I have a [deserved] reputation for being brutally honest. I lack tact; and good manners too, probably. I will, for example, tell someone if they are boring me. Indeed, there is a guy at work who I will not even allow to speak to me. If I see him opening his mouth I walk away. I’m an arsehole, basically; but I refuse to waste my time, and other people’s, engaged in conversation that isn’t worthwhile, and I refuse to lie about my feelings. Who do these lies benefit exactly? Why are people so petrified of the truth? In any case, I have often wondered how I would react to being in a profession that demanded some level of dishonesty from me, such as a doctor. To work as a GP one must, no matter how tired or irritated or disgusted, feign interest in all your patients’ minor and major ailments, one must give the impression of absolute sympathy at all times…

Tyko Gabriel Glas, the protagonist in Hjalmar Söderberg’s acclaimed Swedish novel, is in just such a situation. It is, I believe, appropriate that Söderberg chose to present his novel in the form of diary entries, because we consider a diary to be someone’s truth, to be the one place that one can be honest, no matter how alarming that truth might be. In his private thoughts, as set down on paper, Glas makes various admissions. He acknowledges, first of all, that he perhaps entered the wrong profession. ‘How can it have come about that of all possible trades, I have chosen the one that suits me least?’ he states. His bedside manner may be faultless, and kind and helpful words always on the tip of his tongue, but, in reality, the image that he presents to his patients, and to the world-at-large, is a false one; he is not who he appears to be; necessarily so, for an honest doctor would be a doctor without visitors.

“A pregnant woman is a frightful object. A new-born child is loathsome. A deathbed rarely makes so horrible an impression as childbirth, that terrible symphony of screams and filth and blood.”

One of Doctor Glas’ regular visitors is the Reverend Gregorius. While Glas fails to feel the expected good-will towards a number of his patients, he reserves a special, intense kind of disdain for the clergyman. Indeed, Gregorius’ introduction into the novel occurs while Glas is trying, unsuccessfully, to hide from him. [‘Impossible to escape!’ he laments]. As the two converse politely, the doctor considers the ‘odious physiognomy, like a nasty fungus,’ and when Gregorius admits to having a bad heart, Glas, in his thoughts, is delighted. In fact, he wishes death upon the parson, so that he might be rid of him ‘once and for all.’ This exchange, which is handled wonderfully by the author, with its mixture of blandishments and bile, occurs very early in the novel; and so one understands, almost from the beginning, that Glas isn’t merely someone who chose a career for which he is unsuited, but is potentially a very dangerous, but certainly emotionally unstable man.

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[Georg Rydeberg as Doktor Glas]

This is not, of course, to say that Glas does not have reason to feel antipathy towards Gregorius; he is, in fact, incredibly easy to dislike, at least as filtered through Glas’ lens. The main reason for this is his treatment of his wife, Helga, a woman some years his junior. Early on, Glas assumes the Reverend is ‘plaguing the life’ out of her, and as the novel progresses this proves to be the case. What this plaguing consists of is a relentless desire for sex, [almost] to the point of forcing her. There are plenty of novels – Middlemarch, for example – that deal with an unhealthy and regrettable relationship between an older man and a younger woman, but one must applaud Söderberg for not flinching in the face of the more squeamish questions these kind of unions might raise; which is to say that he directly acknowledges what we all think: that the poor woman must find being mounted by an old codger she doesn’t love deeply unpleasant. That he goes even further than this and touches upon the issue of rape within marriage, an issue that we are still not comfortable with even now, is extraordinary, especially considering that the novel was published in 1905.

In terms of Gregorius, he is shown to be, or the main characters consider him to be, a loathsome hypocrite. The idea being that he gives the impression of being a pious man, and yet he cannot  – even at the risk of his own health, and the obvious resistance from his wife – give up on getting his rocks off; that, in other words, he preaches moderation, understanding, and so on, but is incapable of these things himself. His wife even accuses him of using his religion as justification for his desires,  as though he is manipulating the word of God in order to suit himself. In this way, the heart problem from which he suffers is clearly symbolic. He has a bad heart, we’re repeatedly told, and I don’t think one is meant to take that only literally. Indeed, Glas actually has a dream in which he removes the defective organ.

However, one must not forget, as previously noted, that one only ever gets to see Gregorius as Glas does, and the doctor is, let’s say, not entirely without bias, for he has a not so innocent interest in the man’s wife. So when he is writing about the parson’s ‘grossly indecent behaviour’ one could legitimately see it as little more than jealousy. Moreover, the rest of the information, the juiciest bits in fact, the worst accusations, are provided by Helga Gregorius, and her word shouldn’t be accepted without question either, for who can say that she can be trusted? Certainly, she has a reason to want her husband dead, having mistakenly married him and then started an affair with another man. It is possible, therefore, to see her as something of a cynical manipulator, who plays upon the doctor’s feelings and naivety. Glas is a strange, ‘solitary’ man, who lacks experience with women; he is, in fact, a virgin, who has only ever once held a girl’s hand and touched her breast.

“We know so little about one another. We embrace a shadow and love a dream.”

I have now read Doctor Glas twice, and it is always interesting how one’s perception of a novel can change. The first time, I was aware of sex playing a part in the narrative, but I did not realise just how much it dominates the work.  Of course, there is the central issue of Gregorius’ libido; but sex is actually everywhere, on almost every page: Helga’s affair, her awakening as a woman in the bed of a man she actually desires;  a couple fucking in a graveyard; the multiple abortions that Glas is asked to perform, unwanted pregnancies resulting from grubby, illicit liaisons; the doctor’s frequent dreams of a naked Helga, who he calls a ‘feminine flower,’ and so on. Indeed, in terms of the the latter, one could make a case for Glas’ murderous impulse being caused by extreme sexual frustration. Again, it is Glas’ words, and observations, that we have access to, and so it is he that sees sex in everything, on every corner; and yet he considers himself to be a man who is completely in control of himself, a man who is actually disgusted by sex. ‘So much suffering for so little pleasure,’ is how he describes the act.

I hope that I have given the impression that Doctor Glas is a complex novel. One can see it as progressive, as sympathetically, seriously engaging with a multitude of important, controversial issues, such as the previously mentioned sexual rights [and rape] within marriage and abortion, as well as euthanasia and suicide. Equally, one can enjoy it as a fine example of the ‘unreliable narrator’ genre, with murder and psychosexual drama thrown in for good measure. Regardless, what is certain is that Glas is something of an existentialist anti-hero. By his own admission, he is not tied to conventional morality or duties. When he decides not to help the pregnant women who want him to abort their unborn children he does not do so because he thinks abortion is wrong, but rather out of fear of compromising himself. Likewise, his attitude towards murder is that it is permissible in certain circumstances, when the ‘rotten flesh’ needs to be cut away to preserve the healthy.



A few years ago I had arranged to meet up with a girl I was loosely dating. I liked her a lot, but as she is a DJ, who works late nights, seeing each other was not easy. I had agreed to go to the club she was playing at that night and wait for her to finish, which would be something like 3am. As I didn’t want to spend the entire night stood at the side of the DJ booth waiting for her I asked my brother if he wanted to join me. I explained why I wanted to go out, I assured him that I would be free most of the night until 3am, and offered to pay for all his drinks. He agreed, and so we got ready and left our apartment around 9pm, to have a few drinks before we made our way to the club. However, in the first pub I noticed that my brother was spending a lot of time on his phone. When we had finished our drinks, I asked if he wanted another, and at this point he declined and started to groan theatrically, holding his stomach. He told me that he needed to go outside for some air. It was clear to me that he was playacting, so I offered to accompany him. He was not best pleased.

Outside, he kept taking exaggerated breaths as though he was going to be sick, and, as I wasn’t taking the hint, eventually he told me he was so ill he needed to go home. I said that was fine, but pointed out that I didn’t believe him and that if he was faking an illness to go off and meet some friend[s] I wouldn’t easily forgive him. He maintained that he was very unwell and therefore I let him leave. I stayed in the bar for a while, had another drink, and then, after texting my girl to say I might be late or not make it at all, decided to go home and see if my brother was ok. Of course, the apartment was empty. By this stage, I was so disgusted and tired of the whole situation I decided not to go out again. Then, in the early hours of the morning my brother rolled in, extremely inebriated. He had, as I suspected, left me to go and meet up with some friends. Our relationship hasn’t been the same since. Call it an overreaction if you like, but I can’t tolerate deceitfulness.

It is possibly unfair, and an exaggeration, but I see my brother as a kind of poster boy for the modern age [the above anecdote is only one example out of thousands]. My generation has been raised to believe that you are important, that what you want is what really matters; we are encouraged to indulge ourselves, to choose ourselves if ever faced with a two courses of action, one of which will benefit someone else and one that will benefit the great me. Qualities like honour, sacrifice, duty etc are becoming increasingly rare. Of course, I am not perfect in this regard, I am not completely selfless, but I am not absolutely self-interested either. I believe that it is important to have integrity, and to be able to see outside of oneself. Unfortunately, I see less and less of this with each new generation.

“No matter how full one’s head might be with the image of greatness, one was useless, I found out, unless one was a worthy man first.”

These concerns of mine are, I believe, one reason why Japanese literature resonates with me so much, as a sizable number of their most acclaimed authors, including the one under review here, wrote extensively about the tension between modern and traditional values, attitudes and behaviour. Indeed, the protagonists in Natsume Soseki’s best novels are usually indolent and self-obsessed young men who find themselves at odds with their parents and the disappearing or declining ‘old’ ways of life. This is certainly true of his most famous work, Kokoro, whose title can be roughly translated as heart. That title has a two-fold significance: heart as in love, which plays an important role in the text, and the heart of the matter. The matter being what we have been discussing,  i.e. the changing face of Japan.

The novel is split into three sections, the first of which centres on the relationship between an older man, Sensei, and a young student who narrates the action. The student, whose name is never revealed, is away from his family, first at college and then at university in Tokyo. Like Daisuke in Soseki’s And Then, he is the archetypal modern Japanese. He is introverted, bored and unmotivated; he does study for his diploma, but leaves it until the last minute and doesn’t appear to value it, when he has been awarded it, in the way that his parents do. I call these protagonists of Soseki’s superfluous men because they have no direction, no goal towards which they are striving. The student, like many of us, goes to university, not with a career in mind, or even to learn, but because it is something to do. In fact, he values Sensei  – whose acquaintance he makes almost by stalking him – more than his lectures or books.

Sensei is a kind of misanthrope, who has withdrawn from a world “so full of freedom, independence, and our own egoistical selves.” The closest word to Sensei, in meaning, in English is teacher; it is someone who is respected and knowledgeable. It is the young man who gives him this title, and so it is clear that the student is looking for guidance [although Sensei himself says that the boy is lonely and looking for love]. In this way, perhaps Soseki is saying that young people, living in times where morality and values are less certain, where freedom is almost absolute, need help or direction. It is, I think, the case that the more freedom one has the more lost or confused one can feel, that freedom is actually something that we find very difficult to cope with [this is, in fact, the clichéd modern dilemma]. In light of all this, it is not difficult to see the older man as having a symbolic function in the novel; he is, in this scenario, representative of the old or traditional world. Yet, while that might be true to a certain extent, his character is more complex than it appears to be initially.

As one progresses through the opening section, it becomes clear that Sensei is harbouring a secret, that something happened to him long ago to make him the way that he is. One would expect that this revelation [which comes in the final section] would involve him being mistreated, would involve some confrontation with the modern, selfish, dishonourable approach to life. And that is, at least partly, the case. As a young man Sensei was cheated out of his inheritance by his uncle after the death of his parents. As with Balzac, money, or more specifically a lack of it, plays a major part in Soseki’s novels [the idea of being relieved of an inheritance comes up again in The Gate]. Is Soseki saying that an obsession with money is a disease particular to the new Japan? Perhaps, although I think he was making a point about how there are no truly good or bad people, that our values are reliant upon circumstances, that, for example, if you have the opportunity to steal then you will. We return again to the idea of freedom. I don’t know enough about Japanese history, but maybe it is the case that prior to the Meiji era [when the novel is set] there was a strict moral prescriptivism that prevented these kinds of acts.

“You seem to be under the impression that there is a special breed of bad humans. There is no such thing as a stereotype bad man in this world. Under normal conditions, everybody is more or less good, or, at least, ordinary. But tempt them, and they may suddenly change. That is what is so frightening about men.”

In any case, if this was all that had happened to Sensei then his character would not be particularly engaging. What makes him fascinating is that he, in a sense, embodies the conflict that Soseki was writing about, because he himself does something that is considered dishonourable. I won’t go into details about what exactly that is, but it is certainly something that these days would likely barely raise an eyebrow. Sensei, however, is severely damaged by it, to the extent that it dominates, and ruins, his life. This is the sense of honour that we have previously touched upon, which is for us, and for Soseki’s modern Japan, disappearing. Yes, Sensei does wrong, but he feels overwhelmingly guilty about it, and, ultimately, he takes his own life [not much of a spoiler as we know Sensei is dead within a few pages of the book], as a way of atoning for his behaviour. There is something about the Japanese idea of honour suicide that I find extraordinarily attractive. I wouldn’t be party to it myself, but to give up your life as a way of trying to make amends is very powerful. One could see Sensei, then, as someone who is both modern and traditional; he errs in a way that is consistent with the outlook of Soseki’s contemporary Japan – i.e. he is prepared to tread on someone else to get what he wants, is prepared to exercise his freedom – but responds to this dishonourable act in a way that is consistent with the Samurai code; it is, in effect, an act of nobility that is out of step with the times.


[General Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582]

Outside of all this modern vs traditional stuff, Soseki touches upon other [albeit related] themes. One is that of the city and the provinces. The student’s parents live in a village, and one is, somewhat ungenerously, given the impression that village life is old-fashioned, even backward. As for the parents, they note immediately that Tokyo has had an effect upon their returning son. Yet, even here, the provincial is, essentially, a symbol of the traditional, from which the student is trying to escape. Likewise, death, which plays a major role in Kokoro, and the tension between generations, could both be seen to suggest change or the ending of an era. Finally, what of love? I wrote earlier that it is central to the novel, but have as yet said very little about it. Partly that is to do with spoilers, but it is also because I am not sure how it relates to Soseki’s most obvious preoccupations. In his three greatest novels – Kokoro, The Gate and And Then – love could be said to be both a blessing and a curse. Indeed, in my favourite line, Sensei asks the student “do you know what it feels like to be tied down by long, black hair?” Is he saying that love in the modern age is also problematic, confusing, and difficult? If so, I guess he got that right too.


It must be great being a genius. You can do things like try and write a moralistic novel about adultery and the evils of high society and end up with a humane masterpiece on your hands. I’m pretty sure if Tolstoy had attempted to make a nuclear bomb he would have inadvertently cured cancer; he was just that kind of guy. It may be apocryphal but I have read numerous times that with this book the author’s intention was to condemn Anna and her set. Yet, if that is the case, why does Anna Karenina not read like a diatribe, like a dressing down of women like Anna and the scoundrels and fops of high society? Because there was too much love in Tolstoy, too much understanding. He may have wanted to vent his spleen, be didactic, but his intelligence and compassion would not allow it. Not only would a diatribe, a pure condemnation, not have satisfied his intellect, but, because he cared for people, he could see things from all points of view. Yes, there are moments of what you could call judgmentalism, like when Kitty describes Anna as satanic, but [almost] everyone in the book is multi-faceted and everyone elicits some sympathy from the author. Whatever the great Russian’s intentions were, I came away from the book feeling a kind of tenderness, for the characters and for the world at large.

I’ve read Anna Karenina once before and, although I very much enjoyed it, I certainly loved it far more this time around. Maybe the reason for that is that during my first read I focussed my attention too much on Anna herself. Anna – the adulteress, the titular character, and one of the most famous names in literature – is probably the least interesting of the major players in the book. She is, in fact, perhaps only interesting so much as her position, as a woman, contrasts that of her brother, Stiva Oblonsky, as a man. The novel opens with that wonderful scene, where Stiva wakes up in an unfamiliar room, and, as his sleep-fogged mind clears, he gradually comes to the realisation that he is there because he has been thrown out of the marital bedroom. Oblonsky has been caught cheating on his wife with a French governess. However, being a man Oblonsky is not lambasted [except perhaps by Levin], condemned or even all that harshly judged; he is, after not too long a time in the doghouse, forgiven, despite his wife not believing in his future fidelity. Anna, on the otherhand, as an adulterous woman, is forced to flee Russia once her affair comes to light and is shunned by society upon her return.

There is also a contrast in the way that both Anna and Stiva see infidelity, and in the reasons behind their actions. Oblonsky, as he is no longer attracted to his wife, deems it perfectly natural that his eye [and other things] ought to wander; he cheats not because he falls for the French governess but because he has the hots for her; and he does not see anything wrong in that. Anna is different. Anna considers Vronsky to be her first and only love. She finds in the relationship an emotional connection she does not have with her husband; her affair is a grand passion. This is why many readers sympathise with her; people, these days, are concerned less with duty and more with the dictum of following your heart. Anna does, however, think that her actions are wrong; she does not love her husband, but she does believe that cheating, lying, and so on, are bad things; Oblonsky, and Vronsky for that matter, lie without compunction. It is all part of that archaic idea that for a man to err is natural, but that a woman ought to be entirely chaste; that it is expected that a man will give chase, but that the woman ought always to resist and flee. I don’t know if Tolstoy’s desire was to highlight these inequalities but he does so nevertheless. I guess I am less inclined to believe that it was his desire, because Anna’s treatment at the hands of the author is different also. She loses everything, while Oblonsky manages to maintain the status quo, and, as most of us know, Anna does not survive the full duration of the book.

In any case, it is necessary to explain why, although the Anna passages and chapters are by no means badly written, I mostly found her, as a character, disappointing. I have seen her held up as a feminist icon numerous times, principally because of all that following your heart stuff and because she is regarded, in breaking from her husband, and therefore conventional society, as some kind of modern woman. Yet, I actually consider the opposite to be the case i.e. that she is not modern at all, but that she is a throwback. I find her disappointing, and often irritating, because she is so predictable; she is the kind of female character that someone like Balzac would have created, by which I mean a melodramatic woman who loses her heart to a handsome officer and ruins her life; a woman who throughout the book wrings her hands and cries and has fainting fits. Is that feminist? If so, then I have misunderstood that whole movement completely. It is not even true to say that she leaves her husband. She cheats on him, yes, but she doesn’t leave him. She, in fact, doesn’t even ask to be let go; her brother does that on her behalf. Anna, meanwhile, simply sits around weeping and gazing forlornly into the distance; she doesn’t act at all. It is her husband, Karenin, the wronged party, who frees her, despite not wanting to lose her.

While Anna disappointed me, Alexis Karenin is perhaps the best evidence of Tolstoy’s subtlety, fair-mindedness, and psychological complexity. He often seems to be glossed over in reviews and articles, but I think he is expertly drawn. Many authors, certainly around the time the book was written, would have gone one way or the other with the husband of the cheating woman: either he would be an imbecile or a saint. Karenin is neither, although I think I am right in saying that Tolstoy’s original thought was to make him saintly. What I like about Karenin is that he is essentially good, yes, but makes obvious mistakes; he is hugely successful in the business world, but he is artless where his wife is concerned. He doesn’t know how to express passion or even warm emotion, and it is clear that this [along with his ears!] is why Anna disparages him and finds it as easy as she does to wrong him. Indeed, Anna at one stage calls him a machine and says that if he had killed her and Vronsky then at least she’d be able to respect him. She doesn’t respect him though, of course, and this, in the beginning, fuels her feelings of entitlement and allows her to proceed, not without guilt, but with less compunction. Karenin’s way also serves to make Vronsky seem brighter, bigger and, crucially, more in love. It is Karenin’s smallness, his shrinking away from romance and passion, that enables the demonstrative Vronsky to seem all the more passionate and romantic and in love. The irony, the tragedy is that Karenin does love his wife very much, but he is an emotionally humble man who covers his embarrassment with jokes and easy sarcasm.

As well as Anna and Vronsky, there is another important relationship formed during the timeframe of the novel, that of Kitty and Levin. I wrote earlier that Anna is a throwback, but Constantine Levin points towards the future [over the century following the publication of the book literature became increasingly concerned with people like Levin – the introspective loner, the anguished, tortured soul]. Levin is very much a Dostoevskyan type of character [I wonder if Tolstoy ever acknowledged the influence?], he is in conflict with other people and also in conflict with himself; he is on a kind of quest to understand himself. When we first meet him he seems intense, pompous, judgmental. It is interesting that it is pretty much accepted that Levin is Tolstoy, because he isn’t particularly sympathetic at times. Take, for example, what he says about ‘fallen women.’ He compares them to a spider; he says that just as one could explain to someone who recoils from them that they are just following their nature, and that will not make one whit of difference in terms of finding them revolting, likewise he will still be disgusted by these women, no matter how one tries to explain or justify their situation.

One of the potential problems with the book, as time marches on, and people have become increasingly secular and morally laidback, is that readers are more likely to identify with and sympathise with amiable cads like Stiva Oblonsky or the intellectually and emotionally straightforward Vronsky rather than the complex Levin [because we would rather see our own flaws reflected in a character]. There is, I feel, a disconnect between who Tolstoy considered, intended as, his hero [or most heroic character] and who the general public will like and see themselves in the most. Levin is, to a certain extent, the moral or more specifically the philosophical heart of the novel; but arrogance, irritability and moodiness are not, I’m told, attractive qualities. Fortunately, however, Tolstoy breathes life into Levin by making him vulnerable, awkward, self-questioning, harder on himself than anyone else; so while he is sometimes a bit of a dick, he is also kind of loveable or endearing [he is, in fact, my favourite; but then I am a dick too]. Like almost everyone in the novel, he is not fully one thing or the other; his behaviour and attitude changes, he is inconsistent in the way that real people are.

If Levin is the moral or philosophical heart of the novel, and Anna provides the tragedy, it is Kitty who goes on the most admirable journey. At the beginning of the novel she is a socialite; she a pretty young girl, who likes balls and dancing and dresses. She is aware of her attractiveness and proud of it, but she is not conceited. Kitty’s two suitors are Levin and Vronsky; her preference is for Vronsky, because he is elegant and handsome and has good prospects [although her mother does seem to have played some part in her choice too]. However, once Vronsky abandons her for Anna Kitty starts to reassess her feelings, her priorities; she begins, in effect, to mature. She comes to see the balls as a kind of cattle market, as a way of arranging marriages, or more specifically of marrying off daughters. The pivotal moment for Kitty is meeting Mlle Varenka, who is a kind of role model; Varenka is pretty too, but is without ego, and Kitty wants to copy her. Crucially, however, she comes to realise that she can’t be anything but herself; that is her epiphany. One could see Kitty’s story as a journey towards Levin, but it isn’t that to me, it is a journey towards womanhood, towards independence [of thought], towards finding out who she really is.

That Tolstoy was a master of character construction and character psychology I hope to have made clear, but his art extends well beyond that sphere. He was, in my opinion, also the master of detail; he had an uncanny ability to know what to draw a readers attention to in order to elevate a scene, for example, the way that Kitty brushes the hoarfrost from her muff or, while at a ball, how she is danced towards Anna, her partner manoeuvring her so that they evade the ribbons and tulle on the other women’s dresses. Tolstoy was able to give significance to apparently insignificant things, he was able to imbue them with poetry. To my mind, Count Leo was also the master of tempo or pacing; he appeared to understand exactly the right point at which to move on his narrative; when the society scenes are getting dull, the action will move to the country; likewise, if Levin is starting to bore, Tolstoy will look in on Kitty. Finally, and perhaps most impressively, Tolstoy was the master of grand scenes. There are numerous grand scenes in Anna Karenina, by which I mean significant scenes that become burned into your consciousness. My favourite is Kitty iceskating; but there is also the wonderful chapter where Levin takes up  a scythe and spends a whole day working his own farm, the mushroom picking with Varenka and Sergius, and Vronsky’s horse race. The horse race is particularly potent, because it foreshadows his and Anna’s fate, it sums up their relationship. Initially, the race is exciting, romantic; Vronsky takes the lead, and appears to be sure to win. Yet he makes a fatal, stupid error and his horse falls and breaks its back. As silly as it sounds, that horse is Anna; Vronsky by pursuing her, by riding her so hard, ruins her and, if you want to be dramatic about it, ultimately kills her.

As I come to the end of my review I realise that I have hardly touched on the novel’s themes. What is Anna Karenina really about? I am sure in classrooms around the world that is what is being most discussed. However, I sometimes think these kinds of questions are irrelevant, especially in relation to very long novels such as this. Anna Karenina has many themes, it is about many things; there is no single standout idea. Yes, to a certain extent it is about adultery; it is about love, it is about the contrast between a superficial attraction and a meeting of souls [or I think that is what Tolstoy himself intended, at least initially], for example, Kitty and Levin vs Anna and Vronsky; it is about relationships, familial and sexual; it is about gender and class; it is about duty [see: the brothers, and Stiva and Dolly, and Anna and Karenin and her to son etc]; it is about death; and so on. But, the genius of the book is that more than being about anything Anna Karenina is a believable representation of something. When reading the book what we are exposed to are thoughts, feelings, mundane moments, and dramatic ones too. We follow a group of people who we care about as they live their lives over a significant period of time. Life, for better and for worse; that, to me, is Anna Karenina.

Here, by the way, is Tolstoy as a young man:


Just look at the glorious fucker.


I’ve always found the plight of the panda both moving and somewhat amusing. It truly is an animal not made for these times, an animal not meant to endure. It can’t eat, can’t procreate; it almost seems as though it wants to die. Its situation is made sadder by the fact that at some point it must have flourished. Anyway, whenever I think of pandas, or when I see one on TV or something, I am always put in mind of Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. It is a novel that deals with a family that were once prosperous, but that, like the panda, are ill-suited to the times they eventually find themselves in; the Makiokas are a family tied to archaic systems, ways of life, and values. This is why the novel packs an emotional punch, because there is something horribly inevitable about the fate of the characters, about their increasing irrelevance and ultimate insignificance.

Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks is often grouped together with books like The Makioka Sisters under the heading of novels about decline. However, as a novel about decline Buddenbrooks isn’t particularly thought-provoking, and it certainly doesn’t deal with the subject as inventively as Tanizaki. In fact, I am not entirely convinced that Mann was all that interested in it as a subject, despite subtitling the work the decline of a family. Buddenbrooks is a family saga, spanning many generations, and therefore decline is a consequence of the natural passing of time, is of the kind that you would expect from any similar novel of significant length; the decline experienced by the family is the kind that comes to us all, through old age, failing energy etc.

“The Ladies Buddenbrook from Breite Strasse did not weep, however – it was not their custom. Their faces, a little less caustic than usual at least, expressed a gentle satisfaction at death’s impartiality.”

To return to The Makioka Sisters as a comparison, in Tanizaki’s novel the change in fortunes has already occurred prior to the events being described, the Makioka’s heyday has already been and gone; it is what gives it its elegiac atmosphere. Everything in Tanizaki’s world is coloured by this change in fortunes. But that is not the case with Buddenbrooks. In Mann’s novel the fortunes of the family ebb and flow; there are successes and failures. Both The Makioka Sisters and Buddenbrooks are concerned with values, ways of life etc that are not relevant to us [or most of us] now; they are both novels that focus on disappearing worlds, but Mann’s novel simply recreates that world, rather than saying anything meaningful about why it disappeared/is disappearing. The Makiokas are out of time, but the Buddenbrooks, for the most part, are very much of theirs.

So while the subtitle is not exactly misleading, because it is literally true, it might be considered unfortunate for it seems to dominate the thoughts of readers and reviewers, meaning that they overlook what are, in my opinion, the more engaging aspects of the novel. What I was far more taken with were the fascinating, and often moving, things that Mann has to say about family and class and the world of business. The patriarch Johann Buddenbrook is a merchant, and a successful one at that. He is also exceedingly bourgeois; he believes in the overriding importance of the family and the reputation of the firm; he believes in the entitlements of his class and position, in the absolute nature of social hierarchy. It is possible, then, to view the Buddenbrooks as intolerably snobbish; they, it is fair to say, have a very high opinion of their worth and standing.

For me, it is these attitudes that dominate the novel and the characters, and that, in some cases at least, ultimately leads to their unhappiness. Take the issue of marriage, Johann admits near the beginning that he didn’t chose his wife for love, and he passes on the idea that marriage is a duty to the family to his children. Tony, his daughter, is the one who suffers most in this regard. In one of the finest sections in the novel she is pursued by a suitor, Bendix Grunlich, who, in her own words, she cannot stand. She rejects Grunlich numerous times, but he refuses to take no for an answer and essentially gangs up on the girl with her father in order to force her to submit. Johann sees the match as a good one and appears to be unaware of how grotesque his behaviour is. Yet to be fair to him, while it may seem unfair to us now, in the 1800’s and amongst the appropriate classes marrying for commercial or social reasons was not out of the ordinary. In any case, Tony relents, taking pride in her submission, in doing something for the family. In one poignant scene she makes a note of her engagement, before she has verbally accepted Grunlich, in the old family ledger where the history of the Buddenbrooks is recorded. In another, as she is about to be driven away with her husband she jumps out of the carriage, throws her arms around her father and asks him, are you proud of me, papa? The tragedy is that Tony is worth so much more, she is a lively, vivacious and charming girl, yet she is categorically her father’s daughter, she is, fatally, in terms of her own happiness, a Buddenbrook; Tony is incapable of compromising on what she thinks is due to her, in word and deed, as a member of that distinguished family.

“Thomas Buddenbrook’s existence was no different from that of an actor – an actor whose lfe has become one long production, which but for a few hours for relaxation, consumes him unceasingly.”

The Buddenbrooks are ruled by their sense of duty and honour, their conventionality. To a certain extent, the book reminded me of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. In that novel the advice appears to be that it is not always wise or prudent to forsake the solid, the familiar for the glittering and exciting. In Mann’s novel the message isn’t clear; it is not obvious where his sympathies lie, but he often contrasts the conventionality of the strongest members of the family with the impulses or character of the artist or the imaginative or romantic [in the Brochean sense] person. Christian, for example, is lambasted, by his brother Tom in particular, for being a buffoon, for shaming the family by taking up with actresses. Poetry, novels, romance are all things that are described as youthful folly, as the kind of things you engage in briefly before settling down; and Tony gives up the one genuine love of her life to fall in line with family policy. Ultimately, the Buddenbrooks have no freedom, even though that is mostly a self-imposed state of affairs.

Tom is the epitome of conventionality, the poster boy; his immaculate manners, his refined bearing, his diplomacy is a large part of what defines him. After a while he comes to dominate the narrative, and the family itself. His rejection of Christian, his antipathy towards him, is based entirely upon what he sees as his brother’s tactlessness and inability to understand what their status as Buddenbrooks demands. In one scene towards the end he flares up at him because he wants to marry someone of low-birth; Christian accuses him of lacking feeling or empathy. What is most interesting about Tom is that he chooses for a wife one who is artistically inclined; yet, tellingly, he does not love her for her passion, or appreciate it in-and-of-itself, but rather he sees it almost as a charming, albeit inconsequential, decoration, like a lovely piece of jewellery. One of my favourite passages in the novel is when Tom’s wife accuses him – patronisingly, arrogantly – of having no musical feeling, of only liking the most easily-digestible, populist tunes. Tom responds with incredulity, for he cannot comprehend why he is being disparaged for enjoying music that he finds stirring or gently moving. To put this in a modern context, Tom likes Angels by Robbie Williams and his wife likes Dead Flag Blues by Godspeed You Black Emperor.

This tension between the conventional or bourgeois attitude and the imaginative or artistic is greatest when Tom has a son. Hanno is even more precious than his mother, even more sensitive and dreamy. For Tom Hanno is too indulged, too coddled and, most alarmingly, too feminised by his wife and nanny/governess. Tom laments that his son isn’t more active, more manly; he sees art, he sees expressions of feeling in fact, as womanly. Hanno is, in this sense, not a true Buddenbrook; he is not, as far as Tom is concerned, a model son, is not the kind of son he had hoped for. The ideal son would be one who is reserved, but strong and proud; he would grow up to be a merchant, and one day take over the family business. What Tom gets instead is a sissy who loves music; because of this both the father and the son suffer. Perhaps Mann’s ultimate aim was to show how hard it is to be an artist, or to be unconventional, in bourgeois society, but more movingly, more interestingly, Buddenbrooks reminds us how most families consist of a bunch of people who are very different personalities, who, because they are tied to each other by this incredibly strong bond, have to try and rub along, have to try and understand each other.

In terms of style, Mann wrote in a relatively simplistic manner. The sentences are short, the language not very difficult and, unlike both Doctor Faustus and The Magic Mountain, there are no long philosophical passages. One of the things that Mann’s work is most often criticised for is how detached, how arch and ironic, the narrative voice is. Mann tended to write as though he had a wry smile on his face; he made it abundantly clear that his characters are characters, not in a meta or post modern way, but by making sure that, like Dickens, his third person impersonal narrator was always a presence in the text, offering droll asides etc. Having said that, Buddenbrooks is Mann’s warmest work; it is the closest he got to producing characters that we believe in, that we fall in love with, that don’t exist primarily as ciphers. This is a truly wonderful book, which confirms that Thomas Mann was one of the great geniuses of world literature.


“The whole world goes on crutches…a hobbling monstrosity…” – August Esch

The wonderfully named Heimito von Doderer, author of the monumental, three volume, novel The Demons, responded to comparisons with mad genius Robert Musil, author of the equally monumental The Man Without Qualities, by declaring that, on the contrary, his great work was not like Musil’s because he, at least, von Doderer that is, could complete his! Well, he was right of course, completion of a work is a tick in your column, although The Demons is, in no other way, the superior work. If I had to choose one existential Austrian novel fit to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Musil’s, one that could maybe even kick sand in it’s face, then that would be The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch. Broch was a strange man, one who appeared to consider novel-writing as an activity for plebs; it was, he suggested, an intellectually inferior pursuit, inferior to philosophy, which was his real passion. And yet he wrote two of the greatest novels in the German language, the one under review here and The Death of Virgil.

Structurally The Sleepwalkers is divided into three [largely distinct] parts, or short novels; indeed, it is often referred to as a trilogy, although the three novels are never published separately. The reason for this is that in order to fully understand what Broch’s was trying to say they must be read together, one after another, from start to finish without breaks. While in a narrative sense there is [almost] nothing linking the first two parts of the book, while there is very little continuity between them, and even the third, although it shares some characters with the first and second parts, has a distinct storyline, philosophically the parts hang together as a whole. To give you a sense of what to expect from the book I will discuss each part separately and try and say something about Broch’s ideas, his unifying vision, as I proceed.

The first novel, which runs to approximately 160 pages, is called The Romantic. It concerns Joachim von Pasenow, an officer, and his relationships with earthy working girl Ruzena and posh totty Elisabeth. Of course, the term romantic could be perceived as purely descriptive, as the action in this first part is centred around love and marriage and romance, yet its real meaning is a reference to Joachim’s state of mind and the state of Germanic [and possibly world] society-culture at the time the novel is set. So, what Broch means is not romance or the romantic, as we generally understand those words, but romanticism as a world-view. Pasenow is a man still tied to what Broch considers to be a disappearing set of values, such as honour, duty, and chivalry. However, what has sprung up around him is a new way of thinking about the world, about morality, a new relationship with the world, which is encapsulated by his friend, a civilian, Bertrand. Bertrand, who Joachim is both drawn to and suspicious of, is a business man, a capitalist, who cares little for the absurd dictates of honour, etc.

Broch expertly handles Joachim’s moral-ethical crisis; he makes you believe in the battle taking place within him, between the new and the old, between an intense longing for freedom or liberalism, encapsulated by Ruzena, and traditional conservative values, such as his duty, as he sees it, to marry and protect Elizabeth. At the beginning of The Romantic Ruzena is a dancer at a casino who Joachim’s father tries to buy, for one night at least, for his son. Joachim baulks at this, but eventually the couple start an affair and it is through her that he discovers erotic love. It is telling that they come together as lovers, not as client and whore, because while prostitution is a transaction subject to rules and expectations of behaviour, a state of affairs that Joachim is comfortable with and is used to, a love affair is different. Love affairs are wild and confusing and follow their own [il]logical course; there is no prescribed way of behaving, and this seduces and scares Joachim.

Almost surprisingly for a novel-of-ideas, it is not only the central characters who are well-drawn. One of the most impressive things about Broch’s writing is his subtle characterisation of all of the players in his novel-as-a-whole, no matter how small their part; for example, as someone indicative of a new way-of-being one would expect that Ruzena would be one-dimensional, be it brassy or hard-faced or whatever, that, furthermore, she would be uninterested in love or traditional values, and yet she is incredibly vulnerable and seems to yearn for the kind of life Joachim is running away from, even though she knows it is impossible for her. Elizabeth, too, is not merely a gilded void, not merely a blonde-haired virgin-innocent, even though that is how Joachim sees her. She is also seduced by, or drawn to, Bertrand [Ruzena being already of that world is the only one who isn’t], is also torn between [or, as Broch would have it, is sleepwalking through] the old and new moral systems.

The second part is called The Anarchist, which is set some time later [1903] than The Romantic and [mostly] features different characters. Here the focus is August Esch, a book-keeper, who loses his job and soon finds another with the Central Rhine Shipping Company, which is owned by Pasenow’s friend, Bertrand. Beyond this, the surface action of the story is Esch’s relationship with the ageing Mother Hentjen and his own foray into business as a partner in a female wrestling enterprise [I shit you not]; but, as in the first part of the novel-as-a-whole, it is what is happening psychologically to the main character, his existential crisis, and how that relates to the times, that is the real focus.

The anarchy of the title refers to Esch’s state of mind, and the moral-cultural state of Germany. Unlike Joachim, whose life has clear prospects and a clear line of progression [if he chooses to follow it], Esch’s life, and German socio-political life, is unpredictable, is unstable. Jobs are held then lost or given up, women are had and thrown away, and while capitalism has now taken over the country socialism has risen up in [apparent] opposition. In The Romantic Joachim found himself caught between two ways of being, two separate ways of approaching the world, one of which he must choose as his own, but Esch’s crisis is born out of not knowing what his choices are. The times are characterised by a moral-cultural murkiness, an ambiguity, while Esch strives for clarity, for concreteness; he feels, like a lot of people do these days actually, cut adrift with no rudder, with no one or no thing to direct him.

Abandoned, in the Sartrean sense, he appears to turn towards quasi-religious thinking. After being present during a knife-throwing act he becomes obsessed with the female assistant, the girl who has the knives thrown at her. He believes it is his task to save this girl from an act likened by Broch to crucifixion; not only that, but that he must somehow sacrifice himself in order to do it. Then, in an important scene towards the end of The Anarchist, during which Esch and Bertrand [a strangely God-like figure] meet, the idea of a redeemer is touched upon. The idea, voiced by Bertrand, is that humanity can only return to a stable state with the coming of a man who will bring in his wake almost total destruction, i.e. that only when society has reached its lowest point can it be rebuilt; this man, you might say, with hindsight, was Hitler, and the beginning period of necessary destruction is dealt with in part three.

The third novel, which is by far the longest, is called The Realist and takes place during World War 1. Aside from another jump forward in history, and the introduction of war-time conditions, what really sets it apart from its predecessors is its more experimental form. The Romantic and The Anarchist were both straightforward narratives, solely focused on one story, one set of characters, but The Realist is made up of multiple stories, including a Salvation Army girl, the critically injured Godicke, Hanna Wendling, and Huguenau; in addition Broch dabbles in poetry and includes a series of essays entitled The Disintegration of Values. Your enjoyment of this third part isn’t assured, even if you enjoyed parts one and two, as it seems, having read some reviews of the book on the web, that The Realist is either the favourite or the least liked amongst readers. I would say, though, that the essays and poetry etc are not that difficult, are not dry and humourless either, and they do serve a purpose, which is to elucidate Broch’s themes and ideas. In any case, if one needs a reason to persevere with part three then it would be that it is this section of the novel-as-a-whole that brings Esch and Joachim together, who team up in [philosophical] opposition to a new kind of man, Huguenau. Huguenau, unlike Pasenow, and even the anarchist Esch, is entirely without principle. He is prepared to act in any way, without conscience, and so the progression of humanity towards a state of being thoroughly self-serving is complete. To make absolutely clear that this man is without scruple his first act is to desert from the army; he then proceeds to con and swindle and ultimately murder.