#RivetingReviews: Shaun Whiteside reviews QUECKSILBERLICHT by Thomas Stangl

Thomas Stangl, showered with prizes in Austria for his novels and essays, is still largely an unknown quantity in the English-speaking world. His debut, Der einzige Ort (‘The Only Place’), won the aspekte-Literaturpreis in 2004 and he received the Austrian Art Prize for Literature in 2022.

There are reasons why the break-through hasn’t yet happened: these are postmodern, essayistic meta-works of a kind to which anglophone readers have long been resistant. Quecksilberlicht is no exception. Billed as a novel, it is an amalgam of memoir, speculation, theoretical discourse and biographical speculation revolving around three key themes: the author’s (or narrator’s) own Austrian family history; the life and, importantly, death, of Branwell Brontë, the prodigiously unsuccessful brother of the novelist sisters; and the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, notoriously poisoned by a supposedly life-giving elixir based on mercury (hence the book’s title).

There are recurring motifs: the opening words are, ‘The girl runs out of the house. All around there is nothing.’ Qin Shi’s nothingness – the idea is borrowed from an essay by Borges – is an adamant refusal to accept that anything exists beyond the bounds of his empire. The conquest of Japan? Didn’t happen, because it lies outside the recognised world of existence. Likewise, the girl, the narrator’s grandmother, the daughter of a Piedmontese master chimney sweep, leading a circumscribed life in Simmering, ‘the arse of Vienna’. And then we have young Branwell in Haworth, traumatised by a premature confrontation with mortality after being held over his dead mother’s bed, and his own and his sisters’ escape into the fantastical worlds of Glass Town, Gondrel and Angria, his wooden soldier-inspired imperial fantasies, his subsequent exploration of the great and terrifying metropolis of London.

These three strands circle, picking each other up and picking up suggestive threads of literary speculation (Virginia Woolf features largely), and advancing through time – yet not just advancing but travelling ‘backwards in time, diagonally through time, diagonally to time’ until everything is happening simultaneously. The swirling motion slows as we approach the reality, the inevitability of death, and the writing – freewheeling, often funny – assumes a solidity that was previously only suggested. Death is, in the German philosophical tradition, what gives life its weight, and literature, in Stangl’s vision, acts as a kind of counterweight, not immortality exactly (the Emperor’s toxic quicksilver) but still a life beyond the physical – ‘power beyond death is the only power that counts’, Qin Shi reflects.

It’s an intriguing and vivid literary journey, and Stangl carries us with him. With changing tastes and an increased enthusiasm for speculative meta-fictions, this could just be the book that brings him to an English-speaking readership.

Reviewed by Shaun Whiteside

QUECKSILBERLICHT (‘Quicksilver Light’) 

by Thomas Stangl 

Published by Matthes & Seitz (2022)

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Shaun Whiteside is a translator from German, French, Italian and Dutch. His most recent translations from German include To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann and Time of the Magicians by Wolfram Eilenberger. He lives in London.

Category: The Austrian RiveterApril 2023 - The Austrian RiveterReviews


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