Saturday, July 24, 2021

Drowning is Fine by Darren Allen

For reasons unclear to me at the time I re-read several novels by Aharon Appelfeld, the author born in 1932 to a German-speaking Jewish family in what was also Paul Celan’s hometown, Czernowitz, then in Romania, now in Ukraine, and who wrote exclusively in Hebrew after he had escaped postwar Europe for Palestine. As you might expect, the novels are haunted by what happened in that time; only it is never in the foreground. Badenheim 1939 could be read as little more than a pantomime designed by Otto Dix but for the looming presence of the years to come, while the disfunctional family and unwelcoming title character in The Immortal Bartfuss could be a fraught domestic drama but for a past that refuses to be buried, and Theo’s long walk in For Every Sin would be a regular road movie but for where he was walking from:

When the war ended Theo resolved that he would make his way back home alone, in a straight lie, without twists or turns. The distance to his home was great, hundreds of miles. Nevertheless it seemed to him he could see the route clearly. He knew that this would separate him from people, and that he would have to remain in uninhabited places for many days, but he was firm in his resolve: only following a straight course, without deviation. Thus, without saying good-bye to anyone, he set out. [Tr. Jeffrey M. Green]

The background resonates in narrative reticence. There is only the road ahead: in terms of the story and each time for each reader when they open the book. The old world is a ghost and each sentence a step into a haunted waste land.

There are fortuitous reasons for Appelfeld’s style: not only did he struggle to learn the language, which meant he kept things simple, but also because, as he said, “Hebrew is a very precise language, you have to be very precise – no over-saying. This is because of our Bible tradition.” Moreover, in the newly formed state there was a demand to forget the past and make a new self, which meant playing down the drama. 

Then it occurred to me that it wasn’t a coincidence that I chose to read these novels alongside Darren Allen’s Drowning is Fine and then felt no need to read another once it was over. They provided a contrast to its high style and lack of reticence. There are reasons for the style here too.

Drowning is Fine is the first-person narrative of Daniel Hickman, an aspiring artist living a precarious existence in contemporary London, sharing a house with a colourful bunch of bohemians with whom he has little in common and working in a drudge office job alongside people with whom he has little in common. His desires have nowhere to go except into hyperbolic cries of despair: "I want to paint great things" he says. "I want to undo minds, I yearn to stretch into the abyss, to touch the living emptiness." If he sounds here like Tony Hancock in The Rebel, it only sharpens the bathetic edge of an existential crisis.

This is also what contrasts with Appelfeld: Daniel's situation is unremarkable. There is no Biblical tradition let alone the cowl of a catastrophe draped over his head. His background is more or less invisible but for an aside that his family came from "the self-replicating unplace of Borehamwood". He is, as his name suggests, a peasant in the lion's den, and so the novel is not so much an open road leading away from disaster as a cul de sac at the dog end of history.

In keeping with the condition, Hickman projects its innate disquiet onto his immediate surroundings. One of his bosses is Graham: 

he of the ball-bearing head and immaculate beard, who does his best to make everyone feel special and indispensable, but he only ever leaves the impression not so much of being special and indispensable, more of being a small, plastic, very much dispensable, pellet.

If such descriptions of Londoners, of which there are many, suggest a hysterical-realist novel documenting life in the neoliberal capital via the protagonist's schlubby travails, it wouldn't be inaccurate. Daniel is, as Terry Gilliam puts it in the blurb, a bit "arseholish": he uses a young woman who is attracted to him even as he fantasises an ideal love, and then, in a set-piece scene that is both moving and horrifying, he employs a Polish sex worker to enact such a love, reflecting to the reader their own displaced disquiet as they demand the real thing from an author they have paid to deceive them.

Except there is something else offered in what Daniel calls The Question.

It writhed belly-up at my bewilderment while I was in the garden, staring into the boughs of next door's fine oak tree. It burbled on in the background for a while then flashed intensely, salt-in-the-eye, for a shattering moment as I moon-walked on Geni's shiny parquet floor, enjoying another of those bone-comforts, those secret agreements with the most mundane and empty events. Hard to say what the question is, for it forms itself wordlessly, sliding in between my thoughts as I jog around the lake, or take another spoonful of yogurt.

As Drowning is Fine appears to be the first in a series, the answer could be what the overall title Things Unsaid refers to, which at first I thought might be sarcasm given the comparative excess of what things are said. Daniel's ambition to pursue the question would lead others to channel creativity in paid work in, say, graphical design, but, just as Theo prefers to walk alone rather than mix with other refugees, Daniel prefers "the dignity of being without a job". Nor is the galleried art scene his goal. On a date, he visits Bankside's "castle cubed of death" and stumbles upon an exhibition launch party:

It could be Weimar Germany, or the salon of Mme Geoffrin, or the 'wine and meat pool' of King Zhou, or some swanky Pyramid do in the Middle Kingdom. This party has been going on since the dawn of civilisation, and when the world is a charred husk these screaming, bellowing, bored swans will still be floating over the darkness in their gaudy bubble, talking about Miami Art Basel, tilapia and yurts.

But he had been impressed by the display of William Blake's death-mask, which gives a clue about how he will approach the question. Another takes the form of the title provided by Geni, his Tate Modern date, who says she wants to find a man she can die with, preferably by drowning. After the initial panic, she says "you have to give up, then you give up more completely than you'd ever imagined". If Daniel is shocked, he shouldn't have been, as throughout the novel he meets people who have given up without having yet gone under: two of his housemates, one in a care home, and many others passing him in the street. Allusions to Dante's Inferno and Eliot's Waste Land in which death has undone so many are thereby appropriate, but Daniel's London is also the decadent twin of Novilla, the drab and dry fictional city of JM Coetzee's Jesus trilogy, whose setting and society Robert Pippin says calls to mind the death of God, one in which everyone lives in exile from the highest values; an embodiment of Nietzsche's Letzter Mensch. Daniel corresponds to the two new arrivals in Novilla who live in a state of "profound homelessness", yet unable to join the lives of others in "forgetfulness and indifference".

Drowning is Fine draws to a close with Daniel literally homeless, dragging an art work through the streets with him as if clinging to the last relic of the highest values. This makes clear that what had impressed him in Tate Modern was the death-mask of possibility: of possibility in the personal, the political, the artistic and, one might add, the religious. For all his faults, Hickman is a modern-day Blakeian mystic in a culture where this can never mean anything outside the dubious romance of self-sabotage and self-destruction, hence why Daniel's arseholish nature rises to the surface in a novel whose conventional form only reanimates the ghost of the highest values.

The last of Aharon Appelfeld's novel I read alongside Drowning is Fine is an outlier in his work as it narrated by Katerina, a Christian Ruthenian, who comes to identify with the Jews for whom she works and who, later, she sees them from a distance disappearing in rail transports. In the austere and profound loneliness of the postwar years, she reflects that it is "too bad the dead are forbidden to speak", but this reminds us that the novel, as it dies, allows us to listen to their silence.


  1. There is an excellent interview with Appelfeld on the KCRW bookworm website where he discusses his style and its relation to the bible and imagination. I'd guess if I post the link this comment will be automatically blocked as spam but it isn't difficult to find.

  2. Here it is:

    I've subscribed to the podcast for many years but don't remember this, so many thanks for mentioning it.



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