What the Organ-Grinder Said

Christopher Beha

There’s a manner of presenting ideas in fiction that corresponds roughly to Yeats’s claim that man can embody truth but cannot know it. A story can embody thoughts it never spells out. So we take Kafka’s work to be saying all sorts of things – about God or his absence, about the general predicament of modernity – that it never actually says. It’s this kind of suggestive reticence that Eliot was reacting to when he remarked that Henry James had a mind so fine no idea could violate it. Along its outer border, the desire not to state ideas explicitly approaches the desire not to have them, as expressed by Flaubert’s ideal of a book about nothing.

The obvious alternative to all this withholding is the garrulous third-person narrator who has marked English fiction since Fielding: a voice sometimes ironic and sometimes deadly earnest, but taken in either case as more or less the author’s own, alternately dramatising and explaining, committed to making its own sense of the story it tells, sometimes stopping the action for stretches when novelist is indistinguishable from essayist. This is the manner to which James in turn was reacting when he faulted George Eliot’s Romola for an ‘excess of analysis … too much reflection (all certainly of a highly imaginative sort) and too little creation’. This mode brings you Tolstoy’s historiography, or the relentless self-commentary of certain metafictionists.

But there’s another option: the novel that doesn’t alternate drama and analysis but dramatises analysis itself. In such novels, characters are understood more by what they think and say than by what they do, and the story’s action is that of concept meeting concept. The occasional event is meant to illuminate the talk, not the other way round. This is the characteristic mode of Proust and Musil and Mann, and of those writers from Bellow and Gaddis to Kundera and Norman Rush whose work is marked more by continuity with modernism than by postmodern rupture. Following Bakhtin, we might call these dialogic novels, not just because there’s so much conversation in them, but because the conversation is in dialogue with the plot, not just a gloss on it.

Andrés Neuman’s Traveller of the Century is a novel very much in this mode. In fact, it’s possible to tell the book’s entire story – in broad strokes – just the way we might summarise an exemplary dialogical work, The Magic Mountain. A young German man named Hans leaves the city for the provinces. He doesn’t mean to stay long, but something about the place makes it impossible to leave. Time passes differently there. He stays in part because he has fallen in love, but mostly for the conversations he finds himself joining, about history, politics, religion, literature and the fate of man. Weeks pass, then months, until he is no longer treated like a visitor; the place threatens to become a home. And then, as abruptly as he arrived, Hans is called back to the world.

Where Hans Castorp travels from Hamburg to the Swiss Alps, Neuman’s Hans travels from Berlin to arrive, in the novel’s first pages, in the city of Wandernburg. As the name suggests, Wandernburg has something of the traveller about itself, too. Approaching it by carriage, Hans notices the city ‘moving in step with them, and getting no nearer’. After making his way within its walls – and noting their thickness, ‘as if it were a warning about how hard it would be to leave rather than to enter’ – he finds further evidence of the place’s mutability:

Hans had the strange feeling that the city’s layout somehow shifted while everyone was asleep. How could he lose his bearings so completely? It was beyond him – the tavern he had lunched at the day before was on the opposite corner from where he remembered it, the clangs from the smithy, which should have been on the right as he turned the corner, surprised him by coming from the left, the sloping street that went down now went steeply up, a passageway he remembered walking through which should have opened onto an avenue was a dead end.

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