There’s something about prose written by poets that seems to get every translator’s pulse racing. Ralf Rothmann springs to mind immediately, but there are other examples. It always seems so densely written, every word so laden with meaning, and often with its own rhythm that many writers don’t even aspire to. And what if that poet writing prose is also a translator? Frankly, she can’t put a foot wrong.
And Ulrike Draesner doesn’t. Vorliebe is the first of her novels I’ve read, although I’ve enjoyed her poetry in the past. In fact, you can read various Draesner poems at the wonderful lyrikline website, translated into English by Catherine Hales, Iain Galbraith, Richard Dove and Andrew Shields. Delightful, aren’t they? She herself has translated Shakespeare, Gertrude Stein and others.
But here we have a novel, a book in which nothing much happens. The main character is another physicist: Harriet, also known as Jet, and occasionally as “Hay” for her white-blonde hair. Her common-law husband is Ashley, a British engineer. And then she becomes re-entangled with Peter Olvaeus, her Vorliebe or past love. Who’s a Protestant priest twenty years her senior, with a wife and son. That’s pretty much the extent of the plot, really.
Harriet met Olvaeus at the age of sixteen and fell for him big-time. So Draesner gives us some teeth-clenching moments from that teenage crush, beautifully rendered. And then she sees him again after Ashley has mown down his wife in a car accident. Here’s that moment, just scraping by on the right side of kitsch:
It was as if Harriet were falling into a huge travel bag.
She slid through iridescent material, closing up around her like a dress the instant she touched it. Airy light, bright red rubbed over her outstretched hands, tiny beads trembled on sleeves that embraced her wrists, she admired the flora and fauna of finest embroidery, the lilac of a feather boa, the dark gleaming microfibre enclosing her legs, touched a crackling bustier with hooks like stars.
I hope that gives you an idea. Because as you might have guessed, the lure of the novel – for me – is in the language. And when at times Draesner goes too far, Harriet brings her back down to earth with a scientific bump.
There are other aspects I loved, though. Ashley is a great character, a tight-lipped Brit constantly wondering at the oddities of life in Berlin and the German language. True to British form, he is perfectly aware of Harriet’s affair but refuses to mention it. The sections about Harriet’s job at a research institute are brilliantly cynical, and the philosophical aspects of the physicist-priest combination come across well. Plus the riveting eroticism.
The structure is fun too. Draesner skips back and forth in Harriet’s life story, each section beginning with part of Jet’s application to become an astronaut. And while I did say nothing much happens, that’s not entirely true. There’s a definite development towards a sudden end, with the final lines encompassing the entire story in a graceful arc:
23.6 light years away from the earth, you could see her and Peter now by the TV tower. NOW. You just had to catch the right ray of light.