Monday 7 September 2015

Monique Schwitter: Eins im Anderen

Here's a book that grew and grew on me. At first glance it seems to be built around a rather anodyne premise: twelve chapters detailing twelve loves in the narrator's life, all with the names of apostles. Which raises the question of whose companions they might be, that whole "bigger than Jesus" thing all over again. But why not?

Gradually, though, Eins im Anderen becomes more complex and tangled of its own accord, the story taking hold of the narrator and giving her something of a shaking. It opens with the narrator, a writer and mother of two small boys, googling her first boyfriend. Now who hasn't done that? Mine is now in Canada, it seems; our narrator's killed himself four years previously. What starts out as an introspective project – always well written, giving us miniature stories to enjoy – gradually shifts to include the wider world. The narrator's husband, previously skulking in the background of the framework narrative, working late shifts and consulting his telephone obsessively as husbands do, butts in rather rudely before his turn to be described in the chronology of men. He's been doing something rather bad, you see, which comes as rather a surprise and upsets family life.

And from then on this ostensibly orderly list of love stories becomes a glorious mess, jumbled and chaotic and taking in other kinds of love – friendship, a kind of asexual cohabitation, an unsuitable infatuation, an affair strangely sanctioned by the man's wife, a fantasy – and our picture of the perfect mother is skewed. Things – men – she'd left out of her official life story start coming out of the woodwork, jolted back to mind by events, making the narrator look less and less saintly. And the final chapter is a reckoning with betrayal, I can only assume, an angry shout at a man who left her, emerging as the narrator finishes off her book.

Schwitter uses only one gimmick in her novel – the conceit of the book being written as we read it. Imagine all the awful clever things she could have done: different styles for different men, different tenses or voices, I don't know what else. Instead, she gives us consistently good writing as her character loses her consistency. There was one particular moment that made me smile, when the narrator reads the novel's first chapter at an event, about a third of the way in. It turns out to be a bad choice of text:
Because audiences tend to confuse a first-person narrator with the author, a tendency that grows when the author reads the first-person text aloud. (...) Possibly, my introverted, unhappy reading turns the audience's tendency to confuse the narrator with the author into a certainty that one, precisely one and only one person is standing here before them: the narrator. An woman unlucky in love. The whole reading a single drawn-out cry for love, a call for help to the men in the audience.
Isn't that great? So meta.

The book is longlisted for the German Book Prize but I don't know whether the Anglophone rule of thumb about literary prizes going to books about men will apply in this case. A very quick review of previous winners suggests the most popular focus is actually families rather than men or women on their own. That would work in Schwitter's favour – because ultimately, this is a novel about a family in which the mother has a past. Well worth reading.

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