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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.

The Emigrants via Virtual Book Club

Somehow, I only learned about this last night. A Public Space magazine and the poet & writer Elisa Gabbert are in the midst of doing a virtual book club which is reading W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants on Twitter through June 22. They are going into the book in some detail, so there are multiple posts per day. To catch up, you’ll have to do quite a bit of backward scrolling on Twitter. (There are only a few quotes on Instagram.) But it’s well worth it. The following is from the magazine’s website:

Elisa Gabbert | W. G. Sebald

May 6, 2021 Share: Read W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants with Elisa Gabbert in the June edition of #APStogether, our series of virtual book clubs, free and open to all. Starting June 10, you can read Elisa’s daily posts, and comments from our fellow readers, on our Twitter and Instagram accounts. And join us for a virtual discussion at the end of the book club, on June 22—register here.

W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants is a novel in four portraits, the stories of four men in exile: a doctor, a teacher, a painter, and Sebald’s Great-Uncle Adelwarth, the traveling companion of an American aviator. Written in Sebald’s signature indeterminate, essayistic style, intercut with photographs of people and places, The Emigrants explores post-war trauma and memory, guilt and displacement, and what it means to survive. Join us to read this book Larry Wolff called “an end-of-century meditation” on “the most delicate, most painful, most nervously repressed and carefully concealed lesions of the last hundred years.”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of five collections of poetry, essays, and criticism, most recently The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays and The Word Pretty. She writes a regular poetry column for the New York Times, and her work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, A Public Space, the Nation, and many other venues. Her next book of poems, Normal Distance, will be out from Soft Skull next year.

W. G. Sebald (1944-2001) was born in the Bavarian Alps. From 1975 he taught at the University of East Anglia, became Professor of German in 1986, and was the first director of the British Centre for Translation. His books include The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, and Vertigo (all New Directions).

Reading Schedule:

June 10 | Day 1. Dr Henry Selwyn

June 11 | Day 2. Paul Bereyter (through “awoken in her a sense of the contrarieties that are in our longings.”)

June 12 | Day 3. Paul Bereyter (to end)

June 13 | Day 4. Ambros Adelwarth (through “and life up in the dizzy heights came to an end”)

June 14 | Day 5. Ambros Adelwarth (through “remained indelibly in my memory ever since.”)

June 15 | Day 6. Ambros Adelwarth (through “the enormous cauliflower he held in his crooked left arm”)

June 16 | Day 7. Ambros Adelwarth (to end)

June 17 | Day 8. Max Ferber (“a herd of deer headed for the night”)

June 18 | Day 9. (“so much in the shade and dark in recent years”)

June 19 | Day 10. (“who was then staying in Kissingen”)

June 20 | Day 11. (to end)

June 22 – A virtual discussion of The Emigrants with Elisa Gabbert.

Day 1 | June 10
Dr Henry Selwyn

“And I recalled the château in the Charente that I had once visited from Angoulême.” A very Sebaldian sentence! For Sebald, seeing begets memory; his walks, travels, & reading are all ways of looking, thus ways of cultivating encounters with memory.

Sebald once said “The older you get the more the passage of time between your present age and your childhood or youth begins to shrink somehow.” We see this in Selwyn’s story, the *closeness* of Naegeli, the way the sharp images of Lithuania return.

It’s as though aging involves a reversal of time as well as a racing forward. (I think of William Maxwell: “I have liked remembering almost as much as I have liked living”—for Sebald’s characters memories can be both treasured and traumatic)

Day 2 | June 11
Paul Bereyter (through “awoken in her a sense of the contrarieties that are in our longings.”) p. 27-45

We start to see the importance of chance, coincidence and “miracles” in Sebald’s work. Leo Damrosch contrasts realism w/ verisimilitude, which doesn’t have to be realistic. Do Sebald’s stories have to, in their nebulous space between fiction & reality?

The photo on p. 39 is uncaptioned, like all the photos here, its exact relationship to the text unclear. Is young W.G. among them? Which boy is he? They could be any boys, but Sebald has said his photos are “to a very large extent documentary.”

The story of Paul Bereyter’s moments of “utterly groundless violence” against his young pupils connects so neatly to Wittgenstein one has to wonder if this is mere coincidence, or fictive legerdemain, or a warping of Sebald’s own memory.

Day 3 | June 12
Paul Bereyter (to end)

Mme Landau says that after years of silence and secrets people sometimes “really did forget” their past—memory is active work, and not to remember is to undo that history.

I love the detail of the case of rainbow sewing thread that “seemed especially magical” to Paul as he rode through the emporium on his tricycle.

Our oldest memories, which somehow grow in clarity as we age, becoming more real than reality, have this quality of magic because the past is an unreachable place, a fiction, a fairyland.

Mme Landau again: “It is hard to know what it is that someone dies of.” Where is causation in a complex chain of events? Had Paul come to see suicide as inevitable? Was it any more a choice than other deaths of despair (as in broken heart syndrome)?

Day 4 | June 13
Ambros Adelwarth (through “and life up in the dizzy heights came to an end”)

Emigrants “tend to seek out their own kind.” (As we read in the previous section, Paul “belonged to the exiles.”) Emigrants are citizens of their own country, a nowhere that is not utopian.

Sebald can be surprisingly hilarious—see the passage about Theres’s constant weeping. “There were times when one really did not know whether she was in tears because she was at home at long last or because she was already dreading having to leave.”

Sebald’s eschewing of quotation marks creates interesting ambiguities. In The Rings of Saturn, it is difficult to know when he is quoting from a text vs. paraphrasing. Here, remarks in the first person often seem to be shared sentiments—it’s easy to imagine that Adelwarth’s “extremely dignified German” astounds both Fini and the narrator.

Day 5 | June 14
Ambros Adelwarth (through “remained indelibly in my memory ever since.”)

Kasimir is a fascinating character, with his slow driving and macabre revelries (“This is the edge of darkness”… “I am a long way away, though I never quite know from where”)

Cosmo Solomon has a legendary quality, an otherworldly clairvoyance that wins him fortunes at the casinos but also destroys his mind when the great war in Europe begins, and he claims he can see it from overseas: “the inferno, the dying”

Fini says Ambros, recounting his past, was “at once saving” and “mercilessly destroying himself.” Like life-saving poison. (Was Paul’s suicide also self-salvation?)

She herself has trouble believing Ambros’ history, wonders not if he was lying but if he had Korsakoff syndrome (“which causes lost memories to be replaced by fantastic inventions”), an interesting metaphor for imagination in the “nonfiction novel.”

Day 6 | June 15
Ambros Adelwarth (through “the enormous cauliflower he held in his crooked left arm”) p. 107-126

Dr. Abramsky’s comment about madness being “a question of perspective” makes me think of the famous paper “On Being Sane in Insane Places”
https://science.sciencemag.org/content/179/4070/250.long

Abramsky’s fantasia of the collapsing sanatorium reminds me of the labyrinth in The Rings of Saturn, a physical space that represents the conceptual space of the book—we re-create the past in such fine detail before we watch it fall.

Ambros’s difficult with dressing/undressing: a much more tragic version of Theres’s continuous weeping.

The Deauville dream! The endless dream that goes on for days. He is tired and even sleeps in the dream.

Day 7 | June 16
Ambros Adelwarth (to end) p. 126-145

From Ambros’s diary: “A day out of time.” And later: “Are we no longer part of time?” It’s time travel for Cosmos and Ambros, and for Sebald, reading the diary, and for us reading The Emigrants.

The lostness in time reminds me again of Maxwell—memory is dangerous
https://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/09/magazine/nearing-90.html

Again one has to wonder if these beautiful passages are straight transcription from the diary or fictionalized, stylized, at all. (The photocopied pages are illegible to me; German speakers, can you make anything out?)

This embedded tale of Ambros and Cosmo’s journey is very dreamlike, or play-like, as in theater, everything condensed on a stage, like the schooners that pass by so close you could touch them.

We are suddenly immersed in their world; the agenda opens and we enter it like a magic storybook. And we never quite leave it; Sebald doesn’t quite close the parenthesis, ending on A’s words, not his own.

Day 8 | June 17
Max Ferber (“a herd of deer headed for the night”), p. 149-169

Max Ferber’s aestheticization of dust! “The grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved”! Made me think of this Jeremy Gordon essay on dust as “metaphor for the futility of the human experience.”
https://theoutline.com/post/7692/im-upset-dusting-is-a-waste-of-time

There is so much mist and dust in this book. Mist the unreal and ineffable; dust the banal real, the deathly real.

Sebald is so cute with a phrase sometimes: “a little ratcatcher”; “an incomparable stylish apathy.” Endearing little Sebaldisms.

The fresco in the restaurant recalls Cosmo’s mirage in the theater, the one that tipped him over into madness. Recurring images are part of what makes Sebald’s work feel fictive (while still highly nonfictive, as in nonfictionlike, for a novel!).

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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A Few Reading Highlights, After a Third of a Year – 2021

This seemed like a good time to pick out a few of the best books that I have read this year that haven’t made it into my blog. Just as a reminder, I write a little bit about every book I read during the year on the 2021 Reading Log, which can be found at the top of my blog. (I know the link wasn’t working earlier this year, but that has been corrected.)

At the top of my list of favorites are two Virginia Woolf classics, Mrs. Dalloway and The Years, but I won’t say anything more about them here. And I have already written at some length about two outstanding books by Wolfgang Koeppen, Death in Rome and The Hothouse. If you’ve followed Vertigo for awhile, you probably know that I greatly value good detective stories and police procedurals. So far this year, three have stood out among the handful that I’ve read: Ben H. Winters, The Last Detective (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2012); Nicholas Freeling, Love in Amsterdam (Gollancz, 1962); Kate London, Post Mortem (London: Corvus, 2015). But here are seven books that I thought warranted your attention.

Caryl Pagel. Out of Nowhere Into Nothing. Tuscaloosa, AL: FC2: 2020. The following statement is blandly appended to the copyright page of this book, but don’t overlook it: “This book is interested in memory, accumulating particulars, and retelling a good story. It is a work of nonfiction and fiction. Though it includes research and aims for veracity, the narratives ultimately rely on the author’s version of events. The author has been, and could still be, mistaken.” The pieces in this wonderful book (one hesitates to call them essays) morph slowly and mysteriously from subject to subject. Anything is game to Pagel’s curiously open mind—from sinkholes to Spiral Jetty, from Alexander Humboldt to Lucy Lippard. There are photographs, but they usually don’t explain or illustrate. Instead, they tend to complicate the words around them. Pagel seems obsessed with those moments when the wobbling mind daydreams about “strange associations, abstract anxieties, and bewildering, unintelligible images.” Most of us gloss over such moments, but Pagel probes them for the creative leaps they take across our mind’s synapses.

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Recently Read: Stephen Downes & Louis Armand

Here are two novels I recommend, both with embedded photographs and both, oddly, by Australian writers, although Louis Armand is now based in Prague.

Here’s the premise of Stephen Downes new book The Hands of Pianists (Fomite Press, 2021): “A neurotic freelance writer aims to prove that pianos kill elite pianists. For decades, he has grappled with the guilt that followed an accident in which he severed his talented sister’s fingers. ending her promising career at the keyboard. His investigations centre on the violent deaths at 31 of three great pianists.” At first, I will admit that I was skeptical. Downes’ narrator is an obsessive driven by his guilt and I don’t have much patience with obsessives. But as it turned out, I read the book in two non-stop sittings, fascinated and ready for more. My initial prejudices melted away when I saw that the narrator’s true obsession was a global search for meaning through music.

The three men whose deaths are being investigated by the narrator are genuine virtuoso pianists who all curiously died at the age of 31. American William Kapell died in 1953 returning from Australia when the commercial airplane he was in crashed south of the San Francisco airport. Australian Noel Mewton-Wood also died in 1953, committing suicide. He apparently blamed himself for failing to notice symptoms of the disease that would cause the death of his partner a few days earlier. New Zealand pianist Richard Farrell died as a passenger in a car crash in Sussex in 1958. In this well-written, digressive, almost Sebaldian novel, Downes takes the reader into the minds of pianists to explore what music and performance means to them. For someone like me, who frequently listens to classical music and attends concerts, Downes gives an insider’s window from the professional’s perspective. He writes about stage-fright, pianists hands, the quality of different pianos, recorded music, and much more, in addition to writing about the aesthetic qualities of music. The book moves from Australia to London to the Czech Republic. My favorite section is a visit to the Czech campus of Paul McNulty, the foremost builder of fortepianos, who builds them completely by hand for some of the foremost musicians of our time, one fortepiano at a time. In Prague, during a visit to the Kafka Museum, the narrator encounters a ghostly “Dr. K,” who challenges him on the nature of his quest. Have you transferred “your guilt about your sister’s accident,” he asked, “to a dead instrument?” By the end of the book, the narrator admits that “my notion that pianos kill pianists was unraveling.”

The Hands of Pianists includes several dozen small black-and-white photographs, many apparently by the author. A few are purely documentary in function, but many are very evocative, helping the narrative feel more like fiction.

Ω

Canicule is French for the dog days of summer. In Louis Armand’s Canicule (Equus Press, 2013), three men struggle with their pasts, their passions, and their failures. The book culminates with two of the men, Hess and Wolf, meeting to scatter the ashes of the third, aptly named Ascher, who has committed suicide by self-immolation.

Hess is our first-person narrator. He’s a screenwriter who can’t get anyone to return his calls anymore. But he has a dream about “the perfect film. . . about three characters whose lives are completely empty.” “But why not tell it like it really is? Begin with that much, keep it in the margins, let the story speak for itself. The full two reels’ worth.” And so some of the chapters are written in third-person, free-indirect mode, with Hess just another character in his own story.

“Three boys in a fading kodachrome” first met in 1983, “the year the US embassy in Beirut got bombed. . . the sunset of a world with no future.” Wolf’s father was murdered on live television during an airplane hijacking in the 1970s. Depressed, his mother tried but failed to commit suicide and murder Wolf by putting rat poison in their milk one day. Ascher, an East German, was orphaned at ten, when his parents were killed in an auto accident. When the Berlin Wall came down he found himself angry “at having grown up at the fag-end of a defeated ideology” and proceeded to join “a succession of more and more radical groups. . . looking for the edge.” But in the end, Ascher’s wife walked out on him and took the children, and he ended up impoverished and friendless in an attic in Hamburg, where he finally killed himself.

Canicule is bleak and, to some extent, the men’s lives seem to be a reflection of the times they in which they live. But after a while I didn’t give two cents about the male characters in Canicule. Their masculinity had left them utterly adrift as adults and they were blithely ignorant about the damage they did to the women that got drawn into their circle. But what kept the novel intriguing was Armand’s ragged, inventive writing and Hess’s continual attempt to re-imagine his story as a film. Each chapter begins with a photograph, most of which appear to be film stills from classic movies (none of the images are credited or identified). Hess tends to see the world filtered through film terminology. “All of a sudden Ada turned towards him, tears in her eyes. Like Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s Jean d’Arc. That silent terror in the exchange of looks, shot-reverse-shot, between Falconetti and the mad monk Artaud. Martyr and prelate. History’s revenants, like blackened celluloid dolls. And right before his eyes she began to dissolve, a piece of film erupting into invisible flame.” But, in the end, even Hess questions his own belief in film. “Somebody dies and right before your eyes they turn to celluloid. Is that all there is?”

Passing Time, Weaving Time

Then I decided to write in order to get things straight, to cure myself, to explain to myself what had happened to me in this hateful town, to offer some resistance to its evil spell, to shake myself awake from the torpor it instilled in me with its rain, its bricks, its dirty children, its lifeless districts, its river and its stations, its sheds and its parks, in order not to become like those sleepwalkers who passed me in its streets, in order that the grime of Bleston should not seep into my blood, into my bones, into the lenses of my eyes; I decided to erect around me this rampart of writing, feeling how deeply tainted I must already be to have come to such a stupid pass and to be so distressed about it, feeling how completely Bleston had outwitted my pitiful vigilance and how, in a few months of loathsome caresses, its slow poison had oozed into my brain.

If you want to read one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century (in its English translation, that is), be prepared to pay at least $75 to obtain one of the six used copies currently available for sale on AbeBooks.com. Michel Butor’s Passing Time has lamentably been out of print since 1969. I was shocked to see that my worn copy of two novels by Butor—Passing Time and A Change of Heart in one volume (Simon & Schuster, 1969)—was selling for at least $100. But my copy will probably be worthless in late May when Pariah Press of Manchester comes out with a new edition of Passing Time for the first time in fifty-two years. (See below for a special pre-publication offer.) Just imagine James Joyce’s Ulysses or any one of Virginia Woolf’s books being out of print that long. Inconceivable.

First published in France in 1956 as L’Emploi du Temps and in the U.S in 1960, the basic storyline in Passing Time is simple. Jacques Revel, a Frenchman, arrives in the English city of Bleston (modeled after Manchester), having been hired by a small company for one year to translate business documents between French and English. 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 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 he sets out to play detective and try to discover if his actions were in any way connected to that event. To aid himself, he decides to recall and document in writing everything he can remember about his stay in Bleston, and that becomes the book we are reading.

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New Podcast About Sebald’s “Austerlitz”

The podcast About Buildings & Cities has recently done a two-part broadcast on W.G. Sebald’s final work of prose fiction, Austerlitz. You can track down episode numbers 77 & 78 through the website here.

Sebald’s novel is a natural for this podcast since Jacques Austerlitz is an architectural historian and a number of architectural spaces figure prominently in the book’s story, including London’s Liverpool Street Station, the Palace of Justice (Brussels), and the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris). The podcast’s hosts, Luke Jones and George Gingell, read from Sebald’s book, give an overview of the plot, and discuss some of the key themes, including the kindertransport, the uses of photography in the novel, and, of course, some of the buildings referred to in Austerlitz. The two have a terrific conversation about the way in which Sebald continually hints at the Holocaust in Austerlitz, without quite discussing it overtly, and they ask if Sebald might have been too coy at times. Did Sebald see the Holocaust as a single aberrant event or part of a long-standing pattern of imperial genocides in Western history?

A long-time reader of Vertigo turned me on to the About Cities & Buildings podcast and now I’m a dedicated fan. Earlier episodes include subjects such as the filmmaker Patrick Keiller, New York’s Robert Moses, urbanist Jane Jacobs, and a four-part series on architect Zaha Hadid. Take a listen.

Photography-Embedded Fiction & Poetry 2020

Every year I post a bibliography of works of fiction and poetry recently published that containing embedded photographs. By the term “embedded photographs,” I mean photographs that are intended by the author as a part of the original “text.” Here is my list for books published in 2020. You can see bibliographies for the years 1970-2019 underneath the pull-down menu “Photo-Embedded Literature” at the top of Vertigo. If you know of a book that I have not mentioned, please let me know in a comment and I will add the book to this or any of my yearly listings. My thanks to the many Vertigo readers who have already pointed me to books that I had not known about. As far as I know, this is the only public bibliography of this kind. [Updated April 19, 21, May 18, September 9, 2021.]

Choi DMZ 2

Don Mee Choi. DMZ Colony. Wave Books, 2020. Poems, prose, photographs, and drawings that deal with the history of the U.S. involvement in Korea.

John Clark. Conversations with a Novel Virus. Sheffield: self-published in an edition of 100 copies, 2020. Quirky, humorous, angry, and thought-provoking poems in the form of conversations between the poet and the coronavirus. Appended to the back of the volume are beautiful pen and ink drawing by Sarah Grace Dye made from the windows of her Frankfurt, Germany apartment. Inside the book is a double-page spread photograph showing two pages of Dye’s sketchbook and her bookmark, which is a flattened Corona beer can top, dangling from a string. Who knew that talking with a virus could be so witty? I want one of Dye’s sketches.

Donoghue Akin

Emma Donoghue. Akin. NY: Little, Brown and Co., 2020. A retired chemistry professor and a young boy attempt to figure out the origins of a handful of puzzling photos that the man discovered relating to his mother’s wartime years in France. Donoghue’s novel includes a number of images that look like the old snapshots with crinkly-cut edges. The copyright page gives the credit for “photographic illustrations” to Margaret Lonergan. There are also several stock photographs in the book.

Caleb Femi. Poor. NY: Penguin, 2020. Poems, largely about the North Peckham estate in London where Femi grew up, along with color and b&w photographs by the author of residents and friends from the same neighborhood.

Ferrante

Elena Ferrante. “The Lying Life of Adults.” The New York Times Magazine August 16, 2020. Special fiction section. An excerpt from her forthcoming novel with “photo illustrations” by Kensuke Koike that appear to slice up and rearrange old snapshots to suggest the duplicity of people. These images were done especially for the Times excerpt and don’t appear in the novel as published by Europa Editions in 2020.

Fonseca History

Carlos Fonseca. Natural History: A Novel. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020. Translated from the 2017 Spanish original by Megan McDowell. The novel contains a number of photographs. In his Acknowledgements, Fonseca thanks Gabriel Piovanetti and Jorge Méndez for “their talent as photographers.”

Peter Gizzi. Ship of State. Kingston, NY: The Brother in Elysium, 2020. Peter Gizzi’s poem “Ship of State,” a meditation on death, grief, empathy, and survival, is combined with unique photo collages by artist and designer Jon Beacham. The book produced in a very limited edition of 12, no two copies exactly alike.

Griffiths Body

Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Seeing the Body. NY: W.W. Norton, 2020. The book contains a section of poems entitled “daughter:lyric:landscape” that consists of poems dealing with the death of Griffith’s mother and self-portrait photographs. She writes that these images show herself as “woman as ghost, woman as body, geography, and imagination, woman as a self, as a resistance, that is ever tense in the progression of frames, woman in the perpetuity of language, and woman in the sanctity of intuition.” See my review here.

Mayer memory

Bernadette Mayer. Memory. Catskill, NY: Siglio, 2020. From the publisher’s website: “In July 1971, Bernadette Mayer embarked on an experiment: For one month she exposed a roll of 35mm film and kept a daily journal. The result was a conceptual work that investigates the nature of memory, its surfaces, textures and material. Memory is both monumental in scope (over 1100 photographs, two hundred pages of text and six hours of audio recording) . . . This publication brings together the full sequence of images and text for the first time in book form, making space for a work that has been legendary but mostly invisible. Originally exhibited in 1972 by pioneering gallerist Holly Solomon, it was not shown again in its entirety until 2016. The text was published without the photographs in 1975 and has been long out of print.”

mccann aperiogon

Column McCann. Apeirogon: A Novel. NY: Random House, 2020. This novel, based on the true lives of two men—one Israeli, one Palestinian— whose daughters were both killed as a result of the ongoing conflict in Israel, contains about a dozen photographs, mostly from stock photo agencies.

olsen heaven

Lance Olsen. My Red Heaven. Ann Arbor: Dzanc Books, 2020. Olsen’s novel, inspired in part by an abstract painting by Otto Freundlich called “Mein Roter Himmel” (My Red Heaven), 1933, takes place on a single day in 1927 Weimar Berlin. Olsen brings to life numerous German luminaries, including Otto Dix, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. The final pages of the book include ten b&w uncredited photographs of the interior of a decaying building that was once obviously quite grand.

Bojan Savić Ostojić, Ništa nije ničije. Belgrade: Kontrast, 2020. A novel in Serbian (“Nothing Belongs to Anyone“) with photographs, dedicated to Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. While exploring Belgrade flea-markets, the narrator finds many libraries that had belonged to dead writers, a heritage to the former Yugoslavia.

Caryl Pagel. Out of Nowhere Into Nothing. Tuscaloosa, AL: FC2: 2020. On the copyright page of this book is the following statement: “This book is interested in memory, accumulating particulars, and retelling a good story. It is a work of nonfiction and fiction. Though it includes research and aims for veracity, the narratives ultimately rely on the author’s version of events. The author has been, and could still be, mistaken.” The pieces in this wonderful book (one hesitates to call them essays) morph slowly and mysteriously from subject to subject. Anything is game to Pagel’s curiously open mind — from sinkholes to Spiral Jetty, from Alexander Humboldt to Lucy Lippard. There are photographs, but they don’t often explain or illustrate. They suggest, instead.

Riggs Conference

Ransom Riggs. The Conference of Birds. NY: Dutton, 2020. The fifth in the series of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children’s books based on Riggs’s extraordinary collection of snapshots, cabinet cards, cartes-de-visites, etc., all used to tell stories largely intended for young adult audiences. To quote the publisher, this volume’s story is: “With his dying words, H—Jacob Portman’s final connection to his grandfather Abe’s secret life entrusts Jacob with a mission: Deliver newly con­tacted peculiar Noor Pradesh to an operative known only as V. Noor is being hunted. She is the subject of an ancient prophecy, one that foretells a looming apocalypse.”

Schad Paris Bride

John Schad. Paris Bride: A Modernist Life. California: Punctum Books, 2020. Schad recreates the life of a completely obscure woman who, in 1924, after twenty years of marriage, walks out and seems to disappear. He borrows from texts by a number of authors from the time, including Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, several Paris Surrealists, Stéphane Mallarmé, Oscar Wilde, Katherine Mansfield, and Walter Benjamin. And he includes thirty-two period photographs, some of which show documents or works of art. Several of the images are stills from René Clair’s 1924 film Entr’acte.

Lauren Shapiro. Arena. Cleveland: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2020. Set against the backdrop of a father’s repeated suicides, these powerful poems explore the ways in which violence affects our selves and our society, the ways in which it slowly erodes our core being. In the group of poems each called “Arena,” Shapiro confronts our apparent puzzling need to witness violence as a spectator, anxiously waiting for more blood to be spilled. With uncredited, full-page b&w photographs.

Tabucchi Stories

Antonio Tabucchi. Stories with Pictures. Brooklyn: Archipelago Books, 2020. Tabucchi responds to photographs, drawings, and paintings from his dual homelands of Italy and Portugal, among other countries.

Amor Towles. You Have Arrived at Your Destination. Independent Bookstore Day Publishing, 2020. The special signed, hardcover edition of this short story, originally published by Amazon Original Stories, includes uncredited photographs at the beginning of each chapter. It’s not clear who chose the images or if they should be considered part of the text, but I thought I would include this title regardless.

Manuel Vilas. Ordesa. NY: Riverhead, 2020. Translated from the 2018 Spanish original by Andrea Rosenberg. An “autobiographical novel” with photographs by the author. A nostalgic love letter to the town in which Vilas grew up (Ordesa, Spain), to his father, and to the 1970s.

Hans Jürgen von der Wense. A Shelter for Bells: From the Writings of Hans Jürgen von der Wense. Point Reyes Peninsula, CA: Epidote Press, 2020. Von der Wense is described as a “composer, translator, folklorist, wanderer, aphorist, encyclopedist, poet, and consummate mystagogue of the landscape” and “A radical, tireless, nearly obsessive walker (not unlike his Swiss contemporary Robert Walser or German compatriot W. G. Sebald).” This volume is “a collection of fragments and aphorisms” that includes photographs and other types of images. Von der Wense appears to be the creation of artist Herbert Pföstl.

Kate Zambreno. Drifts. NY: Riverhead, 2020. A novel about writing a novel (this novel), creativity, and what it means to be an artist, with photographs by Peter Hujar, Sarah Charlesworth, the Rodin Museum (Paris), and the author.

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.