Monday, June 27, 2011

Is Three a Crowd?: Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog

This must be my year for reading sprawling, sentimental, time-bending, and exceptionally satisfying postmodern novels about life, death, and memory: first came Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, now Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog, which I read in Ross Benjamin’s translation from the original German. Funeral for a Dog is beautifully composed and constructed, an exuberant, emotional, and smart book that takes full advantage of the freedom that a postmodern framework (or lack thereof) can offer

So: Our primary narrator is Daniel Mandelkern, a German journalist-who’s-really-an-ethnologist whose editor-wife sends him to Italy to interview Dirk Svensson, author of a children’s book, The Story of Leo and the Notmuch that explains death. Mandelkern, whose last name is German for amygdala, offers up detailed chunks of text describing his present visit and his past experiences in life. Mandelkern is trying to decide whether to love or leave his wife, Elisabeth. Svensson has emotional issues of his own: Mandelkern arrives simultaneously with other visitors, a woman named Tuuli and her young son. Everybody ends up in a house by Lake Lugano, including Mandelkern, who had a hotel reservation and whose baggage (physical and some metaphorical) was lost en route. Svensson has a dog, Lua, who likes beer and has only three legs.

Poor Mandelkern needs to get his interview so he can write an article and go home but Svensson is evasive and Mandelkern finds a manuscript in a locked suitcase that he opens with one of Tuuli’s hairpins. The text appears to tell the story of the intertwined lives of Svensson, Tuuli, and Felix, and the birth of Tuuli’s son a few years before, though it’s unclear what’s true. Svensson loves twisting tales. Meanwhile, Mandelkern, ever the ethnologist, observes many things at the house but also realizes he’s getting involved with his subject(s).

Felix, incidentally, is dead, and Svensson’s efforts to preserve his memory are what make the book so appealing and touching. Tuuli tells Mandelkern that Svensson “collects fragments and assembles them into a world he can bear,” and, later, that Svensson’s property is filled with old things, photos of dead animals, rotten chairs, and weeds. Underlying all this decay are carnival motifs. In Svensson’s manuscript, Astroland, people go to amusement parks, and all the novel’s tracks include plenty of sex and drinking. Mandelkern also describes lots of eating; the idea of gnocchi with sage won’t leave me. Neither will thoughts of aioli or roast chicken cooked with garlic.

More on that chicken: Pletzinger masterfully threads motifs between the novel’s various timelines and text chunks. Astroland, for example, contains a scene of cockfighting in Brazil and later Svensson slaughters chickens for dinner during Mandelkern’s visit. Pletzinger’s attention to these details helps Funeral for a Dog become one of the most successful novel-within-a-novel books that I’ve read. In another section, apple juice flows in two time frames and text chunks, first with Tuuli and her son, then with Elisabeth.

Pletzinger also fills his novel with fluid groups of three: Lua’s legs, a love combination of Svensson-Tuuli-Felix, Mandelkern-husband-of-Elisabeth kissing Tuuli, and so on. Svensson-Tuuli-Felix are even described as Borromean rings, a label that doesn’t carry the luridness of ménage a trois. It’s also more fitting to the novel, which struck me as anything but lurid: Funeral for a Dog presents a nice balance of the Apollonian and the Bacchanalian, a well-planned but chaotic-looking account of how to learn to eat, drink, and be merry while finding your own way to remain alive after friends, be they human or animal, die. Funeral for a Dog is a very affecting and sincere book about memory and life that I’m sure I’ll reread, both to re-experience its emotional depth and to catch more of its parallels and references. The book is especially enjoyable because Benjamin’s translation reads beautifully.

Up Next: The Singer’s Gun, by Emily St. John Mandel.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of Funeral for a Dog from Regal Literary. Thank you very much!

Image credit: Sage from FlashInPan, via

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bad Intentions Squared: Fatale and The Death of the Adversary

I’ve fallen behind on posting so this week I’ll write, briefly!, about two books: J.P. Manchette’s Fatale, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith, and Hans Keilson’s The Death of the Adversary, translated from the German original Der Tod des Widersachers by Ivo Jarosy.

Fatale is an evil sliver of Euronoir that brings a killer antiheroine who calls herself Aimée to the French seaside town of Bléville. Manchette sets the tone for violence on the first page: hunters are cranky because they’ve been out for hours and haven’t killed anything. But Fatale’s first death, on the second page, involves a human, setting us up for a high-stakes account of survival of the fittest. The killer, of course, is Aimée, who boards a train in the next chapter: she dyes her hair and feasts on choucroute, with “great chomps” in her luxury compartment. I wrote “very prole” in the margin: Aimée has a case full of cash but is surrounded by the nasty aromas of her money and food, which is said to smell like bodily fluids that I won’t name, lest I spoil the fun for anyone.

Fatale is a supremely class-conscious novel. Beyond the food, Aimée is a scam artist looking for powerful, well-heeled marks in Bléville. The novella ends with a spate of deaths that feels campy, and Aimée’s bad end is accompanied by an address from Manchette to his female readers. Fatale is filled with weird moments. My favorite is probably when Aimée is at a gathering, sitting on a settee in a hallway of what sounds like a swanky house, when, all of a sudden, a man comes out of the bathroom and begins urinating against the wall. I’ll leave things at that and just say that I thought Fatale was an oddly enjoyable book.

I thought The Death of the Adversary, though, was odd without being particularly enjoyable, despite some occasional comic relief: a first-person narrator discusses his hatred for a figure named B. B. strongly resembles Hitler, and the narrator seems be describing life in Nazi Germany. Part of my difficulty with The Death of the Adversary is that some of the book’s passages depend heavily on an interiority that felt repetitive and cramped; it must be difficult to carry so much hatred. For my taste, a scene in which a young man describes desecration of a cemetery is one of the strongest in the book: the narrator’s tension is palpable, in trembling and sweat, when he is faced with a real adversary, in a real-life conversation. Seeing B. at a parade, though, leaves the narrator “tired and depressed. I felt like lying down on a nearby park bench and going to sleep.”

Though The Death of the Adversary felt a little uneven to me as a novel, it felt important as a portrait of hatred and the role of enemies in our lives because Keilson’s characters and their actions and reactions felt so authentic. Keilson’s use of abstraction weakens the book in one sense – the shadow of Hitler always looms and I think it’s natural to want to identify him definitively – but it also strengthens the novel by opening the possibility for universality.

Keilson died recently, and his obituary in The New York Times, written by William Grimes, notes Kielson’s background and the circumstances of writing The Death of the Adversary. Grimes also calls the translation “stilted.” I don’t know if the translation reflects Keilson’s German-language style or not but I agree with Grimes’s thought: the language of the English translation sometimes felt cumbersome to me, too. Though the awkwardness made the novel a touch more difficult to read, intentional or not, it felt almost organic to the story of a man trying to figure out his place in life when faced with adversarial conditions.

Up Next: Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog.

Disclosures: I received a review copy of Fatale from New York Review Books at BookExpo America. I always enjoy speaking with NYRB about translations. I received my copy of The Death of the Adversary from fellow blogger Amy Henry, who wrote about the book here; Amy got the novel from publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Thanks to all for the books!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dreaming Is Free: The Night Circus

First off, an apology: I know it’s unkind to write about books that won’t be available for months. It’s something I don’t usually do, and I hadn’t intended to write about Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus, until its release date in September… But sometimes fate – in this case, a minor head cold and a stack of books acquired at BookExpo America – takes over.

I picked The Night Circus off my book pile because I thought a novel about a dreamy circus that comes and goes without notice sounded like a perfect companion during my cold. I wasn’t wrong: The Night Circus is a page-turner about magic, love, imagination, desire, and what results when the four combine. The main plot involves Marco and Celia, two magicians whose guardians commit them in the late 1800s to a competition designed to end in death. Of course they fall in love. The mysterious competition, imposed on children by adults, felt absolutely inorganic to me, which is unfortunate since so much of the book’s action springs from it.

The circus, known as Le Cirque des Rêves, is largely a tribute to the relationship that grows out of the competition. The circus felt very much alive: Celia and Marco create attractions for each other, and, fittingly, descriptions of the circus’s wonders are Morgenstern’s greatest achievement. Morgenstern populates The Night Circus with many (dozens of?) characters but her circus details are more memorable: her intricate clocks remind of mortality, her bottles contain stories, and her dresses change color. They feel more real, more lifelike than her people, with one exception: a boy from Massachusetts, Bailey, who first enters the circus on a dare, when it is closed.

What’s most interesting about The Night Circus is the underlying power of circus attractions to draw people by playing on imagination, dreams, and illusion. Morgenstern incorporates themes about magic and circuses that I’ve run across in several Russian novels, emphasizing the role of the observer, who must be open to illusion. I’m open as a reader, too, and I had little trouble believing in the circus’s ever-burning cauldron, never-melting ice, mysterious train, and acrobatic kittens. But I wasn’t sure what to make of the rêveurs who follow the circus – and their own dreams – around the world, wearing identifying red scarves. Maybe it’s because the rêveurs felt more earthly than the circus but, with the exception of the original rêveur, they felt a bit cultish. (Or maybe it’s because “rêveur” sounds like “raver”?) Like many of the characters and motifs (e.g. public faces and masks) in The Night Circus, they felt a little underdrawn, as if they could have contributed more to the novel but lost out to description of scenery.

I came away from The Night Circus feeling ambivalent. Morgenstern’s stylized language conjures up vivid places, smells, and atmospheres that make for wonderful entertainment even if you’re not a big fan of circuses, and the book reads almost like a lucid dream. But The Night Circus lacked power for a reader like me who enjoys characters that develop through the course of a novel: here, the people and their stories seem schematic and secondary to the attractions they create, and the novel’s messages about imagination and love didn’t feel especially original despite much loveliness. The Night Circus hit on many of my other negative biases, too, but I have to say that the novel’s circus still drew me in… though its effects are fading quickly, like the ephemeral, image-laden dreams and nightmares of what passes for real life.

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of The Night Circus from Doubleday/Random House at BookExpo America, thank you! I also took a bag of caramel corn that went with it and should probably disclose my gratitude to Doubleday/Random House for the snack since I was very, very hungry at the time. Not that The Night Circus needs much help from the likes of me: my impression is that The Night Circus was one of the most visible books at this year’s BEA.

Up Next: Hans Keilson’s The Death of the Adversary.