Janne Teller wrote the first version of War, her razor-sharp imagining of - in its latest, English-language incarnation - Brits as refugees forced to flee a devastated London for sanctuary in Egypt, as If the Nordic countries were at war in 2001. It might have seemed prophetic, but Denmark was already turning its back on compassion for immigrants, and besides, Teller herself comes from a family of Austrian/German refugees.
The point being, I suppose, that writers who seem so prophetic are simply aware of the eternal values and predicaments, history repeating itself or at least rhyming. It's not, in my opinion, their place to examine the causes. One person in the very interesting and distinguished company Janne's and our mutual friend Marianne had assembled for Sunday brunch and a reading raised that aspect, and it's true that there are different kinds of writers who combine fiction with polemical journalism.
But the imagination must have its free rein in selecting what it thinks is pertinent, and Teller has done that so powerfully in the other myths she's created (I've already written here about Nothing, which I was inspired to buy at Glyndebourne following the Youth Opera's extraordinary work on a project derived from it, and I'm currently spellbound in the middle of Odin's Island, where Teller raises questions about dogmatic religions and politics in the imagined face of the old god coming back to earth as a wizened, forgetful little old man).
War is not so much a myth as a what if? miniature masterpiece. It's so short and to the point that I might dent it by quoting or evoking; suffice it to say that it makes you face all the realities of, say, Syrian refugees by applying them to yourself. As Teller writes in her afterword, 'it becomes about the definition of self, both for the ones who arrive as strangers as for the ones who receive the strangers'. The presentation, as a sort of EU passport with very singular illustrations by Helle Vibeke Jensen, pushes boundaries in book production, too. I'd like to see the many other versions in different languages. Each must be specially tailored to the country in question's circumstances. What was she like to meet? Absolutely natural, curious and gracious, everything you would expect.
I turned to Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle because I wanted to follow up Philip Roth's The Plot Against America with another vision of an American dystopia. Little did I know what a remarkable exercise in literary style I was going to find. Like Kurt Vonnegut in his so-called Science Fiction books, Dick has been pigeonholed in a way that would seem to stop him being acclaimed as one of the best writers of all time.
So here, too, it's not just the imagination or the prophecy; the sheer humanity of Dick's complex characters makes this as heartwrenching a novel as Roth's, and much closer to what may happen in America with Trump's advent (if it ever gets to him becoming President - one begins to have hopeful doubts of the kind that have proliferated with the Brexit quagmire).
Not that the parallels of the actual situation are as close. San Francisco sits within the Japanese sphere of influence, a much better alternative to the Nazi zone which includes New York. Nevertheless so much in each character's stream of consciousness is pertinent to now, like when the double agent Baynes aka Wegener reflects on the fellow German with whom he is travelling (with apologies for filleting; it's all good):
Am I racially kin to this man?...So closely that for all intents and purposes it is the same? Then it is in me, too, the psychotic streak. A psychotic world we live in. The madmen are in power...
But he thought, what does it mean, insane? A legal definition. What do I mean? i feel it, see it, but what is it?
He thought, it is something they do, something they are. It is their unconsciousness. Their lack of knowledge about others. Their not being aware of what they do to others, the destruction they have caused and are causing....
Their view; it is cosmic. Not a man here, a child there, but an abstraction: race, land. Volk, Land. Blut. Ehre. Not of honourable men but of Ehre itself, honour; the abstract is real, the actual is invisible to them. Die Güte; but not good men, this good man. It is their sense of space and time. They see through the here, the now, into the vast black deep beyond, the unchanging. And that is fatal to life. Because eventually there will be no life...
They want to be the agents, not the victims, of history. They identify with God's power and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness. They are overcome by some archetype; their egos have expanded psychotically so that they cannot tell where they begin and the godhead leaves off.
And so on. Not everything here applies to Trump, I know. But it's all good, even when Dick is at his most freewheeling. And he tells a taut story which eventually becomes a thriller, interweaving the lives of the five main characters and giving the only woman independence of spirit (not bad for 1962). Cleverest of all, perhaps, is the idea of the novel-within-the-novel, the 'Man in the High Castle' Hawthorne Absensen's vision of an alternative reality which corresponds in many respects, though crucially not all, to what actually happened after the Second World War. Dick not only 'quotes' from the book but uses it as a tool of hope - the power of the spoken word to kindle a resistance.
The ending is deliberately left open, so that the novel lives beyond its physical duration. Even so, I'm not going to watch the TV series, which seems from a resume to be rather loosely based on the book in the first place. 20 episodes down and another series about to be released? Doesn't look right to me. The Ur-text's the thing.
In another connection, take a look at what I've written about Péter Esterházy's text for his friend Péter Eötvös's Halleluja - Oratorium Balbulum over on The Arts Desk. The two pictured above in their only photographed meeting in March this year - Esterházy died in July just before Halleluja's world premiere - by Szilvia Csibi for Müpa Budapest. Two more prophets, then, who know about the laws of recurrence.
Have saved your TAD piece to read later & look forward to that. Heard a Péter Eötvös piece, DoReMi, at the NY Phil sometime back, with Midori as the violinist. I don't remember enough to say anything about it, but did enjoy it at the time. Your "writer as prophet" theme offers a bit of serendipity, as I'm in the midst of reading Cees Nooteboom's "Roads to Berlin" (non-fiction, meditations on post WWII Berlin and the fall of the Wall as it happened) and on the very page I have just read he writes, "In the coming decades, that era will be documented [by which he means pre-Wall Mitteleuropa]--the indignities, the nonsense, the betrayal, the pettiness, the fear, the pride. But nowhere will it be captured so tragically, so cynically, so ironically, so solemnly, so hilariously as in the novels of Konrad, Hein, Monikova, Kundera, Nadas, and their ilk." (Please forgive the lack of diacritical marks.) Makes one want to read them all. For now, though, after Nooteboom, I have a stack of Sicily novels/books, all gleaned from your posts. The last of them (Sicilian Uncles) arrived just today. So, best get cracking and back to Nooteboom!
Janne's the thing here, though. I was going to add a footnote to the effect that everyone should buy copies of 'War' (it's only £6.99 in the UK, with proceeds - not sure how much - to Amnesty) and give them as seasonal gifts to everyone they know. Present-giving, whether you believe in it or not, solved.
I read the Nooteboom some time back, very potent in places. Isn't it typical of our (in the UK) lack of knowledge of mittelEuropean writers that I've only heard of one of the four he mentions (assuming Konrad is not Conrad and Hein is not Heine)?
Most curious of all to know if you've read any Philip K Dick.
Haven't read any Dick, or at least that I recall. So much to read, so little time. Have taken note of the Janne.
Janne Teller, that should have been!
Well PKD turns out to be one of your literary greats. Who would have thought it? Like I said, the SF label hasn't done him any fables. But then Margaret Atwood might be found under SF today...
Have just read your TAD review linked here. Fascinating, not only for the music, but also for the cultural/political surround. Re PKD, I must say, as I ponder this, that I don't feel equal to making the claim "literary great" for any 20th-21st C US writer, though I would agree it's best not to pigeon-hole into SF, e.g., as one might very well lose out on a good, substantive read. As with so much, time will have to tell, I suppose. (In the course of thinking about this, I ran across this rather interesting side-by-side list of English language novels: http://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-novels/.)
IMO there are not so many great stylists around, so the feeling of instant highest quality can be immediate (like, say, when I first heard Nixon in China in Edinburgh, and knew it would last...) Problem is I haven't read so many, but I know that Saul Bellow, Steinbeck and Vonnegut are up there (and F Scott Fitzgerald is hugely overrated). Dick grabbed me, so to speak, from the start. There are also great storytellers (Donna Tartt, A M Holmes), but I wouldn't make quite the same claims. In the UK, it seems to me our best writers in terms of style are Hilary Mantel and Martin Amis.
Good point about stylists. With you completely on Mantel. One of the greats. Was thinking again about PKD this AM, and realized that probably this isn't the best time for me to embark on reading him, given the particular nightmare we're living in right now. Better, for me, to "escape" to Berlin with Nooteboom, then on to your many Sicily book recommendations. Meanwhile, I happened across this video, from what now seem such fond, hopeful times, reminding me how very much SF has become the reality here: https://youtu.be/35UjqvSubpA (the quality of the video is poor, but the audio and lyrics are spot-on, and the opening of the bridge oh, so poignant).
I'll look at that shortly. Interesting, incidentally, that a friend who works in the field of promoting new literature noted how The Bookseller is predicting that 2017 will see a proliferation of escapist literature. I already see the trend, and find it goes hand in glove with the infantilisation of society and especially youth/twentysomethings.
As we've observed together, there's room for escape in order to return refreshed to the fray. But I don't see why one should need to stick to powder-puff books in order to find fantasy or a different world as solace. All reading is solace in that it tells us we aren't alone.
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