The Old Child and Other Stories – Jenny Erpenbeck

Note: the following are somewhat abbreviated thoughts on this book since I finished reading it almost a week ago, but only just now gotten a chance to jot down notes.

I was introduced to Jenny Erpenbeck through Stefan Zweig when an ancient historian lamented the latter’s renewed popularity—the former, he noted deals with comparable themes in the contemporary climate. The Old Child and other Stories is the second of her books, I’ve read. On the strength of The End of Days, which is on the short list of my favorite reads of this year, it is a little surprising that I was let down by this collection, but, then, the bar was set very high.

The titular story (novella by length) takes up the bulk of the book and was the strongest in the volume. The unnamed old child is entered into a boarding school, looking different from her peers. She is fourteen, but lumpy and boxy, looking old, and is ushered into communal life. After abortive attempts to fit in with her peers and the teachers, the old child adopts silence as a survival strategy, without memory of her past, stoic and unchanging while her peers grow up.

Ultimately, though, trying to reproduce the ambivalence, anonymity, and uncertainty that run through the pages to such great effect in this short summation does it a disservice. The Old Child can be read as a political parable about East Germany, and it introduces many of the themes that came to greater fruition in The End of Days. The writing in the other stories followed this same pattern: powerful, direct, vague, but the only story that I found memorable was Siberia, a short tale about a woman who returned from deportation in Siberia to find it occupied by a mistress.

Nothing in this collection changed my mind about Erpenbeck. Her prose is beautiful and even when the plot of a story was forgettable, the experience of reading it was not. The book, did, however, prompt me to think about how I read the written word in different formats. In particular, my ambivalence toward short stories is hardly a new experience and I do not think it coincidental that I thought the longest story in the collection was the most successful. I like how the extra space gave Erpenbeck the opportunity to develop themes in The Old Child, but I also suspect that this is a personal preference rather than a neutral evaluation.

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I have also finished George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms and am now reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise. As a general reading note, I have been doing very well in my goal to read more books by women in 2017, so I am adding midyear reading goal: every non-academic book I start in August is going to be written by a woman and since I have been building a collection of books I am particularly excited to read, including Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, this reading goal may be extended into September.

The Tattered Cloak – Nina Berberova

I don’t usually read short stories unless I already appreciate the larger piece of art that I already like. There are a variety of reasons for this breakdown of what I read, and my prejudices against the medium, including that I have a hard time connecting with the characters in such a short space, are clearly colored by the types of short stories I do read. (I have also read David Foster Wallace short story collections that are…something.) yet, I do want to read more broadly, and I had picked up Nina Berberova’s collection on a whim at Jackson Street Books in Omaha Nebraska, so I gave it a go as one of the first reads of 2017. The short version of this review: these stories are amazing.

Berberova was born in St. Petersburg in 1901 and emigrated to Paris in the 1920s; her work reflects her personal experience, telling stories about Russians fleeing circumstances in their native country and trying to make a life somewhere else. This particular collection consists of six stories, translated under the titles “The Resurrection of Mozart,” “The Waiter and the Slut,” “Astashev in Paris,” “The Tattered Cloak,” “The Black Pestilence,” and “In Memory of Schliemann.” Berberova conjures a misfit cast of Russians, all of whom are trying to make their way in life, often by somewhat unsavory means. Ultimately the collections reminiscent of Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris crossed with the best of the Russian short story tradition of Gogol.

I really liked every story in this collection, but the lead story, “The Resurrection of Mozart” was the one that stood out to me both as being a little bit different and particularly memorable. This story is set a little bit after the others, taking place in June 1940 just after the outbreak of war between France and Germany. A group of Russian emigres are gathered in a village outside of Paris and debating which famous figure is most necessary in times like these. Someone says Napoleon, another says Julius Caesar, but the host insists that in troubled times artists are most necessary and none more so than Mozart. The next day a stranger with a strange accent wanders into town while everyone is furiously making preparations for war. Without revealing what happens next, Berberova offers a devastating commentary about life during troubled times. She doesn’t suggest that calling back a famous warrior would have changed the course of World War 2, but she does seem to suggest how powerless a single individual can be.

The Tattered Cloak and other Stories did a lot to moderate my opinion of short stories. Berberova crafts short vignettes on a given theme and creates engaging and memorable characters. She does not cringe away from difficult topics, which some people might find off-putting, but as with the comparable authors I listed above, I find that these moments add a power to the stories. I intend to read more of her work in the future and absolutely recommend this collection to just about anyone.

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Next up, I finished reading John Scalzi’s The End of All Things. I started reading Lee Sandlin’s Wicked River, a history of the Mississippi River this morning and plan to read Orhan Pamuk’s The Silent House next.

Tonio Kröger and other stories – Thomas Mann

all my friends have been demons, hobgoblins, phantoms struck dumb by the profundity of their insight–in other words men of letters

A real artist is not one who has taken up art as his profession, but a man predestined and foredoomed to it; and such an artist can be picked out from a crowd by anyone with the slightest perspicacity. You can read in his face that he is a man apart, a man who does not belong.

No: ‘life’ stands in eternal contrast to intellect and art–but not as a vision of bloodstained greatness and savage beauty. We who are exceptions do not see life as something exceptional; on the contrary! normality, respectability, decency–these are our heart’s desire, this to us is life, life in its seductive banality! No one, my dear has a right to call himself an artist if his profoundest craving is for the refined, the eccentric and the satanic–if his heart knowns no longing for innocence, simplicity and living warmth, for a little friendship and self-surrender and familiarity and human happiness–if he is not secretly devoured…by this longing for the commonplace!

–“Tonio Kröger”

Tonio Kröger and other stories is a collection of six short stories written by Thomas Mann and translated by David Luke. As an aside before talking about the stories themselves, I have a soft-spot for this style of book, namely the Bantam Modern Classic paperback from c.1970 when this was published. The size, page-feel, and covers epitomize what I like about physical books and I have a smattering of them in my collection. Admittedly, they can be a little fragile, but I find something sympathetic about even that.

This collection includes the stories “Little Herr Friedemann,” “The Joker,” “The Road to the Churchyard,” “Gladius Dei,” “Tristan,” and “Tonio Kröger.”

The first two stories are described by the translator as immature works and it easy to see why. This is not to say the stories are bad, but they share a singular preoccupation and do not contain much in the way of subtlety of plot. Both stories fundamentally revolve around young men have created an ascetic life away from society, one on account of physical deformity, the other temperament, but whose worlds are shaken when they meet, fall for, and are rejected by pretty young women. This theme recurs, including in the eponymous story where a young man flees respectable society because the other kids laugh at him during their dance lessons, but those stories do not have the same linear resolution.

A second common theme that unites the stories in this collection is art and artistic sensibilities, particularly in men, versus society at large. Not every story is about artists, though. “Gladius Dei” is about a man who feels compelled by God to condemn the overtly sexual representation of Madonna. The main character is offended by the art that he sees as a perversion, and there is not representation of how the artist feels about it—we are only told that the painting is famous, and the dealer is interested in the print because it will make him money.

Art, as Mann portrays it, is as much a curse as a blessing, since it leaves the artist watching life rather than experiencing life. The artists in these stories never get the girl, so to speak, but are forced to watch in envy, experiencing emotions that are fundamentally different from everyone else. At best the men of artistic temperament (whether they produce art or not) are watchers of people and sad young men; at worst they are bitter wastrels with an over-developed sense of superiority. The most extreme example of this is probably Detlev Spinell in “Tristan,” who is an author who lives in a sanatorium because the company and the decor suits him. Though he is not himself sick there is something sickly about him, as opposed to the healthy men of society.

Mann’s stories and presentation of art simultaneously repulsed and enthralled me. Yet, this translation reminded me just how much I enjoyed Mann’s style when I read Doctor Faustus and reaffirmed my ranking of that book among my all-time favorites. As a final note, it still remains a novelty for me to read short story collections, but also a nice change of pace.

Currently reading: Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. I will finish this one…sometime.

Girl With Curious Hair – David Foster Wallace

Among my favorite writers there is no-one whose writing sometimes does nothing for me more frequently than David Foster Wallace. There are reasons for this, including that some of the stories and essays are dated such that I can’t connect with them. More frequently is that what I admire about Wallace’s writing are his powers of observation, his penchant for remarkable phrases, and a panache that flaunts convention and format. These same traits that I admire can also have the effect of making the stories alien and difficult for me to appreciate even as I admire their technical features. The second issue I have is that I often struggle to invest in short stories in the same way I do with longer works, which is a “me” problem more than his writing. This is all by way of preamble for some thoughts on Girl With Curious Hair, Wallace’s first short story collection, the second I have read.

Girl With Curious Hair was published in 1989, and the stories all in some way intersect with the worlds of advertising, media, communication, relationships. My favorite story, the eponymous “Girl with Curious Hair,” is a detached account of a young east coast man, his sexual predilections, and his punk friends on acid going to a concert in Los Angeles. “Here and There” tells of a long-distance relationship that results in both parties being tortured, albeit for very different reasons, and “Say Never” of an infidelity over the question of fit. One story that felt particularly dated to me was “My Appearance,” about an actress appearing on a young David Lettermen’s show–I liked the story itself, but I don’t understand the connection people have or had with David Lettermen, particularly now that he has retired. (I have heard from some people about how much of a revelation Letterman was, but I’ve never really seen it myself.) None of these anodyne descriptions do credit to Wallace’s curious characters who inhabit the same world we live in. The best example of this is in the final story, “Westward the course of empire takes its way,” much of which literally takes place in a clown car careening through the tall corn of central Illinois on its way to a reunion of everyone who ever appeared in a McDonald’s commercial.

Ultimately, I didn’t love most of the stories in this collection, but almost every one had striking or haunting moments. I preferred Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, another Wallace short story collection, to this one because I was more enamored of the stories themselves, which were both a little closer to my lifetime and were, in my opinion, more artfully constructed. These felt, probably with good reason, like a collection completed as part of a portfolio in a writing program, which brought their own strengths—more unified themes behind the stories, stories that were polished and tidy (albeit with the final story offering a critique of such analysis), and being kept from wandering too far into the wilderness of prose style. Of course, I prefer Wallace’s essays to either story collection.