Response to: And Never Said a Word, by Henrich Böll, Rosshalde, by Herman Hesse, and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera

The following is an old analysis/writing examination of three books. First done in 2011.

This is a pseudo-combined response to the three novels.  The common thread is that they are all European, with Böll and Kundera having ultimately similar themes.  I will not directly compare techniques so much as cross reference between them as I discuss each one.

As with my previous attempt at a combined response, I am sure that one book will have a tendency to overwhelm the other two; in this case Kundera’s is the more complex, more enjoyable, and more multilayered.  All three books have craft lessons worth imitating; this is especially true as Kundera’s writing is rather hard to imitate.

As a son of a Czech immigrant, where my grandparents and great grandmother also escaped, I have a biased viewpoint and interest regarding all things Czech.  In reading Kundera this time, as in the past when I read The Joke, and Unbearable Lightness of Being, the insights into the experience of life in Czechoslovakia, viewed from the outside by a Czech, resonates.  Given that my mother’s side of the family’s life was forever changed by World War II,  Böll’s novel was also close to home.  I think that ultimately this family history helps in analyzing not just content, but the craft, because it may give me more insight as to what is driving the author and what the author is trying to achieve.  Of course, I risk the folly of illusions of empathy and reading too much into the novels.

Kundera’s novel is rather unique and if you have not read it, you should just for the craft and what he is doing.  The term “novel” for this book is rather loose.  It is what Kundera calls it, but as he explicitly tells you, toward the end of the book, “This entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey leading toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, the sense of which fades into the distance. (165)”  He is doing several things by telling the reader this, so late in the novel.  First, notice the breaking of the Fourth Wall as it is called in theatre and film.  The author is talking directly to us in the middle of the presentation.  The main part of the novel is not in first person, but this fourth wall is broken often throughout the book; more on this later.   The technique of musical variations, or themes, is indeed one of the things Kundera is using. What he also does is self- reference his own theme a number of times.  This creates strange echos.  Just previous to the fore mentioned quote, Kundera is talking about his father—well we assume it is actually Kundera’s father as it is a first person interlude in the current story, talking about “my father.”  His father was studying Beethoven’s variations that Beethoven did toward the end of his life.  The last words, before a stroke, or some other dementia strikes the father is to “he called me into his room, pointed to the music, and said ‘Now I know!’ (161)”  Kundera’s drift from one variation (his father’s story), to the one he had just left, while still breaking the Fourth Wall, is all seamless and acceptable, which is astonishing as normally I hate the break of the Fourth Wall:

“The silence of my father, whom all words eluded, the silence of the hundred and forty-five historians, who have been forbidden to remember,[1] that myriad-voiced silence resounding from all over my country forms the background of the picture against which I paint Tamina.

She went on serving coffee at the café in a small town in Western Europe. But she no longer moved in the aura of friendly civility that used to draw in customers.” (161)

The story of Tamina is ostensibly the one we are actually reading at the time. What is interesting is that we never really know if this is all fiction or not. Is it really a set of essays, variations on the theme, with the professorial author telling us what he is thinking as he writes, or is it all part of the larger play?  This is a bit like Nabokov’s book Pale Fire, but only a bit, there we really know it is all fiction.  Kundera refers to his character as if she were real, “It is no wonder, then, that the vaiation form became the passion of the mature Beethoven, who (like Tamina and me) knew all too well that there is nothing more unbearable than losing a person we love—those sixteen measures and the inner universe of their infinite possibilities. (165)”  The last clause is another insight to the book.  The book uses the variations, the breaking of the Fourth Wall, as a method of dropping into the infinite (to steal a phrase), throughout the book.

I am centering on the more unique aspects of Kundera’s book.  The problem with a short analysis is that he uses so many techniques.  There is a heavy touch of magical realism in the book also. The Tamina character ends up driving with a man who drops her off at a sea shore, where a small boy in a boat ferries her to an island of children, where she is stuck.  The metaphors of death, forgetting, and no turning back ala Greek mythology and Hades are mixed with memories of childhood and that childhood is not all good.  Another touch of magical realism is in one of the earlier variations.   In The Angels (each major variation is a section of the book, but then each section has more variations) is about the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia, primarily post 1968, which influences so much of Kundera’s writing and what this book’s major theme is: the effects of fleeing your own country and what the occupiers did to the country, the need to forget, the country’s ability to forget, the inability to truly forget.   This section, as all sections jumps back and forth between two stories and the narrator.  One story is the essay on the Czech occupation and the effect on writers, the other is a strange tale of two girls in a French art/play class examining the play Rhinoceros, by Ionesco and the absurdity of both the play and the Russians and the ability to believe the absurdity.  He is talking about mass psychology and the ability to part of a group.  Of forming a circle.  Excluding those who are not part of the group.

 

“And she laughed and stamped the ground a little harder and rose a few inches above the pavement, pulling the others along with her, and before long not one of them was touching the ground, they were taking two steps in place and one step forward without touching the ground, yes, they were rising up over Wenceslaus Square, their ring the very image of giant wreath taking flight, and I ran off after them on the ground, I kept looking up at them, and they floated on, lifting first one leg, then the other, and down below—Prague with its cafes full of poets and its jails full of traitors, and in the crematorium they were just finishing off one Socialist representative and one surrealist, and the smoke climbed to the heavens like a good omen, and I heard Eluard’s metallic voice intoning,

Love is at work it is tireless,

and I ran after that voice through the streets in the hope of keeping up with the wonderful wreath of bodies rising above the city, and I realized with anguish in my heart that they were flying like birds and I was falling like a stone, that they had wings and I would never have any. (67-68)

 

This is one of the main themes captured in a magical realist turn of phrase.  He was blacklisted from writing in post 1968 Czechoslovakia because he would not conform, yet he acknowledges he wanted to in some way.  But, those who conformed lived in their own world and he could not live in that world.

Each theme, or variation, has its own set of embedded essays that thread their way through.  It is hard to quote something like this, indeed it is hard to quote for this complex book that mixes so many pieces.  One essay observation that I like as it is 40 years ahead of Twitter’s time is: “Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding. (106)”

Returning to the Fourth Wall and a narrator jumping out.  Often these are almost essays on writing, but since he states his intention we tend to think that while the lesson may be valid, the essay itself is prose that is really part of the story:

Am I trying to confirm Karel’s suspicion that their little homespun orgies were nothing but exercises in suffering and self-denial for Marketa?

No, that would be an oversimplification. Marketa really did desire the women she thought were Karel’s mistresses, she desired them with both her body and her senses. (48-49)

My final note is that often passages in Kundera’s work are fabulous bits quotable quotes  and stand on their own.  This variation of themes allows the writer to play with that and come up with these standalone gems, without it seeming to jar from the flow of reading.  He uses some of these powerful sentences, or paragraphs, to set up entire themes: “It is 1971, and Mirek says that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. (3)” or “Russia, composer of the master fugue for the globe, could not tolerate the thought of notes taking off on their own. (14)” or “…every love relationship is based on unwritten conventions rashly agreed upon by the lovers during the first weeks of their love. (36)”

I am not sure how well I can use Kundera’s craft techniques, but there is something in this set of tools that captures the angst of an entire country and group of people and illustrates that often, despite the differences, we are all variations on a theme and have been touched by war, occupation, and immigration.  “ ‘The first step in liquidating a people,’ said Hubl, “is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.’ (159)”

Böll’s book, And Never Said a Word, takes place in the still rebuilding Germany. The surface techniques are well known: alternating point of view between a husband and wife, each chapter is a scene, with almost never multiple scenes in a single chapter.  This works because this is a study of two people and only two people.  It is a play, almost.  The scenery itself feels unimportant, but this latter bit is misleading as the background is a constant reminder of a crushed Germany rebuilding itself.  However, by making it seem unimportant Böll succeeds in making even non-Germans empathize with the situation (recall this was printed in 1953, written no doubt in 1951-52).  The background scenery is not in your face, but like a good stage production, it is there without distracting from the actors.  The same is true of the writing style.  I am reminded of Hemmingway, at one level.  I like, certainly as a voice that I try and develop at times, the idea of simplicity that simultaneously tells a lot.

“I clasped my hands around the coffee cup, drinking down some of its warmth, and slowly repeated the rules of fractions to that healthy face, knowing that it was futile.  He is a likeable child, but stupid, stupid like his parents and his brothers and sisters; and there is only one intelligent person in the house: the maid. (7)”

The other technique that I like, that I tend to forget, is the subtle ensuring that the voice is not passive, even when the character is.  The narrator does not second guess himself, he “knows” what the other characters are thinking and we the reader can decide how accurate he is over time. This is not new, nor even brilliantly done, but well done.  Some examples: “I could tell from the sudden animation in his voice that he meant it. (12)” or “…I realized that they were afraid of being alone with each other, the they were afraid of the books, the cigarettes, and the tea, that they dreaded the evening, the unending boredom they had taken upon themselves out of fear of the boredom of their marriage. (12)”

The novel spans two or three days.  As a technique to get the point across, this is not unlike what I was thinking in my current exercise in writing first person.  What I struggle with and this book also struggles with, is the subtlety of any sort of character arc in that period.  Slice of life books are difficult to do well and just as my current effort is struggling with not being boring and not getting too depressing, this book does also.  It is two to three days of a disintegrated, yet not bitter, marriage where they are separated, but not in a mind numbing backdrop of poverty and despair in post WWII Germany.  So what does the author do to keep us from sinking into despair and putting the book down?  One technique is the infinite moment.  Since elapsed time is so short, there needs to be interesting insights into their world, interesting enough to hold our attention.  Certainly something I could learn! For some, Böll will be too depressing:

Again and again I life the empty container under the slowly running tap, my eyes seize upon the unfocused milky distance at the back of the mirror—and I see the bodies of my two children, covered with swollen bedbug bites, bitten all over by lice, and I feel sick to my stomach at the thought of that vast army of vermin mobilized by war. Billions of lice and bedbugs, of mosquitoes and fleas, are on a the march as soon as war breaks out, following the silent command that tells them there’s a feast to be had. (46)

The mirror is used quite a bit in the book, but it does not come across as cliché.

There is a similarity in what Böll is ultimately writing about and what Kundera is, which is the inability to forget war and trauma and the effect upon relationships. Böll’s milieu includes the physical destruction, but really what he is focusing includes the people that Fred (and to a lesser extent his wife) encounter.  Fred is essentially homeless and almost unemployed, working odd jobs and borrowing money all the time to support his wife and kids and to play pinball and drink. As he wanders from acquaintance to acquaintance, we see how miserable everyone is, in their own way, except perhaps a young woman, her mentally handicapped brother, and her father.  They run a small food stand, yet are the only truly happy characters in the book. She shows up several times, and makes up the major sub-plot of the whole book.  This may sound like analysis of the book itself, rather than craft, but it is the preamble to this. When everything is dark and dismal, throwing a bone, a small ray of light is good technique.  The protagonist and reader both don’t want to lose the comfort of the girl. “Even in broad daylight she was beautiful and I hesitated a moment before leaving. I could have stayed for hours, just sitting and waiting: I turned my back on the three of them and paused, then pulled myself together, muttered ‘Good-bye,’ and hurried out. (41)”  A few sentences later: “I lit a cigarette and turned slowly in the direction of the city to raise some money and find a room for the night. (41)”

One technique, that needs no quotes, is that Böll goes for balance in this book. Alternating between husband and wife POV, man and woman, one distrusts religion, one is drawn to it, one strives for cleanliness in an impossibly dirty world, the other doesn’t really care, very ying and yang.  Both protagonists are completely flawed in their own way, neither is better than the other. One sympathizes with the situation, the inevitability of it all, both and neither of the characters are to blame.  I am not sure that I would use this balancing technique, but it forces the reader to not simply blame the character, but examine other aspects.

Ultimately, from a craft perspective, I would take the direct language that is accented by interesting similes and metaphors used only sparingly as perhaps something to imitate. I leave Böll with one of those: “I can’t forget a face, the all follow me, and I recognize them as soon as they turn up again. They paddle around in my subconscious, especially those I’ve seen once and briefly, they swim around like shadowy grey fish among the weeds in a muddy pond. Sometimes their heads thrust up almost to the surface, but they emerger totally when I actually see them again.  Restlessly I hunted through he swarm in this pond, jerked up the line, and there was, the waiter….” (105-106)

Hesse’s Rosshalde is the odd book out, primarily because it does not deal with war’s, nor occupation’s aftermath, but it does deal with a disintegrated marriage, thus fitting with both of the other novels, which touch on either marriage, or relationships.  Like Böll, Hesse focuses on a relatively small slice of time, primarily a couple of weeks.  With Rosshalde I struggled to determine if the translation was a good one or not.  I have read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf and this seemed to leverage a language and structure that seems very dated compared to those two. It is perhaps intentional, or it is translation, or simply the novel has not withstood the test of time as well as it could have.  That said, there are some craft pieces worth exploring.

One is that despite the entire novel taking place at Rosshalde, the name for the grounds and house, we actually get very little detail about them.  The protagonist is a painter, so I expected quite a bit, but Hesse in some sense sketches in the grounds and house, just an artist might, without completing the canvas.  We get the sense and some details trickle out over time, but only as they are directly pertinent to the story and to the mood.  The house is a metaphor for the story and his life.  Empty rooms, that we don’t know about, a shell of a man, with some particular areas well defined and kept up.

The POV is one that I try and avoid—the third person omniscient—not because it doesn’t work, nor because it is too difficult, but because readers tend to view it as a constantly shifting POV rather than an omniscient view that zooms in on characters of interest at will. Indeed it is very like a camera and Hesse does this well—so that one is not jarred.  Or, I should say I was not, I know many readers who abhor this sort of shift, illustrated below where Otto (the guest) is talking with the wife.  We have a page of his POV and thoughts:

Don’t worry,” he laughed in return. “I’ve just planted another six thousand rubber trees, I’ll soon be a regular nabob.

When Veraguth came for him, he found the two fo them chatting as merrily as could be. He was amazedto see how loquacious his wife had become, tried in vain to join in the conversation, and admired the presents rather clumsily.” (34-35)

Thus, by giving us the small clause as an intro, we have jumped POVs.

The omniscient as used by Hesse here tends toward a lot of “telling” which feels a bit strange given how much emphasis so many creative writing classes give on “show, don’t tell.”

Hesse also tends to string adjectives together a lot, something E.B. White might object to in Elements of Style—although he occasionally did so himself.  Hesse has “fresh, high-spirited, imperious boy (47)” or “ascetic, hard-working bachelor (31),” or “delicately cooled, leaf-scented evening air (61)” and “cruelly bright, beautiful, luminous daylight.” These generally work, but do stand out.

The third person omniscient tends to be more impersonal than a more intimate single third person. In this particular book I think it is on the edge of not working. Another reason I might avoid using it.

In the interest of space, I will wrap up with one final observation of what I liked.  I started to notice that each chapter (or most of them) ended with a very nice last sentence.  Not a cliff hanger, nor even something that foretells the next scene or chapter, but just something that felt like an interesting last sentence.  A few: “Veraguth sat alone, holding the sheet of paper with the cats on it. (95)” or “It descended in soft swathes from the darkness and for a long time he lay awake listening as it fell in the little tinkling streams from the sodden foliage to the thirsty earth. (112)”  or “His pale little face had the gravity of utter abandonment to consoling sleep. (128)” and “He understood that this had to be, that he must relinquish his dearest and best and purest possession, and see it die.”

In closing, two of the three authors are Nobel Prize winners, yet I think the best writing was Kundera’s, but as I stated at the beginning, I have that Czech bias.

[1] These hundred and forty five historians are from yet another variation Kundera has “played” earlier.

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