A Walter Benjamin moment

We’re visiting Paris in the New Year. So this seems like an appropriate time to revisit Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the touchstone for misplaced migrants and restless walkers, who as it happens also spent some time in Denmark.

Benjamin stayed at Skovsbostrand, Bertolt Brecht‘s house in Svendborg, in the summers of 1934, 1935, 1936 and 1938. In September 1938 he was in Copenhagen, where he obtained some transparencies from a “master tattoo artist”. On 18 September he visited the Brechts in Dragør. He also spent a weekend in Gedser, just across the Baltic from Germany, with Gretel Karplus (later Adorno), between 22-23 September 1934(?).

Like Brecht, Benjamin wasn’t taken with Denmark, finding the southern tip of Fyn “one of the most remote areas you can imagine”, with its “unexploited” nature and lack of links to the modern world a mixed blessing. The summers in Skovsbostrand were isolated and lonely, and drab compared to the likes of Ibiza. Maybe he got on better in Copenhagen.

Copenhagen’s arcades

Obviously every self respecting urban walker has to have a go at walking with Walter, so last year I launched my Copenhagen Arcades Project. First, an aside on arcades. The standard English translation for Walter’s passage, the word arcade evokes something grand, probably glazed, involving arches. Passage: not so much; think back passage, ginnel, jitty, wynd.

With a couple of exceptions Copenhagen’s arcades are definitely passages, or even smutveje (shortcuts), definitely not designed for lingering. Much of the city centre is made up of karréer, a (usually) five storey building complex encircling an inner courtyard, a space somewhere between public and private. This part of the cityscape is hidden from view, unvisited by the passer-by. A smutvej can open up this terrain.

Having said that, our first stop, August Bournonvilles Passage, is already an anomaly. Named in 2005 when the stretch was pedestrianised, this shortest of shortcuts is most notable for Stærekassen, a chunk of Art Deco built for Statsradiofoni (now part of DR) in 1931. Its mosaic roof portrays four cultural worthies, Hans Christian Andersen, Johannes V Jensen, Carl Nielsen and Adam Oehlenschläger, with the last also to be found as a statue just round the corner.

Walking past Nyhavn and up Bredgade brings us to Sankt Annæ Passage, between two of the city’s most fornemme (exclusive) streets. Opposite the eponymous plads, this passage is promising from the outside with a wrought iron sign, but disappoints within, mainly giving access to offices housed in the courtyards.

Sankt Annæ Passage

Emerging out of the far end of the passage brings us onto Store Kongensgade. A short stroll back towards the city’s main shopping drag of Strøget takes us to Pistolstræde. Glazed over in a recent refurbishment with smart signage, this web of backstreets is populated by shops and cafes mainly at the luxury end of the spectrum, and feels a tad self-conscious. How do these shops stay in business? There’s never anyone in them. (One answer: they move to the suburbs. Konditori Antoinette moved to Hvidovrevej, just down the road from us, in August, and feels a bit out of place.)

Finally, time for the real thing! Five blocks further down Strøget lies Jorcks Passage, as good as it gets. Built between 1893 and 1895 by Vilhelm Dahlerup, responsible for countless Historicist buildings in the city, this arcade is worthy of the name, housing a pleasingly eclectic range of premises as well as mini toddler statues in bays along the walls.

Jorcks Passage

Jorcks Passage

The buildings surrounding the arcade link back to our first smutvej, with DR broadcasting their first radio programmes from the premises in 1924, and forward to our last. KTAS (now TDC) opened their first telephone exchange here in 1896. It remained in operation for a scant 13 years, replaced by Telefonhuset at Nørregade 21. This lasted 5o years, from 1909 until 1959, before moving to Borups Allé 43. That building is still owned by TDC, although their current HQ is at Sydhavn.

Left behind is Sankt Petri Passage, allegedly offering public access through the karréer from Nørregade to Larslejsstræde, although it has always presented me nothing more than a massively closed wooden door.

What other options are on offer today for the city centre flâneur? In his Travels through Germany Michael Gorra “subjects the shopping arcades of contemporary German cities to the terms of Benjamin’s Arcade project”:

Most German cities have reconfigured their central shopping districts into pedestrian zones, in a way that makes the arcade seem merely an extension of the street itself, a space far less odd and magical than it had been for Benjamin, liminal only in the way it opens onto an underground parking garage.

In Malled: 60 years of under cover shopping Will Self describes shopping centres as non-spaces, abolishing time and space (is a table outside a cafe in a mall inside or outside?). With a limited retail offering they are all the same, places where nothing happens by accident. The design ensures that you can only progress forward, slowly, encountering a series of fixed scenarios and then moving on.

Benjamin’s arcades were designed for shopping and strolling, places to see and be seen. For me Copenhagen’s central shopping district offers little room for flâneurie, celebrated for its early pedestrianisation but lacking the brio of the passeggiata. Likewise its malls lack allure, with Fields, once the largest shopping centre in Scandinavia, rising in a grey desert and neighbourhood centres built in the 1950s and 60s tending to the functional.

When I think ‘arcade’ I’m at Glasgow’s Argyle Street or Birmingham’s Great Western Arcade, and before you know it you are in a something shiny like Princes Square. So my arcade of choice is instead the heart-achingly stunning Párizsi Udvar in Budapest, currently in need of restoration and resembling rather more a cathedral.

Párizsi Udvar

The Arcades Project methodology

Benjamin started his research for what is known in English as The Arcades Project in 1927, before he moved to Paris in 1933. When he left in 1940 he entrusted the result, a vast compendium of notes and reflections assembled from a range of sources and arranged in 36 categories with multiple cross-references, to his friend Georges Bataille, then working at the Bibliothèque Nationale. What could Walter have done with a database package and a customised taxonomy?

Much has been postulated about this approach to writing, which Benjamin himself called ‘literary montage’. As “the strolling spectator who collects mental notes taken on leisurely city walks and transcribes them into written form…he does not just write about the flâneur but he writes as a flâneur” (source). Further, “to read Benjamin’s key work is in itself analogous to the practice of flâneurie” (source).

Certainly his methodology can bring some comfort to every writer of endless drafts (I’ve had this post in my drafts for more than a year) and random notetaker – to what extent is The Arcades Project Walter’s notebook? He himself expected his research to result in a small article, polished off in a couple of weeks, and did at least succeed in siphoning bits off into published essays. His exhaustive approach can perhaps also shed new light on issues of #curationism.

But still, his belief that you don’t properly understand something unless it passes bodily through you rings very true: if you are blocked, write out your work again, in a fair copy. In that process something will happen, new connections will surface as you quote yourself, a different person in time and space. It’s like going for a walk and seeing things more clearly.

Why Paris? 

From a 1929 essay, quoted by Edmund White in The flâneur (full quote):

The flâneur is the creation of Paris. The wonder is that it was not Rome. But perhaps in Rome even dreaming is forced to move along streets that are too well-paved…The great reminiscences, the historical frissons – these are all so much junk to the flâneur, who is happy to leave them to the tourist.

The flâneur is in search of experience, not knowledge. Most experience ends up interpreted as – and replaced by – knowledge, but for the flâneur the experience remains somehow pure, useless, raw…Practical Romans…show no curiosity about their city’s past…Parisians are the ones who wander their own city.

We’ll see how we get on.

Update, Jan 2017: as well as a draft on our trip to Paris I’m now embarking on Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss, not least to follow up on WB’s Frankfurt years (my own: 1982-83) – he presented (and withdrew) his post-doctoral dissertation to the Germanistik department at the university in 1925…WestMarket, Copenhagen’s new food market, essentially an arcade…

Primary Benjamin:

Secondary Benjamin:

Benjamin in Berlin: Berlin chronicle (review snippet) | Berlin childhood around 1900 | In search of WB’s BerlinA stroll through WB’s Berlin | Deutschlandfunk Kultur

After Benjamin:

Other people’s countries: the malady of time and place

Updates, June 2017: PMcG interview in CounterText | extract from The future of nostalgia (another | Notting Hill Editions comp)

Last summer I discovered Patrick McGuinness and read his Bucharest set novel The last hundred days – see Belgitude in Bucharest. Now it’s time for the book which set the whole thing off: Other people’s countries (reviews: Amazon | Guardian | Observer | Independent | Literary Review | Spectator | Caught by the river).

Disarming, eloquent and illuminating, this meditation on place, time and memory, could only have been written by a poet, or a novelist, or a professor. Happily, Patrick McGuinness is all three, and Other People’s Countries is a marvel: a stunning piece of lyrical writing, rich in narrative and character – full of fresh ways of looking at how we grow up, how we start to make sense of the world.

A very special book of short, Proustian pieces on childhood and how the places of our childhood are embedded in us.

It’s a truly lovely thing made up of 50+ short sketches, or dare I say drifts, some from McGuinness’ two previous books of poetry. The book includes those twin devices beloved of curating readers – a dramatis personae and a map of the Walloon town of Bouillon, but no index (another project?). The list of personae includes visitors, tourists and passers-through (“everyone passed through, not many stayed”), including, intriguingly, Gordon Jackson, James Robertson Justice and Jack Warner – I’m sensing war film. We’ll see. In the afterword McGuinness cautions about “things you tell yourself, that you invoke and perform for yourself in order to be and to remain yourself…I misremember all this so vividly it’s as if it only happened yesterday”.

We’re in memory country again, and partly a stranger in a strange land, although less so than Gorra. And memory is tied to place:

When I’m asked about events in my childhood, about my childhood at all, I think mostly of rooms. I think of times as places, with walls and windows and doors.

As for most people, “plenty of nothing” happened, a childhood characterised by Essence of indoors, “that sublimate of all that’s gone”. The family house itself “is now empty most of the year, and sits marinading in its past”.

The cover of the hardback edition (above) shows an owl flying out from a wallpaper of green leaves and flowers, characterising the Ardennais fondness for animal parts, “not just for eating but for home decoration”. The cover for the paperback edition is a stock image of keys, tied up in a metaphor for how you remember the past:

That was memory, I realised: a putty with which you could make another key, which would open the same door, but never quite so well. In no time, you’d be burgling your own past with the slightly off-key key that always got you in though there was less and less to take.

More musings in My suits, a two page meditation on the nature of anticipation: ” I could already imagine myself gone, so that everywhere I went I could only think about what it would be like without me there”, putting a “black border” around days: “even as you live them forwards, you’re looking at them from behind, seeing them as they would be if they were over.” And as an aside:

I think every child tries that experiment where, faced with a date in the future they dread, and believing the old adage about time going faster when you’re busy or having fun, they slow down and avoid enjoying things too much, hoping to put the brakes on Time. This in turn means they don’t enjoy the present, which gives them another thing, other than its pastness, to regret about the past.”

Some sketches are more factual, but with a twist in the tail:

  • Corbion: the art of “composing sweepingly universal rules from minuscule amounts of unrepresentative data”, Corbion is a town where the inhabitants “were reputed to be unable to gender their nouns”, while the population of Paliseul is sensitive to the cold
  • Triage: “my parents often misused ready-made expressions not only in each other’s languages but, by the end, in their own…by dint of living with the other, each became gradually unmoored from their native tongues”, and for their children, “an exhilirating world of malapropism and cross-purposes”
  • Centenarian: “an old school photograph keeps turning up in Le Cercle d’Histoire de Bouillon, where the same photographs and reminiscences keep turning up anyway (this is why we keep reading it, for the sameness laid over change)”

The tone is not donnish, taking unexpected turns on places, feeling at first misplaced but then more personal. References are also made forward to other sketches, giving the book a dynamism not often found in writing in this style.

Growing up with two countries is different from moving to another, although there is clearly much in common, not least a feeling of being adrift, of superimposing time and place. Bouillon is the home of McGuinness’ parallel Belgian self, it is someone else’s country. In Naturalisation he quotes Simenon: “there was no reason for me to be born Belgian”, seeing this as “a refreshing antidote to the usual stridences of belonging”. And Belgian writer William Cliff, not Belgian but “from Belgium”.

What of Gordon Jackson and friends? McGuinness retells the story of Against the wind, a 1946 film, “as it was felt, in that hybrid long-finished but real-time-unfolding present tense that reflects the inside of our lives far better than those three stooges, the past, present and future”.

The book concludes, inevitably, with Déjà vu:

Two tenses grappling with one instant, one perception:

forgotten as it happens, recalled before it has begun.

opc

Travels through Germany: adrift in a land with too much memory

wanderer

Caspar David Friedrich’s The wanderer above the sea of fog (1818), a source of inspiration from Hamburg art gallery (source: Wikimedia)

I came across The bells in their silence: travels through Germany (Princeton University Press, 2004; Amherst Magazine) by Michael Gorra via his Portrait of a novel: Henry James and the making of an American masterpiece (2012).

Nobody writes travelogues about Germany. The country spurs many anxious volumes of investigative reporting…but not travel books, not the free-ranging and impressionistic works of literary nonfiction we associate with VS Naipaul and Bruce Chatwin.

Gorra’s hypothesis is that “our American memory of WWII still informs our relationship with contemporary Germany” (Publishers Weekly), and there is much musing on this German Problem in the book, but otherwise, written “with one foot in the library and one on the street”, it was perfect, for me and other footloose international Germanists living elsewhere. And it only cost a penny! (Here’s how that works.)

It’s a kind of a meta travel book:

Gorra uses Goethe’s account of his Italian journey as a model for testing the traveler’s response to Germany today, and he subjects the shopping arcades of contemporary German cities to the terms of Benjamin’s Arcade project. He reads post-Wende Berlin through the novels of Theodor Fontane…and enlists WG Sebald as a guide to the place of fragments and digressions in travel writing.

At home abroad

The book grew out of a sabbatical year in the late 1990s – Gorra’s wife was seconded to Hamburg, and as a non-Germanist he found himself adrift and able to explore at his leisure, “walking the same streets, visiting and revisiting the same places…my hours only as regular as I cared to keep them, shaped now and then by a newspaper’s deadline, but much more often by groceries…even a routine measured out by errands and lunch can be made to seem full”. For many reviewers the absence of ‘living Germans’ or of conventional travel writing (a description Gorra uses consciously) about Germany, “from which the author maintains a subtle but unmistakable distance” (Chicago Tribune) is the book’s weakness. It’s written rather through the twin lenses of literature and history, perhaps just as essential to understanding a country’s DNA (“we would not see so much of the present if we were not first interested in the past”), finding its own “balance between the inner travels prompted by our travels to confront the unfamiliar” (Vertigo). Like many footloose internationals, “it sometimes took the absence of my own language to remind me that I wasn’t entirely at home”. After his first few months Gorra had “both gotten used to Germany and then begun to find it strange again”, with “Mercedes taxis the color of Jersey cream”. Isherwood’s “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording not thinking” epitomises this period of expat life, with “bits and pieces of experience that I didn’t know what to do with”, conscious of his own baggage behind the lens:

the only way in which we can make sense of a new place is to locate it in relation to those that we’ve known before…the mistake comes only when we try to assimilate them to a single criterion of value

For Gorra the custom in shops of exchanging money via a little tray rather than hand to hand feels dehumanising, putting a distinction between the server and served. (The Germans – and the Danes – would doubtless say that it’s more hygenic that way.) Then there’s the bed linen. Moving on from the 90cm square pillows, a meaningful cultural difference is that “each person in Germany is meant to sleep under his own covers. No snuggling under a common blanket…it’s as if the bedding itself were conspiring to keep us each in our appointed place, to prevent any meeting in the chilly middle ground.” He assembles a selection of quotes from travel literature on the theme, including Mark Twain.

Metonomy and metaphor

This leads to a discussion of figurative language in travel writing. As a form it is essentially metonymic, digressing from one thing to another, with contiguous subjects as new sights or people or thoughts stray across one’s path. It moves from one object or scene to the next because they are either spatially or temporally contiguous, and in that movement attempts to evoke a world, an itinerary. Much travel literature identifies “those aspects of a country or culture that differ – or are believed to differ – from other countries, other cultures, and then identifies that part with the whole”. This can quickly lead to cliché . But travel writing relies on metaphor as well – the very idea of metaphor stands in itself as a kind of travel, with its original meaning equivalent to the Latin translatio, a bearing across, a movement of meaning from one spot to another. Metaphor works through similarity, in which one term is substituted for another, relying on the comparison and resemblance of apparently dissimilar things. This allows the mind to juxtapose disparate fragments and reveal their hidden connections. Metonymy tends to underline the difference between home and abroad, while metaphor works to erase it. Travel writing depends on one inverted metaphor, in which the description of abroad becomes a tacit description of home, the one standing as the other’s obverse image. One place evokes another, and the sum of their metonymic differences provides in itself a metaphor for all that divides them. Hence, on Germany: “at once homogenous and unified and also polymorphic and disparate…particular and universal at once…each fragment of what would become Germany seems to suggest its entirety…one part may substitute itself – metaphorically, metonymically – for the whole”.

Fragments and digressions

Moving on, the key chapter is that on fragments and disgressions, which starts in a bookshop in Hamburg, a”realm of unattained pleasures” as Gorra does not read German. Books can “remain the object of a Proustian longing, forever out of reach and therefore incapable of disappointing me”. Into this category falls Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a book that would “contain the world…[assembled] out of quotations, cross-references and fragments” but which Benjamin never actually began to write. Like the flâneur who knows when and how to indulge in “a bit of creative loafing” travel writing frequently goes off piste, departing or returning to a central narrative. According to Schlegel many literary works remain “fragments at the time of their origin”, forming a whole only when put together, perhaps using a “peg on which to hang a narrative of one’s own”, such as returning to the journey of an earlier traveller, or as a panorama of a place in time. And on Hamburg’s arcades:

Most German cities have reconfigured their central shopping districts into pedestrian zones, in a way that makes the arcade seem merely an extension of the street itself, a space far less odd and magical than it had been for Benjamin, liminal only in the way it opens onto an underground parking garage…Hamburg’s arcades have no mystery but they do have confusion. I often get lost in them, barely know one from another, and constantly discover new ones.

The final chapter of the book turns to the personal, with an account of Buddenbrooks counterpointed with Gorra’s own family history, and then the birth of his child, an event which brings out something distinctively local, which he describes by borrowing from TS Eliot: “the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time”.

The Water of Leith: a storymap

At the beginning of December I spent a weekend in Edinburgh, combining shopping for festive essentials with some heavy duty city walking. I’m now a tourist in what used to be my home town, although my Edinburgh, of the late 1970s and early 1980s, is still there too.

On the Sunday I walked a section of the Water of Leith, somewhere I had never really been before. Rather than a series of photos I’ve tried something different as a way of curating this walk, using Knight Lab’s Storymap JS. It’s a really easy to use tool, synching with Google Drive as a back-up. Among the maps on offer is Open Street Map, which shows the walkway perfectly, although it seems to pick the scale it fancies. The end result is attractive, with the drawback that it’s not possible to draw a route – and it doesn’t play with WordPress.com.

Click on the image below to go to the interactive version of my My Water of Leith storymap.

WoL storymap

For more see the walkway and audio trail on the Water of Leith Conservation Trust (@wolct) website. If you are in Edinburgh you can pick up a free leaflet with a basic route map in the TIC at Waverley Bridge, but the £1 version, with text from a book now out of print, is well worth the investment.

Updates: Urban Ghosts, who must surely have an Embra correspondent, have also spotted the ruin at Bells Mills apartments, while the Broughton Spurtle sheds some light on what’s going on with Antony Gormley’s 6 Times – the wee men shall return!

1913: a place in time

Last book of the year, more than likely, is 1913: the year before the storm (Amazon) by Florian Illies, translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Searle. I’m going to call this for curated writing – it’s a collection of anecdotes about historical and cultural figures mainly, but not exclusively, centred on Vienna and the German speaking world and arranged by month, a thing of beauty in conception and execution. Much more than one of those what happened on this day? lists it’s put together with wit and artistry, making you want to read on to find out whose got the sniffles now. And it doesn’t hurt that it references any number of writers and artists who feel like old friends.

Philip Oltermann notes Illies’ “novelist’s eye for detail and liveblogger’s sense of urgency”. (He also comments that those looking for a more international account might turn to Charles Emmerson’s 1913: the world before the Great War.) Written in the historic present, Illies’ 1913 doesn’t try to bring in the benefit of hindsight by showing a world hurtling into war, but reveals instead some of the smaller incidents which make up everyone’s life, then as now. He can’t resist occasional hat tips to the future however, noting that Stalin, Hitler and Tito were all in town at the same time and could well have passed each other in the street.

I’ve a couple more of these books of the year browning on my bookshelf – Philip Metcalfe’s Berlin 1933 (published 1989) and Frederic Morton’s A nervous splendor: Vienna 1888/1889, which it turns out he followed up with Thunder at twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 (published in 1979 and 1989 respectively), but it seems that the master of the genre may well be Walter Kempowski, who amassed a collection of raw material such as personal documents, letters, newspaper reports and unpublished autobiographies over a period of 20 years, published as Echolot (Sonar) auf deutsch. One volume has just been published in English – Swansong 1945, translared by Shaun Whiteside (again), covering a mere four days.

(Update, Dec 2015: I have one of his nine volume Deutsche Chronik series (Aus großer Zeit/Days of greatness, 1978/82), the final part of which (Alles umsonst/All for nothing, 2006; review), set in East Prussia no less, has just come out in English, translated by (obv) Anthea Bell.)

A further addition to the canon is Moscow 1937 (Amazon | The Atlantic | Times Higher), which I’m seriously considering investing in. Written by Karl Schögel, a lecturer at a university in Frankfurt an der Oder, this looks like classic curational writing, if enciting the adjectives encyclopaedic and exhaustive, something I also struggle with. A snippet in the London Review of Books describes Schlögel as “the most distinguished flâneur among historians of Russia”. Update, 12 Feb 2015: the Danish library service obliged. A stunning piece of work, readable but very, very long.

Shout outs too for James Fox’s documentary series Bright lights, brilliant minds (clips inc Café Central) on BBC over the summer, covering Vienna 1908, Paris 1928 and New York 1951, and The Enemies Projet’s Kakania (anthology), exploring the culture of Hapsburg Vienna.

So, books read this year: 22. A significant improvement on the all time low of 7 in 2012, but a long way to go to surpass 2006’s 39, when my LibaryThing records start, although I have been recording books read since 1992. Quite a pool of data there, which it could be fun to try to do something with.

Microcosms of Mitteleuropa

Update: Richard Flanagan on why Claudio Magris’s Danube is a timely elegy for lost Europe

After we got back from Trieste I bought online a second hand copy of Claudio Magris’ Microcosms (Amazon | Google Books | Bookslut | Boston ReviewYale Books Unbound), first published in 1997 and translated by Iain Halliday, for barely more than the price of the postage. It has three remaindered stripes along the bottom. The back cover shows a louche raincoated figure who may or may not be Claudio, newspaper on knee and coffee cup at his elbow, surely taken in the Caffè San Marco in Trieste. On the flyleaf is his signature.

In Triste Trieste, a magisterial account of four books on Trieste I could never hope to emu

late, Nicholas Howe dubs Trieste “a place of unresolved geography” and Magris its “embodiment in writerly form” (meanwhile on p6: “one wrote or responded to yet another interview about Trieste, its Mitteleuropa culture and its decline…”).

“Writing is transcribing,” Magris has once said. “Even when an author invents, he transcribes stories and events that life has made him a participant in.” (source)

Out-Sebalding Sebald, Microcosms examines the borderlands of Istria and Italy, between the eastern Alps and the Adriatic. Starting in yhe L-shaped Caffè San Marco we move outwards to Valcellina (68 miles north west of the city in the Friuli foothills), to the liminal lagoons north of Venice, the forests around Mount Nevoso (or Mount Snežnik, at 1796m the king of the karst), Apsyrtides (the Greek name for the Croatian islands of Cres and Lošinj, separated only by a canal) and Antholz (in the south Tyrol, where 98.4% speak German as their first language). Finally we return to Trieste, as we surely must, to the public garden where the busts of Trieste’s writers are brought to life.

This style of writing, pulling together the strands of history, literature, real life and lived experience, seems particularly fitting for the post-exploration age of ‘we’ tourism – a simple narrative struggles to capture the layers and diversity of a travel experience. But where to shelve the book? A librarian by training and maybe at heart, many of my books are arranged by geographic area/country, but this one could sit in multiple categories. I suspect it, together with Jan Morris’ and Dasa Drindic’s Trieste and his own Danube, will find a home on the top of my central and eastern Europe bookcase, in their own separate section and resting on a mahogony shelf from India.

A fitting conclusion for our next trip, bridging 2014 and 2015 in three Mitteleuropean cities on the Danube. Compliments of the season – and Guten Rutsch!

The Brenner is the watershed between the Adriatic and the Black Sea, between the waters that with the Adige run into the sea of every persuasion and those that through the Drava flow into the Danube. Adriatic and Danube, the sea and continental Mitteleuropa, life’s two opposing and complementary scenarios; the border that separates them is a small black hole leading from one universe to another.

IMG_4949

Daša Drndić’s Trieste

Update: Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion (forthcoming in August 2016 in English) covers similar ground.

Daša Drndić is a Croatian writer, born in Zagreb in 1946.

Trieste (MacLehose Press; Amazon | Google Books – searchable), first published in 2007 under the title Sonnenschein and in 2012 in English translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać, is a treat (Sunday Times: “the influence of WG Sebald is obvious but not oppressive”). It’s ‘documentary fiction’, with the text including photographs, verse, testimonies from the Nuremberg Trials and other witness accounts, the result of two years of research.

The book opens and closes in Gorizia (Görz, Gorica, Gurize…), around 55km from Trieste, and traces three generations of the family of Haya Tedeschi across time and space in the wake of a series of traumatic events – the First World War and the fall of the Hapsburg Empire, the political and cultural annexation of the multi-lingual and multi-ethnic territories of this corner of Europe under the Kingdom of Italy, the rise of Fascism and the gradual introduction of anti-Jewish laws. (This section of the book is acknowledged in the paperback edition as borrowing heavily from Trieste: the true story, the self published memoir of Fulvia Schiff Gent.)

From 1943-45 9000 Italians were deported from Italy, then under Nazi control. The names of these 9000 are listed over a 40 page stretch of the book, a device described by one reviewer as chopping the book in half. From this point the focus is Haya’s eight year search for her son, fathered by an SS officer but stolen from her as part of the Lebensborn project, presenting first the unadorned results of her research – reminiscences from Nazis, including her lover, the last commandant of Treblinka, and then accounts from the Lebensborn programme. Many Lebensborn children are not aware of their past, but Haya’s son is told of his origins by his German mother on her deathbed and sets out to find his birth mother. This section is written in the first person, and the book closes with a poetic exchange between Haya and Antonio/Herman, echoing the mantra of the book through sections from The Waste Land. We do not witness their meeting.

Hurry up please it’s time.

Reviews: 3:am Magazine | FT | Independent: Daniel Hahn on Sunday & Amanda Hopkinson | KirkusNew York Times | Quarterly Conversation. It won English PEN’s Independent Foreign Fiction Readers Prize.

The experimental style isn’t for everyone. A reviewer on LibraryThing, who ultimately found the book rewarding, says: “It was really difficult to read and at times seemed very disjointed. The mix of fact and fiction with footnotes made it seem like hard work.” For me this is the book’s strength, bringing something new to the holocaust literature canon. The documentary approach leaves space for an accumulation of stories and evidence, such as an account of Lebensborn child Anni-Frid Lyngstad, aka ‘the brunette from Abba’, and a quotes from Austrian dog behaviouralist Konrad Lorenz. Fully digital publication using hypertext could bring even more experimentation, moving beyond a simple list of names or short reminiscence in a form of curational writing.

While we were in Trieste in October we visited the prison camp described in the book, now a national monument. On the fringes of Trieste as it progressively becomes more Slavic (our lunch was a burek from a local bakery), Risiera di San Sabba is understated in presentation and doesn’t really give an idea of the scale of what happened there, a gap filled by the Deportation Records Foundation – more than 25,000 people passed through the camp en route to other camps to the north, while a further 5000 people lost their lives at the camp itself.

The photos we took are eerily similar to those in the book. Who took those photos – the author, Haya, her son?

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