Stealing Away from Time
Those with abundant reading material for professional reasons know the sense of fatigue and occasional slight disappointment along with endless disappointment when a book doesn’t satisfy raised expectations, and several days later one has forgotten its contents. For those who no longer pursue their activity as a literary agent and literary critic as a routine matter, and setting aside the frustrations, this still leaves the unrequited longing of discovering books that promise a new way into the heartland of literature. Sometimes, yet still not often enough, you are handed a book like this. When you open the book, you’re spellbound from the first page… and you continue until the last… Iris Wolff has written a genuine masterpiece with her novel, So tun, als ob es regnet. It was published in February 2017 by the respected Salzburg Otto Müller Verlag – and this may explain the slight delay in reviews – not all literary critics are as aware of this publisher as they should be.
Peter Handke called the autobiographical novels of the late Hermann Lenz (d. 1998) a “poetic history lesson”, and there are many good reasons why this attribute would also lend itself to Iris Wolff’s new novel. Wolff, born in the Transylvanian town of Hermannstadt and now living in Freiburg, sets out a panorama spanning almost the entire 20th century in her book So tun, als ob es regnet, (and it’s no accident that a Hermann Lenz motto is quoted at the beginning). The book starts in 1916 with World War I battles in the Southern Carpathians and ends on the dropout island of La Gomera. It progresses through four narratives that are unobtrusively interwoven thanks to their characters and topics, and highlights fateful twists and turns in the lives of those who cannot escape the disasters of history and simultaneously search for escape routes and places of refuge.
The central subject is Henriette, born in 1918, an unconventional, unsteady, beautiful woman, who hid from the Russians in the mountains until 1945, and goes her own way until well into her old age. As a girl, at night-time she was already drawn to the men’s meetings with her insomniac grandfather, and she soon realizes that she cannot endure the claustrophobic atmosphere of her Transylvanian village. She will move to Bucharest – without taking her son, Vicco, into consideration – and then relocate as a photographer to Berlin, always searching for tranquillity in life and always surrounded by men who give in to her. Yet for all her zest for action, Henriette is also an intensely private woman who knows how to protect herself from life’s intrusions. Then, she steals away “entirely out of time” and out of spaces, “Se face că plouă” – acting as though it were raining, her mother called this absence that always set in whenever Henriette was bored by something or was intensely preoccupied with something”. Henriette’s granddaughter has also inherited this natural disposition.
There is plenty going on in Iris Wolff’s artfully constructed novel about a family. A death in battle, a suicide, deportation to Russia, abduction to the Securitate prison – no horror is spared. Nevertheless, what prevails in this fabulous book is a captivating, effortless beauty. Iris Wolff, a masterful stylist, employs not a single word too many. She connects her dense web of family episodes with delicately placed leitmotifs (like Henriette’s blue ring, which she once received as a swap for bread and bacon, and bequeaths to Hedda). She effortlessly draws lofty images of nature and finds original imagery for all life’s horrors as well as its beauty. There is scarcely an equivalent for this in German-speaking contemporary literature. Take, for example, when Hedda’s parents, Vicco and Liane, set off for a day to Constanța on the Black Sea (a journey of 600 km/373 miles) to eat fresh fish, and to enjoy the adventure and make love on the beach. This is one of the unforgettable anecdotes with flashes of poetry of which there are so many in So tun, als ob es regnet.
When the traditional season arrives later this year to acknowledge exceptional books, then there will be no way around this novel. Then, there ought not to be no way around this novel.
Iris Wolff: So tun, als ob es regnet. Novel in four narratives. Otto Müller Verlag, Salzburg/Vienna 2017. 166 pages.
By Rainer Moritz
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright