time

THE TARTAR STEPPE BY DINO BUZZATI

Generally speaking, I am laidback, to the extent that people often accuse me of not caring about anything. That isn’t the case, but it is true that very little ruffles me. I might be wrong, but I put this down to an upbringing during which there was the constant threat of disaster, such that I became passive, by virtue of over-familiarity, in the face of hardship or bad luck. However, there is one kind of situation in which I consistently, unnecessarily, become agitated, and that is when waiting for something. I am, for example, terrible in queues. I tap my foot, glance at my watch every few seconds, sigh loudly, turn in circles, etc. People eye me suspiciously. I must give the impression, the perhaps accurate impression, of mental instability.

If I had to guess as to why this kind of situation bothers me I would say that it is because it is dead time. Time passes, as it always does, with oppressive relentlessness and speed, and yet it is not being filled with anything productive or worthwhile. For someone who is so concerned about death, about the eternity of nothingness that awaits me, it is absurd, even tragic, that so much of the life afforded us is wasted in this way, by which I mean twiddling our thumbs waiting for something to happen. For me, it is an extreme form of boredom, but, more than that, it is a forced confrontation with the meagreness of existence, with the reality that life is slipping through your fingers.

There are a number of novels that are [at least partly] concerned with these kind of feelings or predicaments, but the most notable, the most moving, is The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, which was published in 1940. Buzzati’s protagonist, Giovanni Drogo, is a young and inexperienced lieutenant who has just received his first posting. From the beginning there is an unremitting gloominess and weariness hanging over the text. Drogo had, we’re told, looked forward to this day for years, it was to be the ‘beginning of his real life,’ a break from the dreadful days of studying and being at the academy. Yet while he acknowledges that the posting presents an opportunity for exciting new experiences, Drogo fails to find ‘the expected joy’ in putting on his uniform, and laments the passing of what were, he thinks, probably his ‘best years.’

One sees in this defining aspects of Drogo’s character, and the novel as a whole. He is indecisive, unsure of himself, and he constantly worries, while engaged in one activity, that he ought to be doing something else, or that he ought to have made a different decision and is now missing out. As a result, he nearly always feels unsatisfied and melancholy and disappointed. For example, when he arrives at Fort Bastiani he almost immediately wants to leave, to return home, and yet he allows himself to be persuaded to stay, for four months at least, and then persuades himself that he actually wants to stay. Indeed, throughout the the text there is this back and forth, this vacillating between going and staying. Of course, we can all relate to this, to the anxiety and doubt that accompanies our choices, but for Drogo it becomes paralysing.

Consider his behaviour towards Maria, a young woman for whom he has, or once had, feelings. Around two thirds of the way into the book, Drogo is on leave from the Fort, and he goes to see Maria in an attempt to reconnect with his previous life in the city. She is obviously still keen and tries to elicit from him some sign of his enduring affection; in short, she wants him to vow to not return to the Fort, in order to be with her. Drogo is aware of this, and at least some part of him wants to give her this assurance. He contemplates it, acknowledges that this is his chance, then ‘suddenly he lost all desire.’  So instead of acting, instead of making a decision, either one way or the other, he does nothing. He does not tell Maria that he wants to be with her, but neither does he tell her that he isn’t interested. What he does, in typical fashion, is defer to some future time, when all might resolve itself satisfactorily, without him having to make a choice.

“Twenty-two months are a long time and a lot of things can happen in them- there is time for new families to be formed, for babies to be born and even begin to talk, for a great house to rise where once there was only a field, for a beautiful woman to grow old and no one desire her any more, for an illness- for a long illness- to ripen (yet men live on heedlessly), to consume the body slowly, to recede for short periods as if cured, to take hold again more deeply and drain away the last hopes; there is time for a man to die and be buried, for his son to be able to laugh again and in the evening take the girls down the avenues and past the cemetery gates without a thought. But it seemed as if Drogo’s existence had come to a halt. The same day, the same things, had repeated themselves hundreds of times without taking a step forward. The river of time flowed over the Fort, crumbled the walls, swept down dust and fragments of stone, wore away the stairs and the chain, but over Drogo it passed in vain- it had not yet succeeded in catching him, bearing him with it as it flowed.”

The nature of Time [yes, with a capital T] plays a significant role in the book. First of all, The Tartar Steppe exists outside of time, which is to say that there is no indication as to when it is set, in what period. Furthermore, as previously noted, at the beginning of the book Drogo is a young man, so it is natural that he would feel as though he has many years ahead of him, as though life was inexhaustible. Yet he frequently uses it – an abundance of time – as an excuse, as a reason for putting things off [as seen with Maria] or as a way of giving himself false hope. In terms of plot, The Tartar Steppe is about the possibility of a war. It is, one must remember, the job of the soldiers in the Fort to defend it, that is why they [including Drogo] are there. However, it quickly becomes clear that there is no threat, that the men will not see action.

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[Il deserto dei Tartari, directed by Valerio Zurlini]

Far from a important military stronghold, Bastiani gives the impression of being neglected, of being on the verge of ruin. It is ‘small’ and ‘unimposing’; it is a melancholy place surrounded by featureless desert and wrapped in almost permanent mist. Indeed, it is said that while once it was a honour to be posted there, it is now more of a punishment. Again, it is important to point out that the nature of this punishment isn’t related to how dreary the place is, not entirely, it is due to the very slim chance that the soldiers will ever get to test themselves, will ever be allowed, in the midst of fighting, to honour themselves and display bravery, etc. To return to Drogo, he understands that Bastiani is a dead-end place, literally and in terms of his career, but, because he feels as though he has all the time in the world, he is prepared to wait, to hold on, to put off doing something else [i.e. going back to the city, where excitement is largely guaranteed]  in the hope that one day soon something worthwhile will happen there. The tragedy is, of course, that while you are doing this, while you are waiting, time does not stand still, it carries on, life leaves you behind.

One of the most impressive features of the novel is that, for all the glum and gloominess, or perhaps because of it, The Tartar Steppe is as funny as it is moving and beautiful. First of all, the situation the characters find themselves in, that of soldiers wasting their entire lives at a Fort in the desert where there is little likelihood of action, is as absurd as anything in Beckett or Kafka. Large parts of the novel are given over to men looking through telescopes at the monotonous surrounding landscape, and periodically convincing themselves that the ‘little black spots’ they spy in the distance are an approaching enemy army. This makes me chuckle just writing about it. There is a particular scene, featuring Tronk and Drogo, where they discuss one of these black spots in the distance [one saying it is a stone, another saying it is mist], that could have been lifted from Waiting for Godo. I was also greatly amused that, in the absence of an enemy, they end up shooting at one of their own.

It is troubling that, for a book so concerned with time, and wasting your life, and so on, I have managed to spend a couple of hours, and multiple paragraphs, writing a review that, I now realise, has not engaged with half of the ideas that I wanted it to. Drogo’s fear of the unknown? His reluctance to move out of his comfort zone? No. Maturity, and the responsibilities that come with being an adult? No. Loneliness? No. Monotony? Death? I guess, in a way. I could devote another 1000 words to all that, and other things. But the sun is shining, in a fashion, and it is the weekend, so, bearing in mind Buzzati’s warning, I ought to go do something that doesn’t involve a computer screen and a [now almost empty] packet of cigarettes.

EDIT: In the time it took me to post this review the sun has disappeared and it has started to rain. So I might just stay in and watch football and drink tea. YOLO.

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THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN BY THOMAS MANN

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the idea of holidaying from yourself; existentially speaking, I mean. It’s a phenomena that occurs when one finds oneself in a novel or unusual situation or environment, either by will or accident. A holiday is, itself, one example; but there are so many: starting a new job, being caught outside in harsh or extreme weather, moving house, etc. I love train journeys for this reason. One always finds that people behave strangely on trains, in ways, I presume, that they wouldn’t act normally. For example, I have had more than one girl aggressively come on to me on a train. And the weird thing is I felt the inevitability of it as soon as they sat down next to me, as though they were looking for an opportunity to behave in that manner, as though they considered the duration of the journey to be a period of time that was happening not to them, but to someone else, another self, a more liberated self.

On the most basic level, this phenomena is what The Magic Mountain is about. The hero of the story, Hans Castorp, visits his tubercular cousin Joachim Ziemssen at the sanatorium Berghof in the Swiss mountains. The Hans that we meet at the beginning of the novel, the Hans that is of the flatlands still, is a mediocre bourgeois. Throughout his life he has been unexceptional in everything; he passed his exams, yes, but ‘without a drum roll.’ Even the name Hans is, in Germany, unremarkable. Like another of Mann’s characters, Thomas Buddenbrook, Castorp is, we are led to believe, thoroughly conventional. He blushes when he hears, in the room next door to his own, a Russian couple making love, and is particularly shocked by it taking place ‘in the daytime.’ However, the Berghof is a new and alien environment, an environment that is – in numerous, often strange ways – distinct from the life he left down below, and this comes to have a profound effect upon him.

In the Berghof sanatorium Hans Castorp is freer than he is used to being, both intellectually and morally. He acknowledges this himself when he notes that he feels impelled to philosophise, which is something that he wouldn’t have done ‘down there.’ He also openly breaks or challenges sanatorium rules or conventions, such as when he visits critically ill patients or takes up skiing. His awakening, if you want to call it that, is also sexual; for example, his relationship with the slinky Russian, Clavdia Chauchat, is obviously unconventional. Not only does he not approach her in the way that he would a woman he is courting in a traditional manner [he uses her first name without permission], but she is, and again he acknowledges this himself, not the kind of woman he would have pursued at all in the flatlands. The sanatorium for Hans is a new reality, a new world; he is, in a sense, remaking, or perhaps finding, himself before your eyes.

With the setting of the novel being a sanatorium, and with nearly all of the characters being patients who are suffering from a variety of serious [and often terminal] ailments and diseases, it ought to be clear that The Magic Mountain deals with those weightiest of issues: life and death. Tellingly, when Hans arrives at the Berghof he believes that he is, in fact, perfectly healthy. Yet as far as the doctors are concerned no one is in perfect health. If you look hard enough you will find something, some defect, some fault, some illness. Which is exactly what happens; and Hans ends up staying well beyond the three weeks that he originally intended.

‘I was articulating my doubts that the words ‘human being’ and ‘perfect health’ could ever be made to rhyme.’

The relationship between illness and both life and death is a unique one. Illness is, in fact, a strange kind of intermediary stage and this accounts, in part, for the very odd, almost surreal atmosphere at the sanatorium, which, at times, resembles a kind of haunted house. Indeed, one of the characters, the pedagogue Settembrini, calls the patients ‘shades.’ They are, in a sense, in purgatory, they are phantoms hovering between two states of being; some, like the half-lung club, are like ghouls or other monstrous creatures. Death itself, however, is something that is not mentioned; when Hans tries to broach the subject his fellow patients are upset with him. Death, then, for the people in the sanatorium, as it is for us too, is something that one ignores or pretends does not happen. The management and staff behave in much the same way, or at least behave in a way that allows the patients to pretend that death does not happen. For example, corpses are removed on the quiet, and those who are close to death are separated from the rest.

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[Patients at the Hoehwald sanitorium, Davos, Switzerland, 1948]

In addition to life and death and illness, or in relation to all of those themes, Mann also continuously makes reference to the concept of time. When ill one has an obscure relationship with time. Days, weeks, minutes, hours all become confused or meaningless. When feverish, when not in one’s right mind, time flows by at an decreased speed. For instance, when laying in bed wracked with shivers, drifting in and out of sleep, what may seem like hours could be, in fact, only thirty minutes. Being ill is a little bit like being lost. When lost one imagines that time is moving much quicker than it actually is. Most of us have had this kind of experience. As we have the converse experience, i.e. a period of time that appears to be short but is in fact rather long. However, this experience is more often had by the active and healthy, by someone who has a busy day at work whereby he might sit down after what feels like an hour or two and note that actually five hours have flown by. The only way to stand outside of time, to not be subjected to its oppressive force, is through death. We speak of the dead as though time still applies to them – for example, we speak about how long it has been since they passed away – but it, of course, does not.

I mentioned Settembrini in a previous paragraph and it is perhaps worth focussing on him in a bit more detail. Many of the characters in the novel are symbolic, they are meant to represent certain ideas or approaches to being. Settembrini is enlightenment. He literally turns on the light when he comes to visit a Hans that has now been diagnosed and ordered to bed. Settembrini is in favour of action, of not succumbing to torpor or indolence; these things are contrary to enlightenment. Illness is a kind of torpor, or a fixation on one’s body; it’s bad faith, an excuse not to be active. This is why he criticises the establishment; because he sees it as advocating a kind of indolence, or decadence even, that is at odds with his world view. It is in relation to characters such as Settembrini that Mann makes it clear that illness is not merely a physical state, it is an intellectual or moral state also. This is why he, Settembrini, tries to teach Hans how to live. He sees Castorp as someone who is in danger, moral danger, rather than physical danger. Consider Settembrini’s nemesis, Naphta; he is, morally or intellectually, the most ill. Naphta is more than once described as being a terrorist. This doesn’t, of course, mean that he plants bombs and so on, but, rather, that he advocates terror or suffering. Naphta’s world view is, in this way, medieval.

“And life? Life itself? Was it perhaps only an infection, a sickening of matter? Was that which one might call the original procreation of matter only a disease, a growth produced by morbid stimulation of the immaterial?”

In line with Thomas Mann’s advice I have read The Magic Mountain twice. That it is recommended that one ought to read a book more than once in order to get a handle on it indicates that it is a tricksy thing, and The Magic Mountain’s reputation amongst the general public certainly bears that out. To some extent, however, I feel that its reputation is undeserved. The book is long, yes, and one could not, with a clear conscience, claim that it is easy to digest, but it is not nearly as difficult, nor tedious, as some would have you believe. For me, the book can be divided into two parts. The first half is not, despite its oddness, particularly taxing, but the second half is certainly more of a challenge, particularly in relation to Naphta, who engages in a sizeable amount of dry philosophy. I must admit that I have found, during both reads, Naphta’s appearances in the text almost unbearable, but I do also think that this was intentional on Mann’s part. Naphta is meant to be ugly, not just in terms of his looks, but also his attitudes. His passages do drag, but one at least understands their inclusion, and, in any case, they are not frequent enough to ruin one’s experience of the book as a whole.

It is tempting when describing The Magic Mountain to reach for terms such as intelligent, fascinating, profound, moving, and so on. And it is all of those things. However, it is at times also very funny, which may be something of a surprise. Or certainly I found it very funny. So much so that I did wonder whether I was losing my mind. Mann has an ironic and detached authorial voice, and so it is easy to miss the jokes, but they are there. One example is when Hans’ relative, James Tienappel, has a conversation with Director Behrens about what happens to bodies after death, and, absolutely in no frame of mind for having his eyes opened, hotfoots it back down to the flatlands early one morning without even telling Hans he is leaving. Another is when Hans first arrives and hears one of the patients coughing in such a strange way that it freaks him out:

‘Compared to it, all other coughs with which he was familiar had been splendid, healthy expressions of life.’

Is it just me who can’t help laughing at that? And what about Mynheer Peeperkorn? He had me in hysterics.

Anyway, I’m almost at my self-imposed 2000 word limit, so I’d better wrap this up. I’ll do so with a nice little anecdote. When The Magic Mountain appeared in 1924, Thomas Mann gave his son, Klaus, a copy, in which he had written:

‘To my respected colleague – his promising father.’  

Ah, Thomas, you old wag.

THE EMIGRANTS BY W.G. SEBALD

When I was a kid I thought that everyone was happier than me, that they felt connected to the world in a way that I did not. I experienced life as though I was behind glass, as though some barrier existed between me and the world that obscured, muffled, and distorted it. That wasn’t, as it is tempting to assume, a consequence of being raised in straightened circumstances, on Northern English council estates – although those blackened skeletal compounds, and the fear and unease caused by poverty, surely did not help at all – it was something that was in me and has remained with me, at least in a diluted form, as I have got older and, relatively speaking, moved up in the world. In part, this feeling is probably why I turned to books, because books allowed me to experience something, in my imagination, with a kind of clarity that was otherwise denied me, allowed me to connect with something in the way that I often could not connect with my surroundings or other people.

With age comes understanding, of course, and understanding who I am and why I behave the way that I do has brought comfort and allowed me to lighten up and enjoy myself; with age also comes the realisation that most people are a little bit lost, that it isn’t the case that everyone else is blithely strolling through life, whistling and twirling a cane, without a care in the world. So I no longer feel quite so oppressed these days. Yet it is safe to say that what I experienced as a child, and what I experience still now from time to time, albeit less intensely, is why the work of W.G. Sebald resonates with me so much. All four of Sebald’s novels are populated by eccentric, otherworldly, almost ghost-like, figures, some well-known and others not previously known, whose lives went awry in some way, people who, it seems, could not cope with day-to-day existence, could not successfully endure. In The Rings of Saturn the narrator himself has had a kind of mental breakdown, and, upon leaving the hospital, begins a walking tour through Norfolk, on the way making wry, melancholy observations, and telling anecdotes about strange phenomena and odd, depressive, people; and in Austerlitz the focus of the story is the Holocaust and a man who was sent to England as a child to avoid the same fate as his parents, and suffers, as a result, feelings of dislocation, isolation, and anguish.

In The Emigrants, published prior to The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz, Sebald tells the separate stories of four characters, each of whom left their home country, and each of whom were damaged in some way. In many ways the book is a rehearsal for Sebald’s two major novels, as it covers much the same territory and deals with many of the same themes. There is, of course, the same Sebaldian style on display, which means long stately sentences and very few paragraphs, and, punctuating the text, a series of evocative black and white photographs.

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There is also the customary balancing act between fact and fiction, which is, perhaps, the most intriguing thing about the German’s body of work. With The Emigrants, like The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz and Vertigo, one is unsure as to what is real and what is not, what is truth and what is fiction, and the effect is disorientating. There is no clear indication as to whether the lives of the four characters are imagined lives, are creations, or whether Sebald is sharing genuine episodes from his travels, experiences, and family history. The photographs, which we are led to believe are genuine representations of the people and things being discussed, may not be at all. I’ve always found that disquieting, that Sebald may have invented his so believable and desperately human characters.

“He felt closer to dust, he said, then to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places were things remain undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness.”

However, as one would expect from a rehearsal The Emigrants isn’t as polished or impressive as what came after. It may share the same themes, tone, and style as The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz, but those two novels work as complete narratives while The Emigrants reads like four independent short stories or novellas collected in one volume. Of the four sections, stories, or biographies, three are excellent, but one, concerning Ambros Adelwarth, did pass me by a little. It’s not bad at all, but I didn’t find it as engrossing as its three companions. It is also worth noting that Sebald’s photographs seem to appear with much greater frequency in The Emigrants, which I felt diluted their impact. I found that with there being so many I tended to glance at them or ignore them completely, when previously, while reading his novels where they feature less often, I would study them carefully. Of course, none of these things are major issues, but they do go some way, perhaps, to distinguishing between what is a masterpiece and what is merely a great novel.