Translated by Kenneth J. Northcott
Open Letter Books, 2010
When I was thirteen, I took German classes. It was part of the third language programme that they had going here. I took classes for about two years or so. I’m ashamed to say, however, that my brief education in the German language did not manage to linger in my leaky brain. (I remember about twenty words, and that’s about it.) My education in German-language literature, philosophy, and theory, however, would slowly gather some momentum over the years, and various German writers and thinkers—Sebald, Lind, Adorno, Rilke, too many to name—have come to matter to me over time. So, when German Literature Month was announced by Caroline and Lizzy, I figured I’d do my best to take part.
Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to participate in any great capacity, but I did manage to fulfil a personal promise to read one German language book in the month, and have now managed to write a bit about it too. You’ll just have to make do. Also somewhat unfortunately, I have to admit that I undertook the reading via translation, which is kind of cheating for an event like German Literature Month, but I guess it’s really how you interpret the term.)
I chose to take on a book in my not-very-short queue. Klausen is Andreas Maier’s second novel, and I think picked up quite a bit of attention back when it was first released.
This isn’t a review as much as it is a collection of impressions from a moderately-paced reading of the book. It is my first Andreas Maier book. That may surprise you because I suggested including it in your German Literature Month earlier. Stay with me. It may make sense by the end. (It will not help that I’m writing this in the middle of the night over in my part of the world, but I’ll do my best.)
To summarise the plot of Klausen in a ridiculously simplified manner, a bomb goes off (eventually) in the quaint town that the book takes its name from. If there is a central character, then it is that of Josef Gasser, who becomes something of a prime suspect for the incident. However, no one seems able to know what happened, even if everyone can say exactly what happened.
Klausen, therefore, is a book that tries to interrogate the possibility of locating truth. Well, I’m sure that’s a really reductive way of talking about it, and it’s about plenty of other things too (politics, cultures, philosophy, art-making, and so on), but that to me seems to be the main thrust of the book. To that end, the structure of the novel may be its biggest achievement, a complex assemblage of half-truths that are simultaneously revealing and muddying. Klausen is thus primed in a how-it-came-to-be manner, unfolding in a procedural, tick-tock manner that attempts to account for the crime in an insistently indefinite manner.
I have to say that there is great craft in this. The skill required to assemble the individual parts in such a manner is plain to see. Maier doesn’t betray any sign of Second Book Syndrome as far as this goes, tackling the rather ambitious technical design with confidence and verve.
That said, I found the book alienating—and not in a good way.
As far as the writing goes, the back cover blurb suggests that Maier draws on the likes of Saramago and Bernhard, and I’ll take its word for it. The influence is plain to see even through the translation, with the fairly distinctive punctuation, the huge paragraph, and the indirect speech. Yet, Maier seems to lack Saramago’s poetic sense, exceptional wit, and enormous compassion, as well as Bernhard’s manic intensity, dizzying flourishes of prose, and searing psychology.
But that’s not all that Maier’s novel lacks. It also lacks any strong characters. That is, I could never quite care for the characters. Characters are something that I’ve always figured to be a matter of personal preference, yet I will say that there is the way in which the book is written seems to contribute to this. The gossiping narrative style never helps, mainly because it floats freely from character to character in a superficial way (that is, on the surface of people as gossip tends to be). The effect was twofold: I never paid attention to anyone very much because the narrative never seems very committed to anyone, and I constantly felt at a distance to the unfolding plot. In a way, I was an outsider to the little town of Klausen. I was an invisible tourist in a strange town.
In this sense, Klausen’s greatest character, perhaps appropriately, is Klausen itself, which is an achievement to some degree. Nonetheless, I didn’t find it enough to keep me as engaged with the novel as I would have liked. There were pockets of humour and moments of sympathy, but they were never quite sufficient to make me want to invest in any of the (numerous) characters.
An additional effect I observed, which may or may not be related, was that the novel felt strangely inertial. In a sense, the novel always feels like it should go someplace, but it never seems to do so with any real commitment until the ending stretch (when you first see a mention of Heidegger, I believe). It certainly didn’t help the characters to be so deprived of a strong investment in drama.
There is one last aspect of the novel that I found particularly alienating. For a book concentrating on the nature of truth and the frayed ends of communication, Klausen’s tale necessarily problematises the issue of narration. The narrative is, after all, a communicative form, and Klausen’s narrative therefore faces certain issues that parallel those that it attempts to tackle.
Recently, I’ve had to do some work in Othello. One line that stuck with me from something I was reading said this of the Moor of Venice’s romantic rhetoric: “Once the narrative form possesses the event, once it becomes subject to the inevitable process of selection and reduction, it becomes a fiction” (Cohen 89). To take it in a slightly oblique direction, the fictional is naturally embedded in narrative forms. In that sense, the obvious route to take for Klausen, it seems to me, is to acknowledge the problematic narrative form.
Maier seems to consider this for a moment when he writes an extended section discussing a painting called “A View of the Town of Klausen”. It is, I think, the one occasion when he most directly foregrounds the process of constructing art. Yet, he doesn’t pursue this in that particular direction.
What I was left with in the remainder of the novel, it seemed, was actually a strong sense of trustworthiness in the narrative. That is, I always felt as though I could believe in the reportage of the narrator, that because the impaired truth was concentrated solely within the acts and words of Klausen’s inhabitants, there was a degree of completeness in the narrative itself: as long as I stuck with it, I’d be able to figure it all out.
It’s troubling to me because it feels to me as though Maier is apparently doggedly reluctant to shatter the frame that he has so carefully constructed. Klausen is a puzzle, and if you work within its framework, you might get somewhere. But in this manner, I felt like an outsider to the inhabitants of Klausen in a second way. If I couldn’t trust fully what they were going on about, I could still trust the form of the narrative. I could still take comfort in the fact the form was intact, and that created (for me) a sense of disjunction between the themes that were being described and the form that was being used to describe them.
I’m not sure if I’ve made this sound overly negative. I didn’t mean it that way. I didn’t dislike the book, in fact. Instead, I felt curiously distant from it, as if it insisted that I stay calm and objective and removed. I’m not sure if that was the intention. And as I said earlier, I did after all suggest that you put Maier on your German Literature Month reading list, and I stand by that suggestion. I heard good things about him prior to reading him. And more importantly, I read up about the book and expected an… interesting experience. It didn’t disappoint me in that way. Surely, this isn’t a book for everyone, me included. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give it a shot. Try it on the basis that it will be a somewhat distinctive experience, whether or not you enjoy it.
Klausen is technically very neat and in that way all rather accomplished. I have to say that it didn’t work for me, though. Sometimes I feel like I must have missed something, and maybe if I come back to this book in a few years, it’ll begin to click. For now, though, it’s going onto the bookshelf to await a future reread (if I ever get to that). Meanwhile, I would love to hear various other opinions on the book, as it’s the kind of book that I think must have elicited quite different responses among its readers.
Cohen, Derek. Shakespearean Motives. Hampshire, Macmillan: 1988. Print.
Maier, Andreas. Klausen. New York, Open Letter: 2010. Print.