Friday 4 November 2011

A Rather Masculine Set of Shorts

A while back, I sent a polite e-mail asking if I could get a review copy of Iosi Havilio's Open Door from And Other Stories, a small independent publisher over in the UK.  I got back a polite reply with a request that I accept an e-copy, one I was happy to agree to.  I was even happier when I was sent not only Open Door, but also All the Lights, a collection of short stories by a young German writer called Clemens Meyer - just in time for German Literature Month :)

All the Lights, translated by Katy Derbyshire, contains fifteen stories, mostly set in the poorer Eastern states of Germany.  The protagonists are mainly men whose lives have not quite turned out as they would have expected.  Whether they are in jail, or have spent time there in the past, on the dole, working in a supermarket or living alone in an old damp flat, the protagonists of the tales (it would be a stretch to call them heroes...) have a lot to regret, and (usually) a lot of time in which to do it.

A common theme is life passing us by, or having already passed us by.  In Waiting for South America, Frank is distracted from his empty life by a series of letters from a friend who claims to have struck it lucky and gone off to chase his dreams in the Americas.  Frank's drab existence is contrasted with the glamour described in the letters he receives - although we have our doubts as to the veracity of these claims.

Fatty Loves is an excellent story, showing us an overweight, middle-aged teacher, sitting in his living room reminiscing about his earlier career, and about one student in particular.  When his thoughts start to become a little disturbing though, the reader is forced to analyse their feelings for the teacher and perhaps pass judgement on his behaviour...

The original title for this collection was Die Nacht, die Lichter (The Night, the Lights), and as childish and rhyming as that would have sounded in English, it's a very apt title.  Many of the events take place between dusk and dawn, emphasising the solitude of the characters by following them through empty streetscapes.

In Your Hair is Beautiful, a man lurks outside a woman's house in the dark, caught in an obsession which has cost him his family and his job; Carriage 29 sees a wine salesman sitting on a train at night, with no knowledge of how he got there; in I'm Still Here!, a black Dutch journeyman boxer experiences the darker side of East Germany, both inside a bar and out on the streets, after surprisingly knocking out his local opponent for an unexpected and rare win.  These are not streets you would like to be caught in...

The majority of the stories are intriguing, but I do have some reservations about All the Lights.  While there are some notable exceptions (the confusing opener Little Death and the frankly bizarre The Short Happy Life of Johannes Vettermann spring to mind), the stories did tend to blur into one another for me, and I had trouble remembering much about some of them the day after reading them.  Also, I'm a sucker for measured, flowing (florid?) prose, and Meyer's terse, sparse style didn't really do a lot for me.

Perhaps my biggest problem though was a feeling that several of the stories were one-trick ponies (the biggest, funnily enough, being Of Dogs and Horses).  There are twists, perfectly good ones, but... I'm not convinced that many of the stories would bear up to repeated reading, and that's what I'm looking for in the books I choose.

In fairness, All the Lights was slightly handicapped from the start.  I'm not a big fan of e-reading, and I felt a bit funny reading a German book in English (probably for the first time!).  I was also reading it having just completed Alois Hotschnig's Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht; I'm afraid that I found the Austrian writer's collection a much better one, and perhaps this affected my appreciation of Meyer's work.

Still, it's a pleasant collection of stories, and there are many that are well worth reading.  In the Aisles, another late-night special, set this time in a supermarket, is a well-written, poignant tale of male friendship, while the last story of the book, The Old Man Buries his Beasts, follows an old man as he takes a last look around his farm and the moribund nearby town.  These two tales are good examples of how some stories can stand up to rereading, even when the outcome is fresh in the mind.  Even if the same cannot be claimed for all the stories, All the Lights is still worth checking out.