Reading Notes

Walking this morning, I watched two bicyclists ride past and couldn’t remember the German word for a road bike. “Strasse…”–street…, I thought, and then the word “Strassenkreuzer” came to mind, street cruiser (cruiser as in a warship, streetcruiser as in a big American car on a narrow German street), a word I hadn’t heard or thought for decades, maybe since 1970 when I was in Germany. It made me smile to know the word was still there. Half an hour later I was walking up a deer path and saw tiny deer tracks in the dust. Kleine Spuren, I said to myself, little tracks, klitzekleine I said, tiny little tracks, and I smiled again, not having had that word in my mind for who knows how long. Rennrad = roadbike.

Why the German words in my mind? Because I’ve read several German books this summer. Just last night I finished the seventh book in Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath series set in Weimar Berlin and, in this volume, in post-Weimar Berlin two years after the Nazis have come into power. The host of associations between that authoritarian takeover and what we’re seeing in our own country today is chilling. Plus, I love Kutsher’s characters’ dialects: “Tja, wat soll ick saaren? Da war keene Mathilde mehr und ooch keen Haus. Und icke wär beina ooch mich mehr jewesen. Det is allet, wat ick jesehen habe, Frollein.”

Daniel Kehlmann’s novel Tyll (Till Eulenspiegel was a trickster in a chapbook from the early 16th century) shifts the character forward in time into the thirty-years war, a time of religious violence and oppression. This is my first work by Kehlmann. I’ll turn next to his novel Die Vermessung der Welt.

Speaking of magic, Jeff VanderMeer’s fat new novel A Peculiar Peril is so brimming with magic that is feels perfectly normal that the heads of Aleister Crowley and Napoleon are marching (well, sort of marching) on Prague where VanderMeer has, in the words of Brian Evenson, “unleashed an amphibious Kafka.” It’s a fun story told in deliciously playful language: “They mean to bomb us. We will plow through them like oxen! We will shamble them into shards like pillows! They will become like dog crap only not as useful!” And one more, introductions at a book club in Prague: “‘I am an Iberian doctor on holiday who enjoys fishing, hunting, shopping for dresses, doll collection, and sheep days in the big city. My favorite books include wallpaper, omelette, and cheese grater.’ These were all things from conversations Ruth Less had overheard or eaten while in Prague, and she felt confident she had used them correctly. Janovka’s smell, which had been a lavender bath wash on top of the beer stench, with an underlying sweat smell like mushroom liquor, now changed mostly to something like baked earthworm.”

VanderMeer’s gilled Kafka leads me to the real Franz Kafka, whose novella “Die Verwandlung” — “The Metamorphosis” has been revealing its metaphors this summer as I write about standing as the dominant metaphor for what it means to be human. Ovid’s Metamorphoses begins with the creation of humans who are distinguished from other animals by their upright posture. Kafka returns his Gregor Samsa to an existence as some kind of vermin with many legs. Our metaphors often arise from our bodies; physical standing, for instance, becomes understanding, outstanding, legal standing, substance, ecstasy, and so on. Samsa needs to get out of bed on the morning he wakes from troubled dreams, needs to get up to go to work. The problem is that in German what he needs to do is to “stand up” — aufstehen. Ich muss aufstehen, he thinks again and again and again. But he can’t stand up, his body is not made to stand. What he can do, he finally realizes is rock himself out of bed and he finally does so. The metaphors of the German language, the metaphors that create patriarchal family and oppressive economic structures, the metaphors that arise from and govern German bodies, are suddenly foreign to him. A reader realizes, at some point, that the real problem is not with Gregor’s new body but with the language that determines the requirements for his existence.

Speaking of German texts, Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Aller Tage Abend has been a highlight this summer. The novel follows characters from several generations of German-speaking Jews from a Galician village to Vienna to Moscow to Berlin. Each section is followed by an Intermezzo that points out that things could have been otherwise, and does so subjunctively (no text I have ever read is so insistently subjunctive): “Hätte aber zum Beispiel die Mutter oder der Vater in der Nacht das Fenster aufgerissen, hätte eine Handvoll Schnee vom Fensterbrett gerafft und dem Kind unters Hemd gesteckt, dann hätte das Kind . . . jedenfalls hätte sein Herz . . . seine Haut wäre wieder warm geworden, und der Schnee wäre an seiner Brust geschmolzen.” If they had, if they had, then the child would have, his heart would have, his skin would have, and the snow would have. Who are we? Why are we who we are? “Who decides which thoughts will fill time?” This book is full of contingent wisdom. And beautiful sentences.

Peter Handke’s new book The Second Sword: A May Story is, for me, his best work for some time. It begins with an epigraph translated from the New Testament (my guess is it is Peter’s own translation): Luke, 22, 36-38 — And he said to them: take up your purse and traveling bag, and whoever doesn’t have one, sell your cloak and buy a sword! . . . But they said: Lord, look, here are two swords! And He said to them: That is enough.” This story is about a man who leaves home set on revenge. That’s the simple version. But can such a story have a paragraph like this one during a journey in a bus? “I sewed a new button on my shirt: comfort in my wrist, domesticity away from the domicile. And one of the passengers cursed the cellphone lying in front of him: ‘Stop blinking at me, you rat!’ And one of the willow and poplar tufts sailing in through the half-open bus window lit on the back of my hand, black fly wings moving in the white fluff, or, no: the fluff itself was part of the fly, and, unable to blow the “white fluff-fly” (as we called it) from my hand, I thought these very words: ‘This fly will save humankind!'” It is a warm-hearted book, written by a man whose letter to me last week ended with these thoughts: “At the moment a butterfly is sitting upon your letter from UTAH, USA. Yours, Peter Now the butterfly flew away and I can read “Vista Circle.”

My Serbian/American friend Dragan Aleksic has just published a book in Germany, translated from his Serbo-Croatian original. It is called Herrenfahrrad “Partizan” or Men’s Bike “Partizan.” A few titles show the range of the stories, short ones for the most part, 3 or 4 or 7 or 10 pages: “Wim Wenders in Texas,” The American Tattoo,” “The Women of Dubrovnik,” “1942/43,” “The Little Book about the Death of Isaak Kalman and the Deportation of all Jews from Bela Crkva in the Summer of 1941,” “Ohio Polka,” and so on. There is a sweetness about many of the stories that makes them good reading for me during a difficult summer, a simplicity that is anything but naive — rather, profound.

Pascal Garnier’s short novels, however, four of them packaged as Gallic Noir Volume 2, are not what I need at the moment. I love his work, the icy attention to the evils that lurk in us all, but this just isn’t the right time for a story that begins “In the forest a fox had just ripped into a rabbit.” I’ll put this aside for a time when I’m feeling fat and happy.

Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest is so rich with salty conversation that it left me wishing I could hear the lines from the mouths of really good actors, lines like these: “‘Knowing this dick, I told Myrtle I thought we could fix things. A little jack would ruin MacSwain’s memory, or, if he didn’t like that, Max could have him knocked off. . . . If the dick would play along, the hole in Tim’s head from his own gun and the note would smooth everything over pretty.'” I wondered about why detectives and cops are called dicks, so looked it up and found that usage came from a Roma word appropriated in England. At the same site I found the word “posh,” also of Roma origin, and laughed at the idea of all the posh people denominated by the people they looked down on.

Alerted to the book by Lance Olsen and interested in takes on the body for my book on the standing metaphor, I had an image of The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body on my office screen when the IT technician came in to help me with what I thought were batteries gone bad in my laptop. So what could I say in that moment? Nothing. Thanks Lance! I found the book most helpful: “Questions about how we view and define ourselves—both as individuals and as a society—are unremitting; they are the fundamental questions of life. We will never cease to look to our own bodies and those of others for answers.”

Phyllis Barber’s new novel The Desert Between Us surprised me. I wrote the following to Phyllis: I liked your novel from beginning to end for various reasons, but as I neared the end I realized that something really special was going on. When Sophie and Geoffrey go off on their afternoon ride and Sophie returns having had sex with a man other than her husband, I expected all kinds of hand-wringing and worry and shame and guilt and eventual tragedy. What I got instead was the same interesting and wonderful woman I had come to know throughout the novel. Ok, it happened, I imagine her saying, and I’m glad it happened, and I’ll go on. Implicit, nicely understated, is the fact that her husband has three wives and he isn’t wracked with shame. I don’t think I’m saying this well enough, but the way your novel took the edge off a puritanical morality and explored the more profound morality we find in both Geoffrey and Sophie was deeply satisfying to me.

Susan M. Gaines novel Accidentals, just published by Torrey House Press (home to Sam’s and my Wild Rides, Wildflowers: Philosophy and Botany with Bikes), was a revelation to me. I wrote the author (currently at Germany’s University of Bremen) to tell her how much I liked the book: “Susan, or should I say Frau Doctor Professor Gaines? I’m a fellow Torrey House Press author and just finished reading your Accidentals, finished the last pages with a thrill, in fact. That last section ended the story perfectly. And the climax the rest of the book led to was so well done, so difficult to pull off, but played out skillfully. I loved the characters. I loved the birding. I loved the science. And I loved the Uruguayan history. Just wanted to say thank you …

I posted earlier about the last two books I’ll mention here, both of which affected me deeply: Joanna Brooks’ Mormonism and White Supremacy and Lance Olsen’s My Red Heaven. Check out those posts for details.

Reading teaches me and reminds me, galvanizes me and reassures me. The remembered German words I mentioned at the beginning of this post were elicited by German texts I was reading. The memory that came last week when I encountered the word “slick” was more profound. My mind jumped to my father, gone now more than four decades, to his exclamation when something worked out just as he hoped: “slick as a whistle.” Miss him, and he’s still with me.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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