By Tom Whalen
Featured Art: Nan and Brian in bed, New York City by Nan Goldin
For the life of me, I can’t understand why The Solution has been marketed as a crime novel rather than simply one of a failed marriage; not a single head is severed from its body, not one of the novel’s protagonists dies. He loved her, it seems, and she loved him and then didn’t, while his love lingered like a bad dream. She worked in the business sector of a nameless city in southern Germany, he spent his days writing a treatise on Hegel’s early years and thought. When they met by chance in Vienna seventeen years earlier coming out of a revival of In the Realm of the Senses, she was studying Wittgenstein in Munich, he finishing an MBA in Bern. As he remade his life to accommodate hers, she remade hers to accommodate his. But where is the crime in that? I find here no commission of an act forbidden by public law. Neither she nor he stole one another’s innocence, as far as I can tell, much less raided each other’s savings. Pages of meticulous detail about the German financial industry, reams of notes about Hegel and Napoleon, Napoleon and Hegel, first a paragraph about Napoleon, then a paragraph about Hegel, then a paragraph on both. Once, yes, at a company party, he believes he sees her flirting with her manager, her hand remaining perhaps a bit too long on his shoulder, his eyes glittering with a sort of bemused rapture, and then his hand on her shoulder, followed by the tilt downward of her head, quickly upraised. Had she only been steadying herself, having drunk too much champagne? The husband doesn’t seem to know any more than I do.
And how pitiful the novel’s climax! He returns without any advanced warning to an apartment vacant of all her things, including the furniture she had inherited from her grandmother. Room after room, closet after closet, cabinet after cabinet, drawer after drawer emptied of all that once was hers, no farewell note on the kitchen table or left on a pillow, only the stale, sour scent of an emptiness
grown suddenly emptier. Good God, what unfathomable creatures we are. Why do we even bother to marry?
I have before me this morning, as I drink an espresso at Seyffer’s Café on Seyfferstrasse, two novels, one a panoramic thriller, with long layovers in Manila and Copenhagen; the other wherein years after her abduction by aliens, Sinkey Blaize agrees to meet, under carefully supervised conditions, her abductors. On one side of me the one novel, on the other side the other novel. It’s an unseasonably cold July morning for southern Germany. The waiter no doubt finds strange my looking first at the one book, then at the other, then scribbling in my notebook, etc. Sinkey Blaize, who was first abducted by the Lorks at age four, is in trouble again. Turns out the military wasn’t as prepared to protect her as she and they thought, though I never once questioned the military’s inefficiency in this regard. “‘What is it you want from me!’ she screamed.” I don’t know if it’s an electro-chemical malfunction in her brain or if the aliens have truly captured her again; regardless, she’s put in a state of animated suspension, I mean suspended animation on the Lorks’ space craft. Manila, however, despite its own horrors, is more to my liking. “Night coned into her head a sea of dreams, delaying until morning her decision to fly to Copenhagen.” Why is it that I’m of two minds this morning? That I can’t decide which novel to review perhaps indicates that my mind is not up to the task of reviewing, which demands, in order to do the profession justice, a dedication at least equal to the author’s of the book under review. The Philippines, by the way, I know only second hand
through Noemi, a computer engineer from Dagupan, and novels by F. Sionil José, James Jones, P. F. Kluge, and Wilfredo Nolledo. Of Copenhagen at the moment my mind is as blank as the sky above Stuttgart this cloudless, shadowless morning. Back aboard the ship, Mary comes out of the alien-induced coma. “The ship looked paltry to her, distant, rarefied, like some kind of neo-realistic
nightmare you’d find in a science-fiction novel.” Again I’m pulled away from The Second Abduction and back to The Sweep of Time: “At the railing of the stairs opening to the cellar of the Sult Bar in Christianshavn, Mary cautiously gazed into the darkness. She could hear a man’s wheezing, but all she could see were the fluttering of two pale hands and a gleam off the dark bowler on a man’s
head.” Novels send out their narrative threads to other novels, plots nod and mingle like people gathered at a station whose trains have stopped running due to a heavy fog. Back in Copenhagen Mary sees through the window of her tram the passengers in another tram staring back at her with faces as round and as blank as the moon. For a moment she thinks she recognizes someone . . . she’s
not certain . . . The trams separate. Who was it? Within the city, possessing neither a car nor German driver’s license, I travel mostly by tram, sometimes by bus, from thought to thought, book to book, to Majorca, Islamabad, Baghdad, Banff . . . The bells down the street at the Pauluskirche bong ten. I order a croissant and another espresso, then return to my reading.
On Reading Novels
It can happen that we approach a novel in all innocence only to find ourselves, as in a fairy tale, enchanted. I, for example, know a reader who once a week for the past three years has reread James’s “psychological sex thriller” (her description) What Maisie Knew. Of course in a sense she’s right in calling it a thriller, though we shouldn’t overlook the novel’s other pleasures. Novels wish
to impress us, just as lovers do; sometimes they’re coy, sometimes brutally direct, sometimes outraged at our indifference, our cruelty and ignorance. Also as with lovers and most any other relationship, appearances are only half the issue. “Ah, how lovely you look today,” I believe I’ve remarked or thought numerous times upon coming across the spine or face or backside of this or that volume. Can we take this analogy too far? I don’t see how. Surely the novel itself won’t
mind, will it, if I note that the other half of the issue may in part concern the novel’s desire to procreate? To me, no matter the perfection achieved, no matter its sense of completeness and satisfaction, novels always want more from us than our admiration. A fusion is what they want, and beyond fusion they desire us to generate from what we’ve read other novels, words, thoughts, characters, plots as busy as children at play under our feet. They offer us glimpses into regions only they can show us; some of them, you will have noticed, even provide us with maps. But a map can only take us to the frontier of the unmapped, no matter how detailed the cartography, even one as precise as Borges’s map of the world that is the world in every way except that it’s a map. No, what I desire from novels is something else, something that my reading as a young student of the form—Auerbach’s Mimesis, Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, the prefaces of Henry James (only later did I read and reread the Master’s fiction), Cary’s Art and Reality, Wellek and Warren’s Theory of Literature—never quite satisfied, grateful though I am for these astute gentlemen’s books. It’s the novel itself that calls me, not its explication. What John Donne wanted from God, I want from the novel—for it to overthrow and ravish me. I want my bliss straight, unhindered, unmediated; I want a “language lined with flesh” (Barthes), for novels to read me as much as I them. I am sixty-three and childless and live alone in a third floor apartment in Stuttgart, Germany. If you know a novel that might fit what I’ve described, please send it along.
Morning in Nantes
The writer has hold of a tempo that strolls through a summer in Nantes, with the softball-sized, white-blazed, black-bodied coots bobbing on the water along the Promenade de l’Erdre, couples adrift under the magnolia trees in the Jardin des Plantes, the breeze moist off the Atlantic, the sidewalks warming the air with their stored heat, the shops in the Passage Pomeray up early this morning, the boulangeries awake for hours and as eager for our attention as I am to return this afternoon to Morning in Nantes, where nothing of importance seems to happen in this summer of 1938, or at least nothing the novel allows us to observe, not a cloud foreshadows what’s to come, not a cough, no calamities, children passing in and out of the lycèe, then freed to wander the streets and
outskirts of this city that’s more an estuary than seaside town, this city where Jules Verne was born in 1828 (a museum in his name can be found at 3 rue de l’Hermitage), where I’ve never lived or visited except in Morning in Nantes and a few other books, Gracq’s The Shape of a City, for example, the lines of prose at the brink of war crisscrossing with my childhood in southwest Louisiana, where the climate is even warmer, wetter, storms rolling in off the Gulf, swamps on the outskirts where I would play hooky and go snake hunting or hang out at Parker’s Newsstand or the downtown cinemas (the Pitt, the Lyric, the Paramount), and the winters, when they arrived, were as cold and flat as the
landscape that let the eye run on and on until it could go no farther and turned back on itself, as I do to the couple I’ve been following in Morning in Nantes at the moment discussing their future in the summer of 1938 in the Botanical Gardens, exquisite with its ponds, waterways, paths, and pavilions, reminding me of the older though much smaller Jardin des Plantes in Montpellier where I lived one summer when I was twenty-eight with Claire who was studying at the university there, and twenty years later twice visited with my ex-wife, who left me two years ago for reasons I still do not understand, except that like cities we sometimes change, though at base we remain the same.
Tom Whalen’s books include Elongated Figures, The President in Her Towers, Winter Coat, Dolls, The Straw That Broke, and the translation of two works by Robert Walser: Girlfiriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories and Little Snow Landscape (NYRB Classics). His fiction, poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in Agni, Bookforum, The Brooklyn Rail, Film Quarterly, Georgia Review, Harper’s, The Literary Review, The Missouri Review, The Paris Review, Witness, and other journals.