Lives transformed: Keyserling and Tyler

June reading, part one. Two short novels about people whose lives are transformed through encounters with people who cause them to reassess the way they’ve been drifting complacently through life until then.

Eduard von Keyserling, Waves Translated from the German by Gary Miller (Dedalus European Classics, 2019. 19111

I came across the fiction of Eduard von Keyserling a few years ago when I followed the excellent translation by Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List of an earlier work of Keyserling’s, Schwüle Tage or Sultry Days. Tony recommended Waves as a good place to continue exploring the work of this author. He was born in 1855 (he died in 1918) in a German-speaking duchy in present-day Latvia (a region then part of the Russian empire)

In the introduction to the book Miller makes the point that Keyserling forms a link between nineteenth century realism and twentieth century modernism in literature; his work is sometimes described as ‘literary impressionism’. Keyserling was a rather odd-looking, sickly aristocrat…whose books are largely about German aristocracy before the First World War; although limited in scope his depiction of these social elites [was] not uncritical.

(Adapted from Jonathan’s Intermittencies of the Mind blog 2019)

The intimate tranquillity of an aristocratic family’s holiday by the Baltic Sea is broken by the arrival of a controversial couple. Beautiful Doralice has left her stuffy, elderly husband, Count Köhne-Jasky; he was bending her into the shape he expected a dutiful, compliant countess to be, and this was stifling her. So she’s eloped with the bohemian artist who’d been (rather foolishly) commissioned by the count to paint his wife’s portrait. Shades of My Last Duchess.

Her impact on the extended family of Generalin von Palikow is seismic. There’s her two grown-up daughters: one has a philandering military husband and two impressionable teenage children; the other is joined by her (also military) fiancé – he too has a wandering eye. They all fall under the spell of Doralice, in various ways. Keyserling dramatizes the shockwaves she causes in their lives and relationships so that the fissures and faults in the aristocratic society of the time – this is set just before WWI – with subtlety and psychological insight. It’s notable that both military men will almost certainly be swallowed up in the horrors of the war that they don’t realise is about the break out and finish the job of destroying their crumbling aristocratic lives for ever.

The character of Doralice evolves from that of trophy wife (and second wife) into that of a proto-feminist. She comes to realise that her free-thinking new partner, the artist, instead of encouraging her to rejoice in her newly liberated self, is moulding her into his perception of a wife, just as her ex-husband tried to do. Frying pan to fire, perhaps.

The disabled neighbouring holidaymaker, Knospelius, is a witty, perceptive chorus to these goings-on. He sees more clearly than the participants in this drama what dangerous games they’re playing. He’s obviously an avatar of Keyserling himself – a sad, lonely figure, excluded from the main dance.

Thanks to Tony for the excellent recommendation.

Anne Tyler, Redhead by the Side of the Road, (Chatto and Windus, London, 2020)

I think this is the first novel by American author AT that I’ve read. I liked the film of her earlier novel, The Accidental Tourist. The central character there, as in Redhead, has a quirkly, whimsical air, darkened by melancholy and pain.

It’s opening is typical of the lucid, fluent style of the novel, and the engaging, button-holing narrative voice:

You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.

He’s a reclusive, obsessively tidy man; it’s no surprise that he makes a living as a fixer of people’s computer/IT problems – he calls himself the Tech Hermit. His buttoned-up character is evident in both his rigid housekeeping routines and his relationships – to the detriment of his love life. He always finds fault with the women he’s with; it’s as if he can’t reboot them when he sees them as having gone wrong, so he moves on.

His present girlfriend, Cass, lives in her own apartment. Micah likes his own space. His tranquillity is shattered when a young man shows up at his door and says he’s the son of one of his ex-girlfriends and needs a place to stay. This leads to a reunion with the boy’s mother. Revelations about how and why Micah broke up with her cause him to take stock of himself.

Like the aristocratic families holidaying by the Baltic, he comes to question what he really values and wants in life.

This novel is less substantial than Waves, which is really about a decaying way of life for a whole social class in central Europe at the time it’s set. This one is more a portrait of a single man and his propensity for emotional evasion. I suppose he also represents, in a less complex way than Keyserling’s characters, the ways modern society has atomised, and people have tended to become less adept at what is required to maintain emotionally healthy relationships. Maybe a less profound or amibitious novel than Keyserling’s, but both are well worth reading.

Oh, and that enigmatic title? Micah’s unwavering routine involves going for a run every morning. Because he doesn’t wear glasses or lenses when he runs, he doesn’t see too well, and regularly mistakes a fire hydrant near his home for the roadside redhead. Another of his misperceptions about women.

Stefan Hertmans, The Convert

Stefan Hertmans, The Convert. Harvill Secker 2019. Translated from the Dutch by David McKay. 20161

 Back in November 2019 I posted on Flemish Belgian author Stefan Hertmans’ novel War and Turpentine (link HERE). The Sebaldian tone and style and metafiction/autofiction elements that I noted there are also present in this later novel, The Convert.

This novel also seems based on historical documents. This time not by someone in the author’s own family, but MSS from the 11C found in modern times and now stored in the Cambridge University Library. They relate the story of the terrible events that befell a young Norman Catholic woman of noble birth, and the Jewish man, son of a Narbonne rabbi, with whom she fell passionately in love. They married and had two children.

They are caught in a vicious anti-Semitic massacre perpetrated by the rabble of undisciplined plundering zealots calling themselves crusaders en route to fight in the Holy Land. Their hypocrisy is matched only by their brutality.

Vigdis sets off in the aftermath of this horrible event in quest of her two children, abducted by these thugs. Her journey takes her through many harrowing experiences to Cairo, and then back to the village in the south of France where she’d lived for a time with her beloved husband and children.

These events are interspersed with the author’s autobiographical account of his own pilgrimage in what he hopes is the same route taken by the distraught Vigdis. He becomes emotionally entangled in her unhappy quest, and takes his reader with him.

Although the pace and drive of the narrative fall away towards the end, and the focus shifts to the fate of the MSS that recorded the story of this unfortunate family, it’s a stirring, chilling story. The capacity of people who profess to be religious to persecute those of other faiths is depicted with the same vivid, unflinching language as that used in Hertmans accounts of WWI in War and Turpentine.

It’s another brilliant translation by David McKay.