March 28, 2012 by markstani
Let’s be clear about one thing: there is no doubt Judith Hermann is an immensely talented writer, and that the translation of Alice (pub. Profile) from German into English, by Margaret Bettauer Dembo, is clear and sharp. Purely as an exercise in the technical aspects of short story writing, ‘Alice’ has few faults.
Unfortunately, taken as a whole, that is to say five interlinking short stories based around a single central protagonist, each relating to the death of one of her friends or acquaintances, it fails.
Given the clarity of the writing, I hesitate to sound overly harsh. But my colleague on the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize jury, Stu at Winstonsdad, offers this simple, tongue-in-cheek summation: ‘Alice was there, someone died.’
That, in essence, is it. Alice stays with a friend whose husband is in the final throes of cancer. Alice visits a friend whose husband dies unexpectedly. Alice visits another friend whose husband is dying. You get the picture.
The problem with this collection is certainly not the observational quality of Hermann’s writing, but in its fundamental lack of insight. It’s hard to see what the author is trying to achieve, or what the reader – even a reader seeking solace for their own grief – could get out of it. It is entirely, perplexingly unremarkable; all the more so for being longlisted for such a prestigious prize. Worst of all, by the time you reach the fourth and best sliver, in which she contemplates the suicide of her uncle Malte, you almost find yourself losing sympathy for Alice, on account of her uncanny ability to court misfortune.
It’s not the worst written book on the longlist, not by a long shot. It’s just a shame Hermann hasn’t put her obvious talent to better use. Anyway, here’s a nice bit:
Alice walked up the dirt road to Conrad and Lotte’s house. Pebbles in her sandals. She looked up at the black mountain behind the house and ducked. She climbed the broad steps between huge, tropical lavender bushes. Cardinal beetles , bright red, their little bodies chained to each other. In a hurry. And a rustling in the trees, a light breeze. Lotte was sitting on the terrace, which was empty except for a green hose on a drum, a grey stone sphere and the chair in which she sat. Three doors on the lower part of the house, two of them closed, the middle one slightly ajar. Lotte got up as Alice reached the terrace and came towards her; they greeted each other with a tentative embrace, cautiously, as if, at a touch, the other might dissolve into thin air.