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 top 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 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 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, so that they serve as a kind of wallpaper for the kitchen photographs, a backdrop against which to think about 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.
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 ones 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 that 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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).
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.
Tressie McMillan Cottom. Thick and Other Essays. NY: The New Press, 2019. Cottom is a sociologist and MacArthur Fellow and someone everyone should read and follow. Her essays are entertaining, edgy, and wise. Although she writes primarily about the perspective and roles of Black women, her pieces range far and wide, so it’s really hard to say what any piece is really about. Let’s just say I adored Thick. Here’s Cottom on the title of her book: “Sociology comes as close to the core of where my essays start as anything else I have explored. Drawing on what ethnographers have called thick description, I finally found a label as complex as my way of thinking.” A powerful book.
Percival Everett. Telephone. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2020. Everett’s understated style is really beginning to grow on me. It’s so easy to read his novels for their compelling story lines and miss the subtle but powerful undercurrents that are playing out just below the surface. In Telephone, Zach Wells, a professor of geology and paleobiology, and his wife learn that their daughter has a rare and incurable genetic defect that will kill her within a few years and, in the meantime, will slowly take away her speech and motor skills. Unable to do anything to help save his daughter, Zach instead heads out on a quixotic mission aimed at rescuing some women he imagines are being held captive in the New Mexican desert. Full review here.
Colette Fellous.This Tilting World. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2019. Translated from the 2017 French original by Sophie Lewis. A novel that poses as a memoir, This Tilting World is situated in Tunisia just after the beginning of the Arab Spring. The narrator, who is probably a fictionalized version of the author, grew up in that country, but has lived in France for many years. Her family of European origins suddenly felt unwelcome there after Tunisian independence in 1956. But she has just returned to Tunisia after a very close friend has died of a heart attack. On the previous day, thirty-eight people, mostly tourists, were murdered by terrorists on the beach not far from Tunis. So what is her relationship to Tunisia now? She looks back over parent’s lives as Europeans embedded in Tunisian life, on her own wonderful childhood there, and then at her more complex relationship to the Tunisia of today. The power of this book lies in its vivid imagery, the immediacy of Fellous’s writing, and the intimacy of the self-examination of her narrator. The novel includes a number of photographs by the author. Full review here.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths.Seeing the Body. NY: W.W. Norton, 2020. If any book speaks directly to the year 2020, it is this one. Griffiths’s poems are tender and fearless and timely. Her grief is punctuated with anger over the killing of black men and the trauma of rape. This is both a deeply personal book of poems born out of the passing of her mother and a startlingly public book that is called into being whenever events happen and Griffiths knows she cannot be silent. “Threading the silver crust / of a nightmare with stars, I stitch / & pull my mother’s name / through white stones that do not burn / in the riverbed of blood / beneath my tongue. The moon / is a knuckle, the crown of a nightly fist / pressed against my mouth. Tears / pour from my mouth. In absentia / someone votes for my life.” (From “Good Night”) Full review here.
John Hawkes. The Cannibal. NY: New Directions, 1949. This is writing I would follow anywhere. In his first novel, Hawkes seems barely in control of a wild, exuberant, almost runaway story that feels like a series of scenes crazily stitched together without much continuity. He takes the reader on a bizarre trip through a very strange Germany, mostly during the final days of World War II. The novel is filled with immensely original writing that seems to come straight out of a fever dream. I haven’t read all of Hawkes’s subsequent novels, but I’m guessing that he never achieved the same intensity ever again. Full review here.
Wolfgang Koeppen. Death in Rome. NY: Norton, 2001. Translated from the German original of 1954 by Michael Hofmann. From the title page until the last words of the novel, Koeppen’s Death in Rome moves relentlessly towards it fatal end. In our era, when novels are often full of endless digressions, it is startling to read one which signals its intentions from the start and never wavers for a moment. Not a sentence is wasted in this compact book of a mere 202 pages. Like Koeppen’s first novel, Pigeons on the Grass, Death in Rome funnels everything toward one culminating event, an evening performance of a new piece of symphonic music by the young German composer Siegfried Pfaffrath in a concert hall in Rome sometime in the years shortly after WWII. Unbeknownst to Siegfried, his extended family is assembling for a reunion in Rome, including a former SS general, currently in hiding, who has been convicted in absentia at the Nuremberg Trails for his role in the Final Solution against Jews. Family secrets and irrepressible personal urges will prove fatal.
Gabriel Josipovici. Forgetting. Manchester: Little Island Press, 2020. I debated for a while whether to chose this book or the two novels I read by Josipovici this year, Contre-jour: A Triptych After Pierre Bonnard (1986) or Hotel Andromeda, (2014), which I just recently finished. But in the end, the choice became obvious. What a remarkable little book Forgetting is! Josipovici takes the subject of memory and forgetting across an incredible spectrum of subjects and writers, from Alzheimer’s to the Holocaust, from Homer to Hamlet, from Nietzsche to Donald Trump, from Laurence Sterne to Kafka. What I love about Josipovici is that he leaves little unexploded mind nuggets on nearly every page, little hints at things for the reader to go off and explore on her own. After reading Forgetting, my understanding of Hamlet is forever changed. And this is the first book I have read that coherently addresses the issue of American Civil War monuments and other relics of the “memory wars” that are currently taking place over who should be honored from our past. How Josipovici packs so much into small books never ceases to amaze me.
Esther Kinsky. Grove. Oakland: Transit Books, 2020. While not as powerful as her 2017 novel River, I found this meditative, observational, understated novel made me continually meet her halfway and not just be a passive receptor. In Grove, a recently widowed narrator (not unlike Kinsky herself, whose husband died in 2014) goes to rural Italy to walk and reorder her life. In the process, she thinks deeply about death, nature, family, memory, and the role of art—most notably pondering the books of the Italian writer Giorgio Bassani and some of the paintings of Fra Angelico. For a novel in which literally nothing “happens” except that a woman goes on daily walks, there is exceptional richness to be had here.
I can’t recommend highly enough the unclassifiable triptych of books by Nathalie Léger, put out by the extraordinary publishing group called The Dorothy Project. This trio of smart, short books by Léger, which blur the boundaries between novel, documentary, contemporary art, art history, and memoir have all have been translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer. Asked to write a short entry for a film encyclopedia about American actress and film director Barbara Loden’s only film Wanda, Léger “got carried away,” studied everything she could about Loden and her film, and in the end created this book, Suite for Barbara Loden (2016), a rather amazing book about identity, biography, and so much more. Is it a novel? Is it a piece of documentary writing? Whatever, it’s brilliant. Exposition (2020) is about the Countess of Castiglione, supposedly the most photographed woman of the nineteenth century, and a museum exhibition that the author failed to create. And The White Dress (also 2020) is a powerful dual story about the Italian artist Pippa Bacca and Léger’s mother. To create an art performance piece, Bacca decided to hitchhike through mostly war-torn countries in Europe wearing a wedding gown, but part way through she was raped and killed in Turkey. Léger pairs Bacca’s story with revelations she learns about her own mother to create an unforgettable story about two women.
Emily St. John Mandel. Station Eleven. NY: Penguin Random House, 2014. Mandel gives us the interwoven stories of a handful of people before, during, and after a pandemic that kills nearly everyone on Earth. (And you thought Covid-19 was dire?) Although the core of the book is about theater and a troupe of traveling actors and musicians who manage to perform Shakespeare’s plays to groups of survivors twenty years after the pandemic, I was just as fascinated by the role that the comic book series titled “Station Eleven,” which was created by one of the novel’s characters, also manages to impact the lives of so many of the book’s characters. This is a very good story, told well and tightly, not unlike watching a Hitchcock thriller.
Liam McIlvanney. The Quaker. NY: Europa Editions, 2019. I’m a sucker for a great police procedural or detective story or mystery or any creative mashup of these ingredients. I want a good mystery and I want solid writing—in other words, a guaranteed page-turner. My gold standard is a book like Laidlaw by William McIlvanney, who happens to be Liam’s father. (Who knew that writing great police procedurals was genetic?) Sometimes, the internal dynamics of the police station can be just as interesting as the actual search for a serial killer. That’s the case in this well-written police procedural, when Duncan McCormick. an outside detective, is assigned to an already grim 1969 Glasgow police station after the crew there have failed to make any progress on a case. The local cops aren’t happy. Well-written, with (to my American ears, anyway) great Scottish dialogue.
David Salle. How To See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking about Art. NY: W.W. Norton, 2016. For true enlightenment about what is really going on in an artist’s work, I would always want to turn to painter David Salle, who writes brilliant, jargon-free pieces from an artist’s perspective. Salle does not write as a critic, but I think of him as an ideal writer of the kind that I aspire to here at Vertigo. “I think the task is to describe how the sensation evoked by a work of art emerges from the intersection of talent, formal decisions, and cultural context.” These are mostly reviews gathered from magazines and exhibition catalogs, but you can tell from the book’s four sections what Salle is up to: 1. “How To Give Form to an Idea,” “Being an Artist,” “Art in the World,” “Pedagogy and Polemics.”
Olga Tokarczuk. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. NY: Riverhead Books, 2019. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. A wise and often funny novel that makes great use of the work of William Blake. The narrator, Janina, dabbles in astrology and speaks up for the rights of animals. In an obscure Polish village that is filled with wonderful characters, she is looked upon by many of the locals as the crazy lady. The village becomes roiled when, one by one, a series of important local officials become murder victims. Every time that I was about ready to think that the quirkiness was getting to be over-the-top, a brilliant piece of writing pulled me right back. I can see why it won a Man Booker International Prize last year. I liked this much better than her book Flights.
Francesca Wade. Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars. NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2020. Despite being perhaps a bit overlong for my taste, Wade’s fascinating collective biography of five prominent women writers focused on how each dealt with the challenge of being female in world where females were not meant to succeed. Between the two World Wars, each of these writers lived on London’s Mecklenburgh Square, in the heart of Bloomsbury: Virginia Woolf, Hilda Doolittle (the poet and writer known as H.D.), Jane Harrison (a pioneer of classical and anthropological studies), Eileen Powell (groundbreaking medieval historian), and Dorothy Sayers (mystery writer). Wade uses this fact to weave a story of central London’s intellectual history over several decades.
Andrew Zawacki.Unsun:f/11. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2019. Unsun is a book of poetry that will force you to look at things differently, more precisely. Zawacki pays an atomistic attention to every detail—to every sound, movement, cloud formation, color—and he wants the most precise word or phrase for that detail, regardless of what discipline the word might come from, whether that’s from chemistry or metallurgy or wherever, no problem. I couldn’t grasp most of Zawacki’s poems during the first read-through, but I knew I was reading something astonishing. Most of the poems in Unsun deal with nature, with walks outdoors, through forests, into a “fox field at evenfall.” He is especially attuned to the many ways in which industry and technology are attacking and, often, ruining our environment. “The sky is not falling it’s / failing.” Full review here.
Support your local bookstore! Mine is the terrific Next Page Books, run by my friend Bart Carithers and Frank (below), who manages the bookstore’s Facebook page.
“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.
“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.
The narrator begins by telling us that her house sits at the midpoint between the cemetery and the small village, halfway between death and life. This is more than just a symbol for how she feels in her bereavement, it’s a signal to us for what we should be looking for as we read further in Grove: themes dealing with patterns and mapping. Each day the narrator chooses to walk to the village by a different lane, attempting to mentally map her surroundings.
As she ventures on foot or in her car further and further out into the countryside around her rented home in Olevano, a hillside village east of Rome, she often becomes lost and has to ask for directions back. “I became dizzy looking at this unfurled country which was laid so bare yet remained so incomprehensible to me. A rugged terrain with a restless appearance—it presented itself differently from each side.” Even when she stays in the house, she is intently gazing out the windows at the fields and the woods below and at the hills across the valley, trying to make sense of the landscape. She is also constantly listening, attempting to recognize the calls of birds both seen and unseen, mapping the soundscape, as it were.
The bulk of Grove is dedicated to the narrator’s daily explorations. Some days she wanders aimlessly, at other times she visits museums, Etruscan ruins, Rome, the mosaics at Ravenna. But more than anything else she visits cemeteries, including Cerveteri, the famous necropolis outside Rome that features in Giorgio Bassani’s novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. She and M. had planned to go to Cerveteri one day, and as she stands among the graves she thinks: “I could imagine M. next to me on these paths, his gait and gaze, more clearly than in any other place yet in Italy.”
The book’s second section is devoted to memories of the narrator’s childhood and the many vacations that her family took in Italy. Her father was obsessed with Italy and in retirement even became a tour guide there. Now, years after her father’s death, the narrator realizes that these trips she is making to Italy after M.’s death are being guided by a plan that seems to have somehow been handed down from her father. “I suddenly felt as if I had to fulfill a mission. To complete some set of instructions. To visit places, inspect terrains, to fumble my way along the thin string of clues between my memories and pictures, places, names.”
In the third section it is the second year after M.’s death and she stays in a house in the Po Valley, near Ferrara. Here, there is a breakthrough. Over the course of a five-page chapter that focuses on a view looking down into the Po River valley, the narrator begins to describe the landscape in terms of language. Pieces of heavy machinery are described as letters. A church steeple is a punctuation mark, and exclamation mark against the sky. A flock of pigeons creates a script in the air. The river below “is a sentence to the plain” with a forward slash. A motionless man fishing beside an imperceptibly moving river becomes a short verse. There are the “rattling winter syllables of sparrows.” [Always my italics.] It seems clear that the narrator is no longer lost in the landscape, but can now read it clearly. And perhaps in her life, as well. For in the midst of this scene, a woman appears. “The sun lies low, encircling her figure in a halo of light.” The woman strides “decisively” and “resolutely” and is dressed in the clothing of “another time,” as if she were “an extra from one of the many films shot here in the past.” I couldn’t help but see this mysterious, almost unlikely figure as a symbol of the narrator emerging from her bereavement.
Grove is not really so much about bereavement as it is about what comes after. It’s a book that examines how one reestablishes the self that has gone missing in bereavement, the self that gets jarred loose when a loved one dies. For Kinsky’s narrator, that rebuilding process occurs through reestablishing patterns, by learning the language of the world all over again, by understanding one’s place inside the structures that one finds meaningful—like nature or family.
By chance, I just happened to be reading Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, where she writes that for her, the point of keeping notebooks was never about other people, they were always about her. She kept notebooks in order to “remember what it was like to be me,” she says. Perhaps this is what Grove is really all about. Esther Kinsky’s narrator must remember what it was to be herself again—alone, without M.
I wrote about Esther Kinsky’s novel River here in Part 1 and in Part 2.
Esther Kinsky. Grove. Oakland: Transit Books, 2020. Translated by Caroline Schmidt from the 2018 German title Hain: Geländeroman (or Grove: A Novel of the Land).
John Keene’s first two books of fiction take completely different paths toward the same goal: making sure that the Black experience is no longer buried in white shadows. Annotations (New Directions, 1995) is a brief autobiographical novel that can feel like a prose poem at times. Counternarratives (New Directions, 2015) is a series of lush, thematically-related stories that span several centuries, with each story written in a style appropriate to the time period. Counternarratives is a punch straight to the gut of the traditional narration of history, reinserting black perspectives, voices, and lives that have been so consistently missing from white history and white literature.
Annotations opens with a grainy family snapshot of a seated young Black boy that might be Keene. He is holding his hands slightly apart in worried care, while something tall and slender—a toy rocket, perhaps—stands delicately poised between his open palms as if his own future lies in the balance. Then the book begins with the narrator’s birth: “It was a summer of Malcolms and Seans, as Blacks were transforming the small nation of Watts into a graveyard of smoldering metal. A crueler darkening, as against the assured arrival of dusk. Selma-to-Montgomery. Old folks liked to say he favored the uncle who died young, an artist. In that way, a sense of tradition was upheld, one’s place in the reference-chain secured.” In other words, it’s 1965, the year Keene was born.
As the title suggests, Annotations is made up of telegraphically short memories, brief mentions of key historical and cultural markers, and place names from the narrator’s childhood—the marginalia that might pencil in the outline for an eventual biography. There is an accounting of his family history: “vibrant miscegenation,” “Southern blood,” and “Osage whom we mistook for Cherokees.” And the usual topics of upbringing: family, school, friends, and sex (“that sublime sum of bodily attraction”). And of his exposure to the arts: the “Negro” poets, Scott Joplin, John Coltrane, Eldredge Cleaver, and so on. “Thus his musings, when written down, gradually melded, gathered shape, solidified like a well-mixed mâché, and thus, upon rereading them he realized what he had accomplished was the construction of an actual voice.”
Perhaps more importantly, Annotations is about the narrator’s slow, but eventual realization that biography is also geography, that place and history are integral to the person. “But oh, Saint Louis, such a colored town, a minefield of myth and memory.” During Keene’s years there, St. Louis experienced massive white-flight to the suburbs, hollowing out the city’s economic core, partly a result of the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the desegregation of inner-city schools. As a young man, the narrator haunts the public library and reads late into the night. Dotted throughout the book are references, sometimes name-dropped with no explanation whatsoever, that allude to the history of Black life in St. Louis, like Douglass School, “the only accredited public high school for African-American students in St. Louis County until the end of segregation in 1957” (Wikipedia) and Meachum Park, (where “the line between what is blight and what is black becomes blurred“), to name two such occurrences.
Both poetry and fiction, however, find their roots in the act of making, a supposition grown gradually clearer as he explored the possibilities of reading. Upon your five-speed, across the asphalt, whirring as the blackbird flies. Dreams consequently assumed the contours, colors of the interior of the town’s modest main library, where months seemingly elapsed as he maundered among the stacks, yet these reverie-journeys sometimes transmogrified into horrifying, recurrent nightmares in which, after each withdrawal of a careful selection of books, he arrived home to find himself either blind or illiterate. Such fears, though they initially seemed to possess an immobilizing permanence, disappeared amid the evanescence of each day’s flux, a fact that displayed for him the shifting character of being, or phrased more prosaically, the process of the unreeling of the real. An alphabet, analphabet. All information will be kept confidential.
For someone like me, who lived as a young child in St. Louis in the 1950s (including a few years in then-mostly-white Ferguson), Annotations rewrites everything I thought I knew about the place where I lived for a decade. Every few pages, something that Keene has written detonated a little time bomb in my memory that rejiggered the past.
At one point in the book, the narrator says: “our generation lacks more than a cursory sense of the world that our ancestors faced, which surprises no one cognizant of the contempt in which the nuances of history are currently held. . . And so, in an effort to make so many shorter stories richer, these overtures ought to be read as a series of extended annotations.” This attempt to make the stories of what “our ancestors” faced “richer” is an apt description of what Keene’s second book, Counternarratives, aims to do.
If Keene found his voice in Annotations, he turned to mimicry in Counternarratives. If Annotations was deliberately modest, Counternarratives was wildly ambitious, nothing less than an attempt to reshape our understanding of the history of the New World, through stories that tell of the hubris and cruelty of slavers, the misery and death of slaves, the treachery and betrayal of the Church, and the untold bravery and creativity of ordinary Black men and women, as well as stories involving better known individuals, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. The book’s thirteen stories span the years 1613, when Juan Rodriguez, a Portuguese-African man became the first person known to live on Manhattan Island (read the story here), to sometime near the present, when we overhear a conversation apparently taking place between two African dictators.
Keene’s writing in Counternarratives is confident. It feels like he can write fluidly in any style he chooses. The voices in these stories are expansive; they delight in detail and in being time-specific. Take the long story with the long title “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790-1825; or The Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows,” in which the narration shifts between the forced stiffness of a formal report written by a nineteenth-century Catholic Reverend on the status of “the ancient Faith. . . on the eastern shores of the Mississippi and its southerly tributaries” and the crabbed, hastily scribbled style of a diary of a nun involved in a scandal in one of the Kentucky convents covered by that report.
Perhaps the story most likely to stand out (at least for white readers) is “Rivers,” narrated by Mr. James Alton Rivers, aka Jim, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It takes place in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, after Jim has signed up with the Union’s First Missouri Colored Troops, which is fighting the Confederacy in Texas.
Anderson urged several of us to crawl out to the far edge of the field, near the river, where there was a stand of Montezuma cypresses, which I did and when I rounded them flat on my stomach, creeping forward like a panther I saw it, that face I could have identified if blind in both eyes, him, in profile, the agate eyes in a squint, that sandy ring of beard collaring the gaunt cheeks, the soiled gray jacket half open and hanging around the sun-reddened throat, him crouching reloading his gun, quickly glancing up and around him so as not to miss anything.
Jim, a soldier for the North, has come face to face with Tom Sawyer, now a soldier for the Confederacy. And he will soon have him in his gunsight, “this elder who had been like a brother, a keeper, a second father.”
The stories in Counternarratives are subversive, restorative stories, aimed at making sure that we see the world and the past more fully.
Through a wonderful coincidence, Gil Roth has just posted a terrific in-depth interview (1’11”) with Keene on his wonderful podcast The Virtual Memories Show (episode 401). The two talk about Keene’s experience as a translator, his life growing up, his literary influences, and much more. They begin to discuss Counternarratives at 42″.
I began Vertigo in 2013 primarily as a vehicle for writing about W.G. Sebald and the history of fiction and poetry with photographs embedded as part of the author’s original text. I now write about a broader range of books that interest me. You can see my 11 favorite posts (from more than 600) by clicking on the Top Posts tab. And check out my yearly Reading Log, where I write something about every book I read. The categories below are only a handful of the topics covered in this blog over the years. Please use the Search field below to see if an author, book, or topic has been mentioned or discussed. To contact me, just leave a comment at any post and I will answer. Enjoy! Terry