Sunday, 25 January 2015

Lukas Bärfuss: Koala

The German independent publisher Jörg Sundermeier has an interview in Buchmarkt magazine, in which he complains about the quantity and quality of serious book reviews in the German press. Wisely, he admits that he's not the first to do so; I suspect criticizing criticism is like complaining that the youth of today have a short attention span – it's been the done thing since the ancient Greeks. But still, I too have my problems with German literary critics, the main one being that they're still very shy of writing in the first person and thereby admitting that what they're saying is necessarily subjective. The German language allows them to do so, with the indefinite personal pronoun man suggesting a universality that simply can't exist in judging art. I find it dishonest and something approaching arrogant when a critic writes, for example, "Man würde gern die Form dieses Romans zerschlagen, damit seine Figuren und ihre Schöpferin wieder atmen können." Wrong: the critic would like to smash the novel's mould so that its characters and its writer can breathe again, not a non-existent generic reader.

That quote is from a negative review, something not as unusual in the German press as in the Anglophone media, I would say (although Sundermeier complains that there are too many diplomatic pieces that dodge the quality issue). Certainly, it's perfectly fine to trash established writers' work, although I have the feeling debut novelists (and particularly young women) get a little more mollycoddling. I don't have a problem with that, to be honest; why be an arsehole and pick someone's first book apart when you can just refrain from writing about it? But I've been thinking about negative reviews and what to do about them myself, prompted by a friend accidentally pointing me in the direction of a Bret Easton Ellis interview in Vice. Ellis – do you need to know what I think of his writing? No, not relevant – talks about the young generation not being as good as his generation, and calls them "Generation Wuss":
It’s very difficult for them to take criticism, and because of that a lot of the content produced is kind of shitty. And when someone is criticised for their content, they seem to collapse, or the person criticising them is called a hater, a contrarian, a troll.
In a way it’s down to the generation that raised them, who cocooned them in praise – four stars for showing up, you know? But eventually everyone has to hit the dark side of life; someone doesn’t like you, someone doesn’t like your work, someone doesn’t love you back… people die. What we have is a generation who are super-confident and super-positive about things, but when the least bit of darkness enters their lives, they’re paralysed. (...)
I think David Foster Wallace is a complete fraud. I’m really shocked that people take him seriously. People say the same thing about me of course, and I’ve been criticised for saying these things about Wallace due to the very sentimental narrative attached to him since he killed himself.
But it all ties into Generation Wuss and its wussy influence on social media to a degree; if you have a snarky opinion about anything, you’re a douche. To me, that’s problematic. It limits discourse. If you just like everything, what are we going to talk about? How great everything is? How often I’ve pushed the Like button on my Facebook page?
Is it BuzzFeed who said they’re not going to run any negative reviews any more? Really, guys? What’s going to happen to culture then? What’s going to happen to conversation? It’s going to die.
I rarely post negative reviews on love german books, the main reason being that I prefer not to spend more time than necessary on books I don't admire in some way (enjoy would be the wrong word). But I said that I'd read Lukas Bärfuss's Koala after it won the Swiss Book Prize and after a couple of people had enthused about it to me. And it turns out that I didn't admire the book. At the same time, I was reluctant to write about it because it's a novel (or so it says on the cover) about the writer's brother's suicide. And while I haven't noticed a "sentimental narrative" around the book, the very personal subject matter made me think twice. Yet if I'm convinced that criticism can only ever be subjective – until we've agreed on a definition of the perfect novel – then I have to be able to criticize a novel about the writer's brother's suicide. Equally, if the writer had intended his book to be an entirely private matter, he needn't have published it. I'm guessing Bärfuss is not someone who wants to be liked by everybody.

So what happens in Koala? Bärfuss (he has given an interview saying there's no gap at all between his narrator and himself in the book, not unlike Bret Easton Ellis and Patrick Bateman, apparently) sees his brother one last, unspectacular time in their home town and then hears that he's committed suicide. He has trouble dealing with it; there was no note and they weren't close, half-brothers who didn't grow up together. We find out a little about the brother's unspectacular life, an unsuccessful one in conventional terms: he took and sold drugs, collected comics, worked in a homeless shelter. Bärfuss gives us a first tangent by looking at other suicides, then moves on to the next one by investigating his brother's nickname, Koala. We get an imagined story of how he was given it, which then moves on to a long section on the koala itself. This takes us, probably unavoidably, to Australia, with lots of historical imaginings of the first European settlers, based on journals. And then back to his brother's funeral in Switzerland.

Bärfuss has two hypotheses, both of them presented as fact. Firstly that his brother was in some way like a koala: not leaving his home town, ingesting poison, never expending more effort than necessary. OK. He can say that; it's an interesting idea, at least, and seeing as we didn't know the brother we can hardly say it's not the case. Yet to me it seems a little presumptious, perhaps even downright rude, to assume that the childhood nickname stuck because the kids who gave it to him knew he was going to become that way as an adult, or even that the kids were doing anything more than picking on him. Or is the idea that the nickname acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy? I'm not quite sure; I don't think the idea is expanded fully. Either way, what we're getting is Bärfuss's view of his brother, very possibly ignoring aspects of his life of which he wasn't aware; his job, for instance, isn't really explored. Perhaps because Bärfuss didn't consider it prestigious or productive? And yet he was actually helping others directly, in a way that writers can only do obliquely.

The second hypothesis goes further. Bärfuss decides, in the course of his research into Australia and suicide, that society rejects suicide because it removes the individual from the work force. We all have to work, so (Calvinist? Swiss?) society tells us – so Bärfuss tells us – and anyone opting out of that cycle is harming society. The writer presents this hypothesis too as though it were fact; he's established it, so it must be true. In my experience, suicide has a different effect, upsets me and makes me personally angry for a different reason. It feels like a rejection, like someone is saying: none of you could help me and I don't care enough for you to spare you my death; you go on living and taking responsibility for others, I'm leaving you behind to miss me. It feels like someone is ending their own pain and by doing so inflicting pain on others. It makes me angry and upset not because suicides are refusing to participate in productive work – there are plenty of people who do that while still alive – but because they're deliberately taking themselves away from their friends and family. Perhaps I'm confusing my dislike of critics' pretense at objectivity with the author's here; perhaps a novel is allowed to do that. Still, I don't have to like it.

A few other things prevented me from admiring Koala. The material on Australia, while fascinating in its way, went too far beyond the koala for my taste. It felt like the writer was veering very far afield and it took a sharp manoeuvre to get back on track. And then there's the language. Particularly at the beginning, Bärfuss uses very old-fashioned sentence structure and word choice, almost harking back to Thomas Mann with all his jeners and vornehmlichs and – oh yes – mans, his free indirect speech. Again, a matter of taste; it's not to mine and it made the narrator seem strangely removed and arrogant, prevented empathy. Towards the end, then, Bärfuss tends towards pathos. Both leave the door wide open for cliché.

And then there's what I experienced as intellectual arrogance, most notably at either end of the book. The novel opens with the narrator being invited to hold a talk about a German poet who committed suicide. Neat bracket, OK. But Bärfuss never mentions the writer's name, assuming we'll know he's referring to Heinrich Kleist. Because of course his readers will know instantly who he's talking about, unlike his brother, who showed no interest in attending the talk. And then at the end he describes the funeral and a song played there, again giving us enough clues to work out it's Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" but not saying so outright. Why do that? Why not just tell us? It made me angry, and it made me feel that the narrator hadn't lost any of his arrogance in the course of the book – although why should he?

To round it off, the book ends with what I experienced as a cheap punchline. Having celebrated the rebellious art of not working (in his view), the author drives home, sits down at his desk and starts working. It all made me say a loud "huh". And that's what the whole book felt like to me. One big "huh". Having admired Bärfuss's Hundert Tage enormously, I was all the more disappointed.


Jean said...

It's been a while since I've read the book, but I'd like to understand your points a bit better. Why exactly did you dislike the way the narrator states his hypothesis as a fact? Is it a "show don't tell" kind of thing or is it the fact that you don't share his view?

As I remember it, the "suicide vs. Swiss work ethics" thing worked for me because – as you mentioned – it's used as a premise for sending the narrator back to work (staving off emptiness) at the end. I didn't really feel it was necessary to agree with the narrator to enjoy following this thought to its conclusion.

I also remember finding it odd how he avoids Kleist's name while going into so much detail about him. I shrugged it of as mannerism though.

kjd said...

Jean, not sharing his view underlined, for me, the way Bärfuss seemed to be presenting subjective opinion as objective fact. I objected to that, although of course it's his "novel" so he can do what he wants with his opinions within it.

What I wanted to do here was be as subjective as possible about my reading of the novel. I think that probably makes the review less readable than a professional one. But I don't really care about that in the context.

I didn't read the suicide vs. work thing as a premise for the ending, but rather the ending as a cop-out, a weak joke like at the end of The Dukes of Hazzard. Ha, I thought, the guy's gone to all this trouble to posit this theory about the heroism of koalas and Koala, all the pathos with the church being the oldest in the universe, and this is all the self-reflection we get?

But to be honest by that point I was in such a bad mood I was bound to hate any ending.

Helen MacCormac said...

I liked this book a lot, and I read it a very different way. I think the greatest difference between our two readings comes at the end. I was so relieved when the narrator finally managed to sit down to write the story he had just written. I felt very unsure he would manage that.
At the same time - don't worry - it's good to hear what you think. No one expects you to like everything.+