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The Novel In Central Europe Essay, Research Paper

Rebels against realityWhen Heinrich von Kleist published his novella The Marquise of O- in 1808, its reception in Dresden and Berlin was grimly typical. “To describe the plot is to banish oneself from polite society,” said one critic. So few readers did Kleist think he had that shortly before he shot himself on the bank of the Wannsee at the age of 34, he wrote to Marie von Kleist, a family relation: “If it were in my power, I assure you I would alter my decision to die. But I swear to you I cannot possibly live any longer. I am so heartsore it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the daylight shining on my nose when I stick it out of the window hurts me.”Yet Kleist is a giant, Cervantes’s heir and a one-man avant-garde of the modern German novel. Germany, eternally stretched between the competing urges to order and to the demonic, possesses two distinct roads: that of the writer, problematic and neurotic in youth, who builds up the grand front, the emblematic life’s work (Goethe/Thomas Mann); and the road of disorder. This was Kleist’s way, the way of German romanticism, Sturm und Drang, chaos and instability, and we look on it slightly pityingly now, forgetting that it was also the road to Germany’s modernity, to the work of Brecht, B?ll, Grass.The German model for the novel has long been Goethe’s Bildungsroman, the novel of compromise with the state, whereas Kleist’s romanticism stands for freedom, for the search for individual self-determination. Somewhere in his work there is a little description of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, where Kleist says that looking at the painting is like looking at the world “with cut eyelids”. Here is a truly radical viewer of the world.Kleist wrote only eight novellas, each with the hallmark abrupt, declaratory style that would lay the ground for modern German fiction. Possibly the two greatest are the tale of the horse-dealer, Michael Kohlhaas, and The Marquise of O-, the scandalous story of a young widow who one day finds herself pregnant and advertises for the father of the child to present himself for marriage (a story, if you’re looking for connections, inspired by Montaigne’s essay on drunkenness).Among German novelists who value their relation to Kleist, he is more contemporary than icon. For Hans-Ulrich Treichel, author of the novel Lost, “this personality, this destiny and this style [are] important… when I was younger, I was very fascinated by the rhythm of his language”. Nor is Kleist’s moral idealism quite dead in Schröder’s Germany. As Ralf Rothmann, author of the fine, as yet untranslated novel Milk and Coal, emphasises, “In all his bravura, all his stylistic brilliance, he never lost sight of the human, never lost sight of the individual and his suffering.”Compassionate or not, since 1945 German fiction has often seemed to be in a state of shock, the restless Rabelaisian ventures of Günter Grass notwithstanding. In the 1990s, however, writers seemed to find themselves at enough of a distance from the past to be able to personalise its consequences. Marcel Beyer’s The Karnau Tapes, Thomas Brussig’s Heroes Like Us, Hubert Fichte’s Detlev’s Imitations, and Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader have all fed a single thirst – although 10 years after unification, competing realities remain a fact of the German psyche. The thorough reconstruction of the cities of Saxony and Brandenburg has left them in as much upheaval as in Kleist’s time, and the reverberations among writers of the former DDR have been deep.Ingo Schulze, a Dresdener, dealt with the thump of unification by chronicling a different city besieged by rapid change. Schulze’s stories of St Petersburg, published in 1999 as 33 Moments of Happiness, have an epic, old-world brilliance, as those of his second book, Simple Stories, glitter with the shocks of post-unification and a rough-cut future. “I felt very similar at the beginning of the nineties, more or less, to the fifties in the west… a lot of my colleagues said to me, ‘How can you use the stupid traditional short story? It’s had its time.’ But I found there a model to describe my Germany of the nineties; my East Germany.”In future, I suspect eastern Europe may teach us a lesson or two about identity. For the Leipzig novelist Angela Krauss (who must surely soon be translated), the dangers inherent in unification are universal. “To have a long history as Europeans, and to take this history with us every day, we must be slow… But when we have a new economic situation, I’m not sure that we can hold on to our character.”Life in the east, unaccelerated, once meant that East Germans were not much distracted by the western model of life. Here again Kleist’s radicalism – his quest for a new union between the world and displaced humanity – shows itself both useful and attractive. “Today, in our world, we don’t tend to be radical. We need to read Kleist to learn what it is to have such a true view of the world, and to live this,” says Krauss.It may be one of the least well-attended lessons of the 20th century that the loss of an empire will leave an emotional vacuum. Austria – all that was left of

Austria-Hungary after 1920 – jilted by fortune, voted for Anschluss with Germany in 1938 on the rebound. The rest, as they say, is history; though go to the small Kapuzinerkirche in central Vienna today and you will still find a place of pilgrimage for the elderly: the imperial burial vault, where lie the mortal remains of the Austrian monarchy.If the story of the European novel is of the way in which Europe became conversant with its identity, Austria has some way to go. This is the country that busied itself with the concept of Heimat in the 1920s, printing postcards with factory chimneys brushed out; the country of Jörg Haider and of silence about its part in the Nazi enterprise. How many Austrians does it take to change a lightbulb, the Jewish novelist Doron Rabinovici asked me in Vienna. The Austrian’s answer: “I don’t know, I wasn’t there, I can’t remember.”Writers, they say, are not much liked in Austria. Though Vienna was a hothouse in the 1920s, Gerhard Roth, the author of a seven-volume cycle of novels called The Archives of Silence, told me: “I think [Austrians] hate artists inside their hearts. They’re proud of some writers but they don’t read them. All the good artists had a bad life here… because they understood the inner world of the Austrian.”First among equals, as it were, in that understanding was Robert Musil. It would be wrong to call Musil a prophet. From the opening description of his massive key to the 20th century, The Man Without Qualities (”A barometric low hung over the Atlantic…”), his first duty is to his hero Ulrich, a scientist, youngish, of independent means, a seducer. But what I like about the novel is Musil’s comprehension of how Ulrich’s identity – the man without a core – and Ulrich’s world must collide and produce a rich, satirical, and salutary collection of loose ends.Quixote rode out to discover that the world did not resemble what he had read about it in books. Musil succeeded in writing a novel that showed that the world in the 20th century was no longer even what it pretended to be.Another who understood that not merely a man but a country – a national attitude – was being outmanoeuvred by reality was Joseph Roth. In his comédie pathétique of Austria-Hungary (The Radetzky March, The String of Pearls), Roth the romantic, wanderer and exile, unillusioned observer, holy drinker, worked suspended between upholding the idea of Austria-Hungary – “my only Fatherland” – and satirising its downward curve.The clipped rhythms of his prose and handbrake turns of plot make his work seem a 19th-century creation, while his overwhelming sense of men’s absurdity stamps him as modern. His greatest contribution was to clear the decks of the hangovers of Europe’s imperial era – and be unfailingly elegant and witty as he took the world down with him.Many novelists have tried to break the hold of conservative-nostalgic thinking. Musil, Roth, Hermann Broch, Elias Canetti, Franz Werfel; the writers of the Vienna Group, including the great poet-novelist Friederike Mayröcker. A recent example is Elisabeth Reichart, whose novel February Shadows caused a sensation when broadcast on Austrian radio. It deals with the question of forgetting, reviving a true episode of the second world war, when 500 Soviet PoWs who had fled from Mauthausen camp were hunted through the night and murdered by Austrian villagers on the instructions of the SS. Dr Reichart’s reward for writing the story was death threats.Austrian writers suffered all through. Musil was forced out of the country at the Anschluss and died in Geneva in 1942. Roth died, alcoholic, three years earlier in Paris. Stefan Zweig killed himself; Broch and Werfel died in America.Is there change in Austria? The name “Mauthausen” can be read on the plinth of Rachel Whiteread’s new monument in Vienna to the more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who died in Nazi camps. Two things may strike you about this sculpture. First, that it completely ruins the symmetry of the Habsburg square where it is sited;

second, that however you read the Austrian past, the very presence of this forceful white block, with its handleless doors and walls made of thousands of books, indicates that Austrians themselves are beginning to contemplate it.It is a feature of central Europe that its novelists arrived late in western Europe: a delay partly due to the terrific isolationism of Austria-Hungary, which meant that 90 years ago you could find an archduke hunting Polish bison with a machine gun, and a man’s status being measured by a complicated equation involving how many horses he owned and how numerous were his court connections at Vienna.Stranger still, when these novelists made their mark, they succeeded better than anyone else in overthrowing our ideas of reality. Musil was one. Kafka, of course, is another. The altered substrate of Kafka’s world, the foundation that refuses basic human convictions – that one is innocent, one deserves affection, one has a place – was not sourced, as is sometimes supposed, in his prescience about nightmare bureaucracies or totalitarianism. He was mostly writing about his problems with his father and with women, using big metaphors, many gained from his training as a lawyer.Kafka was born in Prague the same year, 1883, as Jaroslav Hasek, author of that bracingly inflammatory masterpiece, The Good Soldier Svejk. He and Kafka unfortunately never met – one drank coffee, the other Pils – but Hasek’s low road of pub life, with its froth of beer and stories, is a Czech tradition in which he was followed by one of the greatest, and still underread, Czech writers, the late, everlastingly funny Bohumil Hrabal.Hasek gave a voice to Czech resistance that has outlived Habsburgs, Nazis and Soviets. As the Prague novelist Ivan Klima puts it: “It means humour and on the

surface loyalty, but disloyalty below.” A tradition that evidently writers could not help overstepping after 1968, Milan Kundera at their head. Another was the great Ludvik Vaculik, author of A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator and The Guinea Pig, banned from publishing for 20 years after the Soviet invasion. Instead he became a master of samizdat. (When I met him in Prague, he denounced Cervantes as “Boring! Boring! Boring!” The length drove him mad.)A dozen years after the velvet revolution, a kind of nostalgia exists for the bad times, the romance of prison. “Like a movie. Like a very bad movie,” as Jáchym Topol, the young author of City Sister Silver, a restless punk epic set in the first years after 1989, notes drily. The biggest adventure of life today is “to adopt and adapt myself to the west” – though something special remains in the location of the Czech Republic. “From Kiev I go to the west. From Paris I go to the east. I enjoy this character very much, the life of a bastard, a coyote.” Which, if he had ever travelled, Kafka, as a Jewish, German-speaking Czech – another mongrel at a crossroads – might have agreed with.A curiosity of any journey to the old Czechoslovakia is that western support for dissident Czech writers before 1989 was just that – Slovakian writers were not included. It may be time for British publishers to realise that on the other side of the Moravian forests there are overdue discoveries to be made. Pavel Vilikovsky, for example, whose fictional history of propaganda, Ever Green Is…, couched in the autobiography of a senile bisexual spy, is poignant, rife with mischief, and of extraordinary quality. Peter Pistanek is another. His trilogy Rivers of Babylon has been a bestseller and cause célèbre in

Slovakia; Racz, his hero, may well be the most vicious and hilarious creation since Brecht’s Arturo Ui.Any attempt to grasp the identity of nations through their fiction is destined for partial success: talking to novelists is a work sketched in recurring shades. But perhaps because its part in the rise of the novel is so recent, Poland is different. In fact, feudal for centuries, occupied and partitioned, and then under communism with hardly any break, its history suggests that the Polish spirit is preserved in the absence of nationhood.Before the arrival of its first novelist of stature, Witold Gombrowicz, in the 1930s, its literary essence was stoppered up in the person of Adam Mickiewicz, poet, nationalist, romantic hero; so that in retrospect it now seems natural that, faced with the nationalistic pride of his fellow Poles, Gombrowicz should have retorted: “Whenever I see some mystique or other, be it virtue or family, faith or fatherland, there I have to commit some indecent act.” There speaks the instigator of Poland’s modernity.Gombrowicz’s novels, Ferdydurke, Trans-Atlantyk, Pornografia, and Cosmos, all hinge on those moments when situations are revealed as horribly, sometimes hilariously distorted by form, surfaces, conventions. Narratives are suddenly shown to deceive. As Izabela Filipiak, a novelist who worked in a Gdansk bookshop during the Solidarity era, says: “He was ironic and absurd and the reality we lived in was absurd, it needed irony to open it up. Gombrowicz wasn’t building monuments, he was destroying them.”We say that the novel came late to central Europe. It is truer to say that central Europe is our own past, our ancestral Europe; the Europe that once sent us out to risk and venture everything, to explore our possibilities. The force of the novels of 20th-century central Europe lies in their rediscovery of the individual just as history plunges him or her into a mass state, or war. Just as the novel is getting normalised in the west, it takes off again.One exemplar of that flight is Tadeusz Konwicki, author of The Polish Complex and A Minor Apocalypse. At his Stalin-era flat in central Warsaw, he gave a lucid explanation of how events are the master of narrative. “My generation was the generation of people who time and again had to face the possibility of their lives being threatened. The traditional narrative structure could not express the psychological insight of the situations we found ourselves in. But that is the baggage of my generation.”Long live his baggage – though the next generation is now living through the mirror image of that time, contemplating its new identity in the atmosphere of primal capitalism. Writers such as Marek Bienczyk, Jerzy Pilch, Piotr Siemion and Magdalena Tulli have sought to capture the decade. As Pawel Huelle, the author of a fine novel about Polish identity, Who is David Weiser?, points out: “It’s difficult to find oneself in all this. When some of my friends complain, though, I still say well, I could always get you a ticket to Belarus or Romania and see how you like it there.”In any case, as Gombrowicz might put it, for every guarantee there is always a stench in the air. Otherwise, the picaresque quest would fall to dust. What would be the point of setting out, in Cervantes’s century or ours, into certainty?Most of what fell apart in the early 20th century in central Europe can be laid at the door of Austria-Hungary’s defeat: that tottering geographical circus that spread from Switzerland to Romania and Trieste on the Adriatic. But that city (which finally became part of Italy in 1919) at least was the home of Italo Svevo.There had been great Italian novelists before Svevo: Manzoni with The Betrothed, Giovanni Verga and his Little Novels of Sicily and Mastro Don Gesualdo. What did Svevo have? That Triestine mixture of middle European caution and the urge to cast it to the wind – and genius.His language was risible: he was dismissed on account of his “shop Italian”. Nevertheless, his novel The Confessions of Zeno remains a masterpiece, the first and funniest of the great battles between literature and psychoanalysis for the right to define the importance of the human act. “While I sit here analysing myself a sudden doubt assails me: did I really love cigarettes so much because I was able to throw all the responsibility for my own incompetence on them? Perhaps it was this very doubt which bound me to my vice, because life is so much pleasanter if one is able to believe in one’s own latent greatness.” He is the expert confessor of all our failings.The great chronicler of central Europe, Claudio Magris, also Trieste-born, embodies (like Svevo) the centripetal tendency of the Italian novel. For language, their aesthetic machinery, its novelists have had to go far away from the doctrinal centre of classical Italian. With Svevo, Verga, Pirandello and Lampedusa, the early 20th century was the era of the periphery, and in the latter half, Calvino, Vittorini and Pavese were born out of translating American literature.Today, Antonio Tabucchi, writer of serious political entertainments, has cast several of his novels abroad, in Portugal. “As Borges said, literature isn’t a train that runs on the surface, but a river that runs deep under the earth and at a given moment bursts forth whenever it feels like it. So even if you’re not aware of being influenced, you are all the same.” Marta Morazzoni, author of the The Alphonse Courrier Affair, echoes this.”I never think of my country when I write, never. I’m always thinking

about abroad.”Considered in these terms, the search for identity, that imperative laid upon us by Cervantes, is intimately bound to our sense of what makes us modern. If we write in the past, we live in the past.Yet our modernity lies in things we cannot know. We aren’t modern for the reasons we think we are, but for other reasons that only our descendants will understand. And the sense of who we are is not a fixed state. It is an engagement with reality, as enigmatic as any that can be aided by the mirror of fiction.What seems rather admirable among Italian novelists today is the force of their belief in narration as a system without structure, a continuing polyphony of stories that connect us. As Daniele del Giudice says: “To be related by the telling of stories is a desire that cannot die.”· This is an edited version of Julian Evans’s radio journey through the European novel, which will be repeated on Mondays from August 19, on Radio 3


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