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.

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner has a new (2nd) book out this year (10:14), so I am reading an earlier one (1st) in order to be behind the times. His new book is apparently highly autobiographical, in that it’s about a man (Lerner) who’s previously written a book (Leaving the Atocha Station) and is now writing another book (10:14). All this I knew already; and it already made me suspicious.

It’s not simply its self-absorption that’s the issue with Leaving the Atocha Station (it’s about a man (Lerner) who’s been given a scholarship to Spain, and is trying to write some poetry); my main issue with it in fact is its over-analysis. Since I’m idly reading particularly contemporary books with a mind to discovering the fundamental flaws in the writing, I thought I’d for a bit analyse this idea of over-analysis. (Over-analysis, I must admit, has long been an issue in my own writing – against which I am currently taking measures).

Firstly, in what does Lerner’s over-analysis consist? – It consists in this: during the course of this book, all that ever happens is that Lerner thinks through things, in great detail, and at times – as is the way of these things – in quite some degree of abstraction such that the reader, knowing there’s probably nothing worthwhile to be found in any of it, skims over it all at his complacent leisure. Lerner acts or reacts, and then spends five pages considering his action or reaction. Now I don’t personally believe novels should show and not tell; that isn’t necessarily the function of the novel; but it occurs to me that there is a certain art in being able at times to show which might alleviate the tedium of telling quite so much. For instance, rather than detailing to such a degree the thoughts that passed through your mind when something (usually quite trivial) happened, why not let the reader do some work for a change (his imagination is in fact quite wide ranging and possibly just as interesting as yours – because, let’s face it, if it wasn’t, he’s probably not going to understand or appreciate your book anyway) – why not let the reader think what it’s like to, um, for instance, I don’t know, wake up. (I appreciate, of course, that if Lerner did get on with the narrative this way, the book would only be about five pages long).

What’s odd is that: despite the fact that he spends so much time analysing things, I really don’t understand throughout the course of this book why the narrator (Lerner) acts as he acts. Why does he keep lying to people (and then go on about it for five pages afterwards)?

I wonder if Lerner is at all influenced by Roberto Bolaño. It’s just, well, it’s all about people wanting to become poets, and then not really doing much about becoming poets but spending their time sleeping with women and thinking about stuff (and taking drugs) instead. Also, he has a character called Arturo.

The writing is quite flat and dead and monotonous. (sc: studied, affectless prose poetry, such as all great contemporary writers use).

And it made me wonder, reading it, if this wasn’t the kind of book to rile that Engdahl fellow. It seems to me it’s set in Spain in the same way Heart of Darkness is set in Africa: – oh, we’ll grant the Spanish have the Prado and Granada and things like that, but I’m not convinced from the narrative that they actually exist (the Spanish, I mean); they are just constructs of the other, against which the narrator can discuss his self-obsessed white drug-taking middle-class Americanness.

I’ve read 120 pages of this book; it’s only 180 pages, but I’m struggling now to go on. I don’t care about the narrator or the outcome of any of his relationships, or what his pathetic self-absorbed middle-class American reaction is going to be to the terrorist attack that just taken place on Atocha station. How it fucking changes him or doesn’t change him or leaves him completely indifferent.

I gave up on Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence too. The first four pages were promising: it was about this rich couple, who had a daughter who was a midget, and so that she didn’t feel out of place, they kept her at home where her only companions were midgets, so that this was her entire conception of the world. I was thinking, that’s actually rather an interesting idea, but then Fitzgerald completely forgot about that and started writing a tedious love story set in post-war Italy instead (neo-realist, as someone said on the dust-jacket: – neo-realist, that is, insofar as it’s set in post-war Italy, but having absolutely nothing else in common with neo-realism – just your traditional English tale about goddamn class). I read 40 pages or so.

I’ve been reading some good stuff too (Raymond Queneau’s The Bark Tree, for instance); maybe I should have told you about that instead.