Benita Berthmann’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Benita Berthmann (@moodboardultra) Benita studies literature in Marburg, Germany, where she is a full time book enthusiast, part time smoker and existentialist.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Helene Schjerfbecek, G***y Woman, 1919

In 2021 I read more books than ever before. 175, to be exact. [Ed. – Damn girl!] I could do it because I was in a very relaxed last semester of my Bachelor’s degree with heaps of free time (which I have since finished) and also because we were and still are in a pandemic. Being advised to stay at home does have its advantages. [Ed. – Introverts of the world unite! But not too closely!]

How can I select a number of favorites from all these books? I cannot. I can only offer you a glimpse into my (reading) life, a tiny selection. Of course, there are books from 2021 that stuck with me more than others, that touched or repulsed me differently, that I catch myself returning to in my thoughts over and over again.

When I think about the most memorable books of the past year, DIE WOHLGESINNTEN (Les bienveillantes/The Kindly Ones, German translation by Hainer Kober) by JONATHAN LITTELL immediately comes to mind. Little manages to show us each and every realm, every tiny corner of the Nazi brain of his protagonist and narrator, Maximilian Aue, over almost 1400 pages. [Ed. – Shoulda read it in English, only 992.] He is able to portray a character that is not just a Nazi, not just morally ruined, but a human being, a terrible, guilty, one, but one we do not necessarily dislike. [Ed. – Hmm…] One that allows us to see that even the most intellectual, the most cultivated (however we might define that term) people are not exempt from pursuing the most evil crimes against humanity. Not exempt from committing genocide. It is difficult to find the right words for what this book did to and with me. Yet, it is clear to me that DIE WOHLGESINNTEN is a major work that will continue to make its way into the cultural memory and leave a lasting impact on all its readers.

I am not too big on audiobooks—I listen to the same ones over and over again to help me fall asleep at night because, apparently, I can only sleep when someone basically talks my ear off—but there is one that kept me company throughout the whole year: THE SECRET HISTORY by DONNA TARTT. Probably no surprise that I, a semi-pretentious lit-student, enjoyed the tale of a very pretentious, flamboyant yet secretive group of classics students who decide to kill their friend. The novel has all of my favorite tropes: Dark academia, an obsession with aesthetics, a compelling way of story telling, mystery, and a healthy amount of death and homoerotic subtext. The language is complex and clever, snobby and charming all in the same instant, proving to me that Donna Tartt is indeed the most skillful contemporary American writer. Her talents lie not only in writing, but also in reading her own novel as an audiobook, her southern accent just adds that little extra sprinkle. Also, I have a soft spot for Richard Papen. Fight me. [Ed. — Totally fair.]

A book that has been important for me for years and that I became even more fond of in 2021 was HERTA MÜLLER’S HERZTIER (English title: THE LAND OF GREEN PLUMS, English translator: Michael Hofmann). HERTA MÜLLER, Nobel Prize winner of 2009, is my most revered author—her description of life under Ceausescu’s dictatorship in 1970s and 80s Romania never ceases to leave me in awe of both her writing skills and her personal integrity. It is brutal, relentlessly honest and poetic. In HERZTIER, we get a close view of a group of students trying to evade political persecution, eventually having to escape the government—either by fleeing to Germany or by death.

Why is this novel so important to me? In the summer of 2021, I wrote by bachelor’s thesis on its figurations of death, an experience that taught me how to look at literature even more closely and how to present an argument on my own. I feel lucky I got to have these experiences with my favorite author. [Ed. – Heart emoji!]

It’s not always easy to read a novel by Müller, neither thematically nor stylistically, but I would argue that it is a memorable and most rewarding experience –her unusual prose, the (sometimes jarringly) accurate and detailed descriptions of seemingly minor incidents open up, at least for me, perspectives I would otherwise never have imagined exist. She is a minority writer (German-speaking Banat Swabian, having grown up in Romania), an uncompromising political activist, using her voice and her reputation as a Nobel laureate especially to help censored and blacklisted writers forced to live under dictatorial rule, and someone whom I admire for both their writing and their personal integrity. Safe to say, Herta Müller is my muse. [Ed. – Benita, you are a Herta Müller Ultra!]

A huge and somewhat daunting project of mine was to read UWE JOHNSON’S (pronounced more like Yohn-Zohn in German) JAHRESTAGE (ANNIVERSARIES, translated by Damion Searls): the German version is a whopping 1700 pages. I aimed for 50 pages a day, which roughly worked out. As the title already indicates, the narration follows every day in the life of the protagonist Gesine Cresspahl, originally from Jerichow, Mecklenburg, GDR, now a citizen of New York. Anniversaries is a cleverly interwoven literary montage consisting of Gesine’s current life with her daughter in NY in 1967 and 68, her and her family’s history (fascism in 1930s Germany and such…) and, interestingly, snippets of The New York Times. I recently attended a seminar on Literary Patronage that shed light on how much Johnson was struggling to finish the final quarter of the novel. The first three parts were published in 1970, 71 and 73, but he went through a rough patch health-wise, got divorced and amassed debts at his publishing house Suhrkamp amounting to roughly 250,000 DM (around $105,000 at that time, my quick research reveals), thus, he only managed to complete his main work in 1983, a year before his untimely death from a heart attack (while he tried to open his third bottle of wine that evening). [Ed. – Let that be a lesson to me.] Rumor has it that his publisher Siegfried Unseld, trying to get his money’s worth as he was supporting the author with a monthly paycheck of 3000 DM, pushed Johnson to his breaking point by demanding that the novel be completed by March 1983 or else he would suspend the monthly support. Unfortunately, we will probably never know if this is true, but it’s an interesting backstory to the novel either way.

Thinking about all the other books I also got through, it’s impossible to name, properly review, and shed light on all of them, but there are a few honorable mentions I would like to announce at the very least:

Anything I have read by THOMAS BERNHARD, my favorite angry Austrian. This year, I got around to: FROST (translated by Michael Hofmann), WATTEN. EIN NACHLASS (published in English in THREE NOVELLAS, translated by P. Jansen and K. Northcott), MEINE PREISE (MY PRIZES, translated by Carol Brown Janeway), HOLZFÄLLEN (WOODCUTTERS, translated by David McLintock) and DIE URSACHE (part one of his autobiographical writings, I could not find an English translation for it [Ed. – It’s in Gathering Evidence] – all worth reading. I look forward to discovering even more of Bernhard’s works in 2022.

ANNIE ERNAUX: EINE FRAU (UNE FEMME/A WOMAN’S STORY (English translations all by Tanya Leslie, German translations by Sonja Finck), DIE SCHAM (LA HONTE/SHAME) and DAS EREIGNIS (L’ÉVÉNEMENT/HAPPENING) found their way into my bookshelf and my reading year 2021. The last one especially made its way into my literary heart and memory: It deals with an abortion in early 1960s France—a dangerous and shameful endeavor at that time that Ernaux dissects into fragments of memory showing pain, shame, secrecy and the essential danger of being a woman. Safe to say I am glad was born in a time and a country that makes abortions, should one be needed, at least semi-accessible. Abortion rights are not perfect in modern day Germany, but I have the feeling it’s still better than what the author describes so hauntingly and directly.

For 2022, I hope that SHIDA BAZYAR’S novel DREI KAMERADINNEN (roughly: Three (female) Comrades) will be translated into English. It challenges white majority perspectives on Germany and the country’s ongoing problems with fascism, the rising political right and xenophobia. Bonus point: It is an absolute page-turner.

Balthus, Three Sisters and a Cat, 1965

Ok, now, finally and shortly, a couple of books that were awesome as well:

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld – The Discomfort of the Evening/Was man sät (T: Michele Hutchison/Helga van Beuningen)

Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited

Anne Weber – Annette, ein Heldinnenepos (English translation forthcoming later in 2022)

Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assassin

Patti Smith – Just Kids

Günter Grass – Der Butt/The Flounder (T: Ralph Manheim (I have read both the German original and the English translation and I can confirm that Manheim did a superb job!))

Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five

Maggie O’Farrell – Hamnet

I will probably not manage 175 books again this year (doing a master’s degree and all), but I hope I will still be able to discover new favorites. Keep on reading, folks.

And let’s hope Dorian keeps on giving us the chance to post these, so that I can put even more books on either my wish list or my tbr stack(s). [Ed. – I’ve already penciled you in for next year, Benita!]

R. Nicht’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by R. Nicht (@Sediziose_Voci). R. is a reader who lives in the southern U.S.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Girogio Morandi, Still Life, 1960

William Gardner Smith, The Stone Face

This terse novel of brutal images and elegant concision, as forceful as a punch in the face, depicts the effects of personal and collective racial trauma in the life of an African American journalist who takes refuge from the corrosive racism of American life in the bohemian expat culture of Paris in the days of the Algerian conflict. Smith casts a disapproving eye on this celebrated cultural milieu, which fostered such talents as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Miles Davis and whose creative ferment has been the subject of admiring studies by Tyler Stovall and others, depicting its members not as artistic mavericks but as an idle group of lotus-eaters who fritter their time away in futile creative projects and vaporous dreams of Pan-Africanism. Briefly tempted by the escape they offer from the crushing burdens and responsibilities of African American selfhood, the protagonist ultimately rejects it after befriending a group of Algerians and witnessing the events of the 1961 Paris Massacre, when French National Police violently attacked a pro-FLN demonstration, killing more than 100 protesters.

Paradoxically, the protagonist’s experience of cross-racial solidarity with another persecuted minority and his affair with a Holocaust survivor (perhaps the least convincing character in the book) propel him into a commitment to a harsh racial sectarianism at odds with the racial ecumenicism the novel seems to hold out as an alluring but ultimately unachievable dream. In another time, another place, perhaps, the author seems to suggest, such a vision of cross-racial struggle might be realizable, but in the exigent moment of armed conflict and brutal racial oppression the novel depicts, the only moral option for members of subaltern groups is dedication to their separate, geographically delimited battles: the Algerians to armed conflict against the French occupiers in Algeria, the narrator to a militant fight against racism in the U.S. It is a bleak vision, but one that Smith dramatizes with undeniable power.

Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

A swashbuckling classic that documents the CIA’s tentacular reach into multiple areas of cultural production in the West during the “hot” period of the Cold War from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Charting the tortured ideological trajectory that left-leaning writers and intellectuals followed after they broke with communism in the late 1930s following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Stalinist show trials and became willing conscripts in a cultural struggle against the Soviet Union that relied as much on mendacity and ratfucking as the ruthless counteroffensive waged behind the Iron Curtain, Saunders’ book is an indictment not so much of the cultural crusade against Stalinism itself but of the brutal and reckless way it was waged. The hasty denazification of prominent cultural figures who would be “wins” for the West, the persecution of artists and writers with suspect communist pasts, the sidelining of dissenting voices unwilling to celebrate the new pax Americana, the sclerotic intellectual culture of the Cold War period that resulted—such things were neither necessary for victory nor inevitable, Saunders argues.

The book offers a useful intellectual genealogy of Cold War cultural liberalism, a force that still makes its presence felt—30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall—in certain sectors of the American and British intelligentsia in the form of a disenchanted but loyal statism, a florid reverence for “democratic norms” and the elites who supposedly safeguard them, and a genteel form of literary and cultural criticism that floats free from all questions of political economy. Left-leaning intellectuals may have broken with the CIA and its anti-communist crusade during the Vietnam War, but the distinctive intellectual style they developed during the heady days of that alliance has had a long afterlife.  

Hazel Carby, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands

A worthy contribution to life writing about the Black Atlantic, this memoir breaks the conventions of the form to offer a sweeping account of colonialism, empire, capitalism, and the construction of racialized subjects that relies as heavily on archival evidence as it does on personal and familial memory. Roving from suburban London to Bristol and Kingston and back to Britain again, Carby’s narrative shows how both strands of her family—proletarianized Welsh farmers displaced from their lands and mixed-race Jamaicans who ended up on the wrong side of the line that divided “white” Carbys from “black” Carbys—were conscripted into the British Empire’s race-making project, some as slaves, some as working-class whites in Bristol who came to identify themselves as proud subjects and beneficiaries of empire even as it brutally extracted their labor.

The book is above all an eloquent elegy for Carby’s parents, a bookish, soft-spoken Jamaican and a white Englishwoman from a hardscrabble background whose lives were destroyed, Carby makes clear, when they crossed forbidden racial boundaries during a period of illusory wartime sexual freedom. That their half-caste daughter also paid a severe penalty for their transgression is made clear in Carby’s narrative of her own childhood, which was evidently so painful that she refers to herself in the book in the third person as “the girl,” and then only glancingly (she does not, however, spare the reader the details of her rape by a white neighbor). Imperial Intimacies concludes with a perfectly cadenced sentence of stinging irony that encapsulates the entire book and returns the reader to the beginning pages. [Ed. – Now of course I have to read this. Impressively effective, R.]

Igiaba Scego, Oltre Babilonia

In this fiercely exuberant novel, Scego, an Italian of Somali descent, throws the doors and windows of Italian fiction wide open to admit silenced voices from Italy’s horrific colonial past in East Africa and Argentina’s Dirty War. The stories of trauma and loss they tell cross boundaries of continents and language to enrich and trouble Italy’s multiracial present, personified most vividly in the novel by the irrepressibly candid Zuhra, a daughter of the African diaspora in Italy who speaks Romanesco but yearns to learn Arabic and whose own psychic and physical maladies can be traced directly to the silences and omissions of her immigrant family’s tormented history and to her own experience of childhood sexual abuse. The novel’s recuperation of long-suppressed family stories is a work not simply of therapeutic healing but of regeneration—the attempt to build a living present out of the scattered fragments of the past and fashion a self in which memory and bodily health, pleasure and sexuality, are fully integrated. The novel has recently been translated into English by Aaron Robertson with the title Beyond Babylon.

Marta Barone, Città Sommersa

A daughter’s efforts to fill in the lacunae in the life of her recently deceased father, an enigmatic, secretive man who served a prison term for giving medical assistance to a member of a terrorist group in the 1970s, broadens to become a forensic reconstruction of the Years of Lead (gli anni di piombo), a period of convulsive political violence on the right and the left in Italy and in Turin, the author’s home city, that has been explored in fiction and non-fiction alike by Nadia Terranova, Giovanni De Luna, and others but still remains imperfectly understood. De Luna has suggested that the very term “years of lead” has been used to erase the complexities of a decade that saw Autonomist labor militancy, peaceful protest, and violent attacks against jurists and journalists by members of the Red Brigades and Prima Linea, the last of which involved only a fraction of the many people who were caught up in the political ferment of the time. Offering a harrowing account of one man’s personal and political journey through those tumultuous years as well as a narrative of her own present-day reconnoitering of her father’s past, Barone brings light and a searching intelligence to an era whose intricacies and contradictions have been buried under that unilluminating epitaph.

What Barone seems less assured at providing is any real understanding of the impassioned commitments and ambitions of the political actors of those years, which are perhaps apt to seem outsized and extravagant (Vogliamo tutto!) to one brought up in a neoliberal era of technocratic governance and constricted horizons of political possibility. Yet it is the tension created by the irreducible distance between her own present and her father’s past—the sense that the past is, despite all her efforts to recover it, a foreign country, they do things differently there—that is part of the allure of Barone’s mysterious and elegiac book, which will appear in English under the title Sunken City this spring courtesy of Serpent’s Tail Press and translator Julia MacGibbon.      

Natalia Ginzburg, Tutti i Nostri Ieri

Sandra Petrignani, La Corsara: Ritratto di Natalia Ginzburg

Having recently reread Ginzburg’s substantial 1952 novel, which deals with, among other topics, teenage sexuality, abortion, suicide, war, bombings, displacement, fascism, the Nazi invasion after the armistice, and the violent deaths of several key characters, I found it a bit disconcerting to hear one of the author’s English translators seemingly reinforce the view in a recent podcast that Ginzburg is a writer of slight domestic fictions, all short in length. It made me wonder if there is a sneaking tendency or perhaps marketing strategy to present women writing in languages other than English, particularly those published during the recent translation boom (with a few notable exceptions), as practitioners of exiguous and rarified rarefied fictional forms—peripheral, approachable, decidedly minor. [Ed. – Intriguing. I want to know what Rebecca Hussey thinks.]

There is certainly nothing small-scale about this panoramic work, the only novel in Ginzburg’s oeuvre written in the third person; if it lacks the technical finesse and playfulness with form of Family Lexicon, for which it is many ways the fictional antecedent, it makes up for these qualities in its scope, its variegated plot and settings, and dramatic power. At the center of the novel, which deals with the wartime experiences of two families in an industrial northern city much like Turin, one bourgeois, one “respectable” but down at the heels, stands the charismatic, rumbustious figure of Cenzo Rena, who seems a composite of Leone Ginzburg and several other heroic figures of Ginzburg’s Torinese youth. The only character in the book who has the inner resources to resist the deadening influence of fascism and rise to the moral challenges of the war, he is at the same time—and this is one of the book’s painful ironies—part of a transient, dying world, belonging to Italy’s past, who will not live to see the defeat of the Axis powers or the advent of the shattered postwar world that the surviving characters, among them Anna, the novel’s protagonist, gropingly confront in the concluding pages.

Sandra Petrignani’s La Corsara, a freeform biographical portrait of Ginzburg, offers a welcome corrective to the view of Ginzburg in the English-speaking world as a minor, grandmotherly author of piquant domestic fictions (one must of course guard against the tendency to see “domestic fiction” as a minor genre), presenting her as a major writer of prodigious output in multiple genres over several decades. The book is also a liberating example of literary biographical writing that departs from the two forms that have come to dominate the genre in the Anglophone world: the exhaustively documented doorstop biography by a literary scholar and the brief memoir by a family member or fellow writer that confines itself to small-scale portraiture and personal anecdote. Combining standard chronological exposition of biographical facts with interviews, personal reflections, memories of her own meetings with Ginzburg, and even a charming digression on her astrological chart, Petrignani creates a complex, vivid portrait that is no less authoritative for having violated in significant respects the conventions of contemporary literary biography. The English-language literary biography, a tradition that did not always adhere to the rigidities of present-day practice (think of Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, or De Quincey’s portraits of the Lake Poets), could benefit, it seems to me, from Petrignani’s example. Her book is currently being translated into English.

Walter Kempowski, All for Nothing; translated by Anthea Bell

One of the principal questions that Kempowski’s astonishing novel seems to ask is just how much sympathy the reader can allow herself to feel for its characters, comfortable Germans of the landed upper-middle classes living in a shrinking enclave of calm in East Prussia during the last days of World War II as the Soviet Army moves towards them. How much will the reader’s reflexive tendency to identify and empathize with characters be tempered by her desire to judge them, to adjudicate what measure of blame they deserve for their relative comfort amidst the horrors of wartime and their silent complicity with Hitler’s regime, with Auschwitz and Treblinka and the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto not far to the south of them? Do the characters “earn” the terrible fate that befalls most of them at the novel’s conclusion? Kempowski’s master stroke in the novel seems to me to understand that negotiating these complex questions—writing about characters whom the reader at some level opposes from the outset—is as much a technical as it is a moral problem, a problem of style and technique, as it were.

The technical approach Kempowski chooses is a sequence of brief scenes—quick sketches, brief dashing episodes and asides—and a tone that is playfully ironic, interrogative, sly, detached, almost harmonium-like, with the fictional “camera” pulled back at a chilly distance to expose the characters’ foibles and weaknesses (Katharina’s idleness and indolence, the aging schoolmaster’s homoerotic reveries of long-ago hiking expeditions). Kempowski makes no effort to excuse or condemn his characters. He lets the reader see that Katharina’s decision to shelter a fugitive Jewish musician in her house for one night springs more from ennui than from sympathy or principle. The coarse working-class Nazi in the housing development across the road is a harried, put-upon figure with a sick wife, but Kempowski makes no overt efforts to humanize him. Seduced by the astringent lightness of the narration, a complicitous partner in the author’s drily ironic observation, the reader imagines that she can watch with a certain pleasurable detachment as the characters are overtaken by the terrible events that surely await them and that they may even in some way “deserve.”

And yet the operations of sympathy and identification with characters begin their stealthy work inside the reader once Katharina’s young son, a peripheral character until the book’s midpoint, takes a central role. For it turns out that All for Nothing is, at least obliquely, an autobiographical novel, a chronicle of Kempowski’s own horrific childhood experience of the same historical events the novel describes, and the reader cannot resist the pull of emotion that slowly accumulates around the character that is his fictional surrogate. Entangled by these skeins of feeling, the reader finds herself unexpectedly invested in his fate and, through it, in the fates of all those on whom the boy’s safety and life depend, particularly when the novel’s setting shifts from the family’s manor house to apocalyptic scenes of devastation and carnage. The novel’s playfully ironic tone, it turns out, has been a lure and a trap. Summoned to watch what had initially seemed an interwar comedy of manners, the reader finds herself at the novel’s conclusion a witness to a human calamity on an overpowering scale—a calamity to which she can properly respond only with those emotions that an authentic artistic experience of catharsis can arouse: pity and fear. This novel shook me; I read the last 50 or so pages seemingly with one held breath.

Wolfgang Hilbig, The Interim; translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

This ribald, lacerating exploration of the psychological and territorial scissions of postwar Europe, which I read in Isabel Fargo Cole’s marvelously assured translation, seems to me the real deal: a major European novel of wild, idiosyncratic ambition that merits comparison with the works of Bernhard and Sebald. I would follow its wastrel writer protagonist—priapic one moment, impotent the next, a narcissist, a drunk, a philanderer, a genius, a failure, at home neither in the catastrophically failed “actually existing socialism” of the GDR nor in the vapid consumer society of the FRG—anywhere. Hilbig is a magisterial commander of both interior and exterior space, expertly guiding his narrative through multiple excursuses with the same efficiency as the trains that conduct the protagonist across the border to West Germany and back to the East, taking us through horrific flame-lit industrial landscapes and scenes of domestic squalor and in and out of nightmares and states of inner torment with equal ease. He does it all with grace and a perfectly tuned sense of fictional pacing: the restless narrative never stalls out in rhetorical excess even during the most lurid passages, and the reader somehow keeps her bearings through multiple flashbacks and digressions. The plot, such as it is, follows the wanderings and tergiversations of an East German writer in the throes of a full-blown artistic and sexual crisis, exacerbated by abject alcoholism, while overstaying his visa to West Germany. As the reader comes to understand, the narrator’s restless transits from East to West and his circuitous inner journeys of memory and imagination trace and retrace the contours of a European map set in place by a century of devastating war, partition, displacement, drawn and redrawn national boundaries, and genocide.  

Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker

Fulbrook’s book was a useful companion during my reading of Hilbig. Departing from the “Stasicentric” (as Paul Betts has called it) totalitarian model of GDR scholarship, this revisionist social history of East Germany doesn’t excuse the regime’s many calamitous failures, but neither does it engage in pointless sermonizing. Rather, it attempts to explore the paradox that while East German society was undoubtedly repressive in the extreme (the GDR’s citizens were quite literally caged, subject to surveillance and numerous intrusions on their personal liberty), many former citizens recall living “perfectly ordinary lives” there, a sentiment that can’t be chalked up to simple Ostalgie or to a kind of false consciousness in reverse. Combing through archival evidence and interview transcripts, Fulbrook looks at women’s rights, labor, childcare, recreation and leisure, and other facets of life in East Germany and concludes that the GDR was not a monolithic tyranny in which citizens cowered, silent and passive, under despotic rule, but an evolving, changing, albeit extraordinarily repressive society in which ordinary people shaped the culture around them as much as they were shaped by it. What Fulbrook makes clear is that it was Honecker’s decision to attempt the beat the West on its own terms through a “consumer socialist” model that ultimately led to East Germany’s demise. Plausible perhaps in the early 1970s, when East Germany might be said to have been at its zenith, the regime’s aspiration to provide material plenty for its people in any way comparable to that enjoyed in the West became less and less viable in the 1980s, when shortages of food and other basic supplies, together with increasing repression by state security services and ongoing environmental collapse, sounded the death knell for the GDR.   

Alighiero Boëtti, Non parto non resto, ca. 1979

Other Favorites:

Noo Saro-Wiwa, Looking for Transwonderland

Enzo Traverso, The Origins of Nazi Violence

Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom

Herman Melville, Redburn

Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason

Christina Stead, Cotter’s England

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions [Ed. — Fascinating book.]

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Scritti Corsari

Edward Said, Music at the Limits

Daniel Syrovy’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Daniel Syrovy, his first for the blog. Daniel is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Vienna, Austria; he tweets at @daniel_syrovy.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and into next. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Maria Lassnig, Necessary Understanding, 1998

The last book I finished in 2021 was Milo Dor’s Tote auf Urlaub (called Dead Men on Leave in an out-of-print 1962 translation; some used copies can be found). Despite a number of reprints after 1952, it’s not a well-known novel. Set mostly in Belgrade and the surrounding countryside (and, eventually, in Vienna), it focuses on the Serbian Resistance to Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1945. Its ostensible protagonist, with hints of autobiography, is Mladen Raikow, but a character list included in the 500-page book lists forty characters in addition to “communists, Trotskyists, dreamers, cowards, traitors, real and false heroes, fallen angels, idiots, bootlickers, liars, drunkards, gluttons, whores, blackmailers, and torturers.”

This is not light reading, and despite a good pinch of gallows humor, the novel offers a rather bleak view of humanity. There is not much by way of a plot, but the novel is crammed with short scenes that depict small gestures of solidarity as well as acts of depravity. Dor must have been compelled to put everything into his manuscript, sparing no-one, and it is telling that even my 1992 edition quotes reviews that question whether this should properly be called a novel at all. Of course it’s a novel—but it must have been uncomfortably close to lived experience just after the war.

In fact, I first learned about it in Evelyne Polt-Heinzl’s reassessment of Austrian postwar literature, Die grauen Jahre (2018), which I re-read this past year for a work-related project. One of her central theses is that Austrians in the 1950s mostly rejected realistic texts about the war, but that such texts did exist. I had already spent a summer with a number of books unearthed by this indefatigable scholar, but it turned out there were quite a few interesting titles I had overlooked (including Dor’s collaborations with Reinhard Federmann: a series of crime novels from the 1950s; Federmann’s own novels Das Himmelreich der Lügner and Chronik einer Nacht; books by Hertha Pauli, Dorothea Zeemann, Hans Flesch-Brunningen, Hans Weigel). I’m going to stop naming names in a minute. [Ed. – I hope not!]

With me, such reading projects seem to crop up unexpectedly from time to time, and for the most part they are neither completely work-related (I am a literary scholar and I teach at university) nor exactly spare-time reading. But I do enjoy filling gaps in my knowledge of different literatures, so I follow loose reading lists, for instance on the Celtic Revival: several plays by Yeats, Lady Gregory, Synge, and related material occupied me this past summer. Austrian literature often figures large, too. In 2021, I reread some Thomas Bernhard, and was surprised at the intermittent tenderness of the first half of Correction (1975). I also read Friederike Mayröcker, Helmut Zenker, Alexander Lernet-Holenia and Leo Perutz. Yet, much of this reading follows rather obvious patterns like stepping stones. In preparing these notes, I kept asking myself whether I couldn’t come up with some more interesting observations. [Ed. – Yeah, enough of this boring stuff filled with enticing, new-to-me names.]

It turns out, I loved reading some new old books (a series of newly rediscovered and partly very funny Proust manuscripts published as Les soixante-quinze feuillets in March) and some brand new ones (especially Lisa McInerney’s brilliant third volume of her Cork-based crime trilogy, The Rules of Revelation, Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s autofictional Ein von Schatten begrenzter Raum, and Shida Bazyar’s mindblowing Drei Kameradinnen, reviewed in English here); I also enjoyed some classics – which I would mostly read in bed chapter by chapter over longer stretches of time (from Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies to Middlemarch to Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh). I took my cues from friends and Twitter-friends [Ed. – Wait, so we’re not like your real friends?], from the LRB, from other books. I was happy to break open volumes I already owned (Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear; Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi; Bely’s Petersburg) and to pick up new ones (Pola Oloixarac’s Mona; Percival Everett’s Erasure). Hopping between languages and centuries was always something of a comparatist’s credo with me [Ed. — Comparatists 4eva!]. But I hesitate to call this a noteworthy pattern.

It does not escape my attention that despite buying new books at a steady rate, I picked up stacks of books from the library as well, often going there twice a week. A reduced social life will do that sometimes. And perhaps it is true that during the pandemic I was a more restless reader than usual. Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few books I did not finish. Looking at my rather disparate and unsystematic notes (I have neither a Goodreads account nor physical lists), I can’t come to any definitive conclusions. I know that I listened to an incredible amount of Grateful Dead live shows in 2021, something I had never done before. But to relate all of my reading habits to the state of the world and my own preoccupations? To quote from a recent read, Anna Wood’s book of short stories Yes Yes More More, “I kn[o]w better than to think for too long about my internal organs after taking acid.”

Helene Funke, Dreams, 1913

Maybe, one day such patterns will emerge more clearly, and I’ll be the wiser for it. In the meantime, I’d rather mention another discovery that is already turning into a reading project. I always liked concrete poetry (well-established in Austria with writers such as Ernst Jandl, seen here performing at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965), and between that interest and preparing an introductory lecture about poetry, I came across a recent volume by the Brooklyn-based publisher Primary Information, Women in Concrete Poetry 1959–1979. Since overlooked women writers are always a high priority, I couldn’t resist, and the volume doesn’t disappoint. It features 50 poets from all over the world (from Sonja Åkesson to Chima Sunada to Rosmarie Waldrop), with a selection that mostly follows a 1978 Venice Biennale exhibition curated by Mirella Bentivoglio. Accordingly, the volume looks very much like an exhibition catalogue, with thick glossy paper. The nature of the poetry lends itself to it, as well, written as it is in many languages, partly in color, with striking visual aspects and often presented as collages with repurposed images. Standing out for me were a few pages by the American Madeline Gins, in particular a page showing layers of text thickly typed over one another with a typewriter that I tweeted about in early December. The page ends with the lines “The body is composed 98% of water. This page contains every word in the book.” So I read on. The passage comes from Gins’s book Word Rain (1969) which is reproduced in full in the 2020 Madeline Gins Reader The Saddest Thing is That I Have Had To Use Words (Siglio Press; ed. Lucy Ives), which I have only skimmed so far. Some of this is not exactly concrete poetry, but it is very appealing, so who cares. And anyway, filling some gaps in my knowledge of the contemporary Austrian writer Ann Cotten (herself a poet, novelist, and translator of Rosmarie Waldrop), especially the wonderful lecture series Was geht (2018), I was alerted to Liesl Ujvary, a Viennese poet who started out with a very funny volume in 1977, Sicher & Gut,some of which would certainly be classified as concrete poetry. These converging patterns are what keep me going. Ideally, two or three of them at once.

A Pure Soul: Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (2014)

I’m always urging my students to be governed by the principle of interpretive charity. I want them to take the text for what it is, not what it could or ought to be. I want them to be able to explain what makes the works they’re studying what they are. I exhort them not to smooth away the strangeness of the books we read. And although I believe our emotional responses to books matter a lot, I also think our primary task isn’t to grade them, to give them a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Usually I follow this advice here at the blog. Today I’m going to ignore it.

I can’t remember now where I first heard about Robert Seethaler’s Ein ganzes Leben, translated by Charlotte Collins as A Whole Life. Probably on Twitter, where else do I hear anything these days? As an Albertan of Swiss heritage, mountains run deep in my blood, so a novel about a man who with one important exception spends his entire life in a remote valley in the Austrian Alps seemed like just my thing.

So obviously I snapped up the book when I came across it on a recent trip to Canada—it will be published in the US later this year—and I read it in a couple of sittings this weekend. (It’s really a novella, not even 150 pp in this generously spaced edition.) Although the ominous words “The International Bestseller” on the front cover put me on my guard, I started the book, as I do almost every book, prepared to like it.

That didn’t last long.

A Whole Life is an example of my least favourite genre: worthy middlebrow pap. I can only imagine Thomas Bernhard, probably the greatest Austrian writer since the war, author of plenty of books set in the Alps, fulminating against it, though he’d probably decide it wasn’t even worth his time. It’s possible this book will soon disappear into the oblivion it deserves. But I can imagine it becoming a “surprise hit,” “the most talked-about book of the season,” “a darling of book clubs everywhere.” I’m the sort of person who burns with rage in anticipation of things that might not happen. I’m ready for people to tell me how moving and beautiful and life affirming they found A Whole Life, how I simply have to read it. I’m ready for the book to be an undeserved success. Hey, haters gonna hate.

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A Whole Life is about Andreas Egger, who arrives as a small child at the beginning of the 20th century in the unnamed alpine valley that becomes his home. The boy is unceremoniously deposited with a small-minded, vicious farmer named Hubert Kranzstocker. Egger is the child of one of Kranzstocker’s sisters-in-law, whose dissolute life in the city (which is to say, her life in the city) has led ineluctably to her death by consumption. Egger never really becomes part of his adopted family, he’s more hired hand than anything, which is lucky for Kranzstocker, whose other children aren’t very good at farm work and have besides a worry tendency to be felled by childhood diseases. Egger, by contrast, is strong, so strong that he survives the beatings Kranzstocker metes out to him, even when Kranzstocker goes too far and breaks the boy’s leg, an injury that leaves him crippled.

Seethaler has no time for lingering—the point of his book seems to be that everything passes if you’re stoic enough—and so before long we’re following the adult Egger as he builds a small home for himself high up the mountain on a bit of grass too rocky to pasture any animals on. In short order he tentatively courts the new serving girl at the inn, marries her, and takes on more permanent work with Bittermann & Sons, a construction and blasting company recently arrived in the valley to build its first cable car.

We’re in the early 1930s now and the most interesting parts of the book are the descriptions of Egger and his mates at their dangerous work of modernization. Unfortunately, Seethaler isn’t really interested in cable cars as anything more than a symbol, so these descriptions are far too cursory. Nothing here to match, for example, Philip Roth’s description of the glove-making factory in American Pastoral. You won’t learn how to build a cable car from this book.

After a terrible accident destroys his brief domestic happiness, Egger has nothing but his work to console and occupy him. His wife’s death sends him into a kind of fugue state that might be one way of explaining why we never hear any reference to events in the world beyond the valley until one evening Egger enters his boarding house to find his landlady crying before a silent wireless set, which is strange because “at this hour [it] was usually blasting out brass-band music or Adolf Hitler’s furious tirades.” War has been declared; Egger tries to join up (we’ve no idea why) but is rejected because of his leg.

But three years later even crippled men are being conscripted. Egger is sent to the Caucasus because of his expertise in mountain engineering. There he’s ordered to man a remote outpost where he never fires a shot, and which he leaves once his supplies are no longer replenished weekly, an ominous sign he rightly interprets as  an indication that things are not going well for his side. On the way back to the front, he’s captured by Soviet forces and spends several years as a POW.

Egger isn’t able to return home until 1951, but the years pass so briskly it doesn’t seem that much of a hardship. Here for example is Seethaler describing how nothing changes for Egger and his fellow prisoners once the war ends:

The work remained the same, the millet soup was thinner than ever, and the flies still circled unperturbed around the beams of the latrine.

A page and a half later we’re given this meager summary—laconic to the point of bathos—of these years: “It was almost another six years before Egger’s time in Russia came to an end.” His time in Russia: as if it were fated or preordained. Everything in this book is described in the same clipped, blasé manner. It’s just one damn thing after another.

Returning home, Egger finds things only a little changed. The mayor doesn’t display swastikas anymore, but he’s still the mayor. Franzstocker is still around, but older and frailer and he dies before long. Bittermann & Sons has gone belly up, but Egger makes do on a war pension until he stumbles into a new career guiding tourists, a new breed of people called into being by those cable cars (and postwar affluence). Egger has always loved the mountains, feels better when he’s on his feet all day, despite his limp. Sometimes the tourists are annoying or irritating, spoiled or sententious or smart alecky, but mostly they’re grateful for the beauty he shows him and besides we never have much sense of what Egger thinks other than that he apparently doesn’t think that much, not that he’s stupid, just not reflective.

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Egger keeps getting older. He misses his late wife, almost gets involved with an older female teacher but can’t. (Her response to his spurning of her advances is the only moment of true emotion in this book. Too bad she disappears after only five pages.) Television is the latest thing, but it doesn’t do much for Egger. He remembers only two moments: one (sadly undeveloped, and not quite strange enough to be really interesting) showing Grace Kelly getting off a plane, the other the moon landing.

Egger gets too old to guide anymore and retreats to a little hut high above the village. One night in February, sitting by candlelight at his little table, thinking about the coming snowmelt, Egger is

overcome by a feeling of warmth at the thought of his leg, that piece of rotten wood that had carried him through the world for so long [a puzzling image, since his leg is not actually a prosthetic]. At the same time he was no longer sure whether he was still thinking this, or was already dreaming. He heard a sound, very close to his ear: a gentle whisper, as if someone were speaking to a little child. “I suppose it is late,” he heard himself say, and it was as if his own words hovered in the air in front of him for a few moments before bursting in the light of the little moon in the window. He felt a bright pain in his chest, and watched as his body sank slowly forwards and his head came to rest with his cheek on the tabletop. He heard his own heart. And he listened to the silence when it stopped beating. Patiently he waited for the next heartbeat. And when none came, he let go and died.

A good death for a good man. That “patiently” says it all, characterizes everything Seethaler wants to say about Egger. Not that he’s passive or a spectator in his life. (All the language of observing the self in this passage, all that out of body stuff, is actually quite unusual in the book, though again I don’t think Seethaler does anything much with it.) Egger’s end isn’t the book’s, though. Seethaler gives us a little coda, a story from a few months earlier, when Egger suddenly decides to take the bus to the town at the bottom of the valley. Here too nothing happens: he’s a bit disoriented, unsure what he’s done or why he’s come. After wandering aimlessly around the square for a minute, he is helped by the driver back on to the bus that takes him home and it’s not until he’s in the thinner air again that he recovers. Arriving home, he heads not for his hut but for the trails. He’s filled with a blurred nameless memory, probably of the opening scene, which describes a failed wintertime rescue of a different old man, one we are invited to see that Egger has become, an old man who deliberately lost himself in the snow rather than suffer any more. Egger responds to this “fleeting recollection of something very long ago, little more than a blurred image”: “ ‘Not just yet,’ he said, quietly.” And in this way the story of a good, unassuming life gets prolonged beyond its end. A quietly triumphant conclusion to this quiet book.

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Yet that very restraint seems to me nothing but self-satisfied bullshit. Take the book’s attitude towards history. I appreciate that it’s not constructed with the certainty of hindsight: this isn’t one of those historical novels where characters are always running into people or experiencing events that we’ve decided were significant. After all, what later generations decide to call history usually passes us by in the moment. So I’m willing to believe fascism passed Egger by. Well, I’m not, really–the almost total ellison of fascism is more than a little convenient. But what really gets me is the complete flattening away of history, the absence of any sense that what makes a life meaningful or what counts as suffering is historically inflected if not constructed. This absence makes the book so flat as to seem not even autistic, but catatonic. I can’t even tell if we’re meant to understand Egger as an average person, a representative man of the century. I think he’s supposed to be more than that, a kind of model we might aspire to if only we could make our own lives as simple as his. But it’s hard to know for sure because Egger is a total blank, not even interesting enough to be a cipher.

Seethaler’s narrative decisions are largely responsible for making Egger such a nonentity. We’re so seldom inside his head—so much so that I was drawn up short by this passage:

The weeks and months after the opening ceremony at the top station [the successful completion of the first cable car] were the happiest of Andreas Egger’s life. [The unnecessary use of his full name signals that what comes next might be free indirect discourse: we might be getting access to his interior life.] He saw himself as a small but not unimportant cog [that litotes doesn’t fit with his way of thinking and speaking—plus, a cog, get it? Just like he used in building the cable car!] in a gigantic machine called Progress, and sometimes, before falling asleep, he would picture himself sitting in the belly of this machine as it ploughed inexorably through forests and mountains, contributing, with the heat and sweat of his brow, to its ongoing advance. He had taken the words with the heat and sweat of his brow from a tattered magazine Marie has found under one of the benches in the inn, and from which she would sometimes read to him in the evenings.

That clumsy reference to “the heat and sweat of his brow,” that obstreperous explanation of how he came to use these words: this is the first time we’ve been led to believe that Egger himself is lending anything to the narration of the story. It feels unearned and unnecessary, a piece of authorial clumsiness that reminds me of the much later description of the day the schoolteacher rejected by Egger leaves the village:

One cold morning, before sunrise, she climbed aboard the post bus with two suitcases, sat down in the back seat, closed her eyes, and, as the driver later reported, didn’t open them again once throughout the journey.

Seethaler is so keen to make a point about the woman’s utter defeat—the possibility that those close eyes could indicate resistance never enters into the picture—that he’s willing to offer this implausible description: no one driving a bus down a mountain road would be looking at his passenger the whole time. The sentiment is uttered only for us; Seethaler doesn’t even try to make it organic to the story.

A Whole Life studiously rejects reflection—the closest we get is the dime-store existentialism of Egger’s sudden outburst to a tourist he’s had to rescue from near death, “Each one of us limps alone!” One night Egger awakes suddenly to find his window “clouded by hundreds of moths”: “For a moment Egger thought their appearance must be a sign, but he didn’t know what it was supposed to mean, so he closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep.” I don’t think the book is poking even gentle fun at him here. It’s not that he’s dim, not that he’s missing out on some significant, even portentous moment. There’s really nothing to make of that evanescence.

In so steadily agreeing with Egger’s even-keeled banality, the book ends up presenting him as an exemplar of a life well lived. Early in his days on the cable car, Egger falls in with a would-be philosopher named Mattl. Mattl dies an absurd death—he falls asleep in a bath tub and catches pneumonia—and the foreman, who hardly knows him “cobble[s] together” a short funeral address, “which talked about the hard work on the mountain and Mattl’s pure soul.” The foreman is being disparaged here, but Seethaler ends up presenting exactly what he’s ironized, giving us a story of hard work on the mountains and Egger’s pure soul.

To paraphrase that peerless old New Yorker cartoon, I say A Whole Life is nothing but unearned redemption and I say the hell with it.