on Novellas: Ascent by Ludwig Hohl (Black Square Editions) and Life Form by Amelie Nothomb (Europa Editions)

In Grammars of Creation, George Steiner calls Ludwig Hohl (1904-1980) “one of the secret masters of twentieth-century German prose.” Written between 1934 and 1936 but not published until 1944, Die Notizen is Hohl’s magnum opus, comprising 832 pages of aphorisms, assertions, dreams, recollections and descriptions of daily life. The manuscript consisted of over 3000 slips of paper. The first volume of Die Notizen sold less than 200 copies, causing his publisher to cancel the second and final volume. So Hohl sued and won. Nevertheless, the second book sold just as poorly. In the 1970’s, after another publisher resurrected Hohl’s works, his unique accomplishments were finally recognized by writers such as Max Frisch, Peter Handke and Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

Hohl1.jpegHohl was born in Switzerland and spent his twenties in Paris, Vienna and The Hague. In 1937 he returned to Biel, then moved to Geneva where he lived penuriously for years in “a cellarage or below-street level cavern” until a small inheritance arrived in his later years. Alcoholic and stubbornly unemployable, he was married five times and had one daughter.

He produced two other works related in form and style to Die Notizen. But in 1926, ten years before immersing himself in non-narrative prose, Hohl began writing Bergfahrt, translated by Donna Stonecipher as Ascent. The story follows two characters, young friends Johann and Ull, as they make their way from a verdant Alpine village in summer to stormy mountainous heights. In his youth, Hohl was an enthusiastic mountaineer, and one can read Ascent as his effort to create precise visions of simplicity and clarity out of memory and imagination.

HohlCover.jpgOn the first page, Johann is described as “tall and gaunt, with a sleepy expression on his face,” while Ull, “not nearly as tall, of a more concentrated character, looked incessantly up, looked searchingly up, to the summits of some of the mountains, how they stood all around with an unusually powerful, radiant presence.” Both young men are experienced climbers; they have climbed together before. But as the early signals suggest, Ascent portrays how two different temperaments react to the overwhelming aspects of reality: beauty, change, hindrances, danger.

Stonecipher gets Hohl’s tone just right, the practiced, measured intensity of a story-teller whose only withholding lies in not saying at the outset what happens in the end. As each aspect of the climb unfolds and is exquisitely described, Ascent makes demands of the reader’s powers of interior vision. One must pay attention, and in that sense, the potential perils that face the climbers also threaten the reader.

As in any arduous climb, Ascent offers moments of rest. In one early episode as the climbers wake two or three hours before sunrise in a hut, the teller describes the sensation of opening one’s eyes from deepest sleep:

“The darkness of the hut intensifies the impression of cold, and even when one manages, after much painstaking feeling around and many failed attempts, to light the candle in the lantern, this wavering little light, which makes giant, moving shadows spring up all around, can’t produce the feeling of greater warmth. One could say that such a lantern makes mainly shadows, not light; and the shadows move, because one must keep changing the location of the lantern, because people move, because the lantern, when it is hung up, swings, and finally because of the flickering of the flame … So in the darkness and the cold he who has just gotten up feels tempted to make absolutely no movement, to keep his hands in his pockets, his body held tightly together … Once he finally gets the door open, the door that unfailingly makes excessively loud creaking or groaning noises, but now and then is also ripped out of his hand by the wind to bang against the other side, so at his first glimpse of the mountain-world – glassy-uncanny, when the moon is shining, and otherwise murky-uncanny – the feeling of cold will without exception be still greater, even when in reality it was not any less cold in the hut.”

AlpSnow.jpegHohl had little “success” as a writer and never courted it. Steiner said of him, “He came to distinguish between aloneness as suffocation, as sterility, which he identified with the flatness and dour Calvinism of his years in Holland, and the festive, fruitful solitude of the Alps.” And Hohl noted the paradox in Die Notizen when he wrote, “The greatest, who are the solitary ones, have trust in the world.” Ascent ultimately makes solitude its obsession. Hohl must have strongly sensed the kinship of this novella with his accumulation of notes since he guided Ascent through a forty-year gestation. It was finally published in 1975.

Perhaps more than any other principle, Hohl insisted that writing be driven only by necessity, not the desire to please the market. One of his notes reads, “The worst suffering is always associated with an achievement,” though I wonder if he refers here to private or public goal attainment, or both. Arbeit, the work, was all that mattered to him. The work, an exertion that includes keen perception, is also all that truly matters on the heights of Ascent.

[Published January 26, 2013. 96 pages, $$15.00 paperback original]

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In 2009, the Pentagon reported that the number of troops diagnosed as overweight or obese had more than doubled since the start of the Iraq occupation – from 2% to 5% of those deployed. I’m guessing that the story, which ran in newspapers globally, was the trigger for Life Form, Amélie Nothomb’s sly novella, the eighteenth of her twenty longer works of prose fiction. It was published as Une forme de vie in 2010.

NothombCoverB.jpegNarrated by a widely read novelist named Amélie Nothomb, the story traces her correspondence with an American who identifies himself as Melvin Mapple, an infantryman posted in Iraq. They exchange letters for about a year beginning in January, 2009. By March, after engaging Nothomb’s attention through his critical assessment of George Bush’s war, Mapple reveals the core anxiety that caused him to cultivate the empathy the novelist:

“I’m suffering from an illness that seems to be more and more common among the American troops in Iraq. Since the beginning of the conflict, the number of patients has doubled and is still growing. Under the Bush administration our pathology was kept hidden, because it was considered degrading for the image of the US Army. Since Obama, the newspapers have started talking about us … I am obese. And not by nature.”

NothombLetter.jpegThe resonance of Life Form deepens as the speaker reflects on her letter-writing habits; she receives piles of envelopes in the mail. “As a rule, I’m not wild about lengthy missives. They are usually the least interesting kind. For over sixteen years I have been getting such a huge amount of mail that I have involuntarily developed an instinctive and experimental theory about the epistolary art. Plus, I have observed that the best letters are never longer than two two-sided letter size pages … [Mapple’s] letters were so fascinating that they did not even seem long. You could tell they had been written in the grip of absolute necessity: there is no better muse. I could do nothing but reply at once, contrary to my usual habit.”

My initial fear that the novel is a camouflaged anti-imperialist polemic quickly dissipated. Soon Mapple and Nothomb develop a strange mode of artistic collaboration: his body is regarded as a work of art and protest. The 400-pound soldier conceives of his extra bulk as a woman named Scheherazade living inside him. Nothomb replies breathlessly, “You are surfing a wave of artistic modernity.” She wants “the big shots of the body art world” to recognize Mapple as a notable contemporary.

NothombRec.jpegAmélie Nothomb is a wildly popular writer among Francophone readers. Born in 1966 to Belgian diplomats, she lived in China, Japan, Laos, Burma, Bangladesh, and New York before finally returning to Europe at age 17. She claims to have become an alcoholic at age three while in Beijing, and a co-anorexic with her sister at age 13 while in Dhaka. Since 1992 when her first novel, Hygiène de l'assassin, was published to broad acclaim in France, she has published a slim novel at a rate of one per year. Her tersely phrased fiction often rescripts the frissons of her own experience, and the sparseness of description is influenced by the simplicity of Japanese brushstrokes. (These qualities are preserved in Alison Anderson’s fluent translations of her work.) Nothomb’s novel Fear and Loathing, awarded the Académie Française Prize in 1999, is derived from a year she spent working for a major Japanese corporation. (A fine film version, distributed in 2003, was directed by Alain Corneau.) She has said that some of her novels’ concepts were developed through a ten-year correspondence with an Italian man she never met – which perhaps prefigured the fictional Nothomb/Mapple letters.

In the early parts of Life Form, Mapple emerges as the more interesting character through the urgency of his letters. While speaking through her responses, Nothomb adds commentary which becomes increasingly reflective as the story proceeds. Her behavior as a letter-writer, not only with Mapple but in remembered episodes with others, points toward habits of control and managed degrees of closeness with others.

Something has to give, or give out, in her relationship with Mapple – and one of the charms of Life Form is listening to Nothomb lag behind her naiveté. It is also perhaps the one weaknesses of the novel – that the reader senses what is actually occurring long before the narrator does, and that her incredulity isn’t entirely credible.

NothombHat.jpegBut the actual Nothomb makes a virtue and a trademark out of brusqueness – while her Nothomb-narrator’s inclination to find a similarly candid colleague in Mapple exposes the fault lines of both Nothombs. "I have my own manner, which, right or wrong, seems very recognisable," the writer told The Guardian in 2008. "There's a particular smell to my work - a smell which, by the way, I don't like very much - but it's a fact, it's the smell of my books. And I don't find this smell elsewhere."

[Published February 5, 2013. 144 pages, $15.00 paperback original]

so good to see these

My sister works in the American embassy in Paris and follows Nothomb's books with enthusiasm. Nothomb has cultivated her image with care, flaunting those big hats and never missing a photo op. I find her work a little glib and even lazy at times, too confident in itself. But I am going to get a copy of this new novella after reading your review. I read somewhere that she doesn't like to give readings because her voice doesn't measure up to the speaking personae in her books.

Re: Cultivate The Empathy

Many thanks for this fine review of what must be a remarkable novel. I shall have to chase it up. But a thought. Ms. Nothomb said: "There's a particular smell to my work - a smell which, by the way, I don't like very much - but it's a fact, it's the smell of my books. And I don't find this smell elsewhere." You wrote: "perhaps [what] that the reader senses...is actually occurring long before the narrator does, and that her incredulity isn’t entirely credible." But I wonder if perhaps this is not part of 'the smell'?

vs spoiler alerts

Since a book review that consist of a plot-dump doesn't do either the book or its potential reader a favor, I can't come out and say exactly what I mean. Let's just say I sniffed out what was happening in the story before the narrator did. The question left open is whether Nothomb intended this, or if she believed her construction leaves the secret opaque until the narrator awakens to it. Anyway, I enjoyed it all.