Grüß Gott, Österreich ! Stand up and take a bow. For once we are letting the Austrian penmanship take precedence over the German language in which these stories are written. Austria, home of the beautiful Tyrol, scrumdidiliumptious Sachertorte (cue gratuitous photo of a young (skinny) Lizzy eating piece in the Hotel Sacher a good many moons ago) and my first German language teacher. So there you go. Nostalgia trip over. Onto the literature ….
… and another hit for the Penguin Mini Moderns with the discovery of yet another author whose writing I shall explore in more depth. Robert Musil’s eponymous Flypaper, probably the strongest piece of prose in this post (and given what’s coming, that’s quite a compliment). At only 3.25 pages it’s very short and the sharp lucid observations in it typical of many pieces in this collection. Of flies, newly trapped on poisonous flypaper:
Here they stand all stiffly erect, like cripples pretending to be normal, or like decrepit old soliders (and a little bowlegged, the way you stand on a sharp edge). They hold themselves upright, gathering strength and pondering their position.
It is a hopeless situation and one, which Musil’s pen renders hypnotic and impossible to turn from. Other species are given similar treatment: sheep, monkeys, birds. Homo sapiens finds himself the subject of Musil’s knowing, sometime cynical reflections. Of tourists drawn to famous places, they already look forward to the memories. He’s not wrong. I like being there, seeing and tasting that. I particularly loved sampling the authentic Sachertorte in Vienna and have had great pleasure ever since trying to find a recipe that comes close. I haven’t found it yet but I shan’t give up trying!
Translated by Peter Wortsman
When in Austria, this blog is never far from the short stories of Stefan Zweig. As long as Pushkin keep publishing, I shall keep reading. Wondrak and Other Stories is quite different in tone to other collections. It’s much more serious and quite likely to prove divisive depending on where you stand with regard to war and the rights of the individual against the state. Zweig was a life-long pacificist and these stories contain an underlying passion that I’ve not felt in his fiction before. In The Snow relates the tragic story of a community of Jews who freeze to death while attempting to escape a medieval pogrom. Written in 1901, it feels remarkably prescient of what was to follow later in the twentieth century. Compulsion, based on Zweig’s own experiences in Switzerland, records the bitter disputes that arise in a marriage between two pacifists when the draft order is received and the man suddenly feels forced to obey it. We’ve spoken before of Zweig’s ability to get into the mind of a woman. Here Paula’s feelings can only be described as raw …
“But no”, she said, “I won’t lie. I may be too cowardly to do it. Millions of women have been too cowardly when their husbands and children were dragged away – not one of them did what she ought to have done. Your cowardice poisons us. What will I do if you go away? Weep and wail and go to church and ask God to let you off with some light kind of service. And then perhaps I’ll mock men who didn’t go. Anything is possible these days.”
No one can accuse Ruzena, the disfigured woman in who lives alone in the forest with her only son, of that kind of cowardice The story is an explicit exploration of state ownership. From the child’s birth, his mother instinctively feels the threat of the state, characterised in Wondrak, a bureaucrat who ensures that citizens perform the necessary duties. When he forces Ruzena to register her child’s existence, it is the first in a series of formalities designed to separate mother and son.
Now he was hers, all hers but if those people in the offices, if the State and the Mayor wrote his name in one of their stupid books, a part of the baby as a human being would belong to them. They would have got a grip on his ankle so to speak, they could summon him and order him about.
Her worst fears prove accurate and the First World War forces her and her son into open acts of defiance. Quite how it turns out for them remains unknown as the story remained unfinished. Zweig probably didn’t know how to resolve it to his satisfaction because the state definitel had the upper had at the point where he stopped writing. Depressing but very thought-provoking.
Translated by Anthea Bell
Daniel Kehlmann has dual nationality – German and Austria. Hence, the inclusion of his latest publication, Fame with its subtitle A Novel in Nine Episodes in this post. There’s always something tongue-in-cheek about Kehlmann and you’ve got to ask whether he’s having a go at his own literary celebrity in this piece. If he is, he’s not whinging about it.
In the first story the mobile phone number of a famous author, known only as Ralf, is mistakenly assigned to the new phone of Elbing, a working class man. The results are comic as Elbing takes a number of calls from Ralf’s acquaintances. At first he is bemused but gradually he begins to enjoy being called by Ralf’s various love interests and playing fast and loose with them. Other stories pick up the literary refrains and the theme of loss of identity to technology In one an old woman – a fictional character – begs her author for mercy and the right to live. In another an author is stranded in a country when her mobile phone fails. Another author, a pretentious so and so, begins to write
a novel without a protagonist! A structure, the connections, a narrative arc, but no main character, no hero advancing throughout
It seems that this is a statement of Kehlmann’s intent. Characters and motifs reappear at intervals during the sequence of stories providing a loose-knit continuity that circles around until we eventually discover the consequences of the misallocated phone number in story one. The character sketches are vivid but remain mere sketches; a constraint imposed by Kehlmann’s non-structure, which, to be honest, I found tricksy, not very engaging and definitely not a novel.
I tolerated the conceits of Kehlmann’s characters but if there’s a serious point being made, it was lost on me. Not on Alberto Manguel, however. Did we read the same book?
What did strike me, however, is this. Kehlmann is now of a similar age to Zweig when he was writing the anti-war stories of Wondrak and Other Stories. No further comment needed as to the superficiality of our times.
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway