Aunts and Uncles

Michael Hofmann

  • A Feast in the Garden by George Konrad, translated by Imre Goldstein
    Faber, 394 pp, £14.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 571 16623 7
  • Wartime Lies by Louis Begley
    Picador, 198 pp, £5.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 330 32099 8
  • Brothers by Carmelo Samona, translated by Linda Lappin
    Carcanet, 131 pp, £13.95, August 1992, ISBN 0 85635 990 4
  • Rolling by Thomas Healy
    Polygon, 161 pp, £7.95, July 1992, ISBN 0 7486 6121 2

After a lost war, Hofmannsthal said, one should write comedies, and in the Twenties, within his limitations and against his genius, he did just that. I wonder what he would prescribe for the countries of Eastern Europe – many of them former Habsburg territories – after what is infinitely worse than a lost war: regional entropy; systemic collapse; an abrupt close brackets on an experiment that failed; a largely bloodless and painfully incomplete reversion to the status quo ante of forty, fifty, even ninety years ago; future generations exposed to the deleterious half-lives of political, industrial and human debris; the discrediting of one set of political ideas in favour of another, older, just as discredited and probably far more violent – the belief in race and nation. Riddle? Farce? Silence?

The regimes of Eastern Europe may have been oppressive and iniquitous, but the fiction and poetry written under them were for a time quite outstanding. This was partly because of the system, which was oddly literary in outlook and valued writers, though of course not as much as athletes; partly in spite of it – its preferences as regarded form and content needed to be surmounted if anything of value was to be produced; and partly nothing to do with it: the usual accident of who was born when and where. With the floating off of those countries into liberty and poverty and various degrees of crummy nationalism, that age is now over: perhaps it is the moment to apologise for having had a taste for its literary products. Publishers will go on pumping them out in translation for a few more years yet – perhaps even, briefly, at an increased rate – but I have no great expectation of them any more.

This is why: the New World Order finds the Eastern (or as he would prefer it, Central – it sounds more hopeful) European writer completely disorientated. He has lost the system in relation to which he defined himself, and that gave him censorship, sense of purpose and a measure of his effectiveness; official and underground publishers; paper-rationing and three-year waiting-times; a superhuman readership that bought up entire editions of his books before one copy could reach a bookshop and passed them round afterwards, that queued for shopping-baskets at book-shops and filled football stadia for poetry readings (this last is starting to sound apocryphal). Bizarre conditions in their mixture of favourable and unfavourable, but they provided the writer with readers and made him feel that what he was doing was important. This extended to ‘abroad’, and the foreign readership that gave his books a second life, if he was lucky; some wrote only for translation, acquired inaccessible hard-currency accounts and a disciplined and patient and somehow abstemious readership which probably understood just a fraction of what they read.

The landslip of 1989 transformed all this. Literature, having been promoted beyond its expectations, even beyond its capacity, has been abruptly relegated, almost wiped out, its domestic market wrecked by the withdrawal of subsidies, by competition from Western culture, by popular indifference and by uncertainty on the part of the writer himself, who for the first time finds himself in an artistic free-trade zone, a beggar-your-neighbour world, in competition not just with Moroccans and Ecuadorians and Italians and other exotics, but also directly with his fellow nationals. Previously, there seemed some point, both within, say, Poland, and outside, in reading 17 Polish novelists: there was some cumulative effect, your money and attention were invested in something – not any more. By now the writer is like a ghost walking through walls. He doesn’t know what is real, the past or the future, his own language or English, domesticity or national life. A kind of combi-book beckons, historical summary and Euro-fantasy, the triple-decker, poly-ideological, multi-generational national epic that reaches out to the rest of the continent, and preferably across the Atlantic: Son of ‘Zhivago’. Inflation of length, mongrel form, the backward look to the Second World War – this time for scrapes and adventures, not anti-fascist credentials – the porno-historical schlockbuster that will sell in twenty countries, the definitive Ruritanian novel, now that all these countries have become Ruritanias, as indeed we are all Ruritanians now.

These fears weren’t formulated in response to George Konrad’s hefty new book, but they might have been. I don’t know when I last felt so mutinous while reading a book. A Feast in the Garden is an absolutely dire novel, misconceived, opportunistic, inflated, poorly written, cynical and floundering. Little G.K. in a prospect of history. Of course, there are occasional decent things in it – at almost four hundred pages, how could there not be – but even they are somehow routine, and what repeatedly struck me was the novels stupidity, tactlessness and bad faith. Export-quality horseshit.

The rot wastes no time in setting in, a lingering and narcissistic introduction, the author for thirty pages reluctant to let his book go, even to hand it over to his fictional alter ego, David Kobra. He has a sub-Kunderesque divagation on his ‘philosophy of ecstasy’ before going on to the ownership of property – descriptions of remote and magnificent real estate are my hot tip for fiction-writers in this last decade of the millennium. Then, in case we don’t know, he has the brass neck to tell us that his story is set ‘in the heart of Central Europe’. It might be Hollywood speaking. All the time, he writes like an auction catalogue: ‘A hundred years old, the house is made of quarry stone at the bottom, of bricks at the top. It has a wine cellar and an attic.’ For sale separately, or as one lot. When talk turns to writing, self-love goes into overdrive. ‘I keep my manuscripts in one closet, my clothes in another.’ (Never trust anyone who talks to you about his manuscripts; still less anyone who wears them.) There is some terrible attitudinising:

Writing, actually, is reading ... Writing turns observation into physical action ... I am writing my most hazardous book. I have been sentenced to examine myself. To dissect myself in the morgue of my own conscience.

And everywhere these little dickhead sentences: ‘Before me, paper and pen, reckless calligraphy’; ‘Death throes and bridal anticipation. I wait here, wait for inspiration’; or, haikustyle: ‘On the spit: chicken legs, onions, and tomatoes.’ It is poor style, but quite consistent with what Konrad says elsewhere about ‘this book’ being ‘only the table of contents of an other book’.

A Feast in the Garden, once Konrad lets go of it, is perfectly readable for quite long stretches, a ragbag of reminiscences of childhood in provincial Hungary, the war, the fate of relatives (the name Konrad is derived from Kohn), the boy’s survival in a protected house in Budapest, his later relationship with his cousin, clever, Communist Zoltan, and much more. (The idea of the ‘feast in the garden’ is to assemble everyone, a kind of imaginary This is your life.) The later parts of the book are inevitably flat by contrast – everything that needs to be said is said in the one sentence, ‘We all eat, drink and fornicate à la hongroise’ – and are further spoilt by the recrudescence of Konrad’s phenomenal vanity as well as the worst writing for a ‘woman’s voice’ that I have ever read. The effect at first is shocking, almost exhilarating; later it is merely sad, like having to spend twenty years at Gatwick. Konrad’s style, for ever tagging, jogging, praising, claiming – even if he only has someone saying: ‘I am drinking a dry white wine’ – is finally cringing, odious and unbelievable. ‘My life, on the other hand, has been a series of border violations’; ‘Women are drawn to his heat; dogs rub against his legs’; ‘In her company, his manhood still soars, like Gothic art.’ He has a chapter ‘in which Melinda Kadron introduces herself’, and another, ‘in which Klara too gets to speak’. And what do they say, these women, what do they talk about? Why, their bodies, and then the men who are everything to them. It is gross, but also comically inept: ‘I look in the mirror. Silvered black hair; gray lizardskin shoes’ – it’s a jigsaw of a Whistler speaking, not a person! Once he has put the pieces together, they proclaim:

I am, like my mother, a broad-shouldered, slim-waisted woman with strong thighs; neither small-breasted nor flat-bottomed. Dark brown eyes, deep voice, no moustache. I am five feet nine inches tall and weigh 132 pounds. My shoe size: eight and a half.

These women respond to chat-up lines like this, from a Swiss triceratops: ‘By eight tonight I have to be back with my family. I have a beautiful wife and three children. My family happiness lacks only one thing. You.’ And afterwards they say: ‘He made every inch of my body sing.’

Konrad has written useful and acclaimed books in the past. A Feast in the Garden is a vivid hundred-page memoir of the war years, and after that is overwhelmed by stereotypes, folksiness and obsessive self-flattery. There is something deluded and half-assed about it, like a running commentary on a game of subbuteo football: his dangerous seducer with his wheeled suitcase; his pathetic nest-building sexpots of women; his terminally self-admiring writers.

Louis Begley’s Wartime Lies won the Ernest Hemingway and Aer Lingus prizes when it came out last year, and the paperback carries glowing tributes from Christopher Hope and Paul Bailey. I don’t find myself reaching for superlatives like them, but it certainly isn’t any old first novel. Wartime Lies is a stylish and gripping account of how a Jewish boy and his beautiful, resourceful aunt manage to stay alive and out of the camps during the Nazi occupation of Poland. I presumed – reading it, one presumes – that it was an autobiographical story, based on fact, and yet, so far from being insisted on, this aspect is gracefully shuffled off, first in a sweetly-written, mock-imaginary introduction (‘Take a man with a nice face and sad eyes, fifty or more winters on his back, living a moderately pleasant life in a tranquil country. He is a bookish fellow’) and then in the contrast between the boy’s first-person narration and our early knowledge that the name he gives us, ‘Maciek’, is not his real name. At the end of the book, the name and the boy and what he witnessed and endured are all sloughed off at once:

And where is Maciek now? He became an embarrassment and slowly died. A man who bears one of the names Maciek used has replaced him. Is there much of Maciek in that man? No: Maciek was a child, and our man has no childhood that he can bear to remember: he has had to invent one. And the old song is a lie. No matter how long or gaily the music plays, Maciek will not rise to dance again. Nomen et cineres una cum vanitate sepulta.

By delaying the book, by relocating to a ‘tranquil country’ and writing in a language that has nothing to do with the events described, Begley has achieved a very clever and dignified distancing.

I found it the most striking aspect of the book that it was written in English, and in a suave and elegant English at that, where a cook is ‘dispendious with veal’, and the boy, watching bare-legged girls treading sauerkraut, feels ‘a mixture of oppression and elation’, a brilliant formulation for a child’s apprehension of something beautiful and out of reach. Polish terms are introduced, Polish circumstances explained – the fact, for example, that it took a Pole to identify a Polish Jew, a German wouldn’t be able to; everything is made very comfortably graspable for the English reader. Between moments of speeded-up heart-rate there are miniature scenes and ironies of great depth and reach: that Maciek in hiding reads Karl May; that he is confirmed into the Catholic Church, while, as he feels it, living a lie; that he learns the poems of Mickiewicz, all about subterfuge and resistance, while living among blackmailing anti-semitic and compliant Poles, who watch the ghetto fires at night and stage their own pogroms shortly after their liberation; that no barbarity described in the book matches that of the Polish peasantry, among whom Tania and Maciek find shelter after the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto.

My reservations about the book are not serious – half bemusement, half incomplete assent. It is Begley’s achievement to have made his story manageable, orderly and limited: but contrarily and contrariwise, I wish it could have been vaster, confused and opaque. It is readable to a fault; the physical stages of growing up – nervousness and nightmares, boldness, fatness, moral sensitivity – from three to 11 would impress an entomologist; and Aunt Tania is a character to fall in love with, as the boy himself must have done too.

You might say of Brothers by the late Carmelo Samona, professor of Spanish at the University of Rome, that it came out of Kafka’s waistcoat, but for the fact that it probably has as many provenances as Homer: Borges, Pirandello, Beckett ... It is perfectly engrossing, bred by plausibility out of a vacuum. Everything flows from its opening sentence: ‘For many years now I have been living in an old flat in the heart of the city with my brother, who is ill.’ Nothing that follows substantially alters or revises or enlarges on that sentence. You don’t learn the illness, the name of the brother or the city or anything definite about the relationship. And yet, it is fascinating stuff, as difficult to resist as it is to quote from. As with Kafka, you begin to doubt: you doubt the brother (might he be a wife or a child?), you doubt the narrator (is he a selfless nurse or a fratricide in spe?), you turn over every sentence two or three times, you read in kid gloves.

Another metaphor. The gritty pearl manufactures pearl-stuff to protect itself, Brothers spinningly proliferates above and around that first factual, painful sentence. A further fact would kill the book. So the spinning is kept up, not methodically but sequentially, not the brothers’ routine, their history, one or two episodes, but something of all these. Their chases round the flat, their ceremonial, the writer’s attempts to understand and (same thing) to govern his brother, his attempted Time Table, their walks outside, the Third Person. It is thwarting as well as fascinating to read, slow, self-denying, never with the reality or the humour of Kafka, always measured, the slow Scheherazade drip of falsehood into your reader’s life.

Books of the length (let alone the type) of Brothers are excessively rare in English. Rolling, by the Glaswegian writer Thomas Healy, is almost the same length, but although Healy is wonderfully adventurous where his idea of what makes a sentence is concerned, he seems to feel that nothing less than the whole life of his hero, the alcoholic wanderer Michael Thorn, will do, and nothing less than the full monty of a novel. This is a great pity, generally, where modern British writing is concerned, and, specifically, for Rolling, which for the first fifty pages (a love affair with a schoolboy in Glasgow), or maybe seventy (dysentery in Madrid), impressed me as a kind of masterpiece. Subsequently, it repeated itself, got in another two decades, brought in the AA and the Scottish Arts Council (Healy’s hero tries his hand at writing), acquired a loyal non-wife Heidi in Germany and two children, and generally lost its ability to surprise, to appal and to move. Healy might argue that this is what happens to alcoholics over time, but he should consider the German proverb ‘less is more’ (in fiction if not in alcohol), and the fact that the novel which his own hero wrote confined itself to his youth.

Rolling is the only one of these four books – and is in a tiny minority of novels besides – to use the language interestingly. You hear Healy’s book after a few lines of it. He doesn’t eff and blind, uses little Scottish diction, and follows orthodox spellings for the most part, but what he has in his sights is the sentence. Either he collapses it into a heap of clauses or even words, crushing the syntax out of it, or else he laboriously keeps it upright by sticking in dashes like matchsticks:

  It was autumn, late September or October, shades of night and a fine rain falling. I wore my Italian suit.

  That was later. Saturday night Anton and I drank wine. Cheap plonk. Red. He did not think I was too young. We sat amongst the litter of clocks, a ginger cat and I thought it high adventure.

Or:

  Summer in London, I can see myself – I need no photo – tall, already six foot, but water-thin. The guys called me Stick.

  My Italian suit, I had been so proud of that suit, fussy – mothballs, in the pockets – like a woman for its care. Now reduced to this, a hobo garb.

This tight language, at once full of content and very decorative, is the language of epic, and Michael’s first years – loss of virginity, boxing, his drunken uncle, apprenticeships, first trip down to London – are the stuff of epic. At times you fancy you’re reading an Anglo-Saxon chant, the characters remind you of Circe or Dido, you scan the sentences for anapaests.