Continental Philosophies

Review of The Appointment by Herta Müller; Perlmann’s Silence by Pascal Mercier; and The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Books Language Literature

As the international elite becomes ever more exclusively English-speaking, so the other European languages have undergone a loss of linguistic prestige and self-confidence which has sucked the life out of their literatures and forced writers to adapt or go out of business. In the case of German, the metamorphosis has been accelerated by the desire to substitute an artificial “European” identity for the tainted national one. Within a generation, German literature, which ironically only emerged on to the European stage as a reaction against the domination of French during the Enlightenment, has increasingly resembled an endangered species, eking out a marginal existence surrounded by colossal fossils. Those writers who still flourish have done so only because they were blissfully unaware of their own predicament, as was the case with Germans living cut off from the West beyond the iron curtain, or because they turned that predicament into a theme, by exploring the loss of identity. These survivors thrive on their own marginality.

Two such survivors are Herta Müller and Pascal Mercier. The former, as a Nobel laureate, is hardly obscure, but she has managed to avoid the mainstream in the sense that her writing continues to draw on her earlier life in Ceausescu’s Romania, which she left in 1987, when she was still in her mid-thirties. Though it has taken decades for her novels to appear in English, The Land of Green Plums was a success and she has avoided the nostalgia for Communism that ensnared some former East German writers. Pascal Mercier (a pseudonym) gained international attention with his third novel, Night Train to Lisbon, but he too is an unconventional author, a Swiss professor of philosophy whose chair is in Berlin. Wearing his professional hat, he uses his real name, Peter Bieri, and his magnum opus, Das Handwerk der Freiheit (“the craft of freedom”), is a remarkable synthesis of the Anglo-Saxon and the Continental philosophical traditions; recondite ideas about time, language and cognition from Bieri’s seminars spill over into Mercier’s bestsellers.

At first glance, the two latest works by Müller and Mercier to appear in English, The Appointment and Perlmann’s Silence could not be more different: Müller’s taut first-person narrative compresses a young woman’s life into a single bus ride, while Mercier’s eponymous protagonist requires three times as much space, some 600 pages, to work through his mid-life crisis. And yet both novels deploy quite similar techniques to arouse, intensify and sustain tension. Mercier’s intelligence is formidable and his narrative, despite its length, utterly compelling. Müller’s staccato sentences could not be more different from Mercier’s graceful paragraph-length periods. But she certainly knows how to conjure up a scene, a person, a mood with a few deft strokes; her Nobel Prize was, for once, richly deserved.

Müller’s unnamed narrator, a seamstress who has been summoned by the Securitate essentially because she refused to go on sleeping with her boss, never lets us forget that her interrogator, Major Albu, not only has power of life and death over her, but also threatens her sanity. As her appointment comes ever closer, she confronts the truth about the nasty, brutish and short lives around her, mercilessly unmasking the countless ways that a totalitarian regime can deploy to force everyone, lackeys and victims alike, to live a lie. The reality of life for a young woman under such a system is incessant sexual degradation, the lowest common denominator of despotism. Without the inhibitions imposed by law or custom, there is nothing to stop older men exploiting girls, even close relations. Her beautiful friend Lilli decides that, as she can’t beat them, she must join them: she attaches herself to an elderly officer, but their bid for freedom in Canada is betrayed.  She is shot dead by border guards and her corpse is savaged by their dogs. Müller writes with an unflinching honesty that is characteristic of classic dissident literature, but her anarchic sense of the ridiculous (while it may owe something to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita) is all her own. The Appointment is as unsparing of its female characters as its male ones, but its recognition of the fact that, even though nobody is free under Communism, women generally have the worst of it, does add a dimension that the male-dominated nightmares of a Koestler or a Solzhenitsyn lack. Even in translation (this one is fluent but occasionally careless), Müller’s uneducated narrator is eloquent in her defiance: “You don’t have to be particularly bad off [sic] to think: This can’t be all the life I get.” It is significant that her crime, for which she has lost her job and may now lose everything, is to want to emigrate: she puts notes into the pockets of the trousers she has made that are destined for export to Italy, offering to marry any Italian who will take her away from Romania. Even more precious than the right to vote is the right to vote with your feet.

If one may say that The Appointment is essentially about sex under Communism, then Perlmann’s Silence is at bottom about academic plagiarism. When this, Mercier’s first novel, appeared in 1995, the internet was still in its infancy and plagiarism was still a rare and shocking aberration rather than the fact of life that it has become. Today, though infinitely easier to accomplish, it is also more readily detectable — hence scandals such as the one that led to the resignation of the German defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who was found out years later to have plagiarised parts of his PhD thesis. Mercier’s creation, Philipp Perlmann, finds himself driven to pass off another’s work as his own out of sheer despair: having organised a conference in Italy for all his rivals in the field of linguistics, he finds that he has nothing at all to say. The “silence” of the title (the German Schweigen is stronger, implying a deliberate act of will) does not only refer to this loss of creativity, but to silence as a negative force, a sin of omission. Rather than admit to them that he is traumatised by the sudden death of his wife, he chooses to risk professional suicide and eventually to commit a terrible crime. Perlmann’s descent into his own private purgatory is described in minute and unsparing detail, mirroring his obsessive personality. His feeble attempts to free himself from his self-imposed internal constraints founder on the rock of fate, the carapace of character, the inability (as Perlmann sees it) to live in the present. Caught between a past and a future that seem to him equally oppressive, he cannot even find refuge in the love of his daughter or the sympathy of his colleagues.

The world of academic papers and luxury hotels that Perlmann inhabits is remote indeed from the “leaning tower”, the jerry-built Romanian apartment building where Müller’s narrator lives. Both writers, though, describe distinctively German destinies that have echoes of past centuries. The German minority in Transylvania, which has largely emigrated since 1989, had been there since the medieval exodus that is recorded in the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. And the German yearning for Italy, so typical of the real-life Perlmanns, dates back even further, to that thousand-year Reich known as the Holy Roman Empire. The modern academic, as peripatetic and polyglot as Perlmann’s peers, is a descendant, however distant, of the wandering scholars of the Middle Ages or the humanists of the Renaissance. But the German variety of this species is still drawn to recapture the sense of freedom that was so well recorded by Goethe when he, too, fled south to the land where the lemon trees grow. And so, too, is the young woman living in the squalor and terror of Ceausescu’s totalitarian swamp. Both protagonists fail to escape their destinies: Müller’s girl never gets to Italy; Mercier’s professor turns it into an ordeal. But both writers succeed in transcending the danger of provincialism: these two novels could only have been written in German.

How, then, do contemporary Continental novelists compare with their Anglophone counterparts? Of the latter, perhaps the most “European” is Julian Barnes, who has made the Englishman in Paris his theme ever since his debut, Metroland, more than 30 years ago, composing ever more elaborate variations, from Flaubert’s Parrot to the stories of Cross Channel and the essays of Something to Declare. Yet The Sense of an Ending, his latest novel, turns its back on affectations of cosmopolitanism and reverts to an England that was still England, even if it was in the Sixties: an England of bacon and eggs, hang-ups about sex and class, in which characters could still make remarks such as: “I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious.” In its terse, unadorned prose, pared down to the length of a novella, The Sense of an Ending develops the introspective reflections on mortality of Barnes’s memoir Nothing To Be Frightened Of, with its signature line: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” Late Barnes is ruminative, rueful and mercilessly rude about the havoc wrought by time — the time of which Eliot speaks in “Burnt Norton”, where “Footfalls echo in the memory/Down the passage we did not take/Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose-garden.” He is impatient with the self-justifications that a God-forsaken world offers itself in place of the old theodicies. He wants to make sense of life and death in the absence of transcendence, but he rejects the received wisdom of his generation that “all you need is love”. For late Barnes, everything is too late: above all wisdom.

Tony Webster, the narrator, considers himself “average”, unexceptional and unexceptionable in any way. His schoolfriend Adrian, however, is exceptional in every way: intellectually, socially and morally. So, too, is his girlfriend Veronica, but in a bad way: even her own mother warns him: “Don’t let Veronica get away with too much.” Tony has a vague sense that both his friend and his lover are condescending to him, but it is only when his humiliation seems complete that he commits an act of rebellion that will haunt him for life. The catastrophe that then befalls his significant others takes place offstage. In Part II the reader is conducted rapidly through the next 40 years of Tony’s life to his humdrum retirement in present-day London, at which point his earlier existence catches up with him. This time there is no catastrophe, simply a dawning awareness of the past, its consequences and its meaning for the present.

It is a familiar narrative structure, but in the hands of the master-wordsmith that Barnes has become, the effect is cumulatively overwhelming. In fact, the concept of accumulation is central to the novel, introduced by Adrian in his brilliant, fragmentary and forlorn attempt to express human relationships in mathematical formulae, somewhat in the manner of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Barnes is attempting something extremely difficult, perhaps impossible: the precise assignment of culpability, the application of the “moral sciences” to the novel. This sounds dry in theory, but in practice it makes for a compelling, disturbing and profoundly moving story of human fallibility. Although the setting and characters are inimitably English, Barnes attains a classical universality here that had hitherto eluded him. The more English his material, the more genuinely European he becomes. It is as if his experience, his erudition and his intelligence had all been distilled into a tiny phial of the elixir of life. To use a catchphrase of Tony and his friends, The Sense of an Ending is “philosophically self-evident”: it makes sense of the senselessness of existence.