Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Thomas Glavinic: Night Work

If the writer is, as Maurice Blanchot declares, a daytime insomniac, then the reader is his sleeper sunk in the other's impossible dreams.

But what of the boundary separating one from the other? If we recognise a space between writer and reader, between the sovereign self and the unavowable community of booklovers, between mastery and oblivion, does it exist in a purely metaphorical realm, an unlit border crossing with inattentive guards perhaps or a no man's land littered with corpses and literary critics? Or could it be that the space is before us, for real, hidden in plain sight?

I recognised Thomas Glavinic's name from the 2007 German Book Prize so picked the copy from the library shelf for a closer examination. It wasn't the shortlisted Das bin doch ich (which has yet to be translated) but an earlier novel Die Arbeit der Nacht: “An ordinary man wakes up on an ordinary day to find that he's the only living creature in the city ....”.

A library worker had added a sticker to inform clue-blind readers that this is Science Fiction. However, Daniel Kehlmann's praise for the book opens this to question: “Night Work is”, he says, “a wonderful, big novel about ... the uncertain border between waking and dreaming”. That would make it Austrian science fiction then, just as Kafka's Der Verwandlung is Austro-Hungarian science fiction. Indeed, the literal translation of the title The Work of Night implies that night is at work in the story as it was in Gregor Samsa's sleeping body. This is very much the opposite of sleepless agency implied by Night Work and it marks out the territory of the novel far more accurately than any other label.

By day Jonas works hard to explore his lonely situation. The bulk of his story is taken up with descriptions of his thoughts and behaviour. He looks around the silent city, he adopts an Alfa Romeo, he redesigns his flat. In this sense, the book is workmanlike realism, written in the third person as if there is indeed someone else in the world who knows more. We're with Jonas as he awaits change, seeing signs in every minor scene, every leaf blowing across a path. But nobody answers his phone calls, nobody responds to the notes he leaves all over Vienna, and he sees nothing in the video recordings set up across the city. We are not rescued by a twist in the tale. Glavinic maintains the reader's fascination because the relentless lack of revelation infects every new situation with ominous promise. After 150 pages, with tension and exhaustion becoming indistinguishable, and with over 200 pages still to go, I feared he would lose nerve and introduce a grand explanation. There was no need, the original title is revelatory enough: what happens happens in the dark.

What happens first is that Jonas discovers not the apocalypse but singular existence, distance from the world. On the first page, making breakfast, the bread-knife slips:
He'd cut himself to the bone, but he didn't appear to have damaged a tendon. It didn't hurt, either.
He holds his hand under the cold tap and inspects the cut.
No one, himself included, had ever seen what he could see. He'd lived with this finger for thirty-five years without ever knowing what it looked like inside.
The unique presence of the inside of his finger and the unique experience of witnessing such unique presence heralds many other moments like this. In effect, his entire existence becomes a round of unique moments. By coincidence or not (and it makes no difference) indeterminate epiphanies like those experienced by Jonas also appear on the opening page of My Year in the No-Man's Bay by Glavinic's illustrious elder compatriot Peter Handke. The novel lists extreme experiences which seem to signal both something and nothing at all including, as it happens, the accidental cutting of a finger to the bone. The narrator also rinses it under a stream of cold water: "Part of me was numb" the narrator says. "The other part carried on with the day as though nothing were amiss". They prompt him to become, or try to become, a passive observer and, in his work as a writer, to present the world as it is; bone white. To write, what's more, against what until then had been a self-contained universe, itself a kind of death; a world without others. The work of the outside - something working through him - proved fruitful to his life as nothing else had:
For me, nothing can sweep that fruitfulness from the world. From it I know what it is to exist
For Jonas, the experience is similar except that he wants to return to the community of friends and family without losing his new found land of the self. It means he must be there to witness it all. But how can the world and his witnessing coincide? There's a clue in the novel's epigram from Kundera's Immortality expressing the belief that there is no happiness in living. "But being, being is happiness. Being: transforming oneself into a fountain into which the universe falls like warm rain." Jonas' adventures can be seen as a rage to become that fountain, a channel through which all the world can flow.

In the first scene of Kundera's novel, the narrator is captivated by a single gesture of a woman which seems to remove forty years of bodily aging. "There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time" he observes. Jonas as himself, apparently alone, is deprived of time and is, though he may not be conscious of it, trying to maintain the timelessness of the gesture that is his life. In his wanderings around Vienna, he finds himself at a fairground shooting stall firing a few shots.
He hung up another target and slowly crooked his finger.
He had always fancied that you could die of slowness by prolonging some everyday action indefinitely - to infinity, or, rather, to finality - because you would depart this world while still engaged in that process. A step, a gesture, a waver of the arm, a turn of the head - if you slowed that movement more and more, everything would come to an end, more or less of its own accord.
His finger curled around the trigger. With surprising clarity, he realised that he must long ago have reached, yet failed to reach, the point of release.
Yes, the world would end of its own accord but he wouldn't quite be there. He'd be engaged always elsewhere in an endless, timeless action. This might explain why the novel appears overlong.

Whatever his fancy, Jonas remains subject to human time. He has to sleep. It is here that the novel becomes subject to the logic of its title. As he needs to witness everything so he must witness the night. He sets up a camera to film himself asleep. What he sees is someone else, someone he calls “the Sleeper” engaged in actions his waking self cannot recall. An apparently unbridgeable division is recognised. The work of sleep undermines his conscious life to the extent that, by the time Jonas is engaged in his most ambitious plan, he has more or less lost conscious control. He becomes both his biblical near-namesake Jonah down in the sides of the ship sleeping soundly as the storm rages and the terrified sailors above fearing for their lives. How can the two be reconciled?
So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.
Jonas as the shipmaster asks the same question, makes the same demand of his sleeping self. In the bible story, the sleeper knows that he has been chosen and must sacrifice himself to calm the seas. Once overboard he is swallowed by a large fish and, three days later, vomited onto dry land to complete his worldly mission set by God. Jonas' sacrifice is more ambiguous. Night Work ends in a grand valedictory gesture in which he begins to die of slowness, begins to witness eternity. For the book itself, the point of release has been reached and has, as a result, failed, but necessarily. The reader is awoken, vomited back into the world. We have been subject to the work of the night. There it is, the book. A division is recognised.


  1. Great post, Steve. I encountered Glavinic's name in the survey of recent Austrian literature which was posted a few months back on the Eurozine site, and I was intrigued by what I read there. Now he's definitely going on my list.

    The Eurozine article, btw, was part of a series of articles about what's going on in some of the less-frequently discussed European literatures, including also those of Ukraine, Northern Ireland, Hungary, Slovenia, the Netherlands, and, yes, Estonia. Here's a link if your readers are interested:

  2. I read most of Glavinic's
    Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw
    but found it very dull. It had received some good press in some chess publications, but mainly because people who write about chess often get it wrong. Glavinic knows his chess and his chess history, and so had avoided the usual pitfalls.

    The Glavinic you write about sounds like a completely different writer. I'm very interested in reading this.

  3. Nice work Stephen. I just ordered a copy. I just finished In Hazard by Richard Hughes. There are some haunting descriptions of birds getting crushed under bare feet, but beyond that a bit over baked. Always a pleasure catching up on what's in your world.



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