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.

Wandernburg’s physical instability suggests a place where even the most basic questions remain unsettled, a place still capable of being changed by ideas. The fairy-tale mutability has a concrete political analogue. The city is on the contested border of Saxony and Prussia – the story is set between the Napoleonic dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and the Revolutions of 1848 – as a result of which ‘it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact location of Wandernburg on any map, because it has changed places all the time. It shifts so much between regions it has become all but invisible.’

It’s equally difficult to situate Hans. He arrives with a large trunk that turns out to be filled with books, but carries very little in the way of personal history. He has come from Berlin on his way to Dessau, but no particular business was taking him there. He indicates at one point that he has studied philosophy at Jena, but even this is cast into doubt. As he tells an old organ-grinder he meets in the city square, he is simply ‘a sort of traveller, who journeyed from place to place, stopping off at unfamiliar destinations to discover what they were like, then moving on when he grew bored, felt the urge to travel again or found something better to do elsewhere’. Restless travel, guided more by curiosity than a sense of purpose: one sees in Hans’s self-portrait a description of thinking itself.

Though he only plans to stay in Wandernburg overnight, Hans extends his stay after meeting the organ-grinder:

Hans never felt nostalgia for anything: he preferred to think about his next journey. And yet, when the organ-grinder began to play, something touched the edge of something. When he heard the barrel organ’s metallic past, Hans sensed that someone else, some past self, was trembling inside him … He realised that he too was part of the scene.

The suggestive vagueness – ‘something touched the edge of something’ – is typical of Neuman’s style, and of Hans’s response to his surroundings. It is as though he doesn’t quite have a self but is being forced to construct one to be ‘part of the scene’.

The longer Hans stays in Wandernburg, the more a part of it he becomes. He joins the salon of Herr Gottlieb and his freethinking daughter, Sophie, where he meets various representative intellectual types: the dim-witted aristocrat (Rudi Wilderhaus, scion of the city’s richest family and Sophie’s fiancé); the pedant (Professor Mietter, a philologist, newspaper columnist and ‘Wandernburg’s very own cultural luminary’); the Jewish mystic (Herr Levin, ‘a merchant with a penchant for theosophy’); and others. Asked what he does for a living, ‘Hans replied that he travelled, he travelled and he translated.’

From this point on, intellectual conversations – not just at the Gottliebs’ salon but in the local tavern, in the cave on the outskirts of town where the old organ-grinder lives, and in the bed where Hans consummates an affair with Sophie – make up the bulk of the book. Often these conversations explicitly take up the tenor of the age, while being theoretical enough to apply to many eras:

Will you tell us exactly what you have against the ancient gods? Professor Mietter said, irritated. Me, said Hans, nothing at all, although I doubt they are of any use in explaining the world to us now. Myth, Professor Mietter pronounced, recalling his lessons in Graeco-Roman culture, will always be useful in our understanding of reality. Provided, Hans pointed out, those myths are transformed … Show me a single living soul in Berlin, Paris or London who can say he honestly likes triglyphs or identifies with Doric capitals? I trust, retorted Professor Mietter, you are at least generous enough to consider me a living soul, gnädiger Hans. And since we are on the subject of triglyphs and capitals, allow me to make an observation about modern tastes. Do you know why we are incapable today of building the great edifices of the past? It is very simple, because our forebears were men of great principles. We modern men only have opinions. Opinions and doubts, nothing more. But building a cathedral, my good fellow, requires more than stones, it requires powerful ideas.

Oddly, the more grounded their talk becomes in the book’s historical moment, the more directly it reflects present day concerns, as when Herr Levin invokes Adam Smith in arguing for free trade among European nations. Hans remarks that ‘Smith’s theories are capable of enriching a state and impoverishing its workers’:

Before free trade I think other measures are needed, such as agrarian reform, the dismantling of the large estates and a more just distribution of land. This would not mean simply freeing trade but breaking down the real barriers, beginning with the socio-economic ones. Oh, said Professor Mietter, I suppose you are going to start quoting Saint-Simon? Not exactly, Herr Professor, Hans retorted, although I don’t see any reason why not … A redistribution of wealth does not have to end in a reign of terror.

Traveller of the Century appeared in Spanish in 2009. (Neuman is Argentinian.) Events since then have made the book’s intellectual concerns seem almost too pointedly topical, but there’s no question that the long conversations are meant to demonstrate how some questions stay with us. Hans often seems to speak for our own time. Along with other ambiguous touches, including a passing remark that Hans is driven to travel because he hates ‘knowing the future’, this plays off Neuman’s suggestive title. To what century does this traveller belong? For whom is he translating?

None of which is to suggest that Neuman’s book is littered with conscious anachronisms in the postmodern mode. Every remark Hans makes could be credibly attributed to a 19th-century philosophy student with revolutionary sympathies. Early on, a Wandernburg city councillor suggests that Hans stop wearing his beret – ‘of your own free will’ – because it’s ‘frowned upon by the post-restoration regime’. His ironic response – ‘my free will and I are most grateful for your advice’ – neatly places him intellectually. And to the extent that Hans is grounded in the world of the novel, a part of the scene rather than a floating intelligence, his detachment makes him a bit monstrous, in spite of his good nature. There are stakes in the games he plays, but those stakes are not his.

If Traveller of the Century isn’t a postmodern history, it isn’t a historical novel in the traditional sense either. There are no grand battles; no historical figures appear. Although members of various classes show up and complain of their lot, broad social forces are of secondary concern. The tradition of politically engaged historical fiction initiated by Walter Scott reached its apogee during the period in which Neuman’s book is set, so it’s hardly surprising that the topic comes up in the Gottliebs’ salon. Hans, it turns out, isn’t a fan of the tradition:

In my view Walter Scott’s romances, not to mention those of his imitators, are a fraud. Not for being historical, but because they are anti-historical. I am passionate about history, which is why I regret the current trend for historical novels. I have nothing against the genre, but it is rarely done justice. I believe the past should not be a distraction, but a laboratory in which to analyse the present. These romances usually portray the past either as a rural idyll or a fake hell. And in both cases the author is being dishonest. I mistrust books that imply the past was much nobler, when even the author wouldn’t go back there if he could. I equally mistrust books that try to convince us the past was worse in every respect, as this is usually a way of distracting from present injustices. What I mean is, and excuse me for sermonising, the present is also historical. As for the plots, I find them superficial. Full of action yet empty of meaning, because they do not interpret that period nor the origins of this one.

Neuman’s book reflects some of Hans’s criticisms. It might be said to be empty of action yet full of meaning. Conflicts are created that never come to anything, and the novel’s most powerful effects are suggestive rather than definitive. But that’s also what prevents the book from being, in Hans’s sense, a laboratory.

Another scene in the book offers a different gloss on Neuman’s treatment of history. After waking up on his first morning in Wandernburg, Hans inspects a small watercolour hanging on the wall of his room in the inn. ‘The frame seemed to him rather too ornate,’ Neuman writes. ‘When he took it down to examine it more closely, he discovered a tiny mirror on the back. He hung it up again, this time with the mirror facing towards him.’ Each morning after that, Hans turns the mirror face out and uses it to shave before reversing it again. The novel could be said to function the same way: its picturesque elements – the organ-grinder with his simple wisdom, the Hoffmannesque inn Hans stays at, a dark subplot about a menace who stalks Wandernburg’s streets at night – are regularly removed from view, and we’re given in their place a miniature reflection of ourselves.

If the novel has a weakness it’s the absence of any clear relation between that reflection and the ornately framed watercolour which is then returned to our attention. There’s too little dialogue between the book’s infrequent action and its voluminous talk. The one exception is Hans’s affair with Sophie, which begins openly, by way of conversations at the salon, and is pursued under cover of their collaboration on translations of Wordsworth and Keats. One of Neuman’s chief subjects is the Romantic relationship of sentiment and intellect, and this relationship is illustrated neatly by the couple’s seamless movement from translating desk to bed.

Sophie is presented with a familiar choice between the wealthy, well-meaning and dull Rudi and the passionate and penniless Hans. More than any other element in the book, the plot mechanics of her liaison with Hans rest on the social, economic and political context of 19th-century Europe. Sophie’s family’s prospects depend on its joining with the wealthy Wilderhauses, and Hans’s presence threatens the union. An unchaperoned, free-thinking woman, engaged to the city’s most illustrious citizen, can’t share a room with a foreign visitor without casting suspicion on herself. There’s obvious dramatic potential in this set-up, but Neuman doesn’t make much use of it, for a predictable reason: he is too interested in their talk. The affair is an occasion for conversation, not the reverse.

Neuman’s decision to underplay precisely those plot elements that tie the book to its time returns us to the question of the novel’s use of history. The Magic Mountain begins with a warning. Mann says that he means to tell us ‘a story that took place long ago, and is, so to speak, covered with the patina of history and must necessarily be told with verbs whose tense is of the deepest past’. He goes on to explain that ‘stories, as histories, must be past, and the further past, one might say, the better for them as stories and for the storyteller, that conjurer who murmurs in past tenses.’

There is a characteristic irony in all this business: Mann’s novel was published in 1924; the events it depicts take place roughly between 1906 and 1914. So it isn’t really the passage of time that makes the difference. ‘The extraordinary pastness of our story results from it having taken place before a certain turning point,’ Mann writes, ‘on the far side of a rift that has cut deeply through our lives and consciousness.’ That the story takes place immediately before the war, not generations before it, only emphasises the sense of separation: ‘Is not the pastness of a story that much more profound, more complete, more like a fairy tale, the tighter it fits up against the “before”?’

The fissure in history the Great War represents was handled similarly by Proust and Musil, and Woolf in To the Lighthouse. Some of the best post-9/11 novels – like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children – fit much of themselves tightly against the before, giving a picture of the world that ended instead of trying to capture things that have not yet finished starting. Other writers have taken a similar approach to the financial collapse of 2008, as though the fall of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, like the fall of the Twin Towers, is best made sense of by examining what life was like while they still stood and one assumed that they would stand for ever.