The latest addition to my website is Robert Menasse‘s Die Hauptstadt (Capital). This is a satire on the European Union, its officials and some of the nationalities who are part of it. The story starts in Place Sainte-Cathérine, in the centre of Brussels, where most of the main characters are to be found at the beginning of the book, including two senior EU officials having an affair, an Auschwitz survivor, a hitman who has just killed someone, an Austrian visiting professor and a pig who seems to be wandering round the square. We follow their stories but the two main themes are (the lack of) EU pig policy and an attempt by the Commission to exploit Auschwitz for a jubilee to promote the Commission. Many of the stories merge while many take unexpected and, in some cases, not very pleasant turns. Menasse has fun mocking EU officials and various nationalities while raising the issue of nationalism vs supranationalism.
The latest addition to my website is Heinrich Eggerth‘s Die Papierrose [The Paper Rose]. It is narrated by a man whose almost ten year old daughter has died of a brain tumour. He visits her grave almost every day and talks to her, over a period of many years. The books is his (obviously one-sided) conversations with her. We learn about how she died, the two operations she had and her cheerful, chatty nature. We also learn about how bitter he is that she had to die before her time and how he feels guilty – was the tumour caused when she fell off him, when playing, or was God punishing him for not quitting his smoking habit? He tells her of his life and the life of their family (he has a wife and another daughter, though they are barely mentioned) and imagines her growing up and having a family of her own. It is a sad book but not mawkish or overly sentimental. Apart from a few poems, none of Heggerth’s work has been translated into English or any other language.
The latest addition to my website is Christoph Ransmayr‘s Cox oder Der Lauf der Zeit [Cox or the Course of Time]. The hero of this book is Alister Cox, based on the very real James Cox. Unlike James Cox, Alister Cox travels to China to build clocks for the Chinese Emperor Qianlong. Qianlong is not particularly interested in the clocks and automata that they bring with them but wants a clock that can tell variable time – the time of a child or a lover or a man condemned to death. They work on those clocks and make some progress but the Emperor still seems less than impressed. Then the Emperor says he wants an eternal clock – a clock that works eternally. Cox feels he cam make such a clock but he is warned by Joseph Kiang, his interpreter, that to do so would be to challenge the Emperor, who has sole control of time, and to challenge the Emperor can only end one way – badly. I found this book less interesting than Ransmayr’s other work as it did not seem to really take off but was almost mundane, despite its exotic location and fascinating theme. It has been translated into four other languages but not English.
My other interest in this period is because World War I changed so much. There were the obvious changes such as the fact that 10 million died and 20 million were injured, large parts of France and Belgium were destroyed, the economies of many European countries were destroyed, it led directly to the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, various revolutions/civil wars happened (Russia, Ireland, Malta, Hungary, Germany, Egypt, Finland and others) and various countries died/significantly changed their frontiers and/or came into being after the war. Less obvious but still fairly well-known were the Spanish flu epidemic immediately after the war, which took millions of lives, the fact that after the War, the US surpassed Britain and Germany in economic and political power and the fact that after the War, Britain (and other countries, too) moved from being primarily a rural country to being primarily an urban country. In the UK, we have recently celebrated one hundred years of votes for women though, as many pointed out, it was at the same time that all adult men also received the vote. There is no question that the role of women changed after the war, not least because women had to work at men when the men were away fighting and dying.
Many novels and poems were written (and are still being written) about World War I, probably as many if not more than those set in World War II and the American Civil War. I have a long but far from complete list on my main site. Obviously many of those concern the actual conflict as well as life at home. Many of the World War I novels are critical of the conduct of the war. We can read about the terrors of the war, the inefficiency, incompetence and, at times, venality of the powers that be and of the officer class. Some novels show gentlemen declining to be officers and enlisting as other ranks.
The Tate divided its exhibition into eight categories. These are:
Remembrance: Battlefield and Ruins
Remembrance: War Memorials and Society
Traces of War: Wounded Soldiers
Traces of War: Dada and Surrealism
The Print Portfolio (prints, primarily in France and Germany, widely distributed)
Return to Order
Imagining Post-War Society: Post-War People
Imagining Post-War Society: The New City
While this division is not necessarily terribly helpful in looking at the novel, it does have some relevance. The war-wounded, example, certainly appear in various novels as do ruined battlefields and the idea of a return to order. However, I shall focus on a few novels that are on my website that do look at some of the after-effects of the war. There are, of course, many other novels dealing with this topic that are not on my website. Also, some of these novels will also deal with the war itself before moving on to the after-war period.
It could be argued that many of the great novels of the post-WWI period would not have existed without World War I. Would we have had, for example, Kafka, Joyce, Woolf,Faulkner and many other fine novelists without World War I. The answer is, of course, maybe but they may have been different and we may well have had others who would have revered even more. I shall not, therefore, be looking at those writers and others as regards their writing style and experimentation (Surrealism, Dadaism, etc. probably influenced the novel but were not, on the whole as key as they were in art.)
I shall start with my favourite post-war novel and that is Ford Madox Ford‘s Parade’s End tetralogy. Much of the series – and probably the better part – is set during the war but it is also is very much concerned with what we call world-weariness though other languages have better terms. While researching this issue, this clearly came up as a general issue. Some of it, of course, was post-traumatic stress disorder (then called shell-shock) but a lot of it was a general malaise that affected a lot of people, combatants and others, and Ford deals with it.
One other great English post-World War I novel and one far less known is Henry Williamson‘s The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series. This covers a long period – from the late 1890s to the 1950s. It covers World War I, of course and also the aftermath. The Williamson character and hero of the book, Phillip Maddison, does what Williamson actually did (and what D H Lawrence and others did) – retreat from the world, an aspect of world-weariness. Maddison also remarks on the disappearance of the rural around London.
Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs Dalloway is not the only novel to have a shell-shocked soldier in it but Septimus Smith is memorable, not least because he appears in a first-class novel, but also because he is so well portrayed by Woolf, as he retreats into his own world from which he will never return. Sadly, there were many men like him.
Two key themes for US writers were The Lost Generation and the Depression. The obvious Lost Generation work is Ernest Hemingway‘s The Sun Also Rises (UK: Fiesta) with its epigraph You are all a lost generation. Jake Barnes, the hero/narrator, has been wounded and left impotent and joins the list of literary characters, wounded physically and mentally during the war. William Faulkner‘s Soldier’s Pay is not an obvious Lost Generation novel, not least because it is set in the US and not Paris but it does show the effect of the war on those who do not go to Paris.
Many of the French novels of the period are concerned entirely with the grimness of the war, which is not surprising as much of the war was fought in France. Louis-Ferdinand Céline‘s Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) may be the most miserable book about the post-war period. Ferdinand Bardamu is a deserter and spends much of the book wandering around in a state of misery and encountering the miseries of other people. If you have any doubts as to whether people really were miserable after the war, this book should cure you.
The war was not just about the Western front. Events took place elsewhere and World War I influenced them. I mentioned various revolutions and civil wars. The best-known book in English about the Russian Revolution is, of course, Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago). If you have not read the book, you may well have seen one of he films. Nabokov hated it. It does show the horrors of the Revolution which, of course, came about because of the war.
There were other places involved. I would mention Macedonia, not an obvious one. Petre M. Andreevski‘s Пиреј (Pirey) is about the aftermath of the war in Macedonia with the hated Bulgarians being replaced by the hated Serbs.
Only the first volume of Cezar Petrescu‘s Întunecare (Gathering Clouds) has been translated into English and that deals with the war. However, the second and third volumes deal with the post-war period in Romania. They have been translated into French and German and I hope to get round to them sometime.
I would mention two excellent more modern novels that deal with the aftermath of the war. Sebastian Faulks‘s Birdsong does take place, in part, during the war but also some of it is set in modern times (i.e. late 1970s) and is about the modern memory of the war. This has been quite common recently with the hundredth anniversary but was less so when Faulks wrote his book. There have been several other novels doing this as well.
Robert Edric‘s Desolate Heaven is less well-known but deals with a group of people shortly after the war who are suffering in various ways. It is a first-class novel which should be better-known.
There are many, many other worthwhile novels on this topic but I hope this will give you a flavour to supplement the Tate exhibition. The exhibition continues till 28 September 2018, so do try and see it if you are in London.
The latest addition to my website is Clemens J. Setz‘s Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre [The Hour Between Woman and Guitar]. This is a monumental novel – 1021 pages – so unlikely to appear in English, though it has been translated into French. It is set in a care home and involves a young care assistant, Natalie Reinegger, who has to look after a man in wheel chair, Alexander Dorm, who had been a stalker and had driven a woman he stalked to commit suicide. To Natalie’s surprise, his only visitor is Christopher Hollberg, the widower of the woman who committed suicide. On the surface, the two men seem to get on well but gradually Natalie is dragged into their relationship which is not as straightforward as it seems. At the same time we are following Natalie’s own life – her casual affairs, her friends, her IPhone, her imaginary mouse and her real cat as well as the stories of the other care assistants and other patients. The book is way too long but Setz keeps on going and keeps the reader’s attention, despite no major plot revelations.
The latest addition to my website is Clemens J. Setz‘s Indigo (Indigo). The book is about a mysterious syndrome called Indigo, whereby children who have the syndrome cause those near them to suffer various, often serious ailments, while they themselves remain unaffected. We follow the story of a writer called Clemens J Setz who taught the children at a special school, from which he got fired for questioning why several of them were being relocated, was accused but acquitted of murder of a Romanian mistreating his dogs and who now is investigating Indigo syndrome and finding out various sinister activities. We also follow the story of Robert, now twenty-nine but a former Indigo child who is struggling with adapting to the world and who suspects Setz may have committed the murder. It is a strange but fascinating book about differences and cruelty.
The latest addition to my website is Clemens J. Setz‘s Die Frequenzen [Frequencies], Setz, from Graz in Austria, wrote this huge novel (over 700 pages) when he was twenty-seven and has produced a monster of novel. It is haphazard and chaotic and that can be annoying but is also part of its charm, as it illustrates the chaotic lives of the characters. The main two are Walter Zmal and Alex Kerfuchs. Walter is the son of a successful architect. His father is always helping get him a position – assistant film director, journalist and so on, and Walter fails at all of them, as he more or less fails in his relationships, both homosexual and heterosexual. Alex’s father walked out on him and his mother when he was younger and this has had an effect on him. He now works in an old people’s home and has a variety of relationships, including one of the nurses and a much older therapist, who acts as a focal point for several of the characters. The paths of Walter and Alex cross and uncross throughout the book. From Gabi, who has tinnitus (the frequencies of the title) to Alex’s strange landlord Wilhelm Steiner, from Walter’s and Alex’s various peculiar lovers to Uljana, the dog who spends the book wandering the streets of Graz, we meet a host of characters who, frankly, are not quite in tune with the world. It is an ambitious and impressive novel, even if in need of some editing, but sadly not available in English.
The latest addition to my website is Marlen Haushofer‘s Die Mansarde (The Loft). This is Haushofer’s last published novel and a first-class one it is. The unnamed narrator lives in Vienna with her husband, Hubert, and their fifteen-year old daughter, whom they hardly ever see. They have a son who lives on his own. She starts receiving by mail excerpts from diaries she wrote and thought she had destroyed some twenty plus years ago. During this period she went completely deaf for no obvious physiological reason and spent the time in a hunting lodge (like the one in Die Wand (The Wall)), away from her husband and young son. She has her suspicions as to who is sending these excerpts now but is not sure. Apart from the issues with her psychosomatic deafness, overall, while on the face of it, a very normal and conventional housewife and mother, she is a woman who cannot come to terms with the world and its ways, her only solace, hiding out in her loft drawing and painting birds and other animals. Like other Haushofer female protagonists, she is somewhat afraid of the world and can only cope by hiding from it. Haushofer’s novel is an excellent portrait of a not uncommon twentieth century malaise.
The latest addition to my website is Marlen Haushofer‘s Die Tapetentür (The Jib Door). The novel is part diary/part third person narrative and tells of Annette, a thirty-year old librarian in Vienna. Annette lives on her own and is very happy to do so. She has had boyfriends and currently has a boyfriend, Alexander, whom she is growing somewhat tired of. He is always talking about himself and keeps telling her how indispensable he is at the institute where he works. When he tells her that he is to go on a six-month exchange to Paris, she is not in the least bit disappointed; indeed, she welcomes it. After his departure, she enjoys her own company, though occasionally sees friends. But then she starts to have twinges of loneliness, nothing too strong. When she has to go to a lawyer’s office to sort out the inheritance of her father (who left her mother twenty-three years ago), she meets the lawyer, Gregor. At first she does not take to him, but they start dating and, eventually, she gets pregnant and she moves into his flat. Gradually, she changes. She is not, as she says more than once, the woman she used to be. We follow her changes, as she moves from becoming an independent woman to a dependent wife, at the same time, emphasising the difference between men and women and, by extension, between her and Gregor. It is a fine novel about the psychology of a woman and the psychological differences between men and women.