You’d be forgiven looking at a slim volume of 142 pages bookmarked with so many page tabs that I enjoyed this. Not the case. It was a tactic to stop myself from falling asleep; a tactic that didn’t always succeed for it still took me a week to read this cover to cover. But I was not to be defeated by a 142 page long novella.
This was never going to be my kind of book. Middle-aged man, mid-life crisis, angst and melancholy – crumbs, I don’t have much time for my own mid-life crisis. Isn’t that why I read? Why on earth did I pick this up?
1) I like to keep up to date with contemporary German fiction and this won the prestigious Georg-Buechner Preis in 2004.
2) The cover – it’s all kinds of arty wonderful.
3) The shoe tester lives in Frankfurt – that was home for 8 years. I was looking forward to revisiting the city ……
And revisit the city I did – through Chamissostrasse, Gutleutstrasse, the market place, the bridges over the Main, the flea market. Yes, the city came to life even if the reader didn’t …. at least not for the first half.
The shoe tester is employed by a shoe manufacturer to test new products and spends his days wandering through the city with his thoughts, his past and his mid-life crisis. He appears to have lived off his partner, taking more than he gave in the relationship. She has now left him, though for some curious reason, she has left a significant amount of money in the bank account for him to live on. As he wanders through the city, he muses on her motivations (guilt?), his sense of loss and worthlessnes. He also encounters many, many ex-girlfriends. As a character he is as vulnerable as his feet:
“Whenever I look at my naked feet, they’re about 15 years older than the rest of me. I study the veins that stick out so prominently, the ankles swollen like cushions, and the toenails that are growing harder and harder and taking on that sulfurous yellow color characteristic of the no longer very young.”
46-years old, with no career to speak of, no woman and no direction. A situation of his own making. Not the way he was brought up at all:
“My father was particularly proud of the fact that he worked from age 16 up until his death. He had it good. He forgot his conflicts during and because of his work. With me it’s exactly the other way around. It’s only while and if I am working that I think about my conflicts. For that reason it’s better for me to avoid working altogether.”
Actually the book is very quotable. The narrator’s wry and sometimes sardonic observations are entertaining, very perceptive and sometimes a little close to the bone!
Of one girlfriend: “she is presumably very melancholic ….. although it’s still not clear to me if she’s aware of her own melancholy. The various material fetishes surrounding her (too many clothes, too much entertainment, too much search for meaning, too much decoration) would suggest she isn’t.”
Aaaargh, I don’t want this guy analysing the clutter in my house!
His sense of worthlessness seems genuine and he never descends into self-pitying navel-gazing. BUT, he is male and the testosterony sections didn’t do it for me (You know, the breast fixation, the conquest in the hairdresser’s ……)
Fortunately there’s more structure in the second half but not until life has inflicted further confidence shattering humiliations. But the world is full of the melancholic middle-aged in search of respite and he creates,more by accident than design, The Institute For Memory Arts, a therapeutic clinic to relieve its patients of their acute individual boredom.
It relieved me of mine also and I, thoroughly enjoyed the final satirical section of the book.
Looking back on this entry, it would seem that I enjoyed much more of this book than I even realised. I simply couldn’t get round a deep antipathy to the central character. Now I know that’s not really an indicator of literary merit but to get a full 5-star rating, I have to appreciate the literariness and be engaged in the tale. Hence .
P.P.S The book inspired a really entertaining conversation on the German Literature Group Reader of the groups.msn.com/bigreaders board. It would appear that my Myers-Brigg personality type has quite a lot to with my lack of shoe testing appreciation!