Disciplined even in death. Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping. Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent. Pushkin Press, 2015. First published in Dutch, 2008. It forms the first part of a trilogy; the second has already appeared in Dutch.

Despite some initial misgivings, I was not immune to the poetic and emotional power of this novel. It comprises the vivid, fragmented memories of Helena, a very old lady of French-Belgian origin, from her life before, during and after WWI, in which she lost the people she loved most. But like some of those whose reviews I give links to at the end I also found the ornate, image-laden style a little too dense and indigestible at times. The translator, Paul Vincent, has done a good job with what must have been a difficult task.

Mortier While the Gods coverI find as I flick through its pages again, reminding myself of its textures and resonances, that the novel is not so much a story about recollections of things past as a congeries of stories, memories and images that swirl through the narrator’s mind as her body fails her and she lives increasingly in her head.

The prose therefore works better when dipped into and savoured. Mortier, the Belgian author of several other novels, is also a poet. This novel reads like a prose poem, a non-linear anthology, in which chronology is regularly telescoped, focused back and forth, time’s strata exposed and disclosed by Helena’s mining memory.

Take for example the second paragraph on the opening page. Helena is setting out her approach – writing down in notebooks the recollections of her lengthy past as they crop up irregularly in her mind, and breaking off occasionally to apostrophise her kind Moroccan carer, Rachida:

I’d give a lot to be able to descend into the subterranean heart of our stories, to be lowered on ropes into their dark shafts and see stratum after stratum glide by in the lamplight. Everything the earth has salvaged: foundations, fence rails, tree roots, soup plates, soldiers’ helmets, the skeletons of animals and people in hushed chaos, the maelstrom congealed to a terrestrial crust that has swallowed us up.

Wow. That’s a hefty accumulation of the kinds of images and objects that form the ‘heart of our stories’. It fuses mighty abstractions with highly visual, painterly details: the detritus of time’s encounter with human warfare. It’s the verbal equivalent of the scattered contents of an occupied wartime trench after being hit by a shell; the narrator comes by afterwards and inspects, like an archaeologist poet, or a photographer-artists, the fragments out of which we’ve ‘salvaged’ our savage ruins.

I came to this novel shortly after the very different, much more conventional Not So Quiet…by Helen Zenna Smith. That fictional autobiography of a woman ambulance driver’s traumatic experiences in the same war is more direct, consciously unpoetic, and thus more immediately accessible. After my initial struggle to come to terms with the slow-burning, meditative approach of Mortier I’m finding While the Gods is more moving in many ways.

Like Smith, Mortier is good at conveying the horrific experiences of women who lived through WWI. Although, unlike Helen in Smith’s novel, Belgian Helena lived behind the front line, ostensibly away from the action, many of her memories involve the sense-impressions of that war of attrition: she could see the flashes of the huge guns in the distance, hear the thunderous booms they made, and feel in her very entrails the vibrations they made. She tells how a little village girl was killed by a random shard of shrapnel as she ran to play. There was no front line when artillery shells could travel miles.

She also gives vivid descriptions of journeys to the front with her English lover, Matthew, a photo-journalist. These sections indicate that she too has the sensibility and artistic eye of an artist-photographer. One of the most powerful sections in the novel is her description of her snapshot of her lover, taken from behind as he inspected the site of trench years after the war, and as the photographic plate looms into focus with the action of the chemicals on the plate, she starts to see details that had eluded her vision at the time: the jagged, scattered limbs of long-dead soldiers reaching out of the frozen mud, like images from Picasso’s Guernica.

Similar scenes recur, indelibly printed (or congealed) on her memory. For example when Matthew takes her to other such battle-scarred sites long after the war’s end, when he:

meticulously documented what I call the congealing, the great levelling, in all respects after the ravages and the euphoria of peace. The smoothing-over of the tormented earth.

She’s appalled by the ‘cemeteries where the fallen were gradually put in straighter and straighter ranks, disciplined even in death’. She bitterly reflects on the ‘wry euphemism’ of these ‘charming cemeteries’ that cover up cosmetically with ‘solemn temples, carved mourning statues, lit eternal flames…the bones and the corpses and the countless shattered lives’ in ‘an arcadia stretched out.’

She also evokes with heart-breaking pathos the ways that the women in her world, excluded from the infernal horrors of front-line action, had to bear a terrible burden of their own: it’s also the women who ‘take the blows’. Another memorable vignette from this montage of such images is that of her otherwise bohemian uncle, who’s taken on the responsibility of travelling from house to house in his small town, conveying the dreaded news of the latest casualties at the front. More women with lost sons, brothers, husbands, lovers. Lives smashed and frozen as graphically as those exposed limbs in Helena’s photo.

This novel was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015, the year it was won by Jenny Erpenbeck for her novel The End of Days. I agree with Tony: it would have made a worthy winner itself.

But it takes perseverance, and perhaps a second reading to reveal, like the images in Helena’s stark photo, the shards of war that penetrate and wound a person’s memory like shrapnel.

Other bloggers who have posted on this novel find echoes in its themes and style, quite justifiably, of Proust and Sebald, among others. Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong also portrays vividly and poetically the connections between passion, love, loss and death in that terrible war:

Rough Ghosts

Dolce Belleza

David’s Book World

Tony’s Reading List

The Book Binder’s Daughter

 

Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse. Pushkin Press, 2015. Translated by Sophie Hughes. First published in Spanish 2013.

Iván Repila, cover of The Boy who Stole Attila's HorseTwo young boys, brothers known only as Big and Small, are trapped (or were they thrown?) in a pyramid-shaped well in the heart of a forest. They cling desperately to life, become feral, crazed. This short novella – just over 100 pages on small-format, high quality paper (with French flaps to the cover, which I find inordinately pleasing) – is a surreal…what? Allegory (but for what? The instinct to survive? Political injustice? In ch. 11 we hear ‘the land seems to be governed by a mechanism of suffering that works against every one of nature’s decreees’.) Kafkaesque fable? (about human inhumanity? – in Ch. 23 Big gives Small a lecture on how to kill. Maybe the boys’ mother put them, like the pussy in the rhyme, in the well). Dark fairytale with more monsters than fairies – a Freudian lesson in the unheimlich? A descent into the circles of the human mind and its capacity for insanity and hallucination, a counterpart to Dante’s circles of hell? A variation on Aesop’s fable of the fox in the well and the unsympathetic wolf looking down on him?

I turned to some reviews to seek clarity or confirmation.

Veronica Scott Esposito recommended it at Conversational Readings: cf Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes – I posted on it here – another fantasy/allegory about a person trapped down a hole or pit, exploited, frightened, reverting to an animalistic state.

John Self, Asylum – ‘unpleasant’; allegory of some sort, many possible interpretations, from environmental fable to perils and exigencies of growing up; most probably socio-political (see the epigraphs by Thatcher on free market forces and the rich/poor divide, and Brecht on uprising and revolt) – inequality in social hierarchy. Packs a punch way above its weight.

I also found it unpleasant, though I admired the visceral punch it packs, and the language (brilliantly rendered by Sophie Hughes) is often breathtakingly good. Its depiction of human corporeality, of human corruption (as in bodily putrefaction as well as morally), of the narrow divide between civilised behaviour and bestiality, is very hard to take in anything but short doses.

The boys love and support each other, most of the time. They also harbour unspoken thoughts about cannibalism. Big rations their meagre food in such a way that he gets a much higher proportion, which he justifies by insisting that he’s the one whose superior physique will ultimately lead to their escape. Survival of the fittest. Though he also shows capacity for self-sacrifice.

John Self points out a feature I hadn’t registered: the chapters aren’t numbered sequentially, but as increasing prime numbers (none of them even, of course). He suggests, plausibly, that they correspond to the number of days the brothers spend in the well (the final chapter is 97). Not surprisingly their bodies have wasted almost to nothing in that time.

Descriptions of this process are unstinting, often grimly humorous in their verbal ingenuity, like this one of Small in ch. 59. First, he has named himself Inventor and devised ‘cultural activities’ for his brother, ‘although really he does it because he cannot stop imagining.’ He’s also ‘perfected’ a bizarre ‘osteo-vegetal music’ created by ‘hitting certain bones with dry roots’. He’s frustrated with the childish percussive potential of ‘knees, hips, torso and collarbone’, and would really love to somehow ‘rotate his head and arms and rock out on his spine…’

His extreme boniness makes him look like a misshapen neighbourhood made up entirely of street corners, and this affords him an inordinate range of obscure, high-pitched sounds which come together as a tune when he strums his tendons and thumps his stomach and chest.

The title? In Ch. 31 Small announces his fantasy that he’d stolen Attila’s horse to make shoes out of its hooves; ‘they smelled like the shell of a dragon’s egg or like the skull of an idol’, he explains with unsettlingly calm clarity. When he wore them he killed whatever grew underfoot – he graduated from grass to a camp of sleeping people, where he played a grim game of ‘bouncy hopscotch’. The sleepers woke up screaming and died in agony:

Their bodies turned brown and red. It looked like a poor man’s rainbow: lustreless, born out of a candle and a puddle of urine. I felt important, like a painter.

John Self suggests that last image, narrated with such deadpan lack of affect, can be interpreted as a fable of the artist’s cruelty. Maybe. Or perhaps it’s part of this disturbing, twisted tale’s dark, surreal logic: creativity arising from suffering, like honey-sweetness from  a corpse, the lion and bees image and slogan on Lyle’s syrup tins (at one point the boys wait for a dead bird’s body to decompose so they can feast on the maggots in its corpse).

I don’t know, writing this has made me feel better disposed towards this powerful, highly original, weird little novella.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), Beware of Pity. Pushkin Press, 2000, reprinted 2008. Translated from the German by Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt. First published 1938.

On the whole, more men had perhaps escaped into the war than from it.

So says Captain Anton Hofmiller at a dinner party in Vienna in 1937, as the rise of fascism threatens the world. He’s siding with the unnamed frame narrator of Stefan Zweig’s only full-length novel, Beware of Pity, in predicting the inevitability of a second world war towards which hundreds of thousands of unwitting fools will rush headlong without knowing why, ‘perhaps merely out of a desire to run away from themselves or from disagreeable circumstances.’ As the main narrative shows, those words describe his own unflattering experience and motives.

Hofmiller had been decorated at the age of 28 with Austria’s ‘almost legendary’ highest award for outstanding bravery in action during WWI. When he and the narrator sit together to talk, the reluctant ‘hero’ explains why he’d earlier shown disdain when gaped at in a café, and what it was he’d been running away from. Far from being a brave hero, he explains he simply showed courage for perhaps twenty minutes, being one of those ‘who were running away from their responsibilities rather than patriotic heroes’, trying to ‘extricate themselves’ from ‘a desperate situation.’

So he begins to relate his ‘very odd story’, the ‘tortuous paths’ along which he travelled to attain the dubious status of ‘hero’.

Zweig portraitZweig is best known for his short stories and novellas, and it’s possible to see this novel as in part a coherent collection of related short narratives. There’s the central story of the humiliating social gaffe that leads to his misguidedly befriending the crippled Edith Kekesfalva and the terrible consequences of his indulging the frequent waves of ‘that painful, exhausting yet wildly exciting gush of pity’ that ‘overwhelmed’ him whenever he looked on the ‘hypersensitive’ young woman’s disabled condition (it seems to be polio, but is never named as more than ‘a bacillus’). She frequently warns him not to visit her out of pity alone, not to ‘sacrifice’ his time and finer feelings on her behalf – but as always he fails to heed the advice of those who know better, and spirals down into an emotional and moral impasse compounded by his lies, deceptions and misconceptions of what’s happening and what motivates his and others’ behaviour.

There are embedded in this story several others. There’s one that tells how Edith’s father rises from an impoverished childhood with the name Leopold Kanitz, brought up in a Jewish family, to become (not very honourably), with a newly acquired ‘Magyarized’ name ‘decked out with a prefix of nobility’, the fabulously wealthy magnate  with a castle home in the small garrison town at which Hofmiller, a 25-year-old second lieutenant cavalryman or Uhlan, is stationed, and where he first encounters the girl who is to become his nemesis, and ‘an emotional abyss’ opens up before him. He tries several cowardly modes of escape, ultimately finding it in action in WWI.

There’s another which tells how Doctor Condor, who is one of a series of eminent clinicians trying (futilely) to effect a cure for the stricken girl, came to marry a blind former patient. When he first hears of this, Hofmiller makes another of many misjudgements in the narrative: he erroneously assumes that the doctor was motivated, as he was with Edith, by pity, not love. When the naïve young officer finally gets to know Frau Condor, he undergoes one of several beautifully portrayed, painful epiphanies, each of which serves to  make him more mature and see things less obscurely, less selfishly and myopically.

The novel is 361 pages long, but it never flags. Even though the outcome is never in much doubt, one is drawn into the experiences of this generous-spirited but ingenuous, socially awkward, confused young man. Every effort Anton makes to be noble and honourable ends with his becoming more enmired and embarrassed. He slowly learns a painful lesson about the ‘two kinds of pity’ –

Unknown and unsuspected tender zones of feeling – but also it must be admitted very dangerous ones!

This story of the dangerous allure of the wrong kind of pity and its addictive appeal has some similarities to the Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklós Bánffy, about which I wrote recently, in that it is set in the twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian empire before it was caught up in the catastrophe and carnage of WWI, and deals with the outmoded, corrosive codes of honour that beset the aristocratic and officer classes of society at that time.

Zweig Pity coverIt’s a gripping narrative that churns the stomach at times as the central characters undergo excruciating experiences and humiliations. The translation is unobtrusive and fluent. And what a handsome cover, taken from Gustave Klimkt’s painting ‘Schubert at the piano’.

See the perceptive piece on this novel by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian in 2011, which provides useful biographical and historical-political context. The article includes a photo of the main actors of the film version of 1946 (including Lilli Palmer as Edith) and its prolific British director (Maurice Elvey)  – which received such a critical mauling it almost ended his career prematurely.

Death – and sex – in Venice: Antal Szerb, Journey by Moonlight

Antal Szerb, Journey by Moonlight Pushkin Press 2002; 1937 first publication

Everyone seems to love this novel, from Nicholas Lezard, late of the Guardian, to Len Rix, its gifted translator, who points out in an afterword that every cultivated Hungarian reads and loves it; Journey by Moonlight is to Hungary what Catcher in the Rye is to America, it seems.

Szerb Moonlight coverWhat’s not to like about it? Journey by Moonlight was written by an erudite, sensitive, polyglot academic Hungarian, born to a Jewish family but assimilated into the Catholic faith, who died a brutal death in a Nazi labour camp in 1945. Offered an escape route by concerned friends, he opted instead to share the fate of his fellow Jews and intellectuals in such camps.

Its opening lines are compelling, riffing ironically perhaps on Thomas Mann (and anticipating du Maurier’s ‘Don’t Look Now’, without the genuine dread):

On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.

This is, the deadpan narrator informs us, protagonist Mihály’s first visit to Italy; he’s 36, and on his honeymoon. But ‘he secretly feared [Italy]’, associating it with ‘grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children’. It’s the same

Instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women.

Ok, so far I’m with the fans; this is wittily dry, ironic, funny. The style and tone are poised, laconic, observant and engaging; this voice isn’t fooled by Mihály’s emotional disarray and callow selfishness. There are some terrifically funny asides, like this one about Mihály’s wife, Erszi, as she lies alone in bed brooding anxiously as her husband goes on a drunken situationist dérive through those alluring back-alleys of Venice, like a Beckettian version of Mann’s von Aschenbach:

Women are usually better at lying awake and thinking…She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihály had secrets even from himself, and he did not understand her since it never occurred to him that people other than himself had an inner life in which he might take an interest. And yet they had married because he had decided that they understood each other perfectly, and that, for both, the marriage rested on purely rational foundations and not fleeting passion. For just how long could that fiction be sustained?

It’s often darkly funny like that, with that wry narrative voice dipping into postmodern self-reference and metafiction. What follows is a complex, meandering modernist take on this man-child’s self-conscious ‘journey’ into himself as he strives to reconcile the twin lures of eros and thanatos – death and sex in Venice – and various other points en route to Rome.

There’s a wildly funny sequence after he ‘loses’ Erszi on a train journey (‘not unintentionally’, as the narrator knowingly puts it) in search of himself and his adolescent fantasy friends, and hooks up with a ditzy, sexy American art student called, of all things, Millicent. She asks, for example, who was the Italian artist who painted trees like the ones they had walked past:

“Botticelli,” replied Mihály, and kissed her.

“Ooooh,” she said, with horror on her face. Then she kissed him back.

Just the right number of Os in that ‘Oooh’. As they make love the narrator caustically points out that Mihály’s passion is a pursuit of ‘fantasy and not physiological fact!’

Her healthy mouth was entirely American (oh, the prairies!), the little hairs on her neck were foreign…”Geography is my most potent aphrodisiac,” he thought to himself.

This is closer to Mel Brooks than Mann or Gide – and why not?

But Mihály isn’t a pseudo-cynical mixed-up, grieving teenager like Holden Caulfield, or tortured artist: he’s a grown man of limited talent, from a privileged family, tempted to reject the cosy bourgeois life Erszi represents in order to go off on his spiritual-erotic psychogeographical quest in search of himself and a rebellious, bohemian dream for which our narrator has made it clear he’s just not suited. I’m afraid I found him boring – despite that sophisticated, ironic narrative critique of him.

There’s far too much sub-Freudian stuff like this: ‘Those Etruscans were perfectly aware that dying is an erotic act’, a creepy academic tells Mihály in a particularly over-long section of the novel. This kind of nonsense gives him ‘a frisson’; this was the kind of immature talk he’d loved in his little ménage as a youth in Budapest. The brother and sister at its heart, Éva and Tamás Ulpius, and his fellow acolytes (they reminded me of the characters in Cocteau’s weirdly absurd Les enfants terribles), had got off on enacting gruesome little dramas involving death, murder and suicide. This is what Mihály is longing to rediscover or re-enact in Italy.

Portrait of Szerb in the Pushkin Press edition

Portrait of Szerb in the Pushkin Press edition

Despite the numerous occasions when the novel has some seriously and perceptively funny things to say about the existential angst at the heart of modern life’s darkness (oddly enough there’s little direct reference to the rising fascism in Italy that Mihály pays characteristically little attention to when it bursts through his self-absorption), it doesn’t all hang together.

For example, at one of the tragi-comic climaxes of the narrative, when Mihály’s intention to commit suicide like his revered late friend Tamás is thwarted by a pretty girl whisking him away to be the most badly-chosen godfather ever at a christening, his grumpily whining confusion is brilliantly evoked in looping, free indirect style:

They burst in on him with their precious stupid business, the way people always burst in on him with their precious stupid business when life was sublime and terrible. And sublime and terrible things always happened to him when life was stupid and precious. Life was not an art-form, or rather, it was an extremely mixed genre.

That’s very funny and good, but the novel’s general impact is a bit of a disappointment after its big build-up on the jacket blurb. Maybe I’m just not in the right place, reading it just after going back to work after a long summer break. Maybe reading about a pretentious 36-year-old’s ‘Inbetweeners’ crisis (with a shot of Gide’s immoralists about him, too) came at the wrong time for me. I can appreciate its dark ironies, that aloof, unreliable narrative voice – and the looming threat of fascism that’s always there, even when unstated…  I’d be interested to hear what others think of it.