#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


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’.

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of THE DISCOMFORT OF EVENING by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of HEAVEN AND EARTH by Paolo Giordano

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of BEFORE THE FEAST by Saša Stanišić

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of THE BLIND SIDE OF THE HEART, BACK TO BACK and WEST by Julia Franck

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of HEIMAT. A GERMAN FAMILY ALBUM by Nora Krug

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of 10 MINUTES 38 SECONDS IN THIS STRANGE WORLD by Elif Shafak

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of UNDER PRESSURE by Faruk Šehić

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of EBRD Literature Prize 2019 Longlist

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of MY FATHER WAS A MAN ON LAND AND A WHALE IN WATER by Michelle Steinbeck

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of SOVIET MILK by Nora Ikstena

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of SILVA RERUM. BOOKS I-IV by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of BLUE NIGHT by Simone Buchholz

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of MIRROR, SHOULDER, SIGNAL by Dorthe Nors

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of EVERYTHING I DON’T REMEMBER by Jonas Hassen Khemiri

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of THE RETURN by Dulce Maria Cardoso

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of CAN YOU HEAR ME? by Elena Varvello

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of GO, WENT, GONE by Jenny Erpenbeck

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of SPACEMAN OF BOHEMIA by Jaroslav Kalfar

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER by Balla

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of MIRROR, SHOULDER, SIGNAL by Dorthe Nors

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of THREE DAUGHTERS OF EVE by Elif Shafak

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of THE EVENINGS by Gerard Reve

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of three early novels by Elena Ferrante

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of THE RETURN by Dulce Maria Cardoso

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of MOONSTONE by Sjón

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReviews: THE WRITERS’ SHOWCASE. EUROPEAN LITERATURE NIGHT 2016

Read Rosie Goldsmith on WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy and YEVGENY ONEGIN by Alexander Pushkin

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of THE INTERPRETER by Diego Marani

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of THE UNDERGROUND by Hamid Ismailov

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of YUGOSLAVIA, MY FATHERLAND by Goran Vojnović

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of 100 DUTCH POEMS

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of BEFORE THE FEAST by Saša Stanišić

Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD by Elena Ferrante

Category: ReviewsApril 2021


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *