“That’s funny,” replied the gaunt man with his lizard face – Michael Krüger, ‘Else and Sam’
The title of this collection of thirteen short stories is a little misleading, not that the author of the collection is not a best-selling author because he is although perhaps not in translation – Michael Krüger is German – but because the title suggests that these stories might be interconnected and they really aren’t although there are definite similarities in the settings both geographical and familial. Really they are scenes from the mind of a best-selling author – that they all have in common, that and they are all just a little on the odd side.
Now don’t get me wrong, odd is good, odd can be good, but odd is not to everyone’s tastes. Odd is an acquired taste and a little goes a long way. Which is why these thirteen stories (actually twelve stories and a satirical epilogue discussing the correlation between drinking and writing (and also drinking and reading actually)) are probably enough. After 119 pages of these you’ll probably be ready for something with its feet on the ground. So I suppose I’m likening this book to a night at the shows (for people outside Scotland read ‘fairground’). There are stories that’ll make your head spin, a couple might make you feel a wee bit queasy but all of them will entertain you to the limit you are willing to engage with them. I mean, what’s the point going on the bumper cars if you’re not going to try to crash into your friends or on the ghost train and at least be open to the possibility that you might be frightened?
Let me tell you about a few of the ‘rides’:
The opening story, ‘The Beast’, describes an author, a best-selling author, who has for many years been chronicling his family history:
14 volumes so far, if I have counted correctly, which have themselves been translated into almost every living language, so that, with all the special issues, paperback and book-club versions, my archive contains more than 500 different editions of my efforts. I don’t mention these things out of vanity … but rather to give a sense of the context within which my work, and with it my responsibility to my readers, should be understood.
The not inconsiderable revenue from book sales is divided among my family. Any living family member with a major role receives up to 2 per cent of the domestic revenue per book while those with minor roles get half of that. If a family member is presented in a particularly unfavourable light, a special compensatory tariff is agreed, up to 4 per cent.
In total about 400 people now make their living directly from my books or from the business ventures established with money from them.
His life is very ordered. All he has to worry about is writing. He churns out 300 pages a year, year in, year out and as he estimates that he has enough material available to fill 30 moderately sized volumes he doesn’t see that pleasant situation ending for about another twenty years or so. That is until the beast arrives.
Only it’s not a beast, not at first. As a gift his German publisher, assuming that the writer lacked companionship – not realising how misanthropic the writer is at heart – presents him with “a small black animal with a shaggy pelt and black button eyes, about the size of a squirrel,” which, much to his surprise takes to him and he to it. Unfortunately it does not remain the size of a squirrel. It grows and grows and as it grows its demands on him grow and the net result is that his writing suffers and because his writing suffers his family suffers and they are not used to that and don’t much care for it. How big exactly the beast becomes I’ll keep to myself but the real question is: what exactly is the beast? I don’t mean what kind of creature because that’s never revealed but what might it represent? Is this an allegory on the price one pays for fame? Could be. You’ll have to read it to see.
The second story in the book, ‘Uncle’s Story’, begins:
Our family, unlike other families we knew but nonetheless visited, had only one uncle. And even that is an exaggeration. For while all my friends had, so to speak, an uncle for every occasion – one for the cinema, one for money, one for holidays and one for tears – our uncle according to my mother at least, was an uncle fit for nothing.
The boy’s uncle is a bookish man. His house is crammed from floor to ceiling with books, research you have to understand, for his “great oeuvre, the one he had been working on obsessively since he left university … a History and Theory of the Typographical Error since Guttenberg, with various historical excursi into the origins of writing." Little by little his nephew gets sucked into his world scouring the classics for errors, 5 marks for every misprint:
But what is the point to all this?
[Uncle’s] goal was … to demonstrate that the entire history of the world in written form was a misunderstanding that rested on misprints.
‘Green Week’ is a simple enough story that owes a clear debt to the Absurdists. A man supplements his earnings from his part-time job in the packing department of a publisher by working in a local theatre whose repertoire (you’ve guessed it) consisted mainly of the theatre of the absurd. Occasionally he steps in “(alongside [his] duties as ticket-collector, cloakroom-attendant and stage-manager)” and fills in when one of the other actors is unable to perform. His family does not approve:
The fact that once, in a moment of vanity, I had sent them a photograph from a Beckett production of myself in a dustbin, led them to believe that I spent all my time living in dustbins and eating out of dustbins, and was generally lost to civilised society.
Normally when the phone rings it’s his mother wanting to check if he was still alive but this third story comes to life when he picks up the receiver and a “silky voice” says: “I will be in Berlin tomorrow for the Green Week exhibition … and would really like to see you.” Now in any non-absurd story he would have asked who the owner of the silky voice was but he doesn’t and when she asks if she can stay with him he agrees and they make arrangements to meet. Which they do. And spend an interesting three days together.
Poets might appreciate ‘My Sister’s Boyfriend’ more than most. It’s really just a short character sketch which presents the boyfriend of the title, Knut, as a preposterous character on the one hand and yet also a believable one:
The first precondition of a modern poetic existence as described to us by Knut was the absolute prohibition on publishing. … Knut had not yet published a volume of poetry. He has, nevertheless, been awarded any number of prizes for promising young writers and had given a whole series of elaborate acceptance speeches, copies of which he promised to send to my aunts…
‘The Neighbour’ is a rather dark little tale about a family (mother, two sons and daughter – the father follows later) who go on holiday with their next-door neighbour and his two daughters after the death of his wife. This is really a study in atmosphere. The narrator is the younger son and it’s clear he doesn’t have all the facts at his disposal.
‘The Bluebeard Trust’ is a good lesson in leaving well alone:
Shortly before my twentieth birthday, I had the misfortune to learn that the man I had called father for as long as I could remember was not my father.
He learns this at the wake of the man he thought was his father when his uncles Adolf and Kurt – “wasters and blusterers through and through” – decide that the time has come for them to lay their claim to a fair percentage of the estate because, as Uncle Adolf screeched, without their intervention, “He would have killed you.”
“Father wanted to kill you?”
“Not that father,” she replied in a strangely throttled voice, “your own father. The lecherous deceiver who left us this house – to which your uncles now want to lay claim. You will understand it all one day.”
It turns out that his father had actually been married five times before he married the boy’s mother and once he learns this he makes the mistake of seeking out these women and bringing them together.
This is very similar in flavour to ‘The Blue Prince’ which is really a fairytale about a king whose son is such a waste of space that the king abandons his kingdom and moves to a foreign land where he remarries and has a daughter who only discovers her heritage when he is lying on his death bed whereupon she sets off to visit his kingdom and, needless to say, runs into her half-brother.
I think my favourite story in this collection would have to be the seventh story, ‘The Door’. It’s similar to ‘The Beast’ in that it rests on a single preposterous and fantastical object, a door leading nowhere. Like in ‘Uncle’s Story’ and the later story, ‘Else and Sam’, this book is about the relationship between a child and a member of his extended family, in this case, his grandfather who, as a young man himself, had built the house in which the door to nowhere hangs. Nothing is something that preoccupies his grandfather:
Next to the door my grandfather had built a small bookcase, where he kept his library dedicated to nothing, almost 300 volumes … Some of them were ancient folio volumes, falling to pieces and home to all kinds of worms and silverfish; the rest were more recent scientific literature stuffed with equations and calculations, in which not even the most meagre living organism would take up residence.
At first I imagined that the ‘nothing’ that was behind the door was just the wall but as the story progresses it becomes clear that the nothing in question is something else entirely:
As long as I could remember, no one had entered the room behind the door. There was no crossing, not even a threshold: just the door. If you peered through the key-hole and felt your eyes getting accustomed to the darkness, you would only see – if you saw anything at all, that is – a thin film of dust moving in the air. There was nothing to see; that much was certain. And when my grandfather asked me what I could see, I would always answer, quite truthfully, “Nothing.” He sighed in relief. “For several years now I have been uncertain,” he would say, “whether there wasn’t perhaps something there after all, a little something, the remnants of something else. That would be the death of me.”
Ignoring for the moment the physics involved here one has to ask why someone would install a door in a room that contained nothing. What purpose does the door serve? Without the door there is no possibility of the nothing escaping – assuming that it is indeed trapped – and consuming you. So why include that element of doubt in your life? You can try to read this story literally if you like and it does have something of a fairytale quality to it I have to admit but there’s more going on here.
‘The Story of Julius’ is a lovely story about the need for stories, for lies – in this case literal lies – in our lives. The story is narrated by the boy who ends up sitting next to Julius in class. Julius is an odd kid:
He is very fat; Julius is the fattest kid in the class. No one would say that he is exactly handsome. His ears stick out, Dumbo-ears as we used to say when we were trying to irritate him. He wears glasses with thick lenses. When he took them off you could see his pale eyes and he looked funny.
During class Julius sits quite still with his arms folded and doesn’t even move his head when all hell breaks loose. He never puts up his hand up and only says something when he has been asked a question.
Julius is something of a mystery and like primitive people do it’s hard not to make up things, which is what the boy does when Julius goes missing from school and he is instructed by his teacher to go to his house to see what’s what: he imagines Julius for the benefit of his teacher and classmates. But what will happen when Julius finally returns to school. Will the truth come out?
By the time we get to ‘Moon Enterprises Inc.’ we’re not quite so easily surprised and so the tale of a man so obsessed with the moon that he has holes bored in his house to accommodate his telescopes, who co-opts his family to his cause and wants to sell his knowledge to the world doesn’t feel so fresh; we’ve seen these elements in other stories.
And, ‘Murder Most Ordinary’ is a little like ‘The Beast’ in that it is also a testimony written by an individual who has been taken advantage of although in this case it is the editor who has been taking on more and more of his author’s work with no acknowledgement and little appreciation unless the man is under the influence.
I’m not sure why ‘Alcohol and Literature’ is an epilogue but that’s what he calls it. It is a little different to most of the other pieces in that this is a clearly satirical piece about the relationship to and dependence on a mix of drinks by both readers and authors of various nationalities. To illustrate:
Germany 15.8 litres = 20 books
Ireland 12.6 litres = 4 books
Spain 19.3 litres = 4 books
Italy 16.8 litres = 6 books
France 21.3 litres = 12 books
You will notice that it is heavily weighted towards consumption. A Spaniard has to consume nearly 20 litres of pure alcohol in order to read all of four books: that is 5 litres per book. And when you consider that the greatest works of Spanish literature are all slim volumes of poetry, then you will appreciate what an uphill struggle it is for the Spanish publishers’ association to reduce the levels of alcohol tolerance to a point where they can sell a book at all.
Don’t get me wrong, this is funny. It just feels a bit out of place at the end of this volume which has focused on relationships and are all written in the first person.
This is a funny book, funny-strange and funny-ha-ha. Like Beckett’s writing – the author get’s a name check and even a brief cameo at the end of ‘Else and Sam’ – you’re more likely to find yourself smiling as you’re reading along as opposed to laughing out loud but that still counts as funny. All the writing leans towards the absurd but mostly without the capital A. I’ve read this book twice now and I could easily read my favourites again; in fact they really are the kind of pieces where you want to go right back to the start of a story once you’ve finished it to see what you missed. They are slight but tightly written and they treat the reader with respect. I personally don’t like fables where the author feels the need to tag on a moral at the end and that’s often what’s missing here: Krüger leads you along the garden path and then leaves you to find your way home yourself. That may annoy some readers, the ones who need to know what breed of animal the beast was or what was actually behind the door, but I was far from annoyed and I’d happily read this guy again.
If you’re looking for a bargain this is one to check out. As I wrote this there are copies on Amazon.co.uk for as little as 1p plus postage. I have no idea where I got mine but it was in an actual bookshop and I bought it because it was a) thin and b) had a great title. The cover’s not bad either.
Michael Krüger was born in Wittgendorf in Saxony in 1943. After completing his final secondary school examinations in Berlin he undertook an apprenticeship as a publisher and typographer and subsequently went on to study Philosophy and Literature. In 1968 he became an editor at the Carl Hanser publishing house and has now risen to head of the company. Through his innovative capabilities as a publisher he was already one of the most prominent personalities of the German publishing industry by the mid-seventies.
He is a poet and novelist, editor of the influential journal Akzente as well as a member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, the German Academy for Language and Literature in Darmstadt and the Academy of the Arts in Berlin.
Krüger has published almost two dozen books with poems, novels and stories – he has received numerous literature prizes, including the Peter Huchel Prize (1986) for his volume of poetry »Die Dronte« (The Dodo), and the Ernst Meister Prize (1994). He recently received the Mörike Prize, one of Germany’s most prestigious awards, in recognition of his contribution to both sides of the publishing trade.