Skip to main content

Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban

What's the difference who I am or if I am?
Kleinzeit–German for 'small time', not, as Kleinzeit himself would have us believe, 'hero'–is a sick man. With pains shooting from A to B, an acute hypotenuse, and something up with his diapason, he's dying from the disease of life. Hospital, heckling and arrogant, reassures him he'll soon be cured of it, forever. In the meantime, he's fired for writing a man pushing a barrow of rocks, falls in love with a ward sister, Sister, purchases a glockenspiel with which he busks in the underground, and despite 'heroic' attempts to discharge himself from the crowing, anthropomorphised institution, finds that Death keeps tricking him into relapses, in between which he discovers a sinister plot hatched by yellow A4 paper to enslave him and cuckold him with Word.

In an odd way, this short novel feels like an episode inside the head of Leonard Rossiter. A healthy man feels a mystery pain, checks himself into hospital and quickly unravels. But he also looks for a way out of a stultifying career, a lifestyle and emotional state where he can't remember his parents, ex-wife and children, unless he can physically visit their house / graves. He embarks on a literary career, selling poems on the platforms of the underground, writing a novel freehand on yellow foolscap paper. He explores a profound connection with a beautiful but flawed woman he barely knows. And he suffers the medical explorations of a team of doctors who are intent on cutting parts of him away, to see if it helps, in a ward where no-one gets out alive. In that sense it felt like watching an episode of Reginald Perrin, engendering a very 1970s sensibility. The very gentle surrealism of it all sings out to me. Organs and health issues are given amusing if appropriate names (the diapason is both a tuning fork and the just octave in Pythagorean tuning), likewise medicaments (2-Nup etc.). Kleinzeit talks of the cold, soft-padding paws under the ground in the underground that step from below exactly where you place your own feet as though you walked on the soles of some subterranean beast. Underground (capital U as it's a proper noun), Hospital, Word, Death, God (and Vishnu) all interact as characters in their own right, and in his descriptive passages, even the scenes of action, the lens through which the reader sees is of a peculiarly, and wonderfully, Hobanian design. Let me quote a few lines from the very first page:
He put his face in front of the mirror.  
I exist, said the mirror.
What about me? said Kleinzeit
Not my problem, said the mirror.
... He left the mirror empty and went to his job, staying behind his face through the corridors of the Underground and into a train.
For readers who love playful use of the English language, playful and profound, then Hoban is a delight. It's no wonder that a wordsmith of the calibre of Will Self can say that Hoban is his hero. Right the way through, Hoban toys with the quotidian interactions of commuters, paper-shufflers, seekers of fame and fortune, and the lonely, connecting through sparring handwritten comments on the posters and walls of the subway. His characters look for freedom but like timid mice daren't approach it when they find it. And smeared over the top, like a simple but tasty strawberry preserve, is a very healthy dose of smut. In fact, such smut that I became irrationally concerned that my son never discovers his backlist of children's novels.

Fair to say I was immediately entranced by this book. It does many things brilliantly, lots of things wonderfully, and slips along like a swollen river of words, so fast indeed that I worried I wasn't giving it enough attention and so had to deliberately slow myself down, attempting to rein-in galloping paragraphs and to savour each line. One such is this last offering with which I leave you, delivered by Sister to God in a dialogue about the inherent illness of mankind: 
It isn't a matter of finding a well man, it's a matter of finding one who makes the right use if his sickness.

Comments

How's about that then?

Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

In days gone by, when repeatedly pressed about what my favourite book might be, a banal question seeking an impossible and crude reductionist answer to which I was usually rude in response, I would offer Breakfast Of Champions as a pacifier. 

I first read it in University, and it has, to some degree, influenced how I think and feel about a lot of things. Strikingly, I've never wanted to re-read it. Perhaps I was afraid I'd find fault the second time around and wanted to uphold it as a paragon of meta-fiction. Perhaps, but then I'm a relentless consumer of fiction and was always on to the next consumable work, never having time or inclination to go back.

So in the spirit of a more considered and thoughtful phase of my life I decided I wanted to read something that once made me feel good.

I'd clearly not remembered it very well.

But before that, I'm amazed I've gone *mumbles* years without once mentioning Kilgore Trout in my reviews, even in passing. The same goes fo…

Fup by Jim Dodge

If there was a comfort-food version of a book for me, then this would be it. It's funny, touching, humanistic, and features so many quotable quotes that its trim 120 pages could be represented in its entirety on some such authors' quotations page.

We're introduced to Tiny on the occasion of his mother's death, lured into a treacherously fatal situation by, of all things, a duck, while her 4-year-old son sleeps in the car where he wakes to a terrifying solitude. Meanwhile, we're treated to a potted but entertaining history of Granddaddy Jake, Tiny's grandfather, into whose care by fair means or foul (no pun intended) he is finally placed. But the titular Fup duck comes along only once Tiny is fully grown (and how!). A lost and lonely duckling, much like Tiny, she's discovered shivering in a freshly dug post hole, which betrays the attention paid to it by Tiny's nemesis, a wild hog called Lockjaw, who enjoys tearing up Tiny's fences just as much as he …

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

I thought I'd talked about Thomas Bernhard here somewhere before - the vitriol, the bitterness, the hilarity that was Old Masters - but it appears not, or, more likely, that I search like I think; superficially. Nevertheless, at least I now have the opportunity to present him for your consideration, albeit with the oily glaze of my opinion applied liberally. 

An Austrian author and playwright, Bernhard had a curious relationship with the land of his birth. He was highly critical of both the people and state, regularly attacking the church, the government, the populace (who he labelled stupid and stubbornly contemptuous) and venerable old institutions like the concert halls and cultural venues of Vienna. Indeed, in his will, he strictly forbade any new productions of his works, both unpublished novels and poems, and stagings of his plays. His characters often deliver long monologues filled with bile and spite, frequently inhabiting considered but oddly irrational-seeming positions. …

Love And Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon

"When he was young, like me, he said, he used to think that all the great writers knew something he didn't... He was burning to write, he wanted to break through to that fancy knowledge, he was hungry for it. But now he knew that that hunger was vainglorious; now he knew that writers knew nothing, really; most of them were just faking it. He knew nothing. There was nothing to know, nothing on the other side." – The Noble Truth of SufferingYou know me and short stories–I shan't revisit old graves–but every now and again I find a collection, usually with one author, that simply blows me away. Something in them speaks to personae I didn't even know I hid behind. Something rips free the mask, the fiercely clutched identity, fake as you like, and exposes everything. Those authors I fall madly in love with, because I hate them. I detest that they can say things that are as yet unformed zygotes in the barren womb of my mind, not even the germ of a clumsy, badly phrased …