This Is the Garden by Giulio Mozzi, translated from Italian by Elizabeth Harris

This Is the Garden opens with an excerpt  from  a poem by Claudio Damiani -

This is the garden; when you look it’s far

too bright and burns your eyes

and so you turn away, although you know

that everything is real, everything you see

is real, and through time life unwinds

and is complete . . .

This is the GardenThose words sum up this collection of short stories by Giulio Mozzi.  Some are very good, some less so.  All involve the reader in situations that are uncomfortable (almost painful):  a letter from a thief to the woman whose purse he’s stolen; an author at a book signing addressing the audience; an apprentice who dreams of being promoted.   Stories that create the kind of emotional response that takes the reader to a place they don’t necessarily want to be are the kinds of stories I’m usually drawn to.  But this collection had me feeling look-warm.  Not excited. Not disappointed.  I kept waiting to be moved and wasn’t.

Yet, there is still a lot left to admire.

The Apprentice puts us in the head of a young apprentice who wants nothing more than to be promoted from running errands to working on the factory floor. He’s incredibly earnest and intelligent, character traits that separate him from the men he aspires to join.  From the very first paragraph we know what the boy doesn’t, for the simple reason that we possess the life experience he doesn’t.  And Mozzi’s ability to impart that time of life when naivety is transitioning into  a faltering understanding of how the world operates is special.  He nails it. Too often young narrators are really only adults looking back on their younger selves.  But Mozzi’s apprentice is grounded firmly in the moment.

F. is firmly grounded in its protagonist’s present, following the final hours of a magistrate in witness protection.  His keeper has arranged a meeting with the beloved magistrate’s wife (also under witness protection, but inexplicably kept in a separate location from her husband). The crime and threats and reasons for the couple’s voluntarily separation only lightly touched on.  Instead F. focuses on the magistrate’s daily reality, detailing his day almost second-by-second, up until the very last second of the magistrate’s life.

Another favorite is Glass.  The story is only a few pages long – the shortest in the collection.  In that short space you get the sense of a troubled man finding his way back from something – again, never specified – which has unbalanced his life.  He meticulously describes his yard to the reader: repairs done to the porch; the wall shared with a neighbor.

I especially like the dividing wall between our yard and the neighbor’s to the right.  It’s just a dividing wall, and that’s probably why it was thrown up without much thought, back when they build the house, after the war. It must have been a brownish-orange once, like the house, but the paint seeped into the mortar, leaving only some dirty-gray stains and a touch of blue. The sun never hits the wall: it’s damp, blotchy, shaded and streaked with dark-green  and silver moss. In some places, you can see swellings, blisters – popped blisters.  In other places, the mortar’s flaking off or crumbling.  The layer beneath is yellowish, dusty. Years ago, the wall was covered in Virginia creeper…

… and so on.  The glass of the title is a metaphor and the overall effect of that, and this compulsive cataloguing by the narrator, is haunting.

A borderline OCD attention to detail, creation of lists and step-by-step reenactments of events appear in all of Mozzi’s stories.  If This Is a Garden were a painting it would fall within the purview of the hyper-realists.

These eight stories are evenly divided between first and third person narrators.  But those told from the third person perspective are more intimate and those were the stories that drew me in. When I stop to think about it, it makes more sense that a third person, omnipotent, narrator would feel more honest and objective.  All first person narrators are unreliable by definition.  They channel the world through a single, biased perspective; describing it as they believe it to be.  A third person narrator presents it as it exists in the author’s/creator’s mind.  And maybe that is another reason I preferred the latter examples.  Because the third person more accurately represents Mozzi’s prose, his writer-ly voice when he’s not attempting to inhabit a character. And it provides the translator, Elizabeth Harris, with greater artistic freedom.  The happy result is passages such as this: ‘The boys spent a long time talking about this silent answer, what it could mean. Some boys started belittling Yanez, almost mocked him. Suddenly his race mattered. Others said, “The Tiger’s Claw has broken,” and they were sad. It took a few years – time for the village boys to become village men – before most of them realized what Yanez’s answer meant.’

Publisher: Open Letter, Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 75 7

Two Short Works of Non-Fiction by Readux Books

Whether or not you subscribe to the theory that the digital age is creating an ADD society (there was a great article about this last month in The Guardian) time is at a premium in today’s world and there’s no arguing the attractions of shorter fiction.   Earlier this year I ran a series of posts featuring bloggers discussing why they love – or hate – short stories.  Novellas are also growing in popularity. Readux Books, the new publisher based in Berlin, has hit the sweet spot somewhere between the two with the release of their first collection of books this past October.

A lot of care has obviously gone into the making and launching these books.  Each is approximately 5,000 to 10,000 words – a length Readux feels is in keeping with “reading habits in the digital era, without room for slack, but that is long enough to allow complex themes to be developed.”  The gorgeous, brightly colored paperback covers referencing the German Expressionists.  The writing is experimental – of the four books, three are translations – yet accessible.   Readux has obviously made clever choices and taken some calculated chances in the planning stages.    And while each of the four books is sold individually, they share common themes, ideas and a consistent packaging that had me coveting them for my bookshelves.  This careful curating reminds me of some of my favorite independent publishers: New Directions, Open Letter and Other Press.

The two non-fiction titles are memoirs about life in Berlin, written from two different periods in the city’s history.  Yet, the Berlin described appears remarkably unchanged despite an 85 year gap in the timeline.  The changes in writing styles are much more drastic.  Franz Hessel’s In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929 lacks the post-modern trappings of City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin (written by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in 2013).  The former is a period piece that is similar to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories.  Not surprising, as both he and Hessel lived in Berlin at the same time.  It’s not unthinkable that they would even have traveled in the same circles.

Hessel was a Jewish editor, author and translator.  He was a member of the German artist community.  His complicated marriage to the journalist Helen Grund inspired Henri Pierre Roche’s novel Jules et Jim (which, in turn, inspired the 1962 François Truffaut film of the same name).  Eventually, he would flee Germany for France and he and his son would be sent to an internment camp.  He died in 1941, the same year he was released from the camp.

But here Hessel is writing about the heady days before the tragedy of WWII.  His descriptions of Berlin and its citizens are frenzied and entertaining.  In Berlin is an all too brief excerpt of what I believe must have been a longer piece in which we readers get to follow Hessel and his companions as they drift between cabarets, parties and clubs. We meet the German equivalent of Flappers and get a taste of the sexually progressive atmosphere that permeated the city at that time.  The sharp, witty prose style is characteristic of Lois Long’s column for the New Yorker during the same period.

… Gert and Maria deliberate on what else we could undertake to do. “Why don’t you young people go upstairs and dance?” I ask.  “I don’t want to,” says Maria, “but maybe Gert would find some companionship in the Blaue Salon.” “Actually I was supposed to stop in to Ambassadeurs today at midnight.”” In my inexperience, I am informed that this is the newest extension of the Barberina.  Gert and Maria then discuss the quality of the various jazz bands and tango groups in the big hotels, in the Palais am Zoo, in the Valencia, etc.  I somewhat timidly introduce my experiences from the little Silhoette.  “why don’t we just go across the way here to Eldorado?  That’s where the real bedlam’s at.  You’re all for chaos, smoking and sport jackets, transvestites, little girls, and great ladies, aren’t you?  Of course you’re more for what’s proper, Gert, you want elegant dancing and limits, you want to go to Königin.”  But in the end we decide on something completely different.

If you’re in Germany you can buy a set of (4) posters featuring Readux covers.

In contrast, City of Rumor by Gideon Lewis-Kraus spends less time writing about Berlin, the city, and more on his conflicted emotions regarding it.  He is a modern-day expatriate.  Lewis-Kraus is an American journalist whose work has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, The New York Times Magazine and the London Review of Books.  His writing is as beautiful as Hessel’s, but also more fraught. The modern Berlin he describes is still a frenetic party scene, but seems less innocent and more world-weary. The essay, itself, reads much more self-indulgent; the main conflict being internalized.  Berlin assumes the secondary role, stripped of its unique character and becoming interchangeable with cities like Brooklyn, London or L.A.   “Hipster” is a word that comes to mind.   “Angst” is another.  Of course, the subtitle is “The Compulsion to Write About Berlin“, – so you could say that Lewis-Kraus has delivered on what was advertised.

The chapter about Berlin, like the lives of man of the people I knew in Berlin, had no such constraint – no relevant chronology, no narrative necessity. When I sat down to write about Berlin for the first time, all I could do was make a list of anecdotes, the ones that had lingered with me for some reason, in no particular order.  I wrote them out as a series of disordered episodes – the time we followed the votive candles to the rave in the toolshed in the middle of the park, the time our friend held a real art opening outside a fake art opening – and saw little use or accuracy in connecting them.  After all, they had only ever felt associatively connected in the first place.  They had, or course, happened in one particular order, though as far as I could tell they might very well have happened in any other order, or no order at all.

Side-by-side these essays seem not about Berlin but instead about two generations of young urbanites.  That contrast between authors is what I found most interesting.  Individually they’re entertaining reads – but considered together they have the potential to spark a larger conversation about historical, cultural and literary changes.

The two fiction titles are Fantasy by Malte Persson, translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel and The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire.

Publisher:  Readux Books, Berlin

In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929
ISBN:  978 3 944801 01 8

City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin
ISBN:  978 3 944801 03 2

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