I read this book some time last year, and never even finished it (I read about two-thirds), but I wanted to review it because I found it had a lot of similarities with Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, which I didn’t like in the least and which I reviewed here and here. This book is far, far better than Lerner, and yet – who the hell is Robert Menasse?
Well, he’s an Austrian writer, and this book was published in 1991 (and in English by John Calder). It’s about a young man who grew up in Brazil but has now moved to Vienna where he is studying Hegel, just in the way that Lerner’s book is about an American who has moved to Madrid as a student to study – well, in fact to just become a poet. There are some differences though: the hero Leo’s family here had previously lived in Vienna and had fled to Brazil during the Nazi era. Nonetheless, Leo is reminiscent of Lerner’s hero in that, in returning to Vienna, he is remarkably uninterested in Austria or the Austrians. He is in fact almost entirely solipsistic: any event he undergoes is analysed at length and his interest is only in his own thoughts, Hegel and a woman called Judith.
Yet despite the intense solipsism of the two protagonists, there are significant differences between the way this takes effect in the two books. For a start, Lerner’s book is written in the first person, while Menasse’s is in the third person, and even though Menasse is still fundamentally writing from Leo’s point of view, this gives him much more latitude to undercut Leo’s pose both as intellectual and human-being. Yet I’m not sure it’s this – any form of authorial comment, or if it is, it is very subtle – which Menasse uses so much as a few other devices: namely, the attitude of other characters, particularly Judith and a third character Lukas, who is also pursuing Judith and becomes a sort of friend to them both (though naturally Leo despises him); and something essentially absurd in Leo’s pretentiousness which seems absent in Lerner: – Lerner’s hero takes himself and his concerns seriously; and we are meant to too; but increasingly as the novel goes on, it is difficult to side with Leo’s view. He is in love with Judith but we wonder, just with Lerner, what she can possibly see in him: but here, in the end, she doesn’t, and stops seeing him – and it is in these and like actions of others, we find the attitudes we naturally feel we should be adopting confirmed.
And then there is Leo’s absurdity, which undercuts his (narratorial) claims of seriousness. Not merely the episode where the three of them travel to Venice and Leo falls in the canal, and his subsequent change of clothes and endless insight in the significance of these events; but even more I would said in the essays on Hegel which he writes and which he sends to Judith as peculiar kinds of love-letters, in which she is expected to interpret the underlying meaning of the work as a discussion not so much of Hegel as of their own relationship – but which she clearly finds laughable and tedious.
Also, there is a political dimension to Menasse absent from Lerner. Where Lerner’s hero manages to exist in Spain without ever managing to make a single comment about Spain or Spanish culture; while it is true Menasse’s hero lives in a similar world, Judith on the other hand is very involved in current Austrian culture, takes him on anti-Nazi marches, and tries unsuccessfully to make him believe that he is never going to be able to change the world merely by studying Hegel. – Incredible the things you can do with a novel by having more than one real character!
Anyway, his father dies and he goes off to Brazil to manage some of his businesses there, and meets an old acquaintance, and then becomes suddenly famous when he starts using Hegel’s historical dialectic to predict future events (like the outcome of football matches), but then there’s a military coup – and that’s about where I stopped reading; because, despite all these things, to be honest the novel wasn’t really going anywhere, and seemed to have made its point.
But it was an interesting book for a while – and particularly recommended if you like endless jokes about Hegel, most of which went completely over my head.