germany

THE BLUE FLOWER BY PENELOPE FITZGERALD

I grew up in a home in which a washing machine, for example, was an extravagance we could not afford. However, we did own a large selection of hardback books, which my father – perhaps in an effort to convince my mother that he was a sensitive and high-minded man – had purchased during the early stages of his marriage. Yet most of these books – including the complete works of Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, and some hefty poetry anthologies – remained untouched until I was old enough to understand that they were not simply a decorative feature. Of course, I could not make sense of the greater part of what I read, but I found comfort in emotions and situations that were alien to me and beyond my personal experience, in being able to transport myself away from my dreary surroundings. When I read, say, a poem by Dylan Thomas I felt as though he was trying to tell me something, was reaching out to me, but, at the same time, had endeavoured to make that message as beautiful or interesting as possible, like a woman putting on her best underwear before jumping into bed with her partner.

By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I was writing my own poetry and short stories. I wrote terribly, of course, but it was something that I felt compelled to do. It didn’t seem strange to me then, although it does now, that I chose to express myself in words rather than with violence. My parents did not encourage me to be creative; I don’t think they even knew that I spent most of my time reading and writing. They had no expectations for me, wanted nothing for me, as far as I could tell, except that perhaps I would not ‘get into trouble’ like the majority of my contemporaries. I was fifteen when my English teacher entered a story I had written in a competition, and I won. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t attend the prize-giving. I was awkward, insular and unambitious. My father was a bed maker, my mother, when she could find work, was a cleaner or barmaid. I wasn’t ashamed of them, I was ashamed of myself. I subsequently went to college, then to university, to study English literature and Philosophy; and at each stage I felt unfit for purpose.

“But even more heavenly than the flashing stars are those infinite eyes which the night opens within us, and which see further even than the palest of those innumerable hosts.” – Novalis

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald concentrates on a few years in the life of young Fritz von Hardenberg, who later made his name as the romantic poet and philosopher Novalis. Approaching the novel, one might expect that the aim would be to show his development as an artist, and there is some of that, but what came through most clearly, and movingly, for me was a portrait of a man who is unsuited to a practical existence, and who is at odds with his most practical parents. Indeed, the Hardenbergs are said to not invite neighbours to their home, and not accept invitations, as this ‘might lead to worldliness.’ When the French revolution is reported in the newspaper the Freiherr believes the people to have gone ‘mad’ and bans the paper from the home. He is strict man who does not like new ideas, and will not tolerate frivolity in his children. Fritz’s mother, on the other hand, is described as having a ‘narrowness of mind’; she sees the disturbances in France as being ‘no more than a device to infuriate her husband.’

Yet it would be wrong to give the impression that Fritz’s parents are hard and unloving. The Freifrau is simple, yes, but she is a good, affectionate woman. She, for example, offers Fritz her bracelet – the only one she considers truly her own – from which he might fashion his engagement rings. Even his tough old father breaks down in tears after visiting his son’s sick wife-to-be and proposes to give her some of his property. The Hardenberg’s are, in fact, a happy family, who would, says Fritz, give their lives for each other. It is simply that there is a generational clash, between the parents and all their children, but which is most keenly felt in their relationship with Fritz. So while the Freiherr wants his eldest son to be educated ‘in the German manner’, to take a year of Law so as to be able to protect the family’s property, Fritz instead enrols in courses for philosophy and history. The old man expects him to begin a career as an inspector of salt mines, while the ‘dreamy, seemingly backward’ son is only really fit for being a poet and writer. The novel, therefore, is not really concerned with the creative process, but rather with how an artist responds to being raised in an environment that doesn’t nurture, or even acknowledge, his creativity.

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The Blue Flower is often described, or sold, as a love story, and yet for me his relationship with Sophie von Kuhn is simply further evidence of Fritz’s impractical, romantic nature. First of all, she is only twelve years old when they meet and so is not, and could not be, his intellectual equal; in fact, she can barely write. Moreover, she is portrayed as being somewhat uncouth, which is of course not unusual in a child. One of the central questions in the novel is, then, why does Fritz love Sophie? Certainly, it is not due to her supreme physical attractiveness, for we are given to believe that the ‘decent good-hearted saxon girl’ is very ordinary looking. Nor is the answer simply that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, as some have tritely argued. It is the case that Fritz sees in her childish ways something natural, free and easy. She represents for him, as women do for a number of men, nature, innocence, etc. She is uninhibited. The most significant moment in the book in terms of understanding her appeal is when Erasmus asks her for a lock of her hair, and she laughs at him because, unknown to the boy, she has lost her hair due to illness. Her lack of embarrassment and ego is charming. In this way, there is a subtle change in the way that one reacts to the novel, for the real issue is not can Sophie make Fritz happy, but can he do the same for her, for she has no romantic ideals on which to build her love.

“A word of advice. If, as a young man, student, you are tormented by a desire for women, it is best to get out into the fresh air as much as possible.”

There is one other, perhaps more interesting and tragic, love story in The Blue Flower, which involves Karoline Just’s unrequited feelings for Fritz. Sophie von Kuhn dies, and this is upsetting, of course, but, as noted above, at no point did I believe that her marriage to Fritz would be a successful one. Karoline, on the other hand, is, at least on the surface, perfect for him. She is mature, intelligent, warm-hearted, and, most crucially, believes in him and looks up to him. With her Fritz would have been happy, and yet he fails to see it. In a novel that is full of wonderful character portraits, she is, if not my favourite, then certainly the most emotionally affecting, for her cross is that she is not exciting enough. She is not poetry, she is not philosophy; she does not encourage romantic ideas; she is too practical, too conventional a choice for a man of genius.

THE GLASS BEES BY ERNST JÜNGER

If you have been following my reviews you will know that I have spent a significant number of weeks in Prague this year. I have already shared many stories pertaining to my time in that city, but there is one that I have been keeping in reserve. One Saturday night I lost my friend in the classy [it isn’t classy] Lucerna nightclub. Upon exiting the building at 4am I realised that not only had my phone died, but that I also did not know my way back to the hotel, nor even, in my inebriated state, remember its name. I tried, first of all, to enlist the help of a taxi driver, but with his little English and my little Czech, we amicably agreed to drop the matter. Next, I approached the locals, and for the first time in my life I understood what it meant to be a foreigner in need, rather than simply a tourist, for they all treated me with either suspicion or disdain.

At this point, I began to pray; not to God, of course, but to my phone. I made promises, extravagant promises, to it in return for a little juice, a few moments of illumination, one bar, anything, so that I could call or text or, and this thought was almost too much to bear, use google maps to navigate a route back to the hotel. But it wasn’t to be; the phone had forsaken me; and so I set off. To where? To nowhere, to anywhere. I walked. Head up. Feet dancing to a peculiar rhythm. After a while I spotted two people, or, to be precise, I heard them. Their voices were familiar. English voices. Northern English voices. The two girls were from Wigan, a place I had staunchly avoided throughout my life, but which now seemed glorious to me, and, no, they did not mind if I walked with them, for they were lost too.

Of course, eventually I found my way to my back to the Residence Leon D’Oro, sometime around 6am, but that is not important, not relative to this review anyway. What has stayed with me in terms of this experience is the experience. Had my phone not died I would never have trawled the streets of Prague in the early hours of the morning in the company of two girls; the friendship we shared for a short period of time, which was precious to me then, and remains precious to me now, would have been denied me. Indeed, isn’t it the case that many of the forms of technological progress that have found their way into our everyday lives, while claiming to bring people together, often, and for prolonged periods of time, in reality keep us apart? Are these machines improving our lives or destroying them? Obviously, I am not alone in my concerns; the science fiction community has engaged with them on more than one occasion. Yet it was something of a surprise to find similar ideas present in the novel under review here, The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger, which was published in 1957.

“Human perfection and technical perfection are incompatible. If we strive for one, we must sacrifice the other.”

In terms of plot, of which there isn’t a great deal, the focus is on Richard, a former cavalryman who narrates the book. He is in a dire financial predicament, which has put a strain on his marriage and led to him having to sell most of his possessions; in turn, he has approached an old colleague, Twinnings, who appears to be some kind of employment broker or agent. It is this man who puts Richard in contact with Zapparoni, whose [very successful] business is in robotics. Richard is, therefore, at a low ebb; in fact, I have come across few characters who are as relentlessly disappointed, and self-critical, as he is. Indeed, he points out that a chief of staff once called him an ‘outsider with defeatist inclinations,’ an assessment he goes to great lengths to validate. He is ‘suspicious’ and ‘quickly hurt’; he is ‘a man of failure’ who is ‘not suited to deal with money or earn it’; he has ‘experienced much but accomplished little’, and so on.

However, what is fascinating about Richard is not that he is dissatisfied with the way that his life has unfolded, in terms of material gain, but rather that he is a ‘man out of time.’ Consider, first of all, his former occupation: the army. This is significant because it brings to mind values such as honour, bravery, discipline, comradeship, integrity, and so on. These values, he finds, are not compatible with civilian life, but specifically with the modern, capitalist way of life. Indeed, he states himself that he is ‘old fashioned’, that he is ‘one of those people who still wasted their time with scruples, while all the others, who pocketed whatever profit was offered, looked down on me.’ A significant proportion of The Glass Bees is devoted to Richard’s army anecdotes, to his wistful reminiscences about what life, or his life, used to be like, when he felt more at home in the world.

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In this way, The Glass Bees is something of a lament, or a requiem; it is one man looking at the world and concluding that it has, irrevocably, gone to shit. And that, moreover, technology has played a prominent role in this. Horses, for example, are, according to Richard, ‘doomed’; these ‘magnificent creatures’ have ‘disappeared from the fields and streets, from the villages and towns.’ ‘Everywhere,’ he continues ‘they have been replaced by automatons.’ Being a former cavalryman, he focusses specifically on war, of course, which is now waged with machines; it is a robot war, involving tanks and guns, not horses and swords; and these machines are levellers, they can make a titan of ‘a pimply lad from the suburbs.’ Technology has meant that war is no longer reserved for skilled, brave and noble men [although this may never have actually been the case] and, perhaps more significantly, made it so that it is no longer a fight, but murder instead. One can apply this idea to other areas of life too, for hasn’t technology made it so that some things are too easy? Skill, experience, all kinds of human qualities have been made redundant by machines.

If Richard is a man out of time, it would be tempting to say of Zapparoni that he is the new man, the man time of the times, or even of a time to come. He is said to have ‘money to burn’, having achieved a monopoly in his field; and one cannot, we’re told, open a paper or magazine or sit in front of a screen without seeing his name. All of which sounds familiar, but not necessarily prescient. His work is in robotics, as previously stated, but I’m not particularly interested in these designs, and so will not linger over them. What I do want to touch upon is the idea that ‘in his opinion, nature was inadequate, both in its beauty and logic, and should be surpassed.’ Does Zapparoni consider himself to be a God? Or is it rather that he believes that he can improve upon God’s work? Certainly this is an attitude that we do encounter much these days, not solely in the field of robotics, but also in cosmetic surgery,  genetic engineering, etc.

The Glass Bees is barely 200 pages long, and I have only scratched the surface of what it contains, but this review, I hope, goes some way to showcasing how complex, how intelligent, imaginative and challenging it is. It may also, and this is maybe more important to me personally, have given some idea of how moving it is. This is, make no mistake, a very sad book. It would be easy to dismiss it as the reactionary, curmudgeonly grumblings of a miserable old man, especially when you consider that Jünger was himself a former soldier, and a passionate advocate of that way of life; but that would be missing the point entirely. For me, the German exposes our arrogance, our irresponsibility, and our negligence towards the world and towards each other; and he gives powerful voice to his, and to my, dismay. ‘The beauty of the forests was past,’ he writes, which is to say that it exists but we no longer notice or appreciate it. Well, not until one night your phone dies.

THE OGRE BY MICHEL TOURNIER

Whenever the subject of the Nazi Party is raised talk inevitably turns to the extermination of what they  – the Nazis – considered to be the ‘racially impure.’ Less, it seems, is known about, or spoken about, certainly in my experience anyway, the programmes to cultivate an Aryan population, which was, they hoped, to spring up in place of the murdered millions. The Lebensborn, for example, which, amongst other things, encouraged married men to mate with similarly racially pure women, with the children often being adopted by SS officers and their families. In 1936, Heinrich Himmler, failed chicken farmer and occultist, wrote to members of the SS that the purpose of the Lebensborn was to ‘support racially, biologically and hereditarily valuable families.’

When the Nazis began to occupy certain areas of Europe, the plan evolved to include not only breeding but kidnapping also. Indeed, it is estimated that 400,000 Aryan, or Aryan-looking, children were spared the concentration camps and taken from their parents and transferred to Germany for ‘Germanisation.’ Poland bore the brunt of these abductions, to the tune of 200,000 children. Himmler again: ‘we should exclude from deportations racially valuable children and raise them in old Reich in proper educational facilities or in German family care. The children must not be older than eight or ten years, because only till this age we can truly change their national identification, that is “final Germanization.”‘

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There are of course many worthwhile novels about the Holocaust, but Michel Tournier’s The Ogre is the only one that I have encountered that focuses on the Nazi obsession with eugenics and the [hoped for] next generation of German children. The book begins, however, in France, with the ‘sinister’ diary entries of Abel Triffauges. As with much in the novel, the word sinister has multiple meanings. Firstly, it refers to Triffauges writing with his left hand [the Latin adjective sinister means ‘left’], as a result of an accident that prevents him using his right. Secondly, it has Heraldic significance, and Heraldry plays a role in the book. Finally, and most importantly, is the common meaning, which is to suggest evil or threat.

While it isn’t immediately clear what kind of threat Abel Triffauges may pose, he certainly gives the impression of being a very strange man. Indeed, the first words are an accusation, from Rachel, a Jewish woman with whom he has been having sex: you are an ogre. And what is an ogre? Triffauges says that it is ‘a fabulous monster emerging out of the mists of time’ and is pleased by this description, for he believes that there is something ‘magical’ about himself. His soul, he continues, ‘lit the earth and made it spin’; and there is, he states, a ‘secret collusion’ connecting what happens to him and what happens in general, a connection between his own personal history and that of the world.

“There’s probably nothing more moving in a man’s life than the accidental discovery of his own perversion.”

During the compelling opening ten pages I had extremely high hopes for the novel, was excited about the prospect of spending another 350 pages with such an erudite, intelligent, meglomaniac. However, as the sinister writings further unfold Triffauges focuses more and more on his childhood, specifically his educational experiences, and some of my enthusiasm waned. Perhaps I have simply read too many European novels about schooling authored by men. They all seem to follow a kind of formula, that includes a whiff of homoeroticism and a large dollop of sadism/masochism [see also: Hugo Claus’ Sorrow of Belgium and Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Torless etc]. I am sure Tournier would argue that this long section is necessary, in light of what is to come, but I could not quite grasp the connection, beyond the obvious: that both halves of the The Ogre are concerned with children and childhood. What I mean by this is that it isn’t clear to me how most of Triffauges experiences as a ‘puny and ugly’ child himself relate to his actions in Nazi Germany, or explain his obsession, more that his writing about them is actually an example of this obsession.

In any case, as the sinister writings come to an end The Ogre switches from the first person to a third person narrative, relieving the book of some of the excesses of style so reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov and Lolita in particular. In this half [more like two-thirds, in fact] of the novel the emphasis is on World War Two, and it is revealed how Triffauges becomes involved with the Nazi Party. In leaving behind some of that Nabokovian excess The Ogre flourishes, serving up some of the most extraordinary war writing I have read. Indeed, there is a section about hunting stags that will stay with me for a long time. Particularly memorable is the scene involving the petulant psychopath, and master of ‘deciphering messages in the dejecta of animals,’ Hermann Goering and his pet lion. Goering is ‘dressed in an elegant pale blue kimono, sat at the table with half a roast boar in front of him, brandishing a leg of it like Hercules’ club,’ while the lion ‘sat beside avidly watching the piece of game being waved back and forth over its head.’ I must admit to laughing so hard I had to put the book down for a moment.

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While it is now most commonly referred to as The Ogre, Tournier’s novel has previously been translated as The Erl-King, which is also the name of a famous poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s poem is based on a Germanic folktale and features a malevolent figure who preys on children. It is therefore not difficult to spot the connection between this and Tournier’s work when Triffauges, now a trusted aide, begins to recruit for the Nazis amongst the local youths. What is interesting about this aspect of the novel, however, is that the Nazis and the giant Frenchman do not share an ideology. For Triffauges, who calls war ‘an absolute evil’ and who states that a man ‘hagridden by the demon of purity’  – including racial purity – ‘sows ruin and death around him’, the recruitment is a personal vocation. Simply put, children are ‘a little island of reviving freshness’ and so he wants them around him.

“The moth flies on wings of love toward the electric light bulb. And when he gets there, close to it, as near as he can be to that which attracts him irresistibly, he doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what to do with it. For indeed what can a moth do with an electric lightbulb?”

I am not at this stage entirely sure whether the inconsistencies apparent in Trifffauges character are a strength or a weakness for Tournier’s novel. During his sinister writings in particular one is given the impression that the giant is a pedophile, that his interest in children is not innocent. However, it is also the case that he never explicitly harms or abuses any of them; indeed, he likens himself to St Christopher, and appears to see his role as one of carrying children to safety [this is in fact how the book ends]. Perhaps Tournier is trying to make a point about naivety and how much evil can be done in the pursuit of goodness, but I don’t really buy that because he gives too many broad hints as to Triffauges’ dark side, for example, having him identify with a murderer and describing his hands as ‘stranglers claws.’

What is clear, however, is that, in a book obsessed with symbols, he is, or his activity is, a representation of Hitlerism. Hitlerism it is that is the real ogre, the child-stealer. Indeed, there is a scene in the book when the Frenchman comes upon a group of naked young girls, and when he asks what is happening he is told that it is the Fuehrer’s birthday. On this day, Tournier writes, the ogre of Rastenburg demands of his subjects ‘the exhaustive birthday gift of five hundred thousand little girls and five hundred thousand little boys, ten years old, dressed for the sacrifice, or in other words naked, out of whose flesh he kneaded his cannon fodder.’

THE OTHER SIDE BY ALFRED KUBIN

For years I had been toying with a story about a social experiment, in which a scientist, or psychologist, sets up a dream community. The idea was that a group of volunteers would be given the opportunity to live, for a time, in an environment resembling the world of dreams, where, to be specific, the normal, or comprehensible, coexists with the strange and inexplicable. Initially, this environment would be strongly regulated and controlled, with the help of dream-actors. However, the philosophical heart of the story was that the inhabitants would, after a period of acclimatisation, act out themselves, which means that they would, once they realised that they essentially have the freedom, without consequences, to do as they please [because their world is a dream], turn the dream community into a nightmare.

I thought this story of mine was really quite clever, until, as is often the way with one’s best ideas, I found out that someone had already written something very similar, which is to say that my enthusiasm was considerably dampened by the discovery of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, a novel, published in 1908, in which a man establishes a Dream Realm. The man in question is the mysterious, and exceedingly rich, Claus Patera, who was once the childhood friend of the narrator. The novel’s action is set in motion when a representative of Patera’s arrives at the narrator’s residence with a near-unbelievable tale and an invitation.

The invitation is, of course, to join Pearl, a place described as catering for those who are unhappy with modern civilisation, and where the aim is to give life ‘the deepest possible spiritual dimension.’ It is, therefore, a kind of sanctuary; but more intriguing than that is the suggestion that it is for those with an aversion to progress or with a passion for the past. Indeed, we are told that physically the place is made up of imported old buildings, various antiquities, classic artworks, even such things as ‘a broken old chair.’ There is, moreover, a large wall surrounding the community, in order to keep the outside [modern] world away. At this stage one is not sure how exactly this situation, this way of life, relates to the concept of dreams. Does it mean simply that Pearl is ideal for its inhabitants or is there actually something dream-like about it?

This question is soon answered when the narrator and his wife arrive in the Dream Realm, and the novel veers away from popular adventure story dynamics and becomes strange and sinister. Immediately, the narrator notes how ‘conditions there were most bizarre.’ One way of understanding this is in relation to the inhabitants. The community was recruited from ‘creatures of excessive sensibility’, those whose manias had ‘not yet got out of hand,’ and numerous hysterics, drunkards, criminals, spiritualists, and so on. They are all, then, not only what you might call abnormal, but also clearly vulnerable in some way.

In any case, the point is that if you gather together thousands of people with various manias, people who are socially or mentally abnormal, or unstable, what you are likely to find is that living among them will be something like being in a dream, in that their behaviour will be unpredictable. One instance of this is when a man addresses an audience that is not there. Furthermore, you will likely find that ordinary social arrangements, such as buying and selling, will break down or change in character; and this is what happens, so that, for example, the narrator sometimes pays a lot for very little, or nothing for an item that would, in the outside world, have been expensive. I thought that all this was fascinating.

Yet there are also elements of the inexplicable or [potentially] supernatural. The sky, we are told, was permanently dull, ‘the sun never shone,’ and the moon and stars could not be seen at night. This, of course, has nothing to do with the mental aberrations of the community’s inhabitants. However, one might argue that the narrator and his wife are themselves mad or go mad, in a kind of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest confrontation with the madness of others. Indeed, it is worth pointing that the narrator, towards the beginning of the book, describes himself as someone who is emotionally unstable, who is prone to ‘abrupt changes of mood.’ Therefore, even some of the more alarming aspects of life in Pearl – such as the housekeeper who appears to change into different people, the blind white horse, and so on – could be explained in this way.

Regardless, there is a large, gripping section of the novel that is simply great, pure horror writing. The narrator’s wife, for example, makes a pronouncement about how she feels, as they approach the Dream Realm, that they will never leave. There is also the constant wailing and moaning; and the hissing and knocking coming from the well; there are numerous references to hauntings and ghosts; there are doppelgängers and horrific deaths; there is a relentless atmosphere of terror, paranoia, and unease. It is wonderful, creepy stuff, and was perhaps influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe, which Kubin had previously illustrated.

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As we reach this point in this very long review you are perhaps wondering what exactly the book’s themes are, especially in view of its reputation as an allegory or sophisticated satire. Well, part of me is reluctant to get into all that. I have written before about my dissatisfaction with readers and critics who insist on there being, in certain kinds of novels, a single, consistent idea behind the surface action that explains the work, that magically transforms what you are reading into something else entirely. Take The Plague by Albert Camus, which, for me, is not only more impressive when taken on face value, but is frequently subject to interpretations of a tenuous nature. Kafka, of course, suffers the same fate. Indeed, it seems as though the stranger the work is, the more we, perhaps understandably, strive to find the normal, which is to say the comprehensible, in it.

I am not, of course, suggesting that allegory does not exist, or that it isn’t a genuine literary technique, but that it is important, first of all, to ensure that the work itself supports the theory. Secondly, some books can, maybe should, be enjoyed as they are; confusion is ok, weird is ok; there does not always have to be an explanation, a broader significance, a single underlying target. Bearing this in mind, it is my advice to read The Other Side without worrying too much about figuring out what the real story is. Some would tell you it is about German idealism, or religion, or capitalism, or anarchy, or numerous other things, all of which certainly play a part in the text, but really none of these interpretations stand up to scrutiny if one is looking for a coherent and unifying authorial statement.

There is, for example, no doubt that Kubin sets up Patera, who is frequently called ‘Lord’, as a God figure, and Hercules Bell, an American who creates The Lucifer Club, as Satan. One could see the Dream Realm, which is created by Patera, as representative of the earth, or even the Garden of Eden, over which these two figures fight; or at least one might say that Bell, as the Devil, attempts to wrest control of it. Indeed, at one point the narrator references that famous argument for the fallibility, or even non-existence, of God when he asks why, as Bell brings anarchy to the realm, Patera does not seek to intervene; he must not, he muses, be powerful enough. However, Pearl is, prior to Bell’s arrival, far too odd, damaging and unstable to be an Eden, and it seems rather pointless to create a surreal dream realm as a stand in for earth, when one could simply have set the novel in an ordinary community, if one’s intention was to write a religious allegory about the battle between good and evil.

As for capitalism, Bell is certainly a capitalist, a millionaire who believes in the power of money. But he doesn’t stride into Pearl and ruin it, for it wasn’t a utopia to begin with. In terms of German idealism, I don’t know enough about the subject, but, once again, wouldn’t it be a more powerful statement to begin with a utopia before showing it being destroyed? Perhaps the point was to argue that a utopia is impossible? Well, yes, but then what is the purpose of Bell? Isn’t his role, his impact, diluted by the fact that Pearl was never a competently functioning society?

“His eyes were like two empty mirrors reflecting infinity. The thought crossed my mind that Patera was not alive at all. If the dead could look, that is what their gaze would be like.”

If there is anything in all this it is as a warning against the dangers of Demi-Gods or false Gods. Both Patera and Bell are powerful figures, who attract followers; they are authority figures, to whom the general population of Pearl look for guidance, or by whom they are influenced. Indeed, the narrator spends much of the novel in pursuit of Patera, in the belief that he will help him or at least be able to provide answers to his questions. Yet the great man is always out of reach, he, although he extended the invitation to live in Pearl, provides no support. So, one has two main players, one who does nothing, who is absent, and one who is all-action, but brings chaos in his wake, and neither is worthy of faith. If The Other Side deserves to be called prescient, which it sometimes is, it would be in relation to this, to characters such as Hitler or Stalin, who wanted to be viewed as God-like, and who appeared to promise new worlds or new, better ways of living, but who ultimately turned out to be psychopaths, human and dangerously flawed.

One final thing before I finish. For me, the key to Kubin’s novel, to understanding it, or appreciating it, is not in relation to allegory or satire; its strength is not in politics or social science but in imagination. One must remember that the narrator is an artist, as is the author, and it is partly what motivates him to go to Pearl. The artist, one might argue, strives for new experiences, is drawn to the unusual, but it is more than that. The realm of dreams, isn’t that the artist’s realm? The world of the imagination, where anything is possible…this is where the narrator goes to live, and this is where Alfred Kubin himself lived. Now, if you will excuse me, I am off to work on my new story idea about a man who wakes up one day to find himself arrested for a crime he hasn’t committed. I’m thinking of calling it The Trial.

DARK SPRING BY UNICA ZÜRN

I have always been resistant to the idea of having children. There are numerous reasons for this but the main one is that I worry about what kind of man I am, what kind of father I would be. I am concerned about my capacity for love, or at least my ability to consistently display that love. I have found that, despite my best efforts, I often give people the impression of being disinterested;  I am, I am told, as emotionally distant, or detached, as a Japanese novel. And so I can’t, I feel, risk putting a child in that situation. One of humanity’s greatest flaws is the selfish desire to bring children, necessarily without their consent, into environments that are harmful, to damage them with our own neuroses and hang-ups.

The little girl in Unica Zürn’s Dark Spring is, without question, one such child, which is to say that she is an unfortunate product of an environment that is less than ideal. Yet, perversely, the short, bleak novel begins on a positive note with a description of the ‘first man in her life,’ her father, and his passionate displays of affection towards his daughter. She loves him, we’re told, from ‘the first moment.’ However, it quickly becomes clear that he is often absent, initially as a soldier in the war, and then, it is suggested, as a consequence of a inherent male restlessness, or perhaps because of a failing marriage. In any case, the girl, who is said to be ten or twelve throughout the greater part of the novel, is ‘painfully aware’ that he is rarely at home.

This feeling of abandonment is made even more acute by having a mother who, although physically present, is emotionally absent. A self-absorbed woman, she spends most of her time in her room, and only occasionally allows the knocking child to enter. She even dismisses, out of jealousy, the one maid that the girl bonds with. Unsurprisingly, therefore, she suffers from a ‘dreadful sense of loneliness’ and is ‘tortured by a fear of the invisible.’ She lives, in essence, alone in a quiet house, and as such is forced to make her own amusements, her own discoveries, and, as a result, she becomes increasingly peculiar and increasingly a danger to herself.

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[Unica Zürn, as photographed by Hans Bellmer]

In this way, the novel is a portrait of the negative effects of neglect. The girl is described as quiet, but this is not unusual, or especially damaging, of course. More of a concern is that she retreats into fantasy, into her own imagination in order to endure her ‘boring’ life. These fantasies and imaginary scenarios are not, however, the kind that one would expect, or welcome, in a child. She is, for example, terrified of the gorilla that she believes is roaming the house. She also plays games, with herself and with other children, that all seem to involve death, or, in Zürn’s own words, are ‘filled with horror and daggers.’ Alarmingly, this focus on death and unpleasantness also extends to her sexual fantasies, in which she conjures up groups of men, mostly dark-skinned or foreign-looking men, who ‘surround her bed each night’ and ravage, rape and murder her.

“They invent a howling theatrical language through which it becomes possible to express the grief of the whole world, a language understood by no one but the two of them.”

There are two instances of actual sexual assault in the novel, both perpetrated upon the little girl. This is not something I want to discuss in detail, partly because it upsets me, but also because I think the reader should not interpret the girl’s sexual deviancy [I don’t like using that word, but I know of no other that is more appropriate in this case] as being a consequence of it, or not entirely anyway. Yes, she is raped, and she comes to fantasise about rape, and she develops a masochistic impulse, so that she finds pleasure in ‘pain and suffering.’ But, for me, Zürn makes it clear that it is the pain of abandonment that primarily motivates her behaviour. For example, there is a scene in Dark Spring when the little girl allows, encourages, a dog to lick her between the legs, and it is said that her excitement is made greater by the possibility that someone – i.e. her parents – might walk in on her. They don’t though, of course; nor do they notice that her brother – whom she hates – is upstairs using the mother’s vibrator for his own sexual gratification.

There is much more that can be written about this little novel, which one can read in only a couple of hours, important themes and ideas that I have overlooked or only briefly touched upon, such as masochism, oedipal desires, escape, the importance of strong role models, father/daughter bonds, etc. but I have neither the heart nor the energy to tackle them all right now. Maybe later I will edit and add to this review. For the moment, I will conclude with something about Zürn’s style, because it is one of the book’s strong points. She wrote in clipped, mostly unemotive sentences, which add to the odd atmosphere. Moreover, as one might have guessed, the girl is never named; she is regarded with detachment, and described throughout as ‘she’ or ‘her’, and so on. So she has, one might say, also been abandoned by her creator, who will not properly, fully acknowledge her either.

THE LONG VOYAGE BY JORGE SEMPRUN

Whenever something terrible happens – the Paris attacks, a school shooting, or whatever – people invariably express their shock and surprise, and I always feel slightly bewildered by this kind of reaction, because, although I could not possibly have foreseen these specific events, I am nevertheless profoundly not shocked nor surprised [although I am, of course, deeply saddened by them]. Human history, and my own experiences to a lesser extent, has taught me that we are capable of, that we actively and regularly engage in, every kind of baseness, brutality or infamy. In a way, I feel as though, at some unspecified point in my life, I have lost something precious, some necessary faith or belief in the inherent goodness of our species, because that is what it comes down to, my anguished shrug of the shoulders: I simply don’t believe that we are, or more specifically that we will consistently prove ourselves to be, better than this.

“She’s trying to make me believe that all suffering is the same, that all the dead weigh the same. As counterbalance for the weight of my dead friends, for all their ashes, she’s offering  the weight of her own suffering. But the dead don’t all weigh the same, of course.”

Jorge Semprun was a Spanish writer and politician, who spent most of his life in France. He lived through WW2, becoming a member of the French resistance, before being arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. He wrote more than one book about his experiences, the most well-known of which is Le grand voyage [The Long Voyage, in English]. I have read many novels about the Holocaust, and of course each of them are different, and certainly each of them has moved me, but this is the first time that I have encountered a narrative voice that truly spoke to me. Now, obviously that isn’t necessary, it is not important to be able to find oneself in this kind of book, but when it does happen I want to acknowledge it, especially as it – the voice – is one of the most striking things about Semprun’s work. It is a voice characterised by a lack of disbelief, it is always logical or rational, tough but understanding. ‘I never imagined such a thing was possible’, says the guy from Semur. ‘Anything is possible’, the narrator replies.

Yes, anything is possible. Death camps. Incinerators. Lampshades made out of human skin. All possible. All, and more. Semprun’s narrator is not shocked, not by what is happening to him, nor by what happens to other people. How can you be shocked if you refuse to close your eyes? And that is what I got from The Long Voyage, a sense that here is an author who felt it important not to shy away from the truth. For example, the thing that the guy from Semur ‘never imagined’ was possible was that a man could be in a prison or camp and not share his provisions. The narrator explains that this isn’t, by any means, the most gratuitously selfish behaviour he has witnessed. Men will, he says, steal from someone their last piece of black bread, thereby choosing their own life, their own continued existence, over the life of someone else, who is, by virtue of that theft, being condemned to death.

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[Jewish prisoners being deported to concentration camps]

Having said all that, the camps are not the true focus of the story. The Long Voyage begins with the ‘cramming of the bodies’ into a boxcar, and with a ‘throbbing pain in the right knee.’ There are 120 men and women on a train bound for Weimar, bound for extermination. In Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate there is a passage in which a bunch of people are loaded onto trucks and driven to a concentration camp and straight into the showers. It is written with great sensitivity and empathy. Yet, while Semprun puts the reader in a similar situation, which is to say that he forces you to ride along with his characters, his approach is different. Indeed, the train sections of The Long Voyage have much in common with the work of Samuel Beckett, especially How It Is and The Unnameable.

In How it Is, for example, the narrator is lying in the mud murmuring to himself, and attempting to crawl along the ground. He is constrained, and haunted by voices. In Semprun’s novel, the narrator is trapped in a dark boxcar, squashed up against a large number of people who he cannot see but can, of course, hear. And what he frequently hears are screams and murmurs, complaints and threats. It is a nightmarish and absurd situation. To Semprun’s credit, he acknowledges the absurdity, he plays upon it, such that the book is, miraculously, at times [intentionally] very funny. ‘Breathing is the main thing’, the guy from Semur says, as he clears a path to the small window, which is covered in barbed wire. Ha. Well, of course. Breathing is vital, if you want to live. And these people, who are hurtling towards their death, would like to live, at least a little bit longer, thanks very much.

“Four days, five nights. But I must have counted wrong, or else some of the days must have turned into nights. I have a surplus of nights, more nights than I can use.”

However, The Long Voyage is not all grim humour, there are beautiful moments too. While on the train the narrator spends some of his time looking out of the window, and at one stage he passes through the Moselle Valley. At this precise moment, he says, the world was reborn within him. What he means by this is that in the boxcar he has been cut off from the world, literally and spiritually. It is only when he passes through the Moselle Valley, when he recognises it, that he reconnects with the world, with what is outside, with a real place. The word ‘real’ is important here, because the situation in the boxcar is, of course, unreal. Indeed, the nature of reality, or unreality, plays a major role in the text.

In the boxcar, or in a death camp, one’s understanding of, or relationship with, reality changes. In other words, the unreal becomes real. You become accustomed to the bizarre, the grotesque, the appalling, such that a sudden revealing of the existence of, or a confrontation with, the normal is a kind of spiritual shock. On this, there is a wonderful scene in the book when the narrator leaves the camp and comes upon a group of women. Not women with shaved heads, starved to death, beaten and gassed, but women, real women, with stockings and lips and thigh-hugging skirts. And these creatures seem unreal to him, in the same way that the camp corpses, that he shows them, do to the women. I found this so engaging, for I had thought about our ability to adapt to horrendous circumstances, and our ability to normalise the not-normal, but I had never considered that it might work the other way around.

As always with these reviews, there is more that I want to discuss, but I fear writing too much and alienating the few people with the necessary patience to read my work. So I won’t talk about freedom, about how freedom is what people in prison have in common with each other. No, I will finish with something about memory. Structurally, The Long Voyage is essentially a kind of Proustian Arabian Nights, if you will allow me this ridiculous phrase, where, instead of stories-within-stories, we encounter memories-within-memories, memories, like bodies in a boxcar, stacked on top of each other. Yet instead of a madeleine, it is a taste of black bread, years after release, that ‘brought back, with shocking suddenness, the marvellous moments when we used to eat our rations of bread, when, with Indian-like stealth, we used to stretch it out, so that the tiny squares of wet, sandy bread which we cut out of our daily ration would last as long as possible.’

THE TRAIN WAS ON TIME BY HEINRICH BOLL

I have spent much of my life, from around ten or eleven years old, looking for the answer, for something that would provide relief and allow me to, not exactly reconcile myself with The Fear, but at least be able to cope with those times when it sits on my chest and holds me down and pummels me in the face. Which is most days really. For years my relationship with The Fear – which for other people may mean a number of things but which for me is a fear of dying – has involved extreme panic attacks. During these attacks, which I would describe as being motivated by The Genuine Belief That One Day I Will Definitely Die, I will howl inhumanly, and tear at my hair, literally grab great chunks of hair and pull at them like an overzealous, inexperienced fisherman yanks at his rod when he sees his float disappear under the surface of the pond’s water. And I will scream, actually scream into the palms of my hands, and writhe and kick and squirm. When The Fear really takes hold, when I truly believe that at some point I am going to cease to exist – because it is a different thing to say it or know it than it is to truly believe it – it is like my head, my body, my Self, is going to suffer a kind of irrevocable breakdown, a Twin Towers-like collapse, and the writhing, the screaming, the kicking, etc, is a sort of existential battle for survival, is my Self trading blows with The Fear. If anyone was ever to see me in this state, which they wouldn’t of course because The Fear is a canny bastard who will only ever step to a guy when he is at his most alone and vulnerable, they’d think, understandably, that I was possessed.

All of which should go some way to explaining why Heinrich Böll’s The Train Was on Time, which is, on the most basic level, the story of a young man who is absolutely certain that the train he is on is taking him to his death, has been an uncomfortable, and yet at times strangely comforting, reading experience for me. The novel is set in 1943, and features a German infantryman, Andreas, who is bound for the Eastern front [specifically Poland]. In these circumstances, having a premonition of one’s death is not exactly a flight of fancy. Indeed, Andreas had already come close to the ultimate departure once before, in Amiens, France. Unfortunately for him, the situation, for the Germans, has significantly worsened since then, so that losing the war seems likely. One must bear in mind that one’s chances of survival when on the winning side are, at best, in the balance, but when on the losing side? Well…

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[German soldiers during WW2, waiting to board a train]

To be a soldier during wartime is to be in an extraordinary predicament, because, regardless of how that war is justified, whether it be in the name of freedom or democracy or whatever, for the people who are actively involved in it, it is literally a fight for life, a battle to stay alive; it is a state of affairs whereby death isn’t simply keeping an eye on you, it is aggressively stalking your heels. To spend weeks, months, years in such a situation must be horribly taxing. Therefore, it is no surprise that soldiers are often mentally damaged by the experience; and there is certainly evidence of that where Andreas is concerned. He is obsessively focussed on certain incidents, replaying them in his mind; he worries that he isn’t praying enough, and when he does pray it is often for the Jews; he frequently wants to cry but cannot; and, as already noted, he is convinced that his death is coming, yet not at some unspecified point in time, but on a specific day, in a specific place.

“He could no longer say, no longer even think: “I don’t want to die.” As often as he tried to form the sentence he thought: I’m going to die…soon.”

For me, Böll handles all this with great sensitivity, intelligence and skill. On the surface, the book is written in the third person, but large parts of it are actually given over to Andreas’ internal monologues. In the beginning, he is terribly afraid, he panics…it is an animal reaction, a feeling that goes beyond reason. He is tormented by the word ‘soon.’  Soon. Soon. Soon. Soon. “What a terrible word,” he thinks to himself. When is soon? Soon is uncertain, it is imprecise, it is a black hole, a nothing. Like death itself. And so, almost in order to comfort himself, to be able to get a handle on death, to make it concrete, to give himself something to hold onto, he convinces himself that his death will take place on a Sunday, between Lvov and Cernauti. He makes the uncertain certain. There is something, I think, in the unknown, in nothingness, that we simply cannot bear, because, I guess, we cannot comprehend it. I have been spending time with terminally ill people recently, and there is, in my limited experience, a kind of calmness that descends when death stops being this thing that might grab you unawares, and instead comes to sit beside you.

Once death is certain, and no longer soon, Andreas’ panic subsides somewhat [which is not, by the way, the same as saying that he becomes entirely reconciled to the fate that he believes is his] and he becomes wistful and melancholy, thinking about the places he has been unable to visit, about how he will never again see the girl who serves him coffee. In this way, The Train Was on Time, as with all worthwhile literature, is universal, because we all experience the transitory nature of existence, even if we do not always link that experience to death. Whenever I am on a train I will spend some time looking out of the window, and I am always struck by a painful feeling, an understanding that I will never again see what I am seeing, that even if I take the same train, at the same time, travelling the same route, the sights will not be exactly the same. No single second of your life can ever be repeated; to all intents and purposes, you die thousands of times a day.

“That’s something no one would ever be able to understand, why I don’t take the next train back to her… why don’t I? No one would ever be able to understand that. But I’m scared of that innocence… and I love her very much, and I’m going to die, and all she’ll ever get from me now will be an official letter saying: Fallen for Greater Germany…”

For a novel so preoccupied with death it is not surprising that there is a sense of wanting to escape running through it. In addition to Andreas, there are two other major characters, Willi and a blonde officer. The three men come together when Andreas is asked if he wants to play a game of cards. Of course, for the young infantryman the game, and the company, is not about avoiding boredom, as it might be for us, but about keeping busy, taking his mind off things, off, specifically, the fact that he is likely hurtling towards his final resting place. However, death itself is also a kind of escape, or it could be viewed in that way, especially if one’s life is intolerable. In the case of Willi and the blonde officer, they could be said to be running towards war, towards death, rather than away from it, as one struggles with the break up of his marriage and the other with having once been sexually abused. In fact, Willi drinks large quantities of alcohol, which, of course, also provides an escape from reality, albeit only in the short-term.

In conclusion, I seem to recall the translator and critic Michael Hofmann once writing disparagingly of Heinrich Böll, and I seldom see his work [Böll’s] in lists of great German novels. On this basis, he probably qualifies as underrated. I do not think he ever hit the heights of someone like, say, Thomas Mann or the Austrian Robert Musil, but I have yet to be disappointed with any of his books. However, I ought to point out that, in the early stages, the transitions between third person narrative and the internal monologue are a little clunky to say the least, and that I wasn’t won over by the opening scene in which Andreas speaks to a clergyman on the platform about his desire to avoid death, but these are minor quibbles overall. The Train Was on Time, which was Böll’s first published work, written when in his early thirties, is fascinating, and often beautiful and moving.

DEATH IN ROME BY WOLFGANG KOEPPEN

I have a reputation in my family for being cold and difficult to be around. I don’t, the consensus is, ‘make any effort’ with them. And that is true. I really don’t. Don’t get me wrong, family can be a wonderful thing, if it is a safe and strong and nurturing unit; but I realised at a very young age that the idea of being tied to a bunch of people who you have nothing in common with, who are, moreover, unpleasant human beings, is absurd. Recently my mother has become involved with her sister again. This sister is, quite frankly, vile. I find the fact that she is back in my life very hard to take, but I find it even harder that she is back in my mother’s, although of course my opinion is irrelevant. The only real blessing is that my Uncle is not around, having died of cancer some years ago. You are not meant to speak ill of the dead, but it’s difficult when someone had almost no redeeming features. I was present at his funeral, when the eulogy was spoken. He liked cats we were told. And, yes, I guess he did, but he was also a violent criminal, with perverse sexual tendencies, who kept a gun behind his sofa.

So I can identify with Seigfried Pfaffrath, one of the major players in Wolfgang Koeppen’s Death in Rome. It is the 1950’s, and he has essentially fled to Rome in order to escape his family, his past, and reinvent himself as a composer. But he finds that, in reality, you can’t escape, because wherever you go you bring your experiences with you. Much of the novel is devoted to internal monologues, and even before he comes to understand that prominent members of his family are also in Rome Seigfried can think of little outside of his childhood, his hated Uncle Judejahn, his father, and the recently ended war. It is significant, I think, that he chose to become a musician, because we generally think of music as being an expression of the creator’s inner life, their soul. Seigfried’s music is described as being frightening, as ‘naked and unworthy despair.’ It especially unnerves Kurenberg’s wife [the husband being a friend of Seigfried’s] who grew up in the same area and whose father was eventually murdered by the Nazis.

“Once upon a time, this city was a home to gods, now there’s only Raphael in the Pantheon, a demigod, a darling of Apollo’s, but the corpses that joined him later are a sorry bunch, a cardinal of dubious merit, a couple of monarchs and their purblind generals, high-flying civil servants, scholars that made it into the reference books, artists of academic distinction. Who gives a damn about them?”

The Nazis, racism, and complicity all play important roles in Death in Rome. At one stage Seigfried dredges up the memory of Kurenberg asking for assistance from his father, in an attempt to save his own father-in-law. The advice that he received from Friedrich Pfaffrath, who at that time was a senior administrator, was to divorce his Jewish wife. A large part of Seigfried’s anguish is related to his not wanting to be associated with his family’s actions during the war and their ongoing Nazi sympathies. Like me, he feels tied to people who do not represent his feelings or opinions, whose behaviour he does not condone, people who, unfortunately, he will always be tied to by blood at least. He has, he states, thought about changing his name, so as to distance himself, but decided that to disappoint his family, who would not be in favour of his vocation, is a nice form of revenge; indeed, he focuses specifically on twelve tone music, which was frowned upon in his youth and was actually considered by the Nazis to be ‘degenerate.’ I found this aspect of the novel to be one of the most engaging; Koeppen did a fine job of capturing the young composer’s understandable shame, disgust, and helplessness, in being related to murders and war criminals [although I would say that he borrowed liberally from William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom in order to achieve it].

“Could I even cope with my own life? And then I thought: If Adolf and I can’t cope with life, then we should at least unite against those unscrupulous people who want to rule because they are unimaginative, against the real Pfaffraths, the real Judejahns, the real Klingspors, and perhaps we could change Germany. But even as I was thinking that, it already seemed to me that Germany was past changing, that one could only change oneself, and everyone had to do that for him or herself.”

The most imposing member of the family and, as noted, the most hated by Seigfried, is Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS officer. He fled Germany due to a death sentence having been placed upon him for his involvement in the war, during which he had ordered the execution, and had himself killed, numerous people. As with Seigfried, a large part of the novel is also given over to Judejahn’s thoughts and feelings, and none of them are pleasant. He is an unrepentant Nazi and racist. He yearns for war, for bloodshed, for a reinvigorated, all-powerful and all-conquering Germany. In Guy de Muapassant’s Bel Ami, Georges Duroy is described as having the attitude of ‘an NCO let loose in a conquered land,’ and I think this suits Judejahn perfectly. Men are to be beaten down or brought to heel, and women [whom he frequently refers to as ‘cunt’] are to be raped or fucked [if willing]. After spending some time with Judejahn not only did I empathise with Siegfried in his hatred, but I started to understand the title of the novel. Death in Rome. It doesn’t mean dying in Rome, it means that Death has come to Rome, and his name is Judejahn, a man who stalks the pages of the book, and the city itself, like a particularly grim Grim Reaper.

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[Rome in the 1950’s]

However, as I progressed through the novel, I struggled to understand what exactly Koeppen was trying to say, specifically in relation to Judejahn. That SS men were psychopaths? Well, yeah. I mean, that’s hardly news is it? Moreover, I felt as though Judejahn is simply too cartoonishly loathsome; I was, in fact, unable to take him seriously as a human being. Yes, he is a Nazi, but I’m not convinced that he had to be so unrelentingly despicable, so much so that at times I expected him to tie a woman to some train tracks and stand to the side twirling his moustache. I am, of course, not defending the Nazis, but would simply have liked this one to be a little more nuanced as a character. Indeed, I don’t actually think it is helpful to portray them as titanically evil [not to mention miserable], without a humane thought in their head or even the merest hint of sensitivity. That, for me, almost excuses them, as though we are saying that they are or were sub-human, or not human at all. They absolutely are and were human, they had families, friends, they laughed and enjoyed themselves. That is what is so horrifying about them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only example of Koeppen losing control of his material. I was also decidedly unimpressed with the melodramatic scene in which Adolf, Judejahn’s son, kind of befriends a starving Jewish boy, and the two swap uniforms and break bread.

In any case, I would laud Koeppen for his bravery in writing, and having published, a novel such as this so soon after the war, for reminding the world that Nazis didn’t just stop being Nazis because Hitler lost; they didn’t simply see the error of their ways, or ‘wake up’ as though coming out of a deep sleep. I think if the book says anything of note, anything really important, then that is it. People like Judejahn, who becomes a kind of Arab arms dealer, or Friedrich Pfaffrath, who becomes a legitimate mayor, may try and reinvent themselves, they may hide or escape, but their old prejudices remain. In this way, the stream of consciousness technique was entirely appropriate, because one might be able to wash the blood off one’s hands, but one’s thoughts, if we have access to them, would always reveal the true nature of the man.

THIS WAY FOR THE GAS, LADIES & GENTLEMEN BY TADEUSZ BOROWSKI

I hate reading reviews for this sort of thing; in fact, I actively avoid them these days. Why? Because a large number of people refuse to approach such books as art, as fiction. They insist, regardless of what the author has said, that they are memoir, that what they describe is absolutely true. There is, in my opinion, something slightly perverse about that, a kind of twisted psychology that I find distasteful. It is not a popular view, I’ll grant you, but it strikes me that it is as though they want everything to be true because it adds [perhaps sub-consciously] a certain spice to their reading to imagine that such awful things actually occurred.

I am aware that Polish poet, writer, and journalist Tadeusz Borowski did spend time in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and that there are further parallels between the life of his narrator and his own life, but that is not unusual. No writer is ever able to completely disown themselves, and so of course his experiences will have filtered into these tales. Yet if he had wanted to simply bear witness he could have done so and he didn’t, he decided to compose a series of short stories instead. To ignore or dismiss that is to insult the author, and, to my mind, leaves you in danger of being a kind of literary ambulance chaser. In any case, I have to approach this book as art, because, quite frankly, it is the only way I can bear to read it.

“It is the camp law: people going to their death must be deceived to the very end.”

For the last couple of years, since I been trying to quit smoking, I have taken to carrying around with me during the day whatever book I am currently reading, fitting in a few pages during my breaks at work. Often people will peer at the cover, mutter the title to themselves, and then carry on with their own business. The other day a friend of mine came over to the table at which I was sitting, picked up This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, turned it over, read the title and winced. I think this is the only time that this has ever happened. It is not a ridiculous reaction, either. As titles go it is provocative, shocking even; it is also, I believe, appropriate, because it sums up the attitude – tough, mocking, cynical, cruel – of most of the stories contained within.

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[Work Makes You Free. The gates of Auschwitz]

I have read a number of books about the Holocaust, and each is different, of course. But the one thing that generally tends to tie them together is that they focus on the victims, who are almost always Jewish, and their experiences; there is a very real sense of innocence, and clear distinctions between the aggressors and the oppressed, the good and the bad. That is not the case here. Borowski’s stories are written in the first person, and the narrator [if we assume it is the same one throughout – which for ease I will] is openly, actively involved in ‘the process.’ Now, one must not lose sight of the fact that Tadek has not chosen to be in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and in this way he is a victim too, but, nevertheless, the morality on display is muddier than one would expect, to say the least.

The title story, which opens the collection, is particularly disturbing. I must admit that I found it tough to keep turning the pages, even bearing in mind my stance, my insistence that we read the stories as fiction. Unusually, Borowski dispenses with backstory, with arrests or journeys, and drops you straightaway into the camp. There is, therefore, no sense of building towards a [terrible] climax, towards an end; one gets the impression that life has always been this way and always will, which is, I imagine, how it must have felt to be a prisoner. The author also immediately challenges your expectations by introducing a ‘fat Frenchman’ [there were fat people in the camps? is the absurd question that ran through my mind], and describing a situation where the inmates appear to eat well and have access to all kinds of luxury items [Tadek notes that the labour gang ‘smells not of maple forests but of French perfume’]. One feels an instant revulsion for all this, for the idea that some prisoners were chowing down on bacon and potatoes while others starved, even though there is little sense in everyone starving together.

“Why is it that nobody cries out, nobody spits in their faces, nobody jumps at their throats? We doff our caps to the S.S. men returning from the little wood; if our name is called we obediently go with them to die, and—we do nothing. We starve, we are drenched by rain, we are torn from our families. What is this mystery? This strange power of one man over another? This insane passivity that cannot be overcome? Our only strength is our great number—the gas chambers cannot accommodate all of us.”

It is where this food, these luxuries are coming from that provides the most aggressive punch in the gut. I am a very cynical man, and so you would think that I would have been able to guess, that it would have been obvious, yet somehow it still came as a horrible surprise, as though I didn’t want to acknowledge the truth to myself until I had no choice. In short, the trains draw into the camp, and the labour gang, or Kommando, help to unload the new arrivals, in the process relieving them of their possessions, be they dead or alive. The gold and money goes to the S.S., and the rest goes to the workers, such as Tadek and the Frenchman. They are, then, essentially robbers, even, you might say, graverobbers. And yet what is perhaps hardest to stomach is not the stealing, the death, the prospect of the crematorium [or ‘cremo’ as it is called throughout the book], but the inhumanity, the lack of empathy displayed by the prisoners.

We want to believe, and the media plays a big part in helping us to believe, that those in crisis, those who are suffering, will stick together, will go down together, will, at the very least, sympathise with each other, but that is not the case here. I have long felt that certain atrocities or tragedies undergo a kind of Disneyfication. One need only look at 9/11, where the story has become about heroism and patriotism, and the truly awful has been buried. One of the collection’s overriding themes is, as one would expect, survival or, more specifically, what will people do to survive? What are we capable of in order to save ourselves? It’s a question not many of us would be comfortable in asking of ourselves, and even if one did it is impossible to say whether our response would be truthful. In any case, Borowski asks it, or the camp does, and the answers are often unpleasant.

“Real hunger is when one man regards another man as something to eat.”

In the second story in the collection Tadek is speaking to a Jewish man, needling him somewhat about his actions in a previous camp. The old man, he himself admits, denounced his own son, had him hung. Again, we instantly recoil, we judge, we ourselves, as readers, denounce this man, and yet he then says something significant. He says that at some point one comes to see other people as food. Of course, he doesn’t mean this literally [although there is a story that does involve cannibalism], rather that other people become your means of survival, they are sacrificed, if necessary, in order for you to continue to live. I believe, or at least I hope, that none of us can relate to that dilemma: having to decide between one’s own existence or the existence of someone else. We cannot therefore truly judge this man, because lord knows what we would actually do. We know what we would like to think we would do, but that, as we sit comfortably in our homes, means absolutely nothing.

There is also one other thing to consider, which is that for those who are placed in brutal environments, who are treated brutally themselves, and witness brutality on a daily basis, there is the danger that it will become normal. Human beings are extraordinarily adaptable, our expectations, behaviour, morals are likely to change depending on our circumstances; just look at the army, at the police. So, yes, Tadek’s attitude, his actions, appear cold and uncaring, even wrong, to us, but we are not in a concentration camp; in there, Borowski seems to suggest, that is just what life was like. People did not hold hands and help each other out, they looked after themselves, they wished people dead, they joked about the cremos, they got annoyed with weaker inmates.

Having said this, as the book progresses, there is a shift in tone, the narrator becomes more hopeful, certainly more sentimental and caring towards his fellow man or woman. Indeed, one story is in the form of a letter he sends to his girlfriend, who is also in a concentration camp. While this new, more humane Tadek is a relief it does, in my opinion, mean that the collection, taken as a whole, feels slightly uneven, even contradictory. Don’t get me wrong, This Way for the Gas is a fine book, but the second half is less original, less startling, less disconcerting in terms of what you are asked to confront, about man in general and yourself in particular.

neither poems nor prose
just a length of rope
just the wet earth —
that’s the way home.

neither vodka nor bread
just bursts of rage
just more new graves —
that’s youth and that’s love.

THE TRIAL BY FRANZ KAFKA

[P] was woken one morning by the sound of sniggering coming from the corner of his room. As he opened his eyes he saw two figures emerge out of the shadows and approach the bed. ‘We are here to investigate,’ one said. ‘We are the police,’ said the other. [P] was disconcerted, he had never woken to find two policemen in his room before. ‘I haven’t reported a crime,’ said [P]. ‘There must be some mistake.’ ‘There is no mistake,’ said one of the policemen. His colleague had taken up a position beside [P]’s bookshelves. ‘See here, your copy of The Trial is missing!’ [P] laughed meekly. This must be some kind of practical joke, he thought to himself, but if it was a joke it wasn’t funny, and, besides, who let the men into the room? ‘I can see,’ he said seriously, ‘that my copy of The Trial has indeed been moved. Perhaps it is somewhere else in the room.’ The two policemen solemnly shook their heads. ‘In any case, even if it has been stolen, a criminal investigation is unnecessary. I will simply buy a new copy, maybe even a nicer copy.’ ‘No, that won’t do,’ said the first policeman. ‘Whenever there is a crime, it must be investigated…’ 

Before I started rereading The Trial it was my intention to compose one of my pastiche reviews for it. My thought was that the above situation, i.e. being harangued by policemen who want to investigate a crime that you yourself don’t want them to investigate, a crime that you doubt has even been committed, was suitably absurd and Kafkaesque [I hate that word!]. To some extent I mourn the loss of that review; it would have been fun to write. The reason that I didn’t continue any further than the opening paragraph is that I found, to my surprise, so much to say about the book. I tend to compose those pastiche reviews when I am dealing with something that either didn’t inspire me to think too much or that has been poured over and analysed to the point that it becomes impossible to say anything new or even interesting about it. Now, I don’t claim that my take on The Trial is completely original, but I certainly found that it wasn’t the book I remembered it being, that the most commonly discussed aspects are underpinned by, I would argue, more compelling themes that commentators often ignore or do not give sufficient weight to.

To fully engage with, or even enjoy, The Trial one has to primarily concern oneself with ideas, because Kafka was not, I think it is fair to say, a master of plot or characterisation. Both of Kafka’s novels, although obviously unfinished, meander shamelessly, they proceed with apparent aimlessness; one might even call them repetitive and largely uneventful. Furthermore, Josef K. is not complex, or certainly not in the way that, say, Tolstoy’s creations are; nor is he is believable [whatever that means]. He has moods, of course, but they are all of one type; his emotional range is limited; and what he does feel tends to be negative. For example, he could be said to exhibit exasperation, despair, frustration, anger, confusion and so on. For me, Josef K. as a man, as a character, is really only interesting in relation to another of Kafka’s creations, K. from The Castle, who, on the surface, he appears to closely resemble.

In The Trial Josef K. is caught up in a situation beyond his control; he has, specifically, been arrested, and so it is logical, understandable, that he would want to find out why and to attempt to clear his name. He is, in this way, a relatable figure, because he does what most of us would do. Moreover, he is, despite some less than admirable qualities, sympathetic because, unless one is of the opinion that he has committed a crime, which would put you in a minority, the situation he finds himself in is not his fault. In fact, one might even call him heroic, in that he seeks, and fights for, an explanation or, if you prefer, justice; he also vows to improve or even destroy the system that he believes is persecuting him. This is not at all like what happens in The Castle. In that book, K. is under the impression that he has been summoned to a town in order to work as a land surveyor; yet when he gets there he finds that the locals do not want a land surveyor, and that they would rather he leave as soon as possible. However, K. refuses, even though his experience of the town and its inhabitants galls him. There is nothing sympathetic about K. because he does, unlike Josef K., have the option to free himself from the situation that oppresses him. That he doesn’t, that he stays out of stubbornness, out of sheer pig-headedness, that he will not do what is actually in his own best interests, is what, for me, means that The Castle is a much more depressing take on humanity.

“One must lie low, no matter how much it went against the grain, and try to understand that this great organization remained, so to speak, in a state of delicate balance, and that if someone took it upon himself to alter the dispositions of things around him, he ran the risk of losing his footing and falling to destruction, while the organization would simply right itself by some compensating reaction in another part of its machinery – since everything interlocked – and remain unchanged, unless, indeed, which was very probable, it became still more rigid, more vigilant, severer, and more ruthless.”

The Trial Is often, or most popularly, described as a novel about the insane nature of bureaucracy; and there is certainly evidence in the text to back that up. At the most basic level, Josef K. finds himself entangled in an absurd, confusing system, involving interviews and appointments, petitions and pleas. No matter how much he attempts to progress, or further his case, he is unable to do so. Of course, almost everyone can relate to this. For example, I once had a job, and part of this job was what we called ‘customer-facing’ i.e. you saw people who dropped in with queries. However, the customer-facing staff could not actually resolve queries; oh no, we could listen to them, we could make note of them, but we had to refer, via email, all queries to the appropriate section of the business, which was not, of course, even located in the same city. The customers themselves, we were often forced to confess, could not directly speak to the people trained, and expected, to resolve their queries. They – the customers – simply had to take it on trust that their query would be investigated and dealt with appropriately. This more-or-less universal experience does, I think, go some way to accounting for Kafka’s appeal. However, I would argue that it is important, in terms of understanding The Trial, to consider what is at the heart of people’s frustrations regarding bureaucracy. For me, it is about being unable to make a human connection. Of course, it is sometimes the case that people are literally interacting with a machine [some kind of automated service], but, even when one is able to speak with a human being, that human being, with few exceptions, hides behind impersonal regulations and procedures. In this way, bureaucracy is always cold and inhuman. No matter how much you plead, or argue your position, the bureaucrat will stare you down and repeat their mantra: ‘you must go through the proper channels.’

So while I accept that The Trial is, to some extent, about bureaucracy, I think that it is only one facet of the novel’s broader concerns about the difficulty of human interaction and our [often futile] attempts to make a connection with other people. There are abundant clues to this throughout the text, for example, when K. offers his hand to the supervisor, at the very beginning of the book, it is ignored. In his position of power, K has ceased to be a contemporary or an equal. A desire for human contact is also responsible for K. waiting for Fraülein Bürstner and for him impulsively kissing her. His relationship, if you can call it that, with Bürstner is particularly humiliating. When K. wants to see her again, after the impulsive kiss, he sends her notes or letters, which she ignores; she, on the other hand, dispatches the lame Fraülein Montag to speak to K. in her stead, which makes him exceedingly uneasy. It’s the kind of horribly uncomfortable moment most of us have experienced at one time or another, when someone you like or are attracted to, someone who you have reached out to, rejects you, feels compelled to let you know, through an intermediary no less, that they are not interested. Moreover, the awkwardness is on both sides: from Bürstner, who doesn’t want to speak to K., and from K., who is being given the brush-off.

“Whether she was to blame now was not clear. K. could only see that a man had drawn her into a corner by the door and was pressing her against his body. But it was not she who was shrieking but the man.”

As with bureaucracy, a lot is made of the role of women in The Trial, and rightly so, because there is something disconcerting about the way that they are presented. They are, almost without exception, sexualised to the point at which one might consider them loose women or even prostitutes. For instance, when K. visits the courts he meets a married woman who aggressively makes a play for him and asks that he take her away. Crucially, K., although initially resistant, begins to feel tempted, and it is then that she is picked up [literally] by another man and whisked away. When K. tries to intervene and plead his case, the woman rejects him. Yet, while this might say something about the way that Kafka himself saw women, it does, once again, feed into, is simply another example of, what I believe were the writer’s more general preoccupations. People focus specifically on the women because of what we know about Kafka’s personal life, and because it is often the way that scholars will want to bring a kind of gender analysis to novels, but one should not overlook that it is the case that all of the human interaction in the novel is awkward, strained, and painful. Consider the scene at the court’s offices, when K. approaches a man and asks him what he is there for. The man finds himself speechless, due to either shame or shyness, and when K. touches him he actually starts to scream. This is, in one sense, very amusing, but it is, for me, also immensely sad.

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[Fenced in. One of Franz Kafka’s own illustrations]

I mentioned humour just now, and it has become popular [even perhaps a cliché] to describe Kafka’s work as incredibly funny, which, it strikes me, is an opinion that has, in classic contrarian fashion, emerged only to contradict the previously commonly held opinion that it is entirely bleak and foreboding. The truth, as is often the case, is actually somewhere between the two extremes. There are undeniably comedic passages, situations, and lines, such as when K. visits the courthouse, which turns out to be some kind of high-rise block of flats, and, afraid of giving himself away, goes knocking on doors asking for the joiner Lanz. This is amusing in numerous ways; first of all, because one would expect the courthouse to be located in an impressive, official building, not what is seemingly a cramped and dirty place full of tenants [the kids running around the corridors is a nice touch]; secondly, because when K. asks about Lanz some of the inhabitants of the building take the request very seriously and start directing him and trying to help him find the non-existent joiner. It is the jolting absurdity that provides the comedy and the sense that K. is surrounded by fools and foolishness. However, in spite of all that, I must say that I think that the humour is overstated these days, and that the book, more than anything, is unsettling and nightmarish. The word ‘nightmarish’ gets thrown around a lot when discussing literature and art and film, and it often denotes nothing more than something that is grotesque. In my opinion, The Trial more closely resembles real nightmares, or mine anyway, which often involve odd and abrupt temporal shifts [minutes for K. are sometimes hours for others], the inversion of space [things that you expect to be large are small, and vice versa], and people behaving in incomprehensible ways or entering scenes in an inexplicable or eerie manner [more than one person literally emerges out of the shadows]. Many, many things are called Kafkaesque, but if anything genuinely deserves that tag it would be the films of David Lynch, and you don’t find those in the comedy section on Netflix.

To conclude, I have tried, in this review, to give some idea of what I found impressive and enjoyable and engaging about The Trial, a book that is, for me, one of world literature’s most imposing masterpieces. I have also tried to explore what I think are the significant themes. However, the great genius of the work is that one could see almost anything in it. Indeed, Jorge Luis Borges once wrote something about how great literature actually becomes greater with age, that, as time passes, it gains meaning, becomes more, not less, relevant. This is certainly the case with all of Kafka’s work, and The Trial in particular. Think about the basic premise again: a man arrested for a crime he knows nothing about, who, when he seeks an explanation, is met with illogical resistance and endless bureaucracy. The similarities between this situation and accounts of what happened to large numbers of citizens in Stalin’s Russia, and other Communist countries, is uncanny. Or what about the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany, where people found themselves suddenly relieved of their basic rights, where official bodies could, and did, turn lives upside down [and take them away, of course] without any wrong-doing on their part? It is no surprise, in this regard, that there are acclaimed Russian authors who lived and worked under Stalin, and Jewish writers affected by the Holocaust, that have been heavily influenced by Prague’s finest. Yet for all his influence, for all the talented writers that have stepped in the marks left by his shoes as he blazed his trail, Franz Kafka – the originator – remains unsurpassed.