#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews AN INVENTORY OF LOSSES by Judith Schalansky

One of the greatest achievements for any writer is to create their own world. When readers enter this world they can safely lock their doors, close the windows and allow themselves to be transported. Judith Schalansky is an astonishingly gifted and original writer. For a reader entering this book, her third, longlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize, the experience is akin to a sleepover in the greatest museum in the world. Together with Jackie Smith, her English translator and fellow Booker nominee, they’ve crafted a dazzling work of art.

Before I tell you about the contents let me describe the book itself, our portal to this world. Judith Schalansky is a writer, book designer and art history graduate. Her first book – Atlas of Remote Islands, published in 2010, as well as being a best-seller and translated into twenty languages, won a prestigious German design prize. The exquisite hardback cover of An Inventory of Losses shimmers in gold and black. Each chapter is prefaced with a fading black photographic image; the printed pages feel rich and ancient to touch. There are twelve chapters, each sixteen pages long and beginning with an italicised ‘catalogue entry’, and each focusing on one idea in the voice of that chapter’s researcher-narrator. There are long lists, reading like poetry; short sentences follow breathlessly long sentences. The writing matches the subject, as, for example, the chapter on Sappho’s poetic fragments. 

You may therefore ask, is this a novel or a collection of essays? In the same way that W.G. Sebald – with whom Schalansky is inevitably compared – defied classification, so does she. She is in love with books and writes, she explains, ‘to have something to survive’. 

‘The book still appears to me as the most complete of all media – the only one, which by the very self-sufficiency of its body, in which text, image and design dovetail perfectly with one another, promises to lend order to the world or sometimes even to take its place.’

An Inventory of Losses is a philosophy of loss ‘in which the diverse phenomena of decomposition and destruction play a central role’. ‘Being alive’, she writes, ‘means experiencing loss’. The love songs of Sappho are mostly lost to the world, as is the Caspian tiger, the Pacific island of Tuanaki, Guericke’s unicorn skeleton and the Caspar David Friedrich painting of Greifswald Harbour. Each of these topics are obviously close to Judith Schalansky, intellectually and emotionally, and she explores them with curiosity, unsentimentality and imagination. She was born in Greifswald (like Friedrich) in the former East Germany. She was ten when the Berlin Wall fell and, along with the whole population of the GDR – ‘anyone like me who has experienced a historical upheaval’ – she lost her country. She dedicates a whole chapter to the Palace of the Republic, East Berlin’s most prominent government building and social hub, demolished in 2006. 

Judith Schalansky is only forty years old, yet she has experienced so much, read and researched so widely, travelled so far in her imagination, that you feel in the presence of a very wise and ancient woman. Her motivation in immersing herself in archives, myths, the history of Greece and Rome, cartography, architecture, painting and nature, is, I believe, to explore our mortality and the meaning of life, for herself and for us. The book’s subject is loss, but Schalansky’s eloquence, insight and humour are positive and uplifting. She scales the heights of imagination and language, and lifts us up with her. I have no higher praise for an author. I began reading An Inventory of Losses on the very day I lost a very close friend, who happened to be German. I will therefore always associate this beautiful book with our beautiful Katrin, lost too young and who also made the world a better place.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

AN INVENTORY OF LOSSES

by Judith Schalansky

Translated from German by Jackie Smith

Published by MacLehose Press (2020)


Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

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Category: April 2021Reviews

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