Sunday, 17 February 2008

Die Nacht, die Lichter

I've done it. I've read the new book by Clemens Meyer. In fact I finished it last weekend but it took me a while to recover.

First things first - it's more polished than his novel. I mean that in a good way. I think you can tell he's more confident about his writing, more willing to stray outside his usual parameters, and happier to experiment. So while the first story is very much in the confusing, whirligig tradition of Als wir träumten, almost an atmosphere study of a male protagonist failing to get a grip on his life in a Leipzig ground-floor flat, some of the others stand out for their different subject matter or techniques. There are girls, rich people, but of course the inevitable boxers - all of them in moments of confusion, crisis or death and descent.

And then there is what the reviewer in the link calls "a typical American short story" depicting everyday working life in a cash-n-carry. I suppose, like the novel, it's about a fairly well-adjusted guy looking on as those around him fall apart. But it's intruiging, especially as one or two characters crop up later who seem to come from this world too. Other critics have trashed it as "early work" but I still enjoyed it.

Meyer has given a very revealing interview, bizarrely, to the business magazine Wirtschaftswoche, talking about victims of the canon. He talks about his admiration for Ernest Hemingway, among other writers of the "fodder for wild young men in the GDR" variety - Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson... And he says he lifted whole sentences from Hemingway's A Pursuit Race. Now, being in a state of unhealthy obsession, I felt obliged to get hold of and read the story. I'm very glad I did, not least because it's in a whole 650-page book. I'd never read Hemingway for one reason or another (not that I'm strictly blaming my school English teachers - London comprehensives just didn't really stretch to American literature in the 1980s). And now I'm enthralled by his skill and the down-and-dirty themes. Not unlike Meyer really.

So I read the Pursuit Race story - of a man "hopped to the eyes" and enjoying hiding under a sheet in a Kansas City hotel room. And I found it difficult to work out which sentences were lifted in Meyer's book - no doubt because he lifted them from the German translation - doh! - and because rather a lot of the stories have sheets in them.

But then I read the first story in the big fat Hemingway collection, entitled The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. This is an excellent story that changes pace and uses incredibly long sentences and connects all the clauses with ands so that when you get to the action on safari you're reading so fast you might trip up and fall but you don't and you're picked up and carried along and your pulse quickens and your face goes red and it's so exciting you start holding your breath and then boom. Ding ding ding! It went in my head. So I picked up Die Nacht, die Lichter again and there it was: Das kurze und glückliche Leben des Johannes Vettermann. And if the title's not a big fat clue then I don't know what is. Johannes Vettermann is an ageing and ailing wholesale greengrocer-com-artist, pissing the last of his family fortune up the wall in a (Leipzig?) hotel room, off his face on drugs. "Er lag plötzlich unter einem Laken, das er bis über die Nase gezogen hatte..." I don't know if the animals he hallucinates are pointing back at Francis Macomber's failed safari or not. But it works. Unlike in the Pusuit Race, there is no concerned friend to come by, just two prostitutes who can't get it up for him.

He doesn't rip Hemingway off - it's more like tipping his hat at his inspiration. The man who showed him how to write these excellent short stories.

My favourite in the whole book is Von Hunden und Pferden, taking a feather out of Hemingway's cap when it comes to those "ands". It starts at the limping pace of an injured dog, gradually gathering velocity until it reaches the break-neck speed of a horse race, told with the jangling perspectives of a man drunk on adrenaline and joy - only to fall flat on its face in the last two lines. This is, for me, beautiful storytelling, it made me feel dizzy and left my head reeling, gasping for breath like I'd been slapped round the face. The way Meyer puts all that speed into his writing is truly impressive.

No comments: