‘French Nails from America’, ‘A Face is a Landscape, a Cheek is a Field’, ‘A Lemon Sorbet Snowman’ – the titles of Teresa Präauer’s short stories invite you in. Beguiling and enigmatic, they hint at the curiosities to be found between the covers of ‘Happiness is a Bean, and Other Stories’.
A cabinet of curiosities is an apt analogy for Teresa Präauer’s short story collection. Her wide assortment of quirky prose texts takes on a tangible quality; like the smooth pebble in the final story, they resemble little stones you might carry in your pocket collected from the beach, or nuggets of glowing sea glass. I am not sure I agree with one reviewer who called it a page-turner; it is, in my opinion, a collection to rummage through and hold up to the light, each text by turn. Any more than a few stories at a time and their jewel-like quality loses its lustre.
Präauer excels in her deftness of tone, weaving wistfulness with surprising moments of humour: ‘I long for après-ski, I long for the blueness of a kamikaze shot, I long for the haze of a village disco, I long for a snog from Roli, but right now Roli is slurping tequila out of Monika’s belly button.’ The best of her stories locate this nostalgia or melancholy in a specific place or object. It is here that Präauer’s writing achieves a density of emotion, whereas the few people she describes rarely come alive on the page. Glitter, for Präauer, becomes a symbol of transience: ‘Glitter clings to the memory of a celebration that has already ended. It is, perhaps from the very beginning, a residue: the dazzling but far too small remnant of a day. Weightless and sticky.’ Or her homesickness in America, for instance, is condensed into her longing for ‘dark bread with European butter’.
Language is a common theme across the texts, whether inconspicuously or explicitly. In a story about an interpreter at a literary event, she points out their expert skill when negotiating subtleties of language. The American wording of ‘Race and Gender’, for example, cannot simply be translated with ‘Rasse und Geschlecht’, since the word ‘Rasse’ has at least since the Nazi era carried extremely negative, derogatory connotations.
Präauer’s themes are wide-ranging. She focuses her attention on fashion, theatre, the fine arts, literature, the internet, on observations of daily life, on Kim Kardashian’s ass, which she manages to link to the philosophy of Adorno. Präauer’s concern for popular culture bears a similarity to Annie Ernaux’s The Years, and indeed Präauer’s most recent work, Mädchen, has been likened to Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story. Like Ernaux, Präauer’s attention to cultural artefacts and trends is interwoven with semi-autobiographical reflections. The texts in ‘Happiness is a Bean’ are usually fewer than five pages long, rarely more than ten. Despite the frequent nostalgic tone, they are firmly situated in the present day. The final eponymous text mentions ‘that whole nasty business with the virus’, where ‘suddenly everything that had been so beautiful was forbidden’. So the author decides to keep her lucky bean in her pocket for a while longer. We could do worse than to keep Präauer’s clear-sighted book by our side, a talisman for our busy, consuming daily lives.
Reviewed by Eve Mason
DAS GLÜCK ISR EINE BOHNE. UND ANDERE GESCHICHTEN (‘Happiness is a Bean, and Other Stories’)
by Teresa Präauer
Published by Wallstein (2021)
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Eve Mason studied English and German literature at the Queen’s College, Oxford, and is now completing an MA in contemporary literature and publishing at the Freie Universität in Berlin. Her other research interests include fairy tales, and she has recently published a translation of five 19th-century German fairy tales by women writers.