Monday, October 17, 2005

melancholia, mon cher

I looked at the director and thought of the countless directors and playwrights and actors and stage designers who had sat at mine and Christiane's kitchen table, had stood under our shower, had slept in our beds; I thought of their voices on our answering machine, their night-time banging on our door, the smashed glasses and unread letters; I thought that there was always something that wasn't quite enough, and this time, too, something wouldn't be enough; I thought of you, of the frost flowers, of the smell of smoke; I thought we're not enough either.

The stories in 'The Summerhouse, Later (A Book About the Moment Before Happiness)', by German author Judith Hermann & translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo, are about nothing being enough, are in fact about ennui. Very pomo, yes, but in a very good way. The time in which they are set is usually winter; this has partly to do with the place, Berlin, but winter carries over into the silence and space and sparsity of the prose style. I for one am a dedicated champion of purple (or at least purpley) prose, finding entire novels built on staccato sentences that often hammer significance too rudely in with devices such as repetition irritatingly mannered. But here the form is the short story - and I have to say that Judith Hermann, (not to be confused with the similarly named author of 'Trauma and Recovery'), with her clipped sentences and variations thereof, succeeds in making her content inextricable from her style. There are touches of humour, of the sort that make terrible sense and that you find yourself laughing hollowly at.

I keep returning, especially, to 'Bali Woman' and 'The Red Coral Bracelet'. The passage I quoted at the beginning is from the former. I keep returning to them because they are almost frightening in their evocation of disappointment and futility. The absences in this book are not those that have been left behind, but those that are, and out of which something is bound to come, something positive, but what? The book's subtitle suggests happiness, but here, too, is uncertainty. Whatever it is that happens before the moment of happiness is at once depressing and more real than the moment itself, which is illusive and found only in retrospect. All of Hermann's exquisite, cool details are necessary beyond the fact of their having to be so because of the very genre: they are the story on the surface, and the absences between the lines are the essence we gather from it.

To be overwhelmed by history, or to create one's own; the rage-red of an ancestor's coral bracelet, or the melancholy grey of a life being lived. Faced with these choices, Hermann's protagonist in the first story, 'The Red Coral Bracelet', eventually takes action, and her choice is the more difficult one. But that makes nothing easier.

Someday I think I'd like to read, as a matter of curiosity, a book about the moment after happiness. I don't know if it's already been written, or who has written it. In the meantime I'll be looking for Hermann's second book, which I hear is called 'Nothing But Ghosts'. Now that can't possibly be flufflit...


david raphael israel said...

mmm, good review of what looks/sounds to be a good book.
small note: when you say
<< The book's subtitle suggests happiness >> -- um, what subtitle? True, your reader could google and perhaps find out; but the thoughtful book reviewer may wish to illuminate rather than leaving an enigma like that. Just a little avuncular note, thar.

cheers, d.i.

heyjune said...

thanks for pointing it out :]