Saturday, April 14, 2007

Measuring the reviews

More high-profile reviews of Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World are appearing. We got a hint of the approach they might take last year, and I wasn't very happy. Mark Anderson threatens more provocation in The Nation: “Reviewers in Germany and in the United States have welcomed Kehlmann's comic novel as a departure from the lugubrious German bestsellers of the recent past ...” he begins (via Dispatches from Zembla). Mmm... While the welcome is strictly for it being a bestseller, we read it differently. The implication, even if it was never meant in that way, is that comic novels are not written by Germans because they're a lugubrious race. I'm aware that it's more than unlikely that even a smart Germanist like Mark Anderson (himself a translator of a great Austrian comic novel) will promote Gert Hofmann ahead of chat about Günter Grass and the legacy of Hitler and the breath of fresh air Kehlmann apparently represents. So I want to repeat it here: Gert Hofmann is the great comic German novelist of our time. He should at least receive a namecheck in the many reviews of Kehlmann's novel.

Like everyone else, I was interested in reading the famous bestseller. So when I got a copy, I read into it with high expectations. So far, it's entertaining. No doubt about that. However, it's hardly anything to get excited about. Here's a passage from the translation chosen from the page where my bookmark has come to rest:
At the Academy, Humboldt gave lectures on the conductivity of the human nerves. He was standing right there in the drizzle on the trampled grass outside the city when the last section of longitude was measured that connected Paris to the Pole. As it was completed, everyone took off their hats and shook hands: one ten-millionth of the distance, captured in metal, would become the unit of all future linear measurements. People wanted to name it “the meter”. It always filled Humboldt with exultation when something was measured; this time he was drunk with enthusiasm. The excitement stopped him from sleeping for several nights.
Without doubting its adequacy, you can read this sort of thing in any weekend supplement on any number of subjects. It's relaxing, undemanding. This a criticism only if someone wants to call it a great novel or to repeat the much-quoted comparison with Nabokov and Proust. Now that I've read some of the book, this comparison is even more absurd than when it was first trumpeted. Whoever made it doesn't seem to care about providing evidence and the British publishers haven't even revealed who made the comparsion, merely quoting Luke Harding's unattributed quotation. No doubt this is also from where Kate Chisholm got it. Any further comparisons sans evidence will probably rely on the same piece. I predict that if negative responses to the comparison are ever addressed, the complainants will be described as “purists”.

Gert Hofmann on the other hand can be safely compared with many other great writers; though not perhaps Nabokov and Proust. He's as funny as they are, but the sensibility is different. Another random quotation is necessary. Coincidentally, he also wrote a comic novel about an Enlightenment figure, the scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.
It was the first time in a long time that Lichtenberg was walking in such close proximity to people. They smelled his sweat. Their eyes and ears boggled, not one of them shrank away from him. Because the Stechardess was now eating and sleeping at his house - not with him, mind! - they had abrogated their greeting. He had to go on greeting them, though. Then he was past them, and they spun round to look at him from behind. He didn't really notice at all, he was lost in thought. Often it would be thinking about some favorite notion of his, for instance: Is the cause of all movement in the world an idea of God's? Lichtenberg nodded and smiled subtly and said: It's possible! And resolved that he would go and sit in the third of his rooms today and look into the matter.
Superficially the two quotations are similar. But notice how Lichtenberg's ebullient character inhabits the third person narration (and those exclamation marks!). The novel doesn't lord it over its characters but takes us into their world; or rather, into the space between their world and ours. Though I haven't read it all, so far Kehlmann merely uses the setting to pursue his purpose (i.e. triumphant storytelling).

For that reason, it's appropriate that the novel is also reviewed by Daniel Johnson, the London print media's resident Germany-basher. He applauds Kehlmann because the novel “deconstructs the fantasy Germany of which many of his thirty-something contemporaries dream, rather than the real, hollowed-out Germany they actually inhabit.” No, I don't know what he means either. Is Britain any less hollowed-out? Johnson's neocon fantasies have been well and truly deconstructed since he championed the “moral bombing” of Iraq four years ago yet he still appears on a regular basis to sneer at those who noticed the emperor's new clothes. Like his father Paul, any red-face isn't from shame.

He goes on: “Like W. G. Sebald, who had to emigrate to England to become a major German writer, Kehlmann had to escape Germany – he lives in Vienna – to anatomise its escapism.”. For what it's worth, Hofmann lived and died in Munich after travelling around a bit. Most Germans seem to travel around a bit; escaping into the world. Often escaping enough to realise that real people live there. Johnson compared Germany's opposition the US invasion to its apparent revisionism over the Allied bombing campaign 60 years earlier, i.e. that it hadn't learned. It's been made clear since then, if it wasn't bleedin' obvious at the time, that it opposed the bombing precisely because it had learned.

Still, Johnson was right to say that it “has been a long time since Germany produced a major novel.” Yet this might be because “major” novels are anachronistic and that the majority of German writers have recognised that. Reviewers looking out for the imperial grandeur of “major” novels might easily miss the great novels of their time because these novels seek to be truthful rather than powerful. Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl hasn't even been published in the UK.

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