carolyn Bryant, whose false claim that Emmett Till flirted with her led to his lynching. Someone in Everett’s novel is seeking a kind of “retributive justice,” more than a half century after the original event.

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Three Archivists of the Marginal: Keiller, Sebald, Sinclair

David Anderson’s recent book, Landscape and Subjectivity in the Work of Patrick Keiller, W.G. Sebald, and Iain Sinclair (Oxford, 2020), begins by quoting from Rebecca Solnit’s book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Solnit has made it clear to us how closely related walking and creativity are. “To write,” she says in that important book, “is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination.” Since the age of Wordsworth, walking and literature, along with the other arts, have become increasingly entwined. Anderson has chosen three of my favorite artists—two writers and one filmmaker—for whom walking plays an essential role. Although, I must say that walking somehow seems to me like the exact wrong word for what these three did within the context of their art. Anderson uses the word “peregrination” once or twice and I think this is where we should start.

Film still from Patrick Keiller’s London, 1992.

A peregrination usually implies a long, often meandering walk, perhaps somewhat geographically aimless and often directed by goals other than a physical destination. Anderson first examines Patrick Keiller’s trilogy of pseudo-documentary films, London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997), and Robinson in Ruins (2010), in which an enigmatic and melancholy flaneur named Robinson takes meandering journeys around parts of England, while a narrator recites an often ironic text that is somewhat, but not always, related to whatever we are watching on screen. Keiller uses “melancholia and estrangement” to achieve his goal to create a “compelling reimagination of [the UK] landscape.” Keiller (like the other two artists in this study) often focuses in on the human impact on the landscape, especially the ways in which technology and bad public policy have changed, damaged, and restricted the use of the land. If you haven’t seen these films—especially London—I encourage you to seek them out.

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The Knife’s Edge

In his new book Golden Apples of the Sun (Mack, 2021), Teju Cole’s photographs, which in the past have reflected the tensely energized vision of a global citizen, have become contained, muted, domestic. Their primary subject is now the kitchen. Instead of looking out across Berlin or Beirut or Brazzaville, we’re looking down at his dark counter tops and the burners of his gas stove, which is black, so that the backgrounds of the photographs are dark, somber, practically reflectionless. There are utensils, pots and pans, dishes, towels, a jigger, a creamer, glass and plastic storage containers, not much in the way of food, an apple, an egg, a lime, a boule, some lemons, half an onion, a sprig of thyme. The framing is tight, turning some objects into geometric shapes, cutting others off abruptly. This is not about cooking, it’s about post-cooking detritus.

The images themselves seem a bit buried somewhere within the matte printing on the matte paper selected by the designer Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. I find myself peering close to the page, looking for the edges of objects, looking for details that have fallen into the creamy blacks and lush blackish blues of Cole’s photographs. It is clear that Cole wanted these to be modest images. What he had in mind were Dutch seventeenth century still life paintings of fruits and vegetables and the tabletop paintings of Giorgio Morandi, many of whose works depict endless rearrangements of nearly monochrome jars and bottles.

But should we think of Cole’s photographs as domestic images? Domesticity implies something that relates to a home or a family or a person who performs menial tasks. These kitchen images seem inert. They depict a stasis, a frozen now. Rarely do we have any sense of what has happened the moment before the photograph was taken or what was likely to happen next. Interspersed between the kitchen photographs are full-page photographs that show hand-written recipes for dishes like puddings and marmalade, plus helpful instructions for cooking-related tasks, such as how “To Collar a Calves Head.” The recipes are printed on brown paper reminiscent of that which a butcher might use to wrap meat. Both the immaculate penmanship and the language of the recipes are obviously antiquated, and Cole tells us in his essay in the book that these pages are from an anonymous eighteenth-century cookbook from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Cole lives. Cole photographed them so that the recipes are legible, but are sometimes cropped, making them serve as a kind of wallpaper for the kitchen images. Some of the eighteenth-century Cambridge households from which this cookbook might have come would have had domestics, black kitchen help, maybe even slaves. Very suddenly the innocent question “Should we think of Cole’s photographs as domestic images?” becomes fraught. Now we are in the realm of history. Here’s Cole, from his essay:

I cannot now find the interview in which W.G. Sebald said that not only had he never been to Auschwitz, but that he would never wish to do so. You see everything there is to be seen—I seem to recall him saying—and then, what, they have a restaurant there, and you go and sit down to eat? But, in counterpoint: I think of those who experience an entire terrain as the site of atrocity. In the United States of America, for instance—especially for indigenous people and for Black people—there is no part of the terrain that does not reverberate with horror, torture, and the most perverse brutalities. The site of the massacre is not delimited. The map is equal to the territory and yet we must live. We still have to go in and sit down to eat.

In the upper corner of every page where there is a kitchen photograph there is a faint date stamp, like the kind you find on digital images. The dates begin SEPT 29 13:13 and progress chronologically through NOV 3 16:02. The year, Cole tells us in his essay, is 2020. Pandemic Year. George Floyd Year. Election Year. Thus the final photograph was taken on Election Day. Cole says he did not rearrange anything for his photographs but he surely he knew what he was doing when he photographed the edge of a knife on Election Day, 2020 for the final image in his book.

Some photography is about showing, the photographs in this book are about seeing, observing. Seeing is a democratic process. No two of us will concentrate on the same details, follow the same flight path around these rectangles, draw the same conclusions. For Cole, these photographs were part of a process, one with its own set of rules. Take photographs every day. Don’t arrange anything. Observe. Repeat.

The untitled essay that comes at the end of Golden Apples serves as a kind of running commentary on some of the things that Cole observed and remembered and pondered during the same time in which he took the kitchen and cookbook images. Photographing in his kitchen and reading the centuries-old recipes reminded him of the hunger he experienced as a child, the still life paintings of the French painter Chardin, the music of the Smashing Pumpkins, the poetry of Louise Glück, slavery, Zen, John Cage, Cargill and the salt trade, hunger strikes, Covid-19, the photographer Chris Killip (who had just died), Giorgio Morandi, J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello, voting, and much more. It’s a solid thirty-page block of writing that morphs from one subject to another the way that dreams often do.

The Song of Wandering Aengus

By William Butler Yeats

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

I have previously written about three of Teju Cole’s other books: Blind Spot (2017), Open City (2011), and Every Day Is for the Thief (2007).

Talking to the Past—Part I: George Szirtes

She died in 1975. He, the son, was newly married, with his own new son, trying to scrape together a living for his new family. What did he know of his mother?

“I knew nothing then of her past, of anything that had happened to her and all she had survived. Nor did I know much about my father and his close brush with death. I had no sense of them as heroes or powers or even as people in their own right. They were my parents. They did not speak. I did not ask. What was it I was supposed to feel, after all? For whom? For her? For me?”

George Szirtes’ memoir/biography of his mother Magda, The Photographer at Sixteen (London: Maclehose, 2019) begins with the moment of her death in an ambulance in a London traffic jam. From her suicide, caused by depression and decades of ill health, Szirtes begins to work backwards in time like an archeologist, uncovering layer after layer of her life. Using family snapshots and a tape recorded conversation with his father, László, as reference points, he begins to discover the woman who became his mother and the man who became his father. He describes their two decades in London as refugees, struggling to build a life for themselves and their two sons, and then their earlier years in post-war Hungary, as they tried, and ultimately failed, to fit into the ever-shifting Communist system.

In London, the Szirtes family were among countless refugees accepted during and after World War II, living in cheap housing, underemployed, torn between gratitude for the country that took them in and a lingering love for the nation they had fled. Magda, who suffered from heart problems, soon found herself unable to work, and eventually felt trapped in London’s suburbia. Knowing that she wouldn’t live long, she even tried to set up her husband with the woman she thought he should marry after her death. There were several hospitalizations and suicide attempts before the successful suicide in 1975.

In 1956, when the Russians invaded Hungary to quell growing protests by anti-Communists, fascists and anti-Semites took to the streets searching for Jews. Even his standing as a longtime Party member and high-ranking member of a Ministry couldn’t protect László Szirtes. One night he and his wife Magda, both Jews, walked across the border into Austria into a refugee camp with their young son George and a few belongings, hoping to emigrate to Australia, but ending up in England instead.

Still working backwards, the outbreak of World War II finds Magda in Budapest, trying to make a start as a photographer, which became her lifelong love. But then she is betrayed as a Jew and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, although, miraculously, she is one of few women who will survive. Szirtes wants to press on backwards before the war years into her youth and then into her childhood, but he can’t. “A fog settles at this point and I can’t see through it.” All that remain are “five early family photographs that she brought with her.”

So he finishes the book by writing about these five photographs, all studio portraits. “There is nothing spontaneous about them. They are carefully posed for the purpose. But what is that purpose?” He gazes at the first photographs of his mother, the one on the cover of the book, when she is a teenager. He describes and interprets her eyes, her smile. She has “a sexualised edge. . . She is on the threshold of something.” And then he begins to converse with her. “Talking to you when you were fifteen was like talking to a wildly sensitive animal, all fur and shudder. Whenever I tried to touch you, you recoiled.” He accuses her of flirting, then of muttering to him. She retorts:”You know nothing. You are of no help to me.” In the end, Szirtes imagines he and his teen-aged mother walking out of the photographer’s studio together into the street.

I would take a better picture of myself, she says. It would make more sense to you. I wouldn’t gaze at you like that. I wouldn’t want to hurt you. I wouldn’t even try to interest you. Then I could love you from a distance without being your mother. As she reaches out to take me by the arm I begin to pull away.

The Photographer at Sixteen is a remarkable homage to one ordinary woman’s surprising life of bravery through war, imprisonment, decades of illness, and exile, told with great love and growing admiration for what she had endured and sacrificed along the way.

The danger of going backwards, Szirtes realizes, is that you are always aware of what is to come. He looks at a photograph of his mother at age twelve or thirteen, smiling, and dressed vaguely like Minnie Mouse. It’s 1937.

Is this picture an image of “happiness”? It would be good to think so. . . Nothing dreadful has happened yet. . . Within three years her life will change. Within a year she will be so ill the rest of her life will be affected by it. Two years after that she will be in Budapest as a young apprentice photographer. Four more years and she will be in Ravensbrück.

There are so many ways to talk with the past, but the use of reverse chronology is rare. This biography in reverse does help the reader share the very same sense of discovery as Szirtes feels as he uncovers new facts about his mother, but it’s disconcerting in other ways. Our minds are so trained to expect to see cause before effect, that it can be hard at times to read a book in which the reverse is constantly happening. The only really notable example of a novel that uses reverse chronology is Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (London: Jonathan Cape, 1991), his odd autobiography in reverse of a Nazi war criminal.

In Talking to the Past—Part II, we’ll look at a completely different way of communicating with one’s past relatives when I look at Edmund De Waal’s Letters to Camondo, just released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

A Gallery of Clouds and The Gestural Image

Rachel Eisendrath’s A Gallery of Clouds (NYRB, 2021) has the best opening move of a book that I can recall in recent memory. Right off the bat the author declares: “I died and then found myself walking across a large, green field.” A few sentences later, she is holding a folder that contains the manuscript of the book we are reading and talking with Virginia Woolf (who is shown in a small photograph by Ottoline Morrell). Woolf takes the manuscript out of Eisendrath’s hands and begins to read.

Eisendrath describes the book we are holding in our hands as “a book of clouds.” “Clouds are ephemeral moments of light and color that stay still only as long as you look at them, but then—as soon as your mind wanders—change into something else.” In other words, Eisendrath is telling us she is going to be switching channels on us—switching between memoir and scholarly writing and fiction and images, etc.—without warning or explanation. That shouldn’t really be a problem these days, for readers became used to texts of this nature long ago. If you try to visualize the image of “a gallery of clouds” you just might see someone lying on their back staring up at the sky as clouds scud past in the shapes of whales or ships or the like. And so it is that A Gallery of Clouds is fundamentally a book about reading, and the fabulous image on the book jacket (designed by the renowned Katie Homans) is a photograph of the dreamy clouds that form the ceiling of the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library, painted by James Wall Finn. Imagine yourself a fortunate reader in that famed reading room as you pause from your reading or research project and look up.

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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.

The first few sentences of the Mac’s Problem tells you much about what you need to know about Mac:

I’m fascinated by the current vogue for posthumous books, and I’m thinking of writing a fake one that could appear to be “posthumous” and “unfinished” when it would, in fact, be perfectly complete. Were I to die during the writing process, the book really would be my “final, interrupted work,” and that would, among other things, ruin my great dream of becoming a falsifier. Then again, a beginner must be prepared for anything, and I am just that, a debutant. My name is Mac.

The key to untangling all of this comes when Mac explains his admiration for Georges Perec’s novel 53 Days. Perec died while writing this novel. In Mac’s explanation, “Perec’s novel was not prematurely interrupted by the author’s death, thus rendering it unfinished; instead, Perec had finished the novel some time prior to his death, but in order to be considered truly complete, it required a problem as momentous as death—which Perec had already incorporated into the text itself—even if, on the face of it, the book appeared interrupted and incomplete.” Yes, this is confusing, but then this is a novel by Enrique Vila-Matas, where even his explanations often demand further explanation.

As a writer, Mac has a number of obsessions. First, he is obsessed with being a “falsifier.” Rather than being a “creative” writer, Mac’s strong suit is being a “modifier,” an editor. He wants to absorb what already exists and then alter that in some fashion rather than imagine something completely new. Second, Mac is also determined to write an interrupted or incomplete work. And here he thinks of an aphorism by Walter Benjamin: “What really matters is not the progression from one piece of knowledge to the next, but the leap or crack inherent in any one piece of knowledge.” Or, as Mac puts it, “That crack allows us [i.e. the viewer or reader] to add details of our own to the unfinished masterpiece. . . the hallmark of the incomplete artwork.” Third, Mac always wants to remain a beginning writer. Mac points to the example of the writer Bernard Malamud, “a good model for me” because he is “splendidly obstinate, always engaged in the struggle to go ever deeper into everything.” Mac wants to “make steady progress without becoming too successful” (his italics), and he quotes the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa: “I do not evolve: I travel.” Mac is a restless narrator, easily diverted from one train of thought to something entirely different. This is not stream of consciousness. This is narrative that purposefully lacks a center of gravity. Mac admires the artworks that “emerge” naturally (again, the italics are Vila-Matas’s), because “they are so close to what is actually happening.” By remaining “naive,” Mac thinks his own writing will also “emerge” naturally. This is partly why Mac wants to stay an amateur writer, a beginner, a naïf, and why he never wants his diary (this book) to become a novel. I understand this to mean that he doesn’t want it to become too “literary”.

Every book by Vila-Matas is about writing and about literature itself and invokes a number of other writers. Mac’s Problem is no exception. In addition to those I’ve already mentioned, the list of writer’s name-dropped, if not briefly discussed, is long, and includes Nathalie Sarraute, Samuel Beckett, Nikolai Gogol, Alejandro Zambra, Isak Dinesen, Walter Benjamin, Thomas Bernhard, Marcel Schwob, Marguerite Duras, Ray Bradbury, Georges Perec, Alain Robbe-Grillet, David Markson, William Gaddis, and undoubtedly a number of others that I have forgotten. Mac would rather edit or rewrite existing texts than create his own. Nevertheless, he breaks this rule over and over.

In the end, Mac heads off for North Africa alone, where he has what seems like an epiphany, or perhaps it’s just the latest of his many bright new ideas.

Now I see that, in Barcelona, when I repeated the words over and over, what I was seeking was physical and mental exhaustion. In Barcelona, I was beginning the resemble the painter with the big bushy beard who my grandfather used to invite to spend the summers at our family’s vacation home in the country when I was a child. Over a period of three or four years, he painted the same tree more than one hundred times, perhaps because as happened with me and my writing he understood the appeal of constantly interrogating what he had already put down on paper.

On a beach in southern Spain, en route to North Africa, Mac sits alone with his notebook, far from his study and his books, “feeling a joy that seems to be returning me to that pure substance of self, namely, a past impression, pure life preserved in its pure state.” After momentarily thinking about Marcel Proust, Mac recalls the day when he was five years old, in his grandmother’s house, “the first time I formed letters into words in my drawing book, the first time in my entire life that I wrote a story, my first contact with a written narrative, and, of course, with no study, no computer, no book to call my own.” For the moment at least, Mac has abandoned his Barcelona ways and continues to quietly explore memories of his past.

Ultimately, the reader is left wondering if Mac speaks on behalf of Vila-Matas. Does Vila-Matas believe any of this stuff about writing that Mac spouts? Is Mac the avatar of Vila-Matas or is Vila-Matas making fun of Mac? Not surprisingly, I think it’s a bit of both. But Vila-Matas, I am sure, is more than happy that we have to puzzle this out on our own, without any help from him. As Mac declares near the end of Mac’s Problem, “I am one and many and I do not know who I am.” Mac, like most of Vila-Matas’s narrators, is annoying at times. He gets repetitive, he talks too much, he contradicts himself, he’s outrageous one moment and boring the next. When Mac decides to rewrite the story of the two men in the bar in Basel, he decides it should become “a comic piece of ‘written theater’.” One of the men would speak in a manner “all too comprehensible,” while the other would “make everything as infernally complicated as he could.” This is the yin and the yang of our world and Enrique Vila-Matas has encapsulated it perfectly for us in Mac’s Problem (New Directions, 2019, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes).

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.

Let’s look at The Hothouse, then we’ll ask ourselves what Koeppen has accomplished across the course of his three novels. This book follows a few days in the life of Herr Keetenheuve, a member of the postwar Bundestag. When we first see him he is returning to Bonn on the Nibelungen Express having just buried his wife, Elke. The first pages are dotted with references to Richard Wagner’s multi-opera known as the Ring Cycle. As the train travels alongside the Rhine, Koeppen invokes the dwarf Alberich, the “twilight of the gods,” the Rhine Maidens, and the “Wagalaweia” sound of the train’s wheels, which alludes to the Wagalaweia songs of the Ring Cycle. All of these references signal that we are in the land of the grand Teutonic myths of which Hitler was so fond. In 1936, the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote a prescient piece called “Essay on Wotan,” in which he clearly identified the mythology of the Ring Cycle as an integral part of the Nazi program:

The emphasis on the Germanic race—commonly called “Aryan” — the Germanic heritage, blood and soil, the Wagalaweia songs, the ride of the Valkyries, Jesus as a blond and blue-eyed hero, the Greek mother of St. Paul, the devil as an international Alberich in Jewish or Masonic guise, the Nordic aurora borealis as the light of civilization, the inferior Mediterranean races—all this is the indispensable scenery for the drama that is taking place and at the bottom they all mean the same thing: a god has taken possession of the Germans and their house is filled with a “mighty rushing wind.”

In 1933, just as Hitler rose to power, Keetenheuve, who describes himself as an ascetic, a Buddhist, a disciple of Zen, and a pacifist, fled Germany to Canada. He then returned at the end of the war, optimistic and “eager to reinvent the nation as a liberal democracy.” Elke, the woman who is half his age and who will become his wife, seems to symbolize his dedication to the future. He literally rescued her from the rubble when she was only sixteen, after her father (a high-ranking Gauleiter) and her mother committed suicide by swallowing cyanide as the war came to an end. But now, with Elke’s death, he feels “he had failed. Failed at every one of life’s crossroads. . . He had failed in his profession. He couldn’t cope with existence. . .”

Many of Keetenheuve’s positions make him a thorn in the side of his own political party, which, along with the German Chancellor, is pushing for significant German rearmament after the war. The party even attempts to buy Keetenheuve off by offering him the ambassadorship to Guatemala, but he refuses. “The knives are out for you,” he is warned. Repeatedly, Keetenheuve finds his political ambitions for postwar Germany thwarted because so many of the leaders of government, industry, the military, and even the press are tainted by the roles they played during the Nazi era, and their goals are now the opposite of his. They are building “careers,” they have expensive cars, chauffeurs, and the most desirable apartments. Many of them want to revive the National Socialist party and rearm the German military. Only Keetenheuve is clean—and therefore doomed.

Koeppen positions Keetenheuve’s “failure” as a two-part problem. He is continually losing at politics and he has lost his marriage. At the Bundestag, being “the permanent opposition was no fun.” As a liberal, he felt like “a foolish knight, crusading against a power that was so entwined with all the old power that it could afford to laugh at the knight who sallied out to challenge her, and sometimes, in a spirit almost of kindness, she tossed a windmill his way, good enough for that old-fashioned Don Quixote.” Nevertheless, he worked so hard at the office that he “forgot that a sun was shining on him, that a miracle had befallen him, that a woman loved him, that Elke, with her smooth young skin, loved him.” Keetenheuve was absent so often, at the office or on business trips, that Elke had fallen for another woman, who is known as “la Wanowski.”

Eventually, Keetenheuve falls into a kind of despairing madness in language that seems like it is trying to be a “stream of conscious,” but by any literary standard falls short. Every now and then it feels like Koeppen tries to get a little too “literary” (a little too Virginia Woolf-y, say), and it doesn’t come off well.

He saw the weepy immortelles of the graveyard in the pale flicker of the lightning. He breathed in the smell of moldy, damp yew hedges, the sweet corruption of rotting roses in funereal wreaths. The graveyard wall seemed to flinch in the lightning. Fear and trembling. Kierkegaard. Nursemaid consolation for intellectuals. Silence. Night. Keetenheuve timid night bird Keetenheuve night owl at the end of its tether Keetenheuve pathetic wanderer down cemetery avenues, ambassador to Guatemala lemurs accompany him.

But here’s the rub. From the moment we meet Keetenheuve on the train, returning from his wife’s funeral, he has been dreaming of murdering la Wanowski with an ax to the tune of Rosemary Clooney singing “Botch-a-Me.” (Yes, you read that right.)

Bee-oo, bye-oh, bee-oo, boo
Won’t you botch-a-, botch-a-me
Bee-oo, bye-oh, bee-oo, boo
When you botch-a-me
I a-botcha you and ev’rything goes crazy

Why? Well, la Wanowski happens to be a “bull dyke” who rules over “the tribades” (Google it). Her “square padded shoulders were a metaphor for penis envy.” She’s the “invert from the National Socialist Women’s Association” who has lured Elke away from “the ghastly, oppressive, voluble, swarming, frothy intellectualism of Keetenheuve” with a voice that reminds her of her Gauleiter father’s “low imperious voice.” Keetenheuve wants revenge. Later, toward the end of the novel, Keetenheuve will encounter a pair of young girls who are soliciting funds for the Salvation Army, which Koeppen likens to the Winterhelfswerk, which translator Michael Hofmann identifies as a Nazi Christmas charitable collection. Keetenheuve is sure that one of the girls, Gerda, is another National Socialist “dyke,” while the younger girl, Lena, becomes the object of his obsession. In the book’s final scene, which is one of the most wonderfully operatic, outrageous scenes I have ever read in a novel, complete with “Negro drums,” devils and vermin that are creating a homunculus, and “chimneys [that] popped up like erect penises,” Keetenheuve will take (or rape) Lena while he demands that Gerda sing a heavenly bridegroom song. Koeppen, it seems, has a thing about lesbians.

Despite being a self-described “witness” to the Hitler years and World War II from his vantage point in Munich, Koeppen’s three novels don’t provide any real in-depth analysis of what led the German people into the catastrophe of a world war or why Hitler’s machine why free to pursue unfettered by opposition the Final Solution that succeeded in murdering more than six million Jews. At most, Koeppen identifies the German love of Teutonic mythology and a tendency toward hypermasculinity as the primary elements that led Germans astray. And, as we have seen with la Wanowski in The Hothouse and with Judejahn in Death in Rome, Koeppen wants to hypersexualize the worst of his characters as a way of making them repellent and tainted by their Nazi backgrounds or connections. Certain Teutonic men have too much testosterone and certain Teutonic women, well, they become lesbian “bull dykes,” apparently. Pretty much every critical action taken by any character in this triptych of novels is motivated by sex. I’ll let the Freudians take it from here.

In the end, I would posit that there are few, if any, observations or conclusions that Koeppen puts forth in these novels that resulted from his having lived as a “witness” in Germany throughout the Hitler years and World War II. More likely, his wartime experiences compelled him into writing these three vital, sometimes angry novels. Wolfgang Koeppen may be not have been a Hannah Arendt, but that is not to say that he isn’t an important, occasionally innovative writer. He knew that a fast-paced novel will keep the reader engaged. Scenes rarely last more than a few pages, and are sometimes much shorter, and he tends to quickly shift from character to character, the way so many contemporary television shows do. These books also play with time and space cinematically, sometimes moving the reader from one character to the next—characters who may not even be in physical proximity to each other—while keeping time synchronous, like a baton hand-off in a virtual relay race.

Koeppen was also a bit prescient about modern politics.

“We know it’s a lie, a completely baseless story. But one day a newspaper decides to print it, for the hell of it. If you’re lucky, it’s forgotten again. But then someone else runs it. You know Hitler knew a thing or two about black propaganda, and what is it he says in his book? You repeat the lie over and over again. A man’s name is Bernhard. You call him Isaac. You do it again. You keep on doing it. Never fails.”
“We’re not at that stage again”
“You’re right. Not yet.”

I highly recommend all three of these novels. They can each be read independently of the others.

The Hothouse. NY: W.W. Norton, 2001. Translated from the 1953 original German by Michael Hofmann. See my reviews of Pigeons on the Grass and Death in Rome.

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.

Gottlieb Judejahn, “the butcher” and former SS general, has lived on the run since the end of World War II under an assumed name. In Rome to buy “tanks, guns, [and] aeroplanes” for his Arab military, he lets his guard down and consorts with sleazy ex-SS soldiers and Italian prostitutes. Throughout the book we see the fearless soldier “Judejahn” arguing with his child-self “Gottlieb.”

I only did what I was told, I only obeyed orders [Judejahn says to himself]. Did he have a conscience then? No, he was only afraid. He was afraid it might be discovered that he was little Gottlieb going around in boots too big for him. Judejahn heard a voice, but not the voice of God nor the voice of conscience, it was the thin, hungry, self-improving voice of his father, the primary schoolteacher, whispering to him: You’re a fool, you didn’t do your homework, you’re a bad pupil, a zero, an inflated zero. And so it was as well that he had stayed in the shadow of a greater being, stayed a satellite, the shining satellite of the most powerful celestial body, and even now he didn’t realize that this sun from whom he had borrowed light and licence to kill had himself been nothing but a cheat, another bad pupil, another little Gottlieb who happened to be the Devil’s chosen tool, a magical zero, a chimera of the people, a bubble that ultimately burst.

Judejahn’s wife, Eva, who is accompanying the Pfaffraths, is still “shedding tears for the Führer, lamenting the fact that treachery and betrayal and unnatural pacts had brought down the Germanic idea of world-salvation, the millennial Third Reich.” She has just learned for the first time that her husband is alive, although perhaps perpetrating “blood-treason and racial betrayal in the soft enemy climate, in rose-scented harem darkness, in garlic-reeking caves with Negresses and Jewesses, who had been waiting for revenge, and were panting for German sperm.”

Siegfried’s father, Friedrich Wilhelm Pfaffrath, his wife Anna, and his younger son Dietrich, are “fortunate survivors. . . with short memories,” who all wish for the return of National Socialism and a restrengthened, re-armed Germany. Friedrich feels it might be time for “a tighter rein” and deeply regrets that “the Jews were back in business.” He is embarrassed by what his son, the modernist composer, has become. Siegfried’s music strikes him as part of a frightening program of “surrealism, cultural Bolshevism and negroid newfangledness.”

Siegfried, an “involuntary soldier” during the war, had become a German POW in England during the the War. He then became a composer, vaguely hoping to do some good as an artist. But when pressed by Adolf, he admits that he doesn’t really think he can change people through his music and he can’t quite say why he is a composer.

Adolf, Judejahn’s son, was just a boy during the war. By becoming a priest he has enacted the ultimate betrayal of his father’s warrior and hyper-masculine ideals. As a child, his parents had sent him to a “Teutonic camp” run by the Nazis. On the way home, the train carrying many of the boys was crippled by Allied aircraft and as the children walked away they encountered another stopped train, one carried children that looked like skeletons. “They’re Jews!” the boys whispered to each other. “But they didn’t know why they should be afraid. They were German children, after all! They were the elect!” Adolf and one of the Jews eventually exchange jackets, which, ironically, allows Adolf to be rescued by Allied forces later on.

Even from this brief synopsis, it is clear that Koeppen has laid his agenda on thick. Yet the novel always reads as a lively story built around intriguing characters, some of whom are more richly constructed than others. Koeppen seems to suggest that Germany’s future is likely to be decided by which of the three sons—Siegfried, Adolf, or Dietrich— will dominate. Siegfried signifies culture, Adolf religion, and, as Siegfried says, his brother Dietrich is “the representative of law and order, of the state and the strong hand.” Siegfried predicts that “we’ll lose to Dietrich. My brother Dietrich will always get the better of us.” Why would he think that? I suspect because neither culture nor the church hindered the rise of the Nazis in any way and neither brother seems capable of effectively stopping the rise of any future fascist takeover.

Siegfried may be correct in believing that culture is powerless, but it does bring about a momentary crisis in his father’s conscience. For a brief spell after attending the concert, Siegfried’s father glimpses that there might have “been another road for Germany and himself than the military road.” However, this lasts only for a moment. “For men the reproachful voice of the night passes with the nocturnal trembling of the trees, and after a refreshing night’s sleep Pfaffrath will once more feel without strain, an upright German man and an Oberbürgmeister, free from guilt. . . But now, in this transfiguring hour of the night, he asked himself whether Siegfried and his symphony hadn’t sought the better home, and whether the notes jarring in Pfaffrath’s ear hadn’t held a dialogue with his own youthful soul.”

As one reads Death in Rome, it becomes apparent that Koeppen sees that the German problem (it’s a problem that larger than just the Nazi era) lies in its history of a male “fraternity” that bears the Teutonic ideals about race, masculinity, and war as a heroic enterprise—behaviors that he (and we) find toxic and repellant. For Koeppen, this behavior frequently plays out in the sexual lives of his characters. For example, when the ex-SS General Judejahn realizes that his son Adolf had been seated at the concert next to a Jewess, he was both “shocked and excited.”

Judejahn had no regrets about having killed, he hadn’t killed enough. . . the thought of a botched final solution to the Jewish problem, the thought of the mass executions he had ordered, the recollections of the photographs of naked women in front of the mass graves now roused perverted imaginings in him, it was a sin to consort with Jewesses. . . but the thought of sin tickled the testicles, stimulated sperm-production. . .

Even Siegfried has been tainted by his brief, unwilling indoctrination as a German soldier and has turned into a pederast. “Sometimes I yearned for contact, for warmth, for the smell of the herd and the stall, for a world of shared physicality, which I had lost, from which I had cut myself off, a compulsion I thought I was clear of, the boys’ world of the Teutonic castle, the smell of the dormitories, the naked bodies of the spartan regime, cross-country running in the early-morning mist in the woods.” As a result, Siegfried visits the male child prostitutes that hang out on the banks of the Tiber River and he frequents Rome’s gay bars.

Is it any wonder then that Judejahn’s son Adolf is becoming a celibate priest? (Although he, too, is sorely tempted by the same woman his father has been trying to seduce in Rome.) We will have to take up this matter of sexuality, gender, and Nazism, which is central to Koeppen, when we look at the middle novel in his trilogy, The Hothouse, in a future post.

Koeppen ends Death in Rome by making a direct allusion to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Koeppen’s final sentences echo the famous ending of Mann’s novella.

The ambulance men came, and a doctor closed his eyes. The ambulancemen were dressed in field grey, and they carried Judejahn off as though from a battlefield.

That same evening, Judejahn’s death was reported in the press; its circumstances had made it world news, though the fact of it can have shocked no one.

Wolfgang Koeppen, Death in Rome, translated by Michael Hofmann

Ω

Minutes passed before people rushed to the aid of the man who had slumped sideways in his chair. He was carried to his room. And that day a respectfully stunned world received word of his death.

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, translated by Michael Henry Heim

What are we supposed to think of this? I doubt that Koeppen is suggesting that we consider Judejahn, the aging SS General, and the enforcer of the Final Solution in relation to Gustav von Aschenbach, Mann’s aging titan of German literature who falls in love with a beautiful boy whom he spies on the beach one day. I think this has less to do with the two characters and more to do with Koeppen’s ambition for his trilogy of novels. I think he’s trying to stake a claim for the literary stature that he believes his German trilogy deserves.

Wolfgang Koeppen’s Death in Rome was published in Germany in 1954 as Der Tod in Rom and was translated into English by Michael Hofmann for the English publisher Hamish Hamilton in 1992. It’s now available in a Norton paperback. Hofmann has translated Koeppen’s triptych of postwar novels, Pigeons on the Grass (1951) (see my review here) and The Hot House (1953).