Wings of Stone, by Robert Menasse

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.

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Duo / Le Toutounier, by Colette

Duo is what I would consider (like most of Colette’s work) a quintessentially French book (as quintessentially French as the films of Eric Rohmer): – it’s about the intimate relations of two people, disturbed by the intrusion of a third – and that is all. Duo is quite extreme in this respect, in that the third person never actually appears – he only exists off-stage – and the entire book is perceived through the minds of the two. Indeed, only two other characters even put in an appearance (unsurprisingly therefore, and seeing that it mostly consists of conversation, or silence, it was made into a successful play. Someone should make a film of it too – in the manner of Eric Rohmer – though, maybe they have). It all takes place in a house somewhere in the French countryside. The husband discovers his wife has had a short affair; as a consequence their relationship collapses; that is the entire action. But it is all very well and plausibly done:the psychological reactions – of course, you think, their relationship collapses, what else could be the outcome; – the only implausible bit, I felt, was the ending.

The introduction reminds me that Colette really is on the side of the woman in all her books – and it’s only now and then she remembers her male character too has a justifiable point of view and gives him a few lines of reasonable defence. For in reality it can’t be proved he ever did anything wrong (even though he’s a man, so he no doubt has by definition), and has only ever himself been wronged. Yet all the while I find myself siding with the women; not understanding why the man can’t be more understanding; until I too, like Colette, catch myself up and realise that maybe it is in some way her fault.

Le Toutounier is a kind of coda to Duo, in which our heroine, after the events of the first book, returns to the home of her childhood, where two of her sisters are living, both of whom are involved with married men. So we get more of the nature of relations between men and women; and it is even more clearly this time from the women’s point of view, since the men themselves barely appear – only one of them once, for a moment or two – otherwise again they are just off-stage, and yet at the same time, like in Duo, what is off-stage is the focal point of these women’s lives.

This novella didn’t seem to have the focus of Duo; the plot is just a sort of passage of life, a vision of a kind of existence, in which some inconclusive decisions are reached about the future, yet which was enjoyable enough – I liked the inter-relations of the sisters, and their reversion to a childhood camaraderie (and language). Yes, Colette is very good at people. (Well, women).

That Bringas Woman, by Benito Pérez Galdós

I haven’t made my mind up yet about Pérez Galdós: – previously I’ve read his novel Miau, and now this one (if I have read any others, I have forgotten them). There’s certainly worthwhile elements to That Bringas Woman; but on the other hand, I did also at times find myself bored.

The woman of the title is married to Bringas, a miser who works for the Spanish state; her only interest is in clothes and other finery, such that she can cut a figure in the best Spanish society. She’s friends with other women whose husbands, while being less miserly than Bringas and on the surface making more money, in reality have themselves become indebted through the impossible struggle to maintain their own status in society. So we have a portrait of a society where everyone is living beyond their means – and, of course, our heroine is led to follow their example.

Now in writing That Bringas Woman, Pérez Galdós seems to have swallowed Emile Zola whole; and overall this is a bad thing; – because really I’m not so interested in pages and pages on ladies’ haberdashery, and it’s here I start to yawn and I lay it aside for a few weeks. But thankfully this is not the whole of the novel. I enjoyed the opening with its description of the hair picture (it’s a picture made out of human hair), but my favourite bits were the descriptions of life in the palace of the Spanish king – an entire world unto itself not unlike Mervyn Peake’s Gormanghast – a vast warren of a royal residence, in which families serving the state live according to status. But though it’s a nice spiteful take on Spanish society – and though a reckoning is coming in the form of Republican unrest – in truth not much really happens, and what does is usually repetitious.

I might read another Pérez Galdós though: I have Melancholia, which is one of the more famous ones.

The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, by Italo Calvino

This is Calvino’s first novel, and one which for a long time after writing it he disowned. I was assuming this was because it was written in the post-Second World War Italian neo-realist tradition, which Calvino also disowned – or at least, diverged from immediately after (the stories in his next book, Our Ancestors, are a long, long way from neo-realism) but apparently not: he disowned it for its contemptible lack of authenticity.

The novel is about a boy (a teenager) growing up in Italy (San Remo) during the Second World War, and follows him as he becomes increasingly involved in the Italian resistance against the Germans, drifting through the war-time landscape in a manner very reminiscent of Elem Klimov’s film Come and See. Its most successful parts I found to be the early parts of the narrative: of the boy who comes from the lowest rung of society, looked down upon by all, whose upbringing has made him too grown-up to belong among other boys but not yet either accepted in adult society. Strangely – or perhaps not so, considering Calvino’s later writing – this is also the element most divergent from Calvino’s own life: it is when the boy meets the resistance that the novel becomes less striking. Calvino’s own basic complaint about this book is that he felt he did a grave disservice to the comrades he fought alongside in the resistance, making them for literary reasons merely caricatured versions of themselves; and in so doing, he sees his novel as a failed attempt to express the Italian experience of this particular part of the war. He recommends instead reading Beppe Fenoglio’s A Private Matter, a book which I have indeed read but remember almost nothing about (a man perhaps takes his own private revenge over something, while at the same time fighting for Italy?).

Calvino’s criticisms are true enough, but it serves for a passable yarn.