Nesting Dolls

Simple Storys

by Ingo Schulze
Berlin Verlag, 303 pp., DM38.00

Ingo Schulze has been a big success in Germany ever since 33 Moments of Happiness won three prizes in 1995, and sold over 40,000 copies. It was his first book. He was born in East Germany in 1962, studied classics at Jena University, then got a job as dramaturge at the theater in the small East German city of Altenburg—no German town is too small to have a theater. After that he started an advertising weekly, and in 1993 spent six months in St. Petersburg setting up a similar publication there. 33 Moments of Happiness is the result of that stint, a fusion of travel writing and fiction, some of it surrealist, some Chekhovian. The “happiness” in the title has to be taken with a pinch of salt: the 33 short pieces are as much about the unhappiness created by the end of communism as about the ecstasies of freedom; but mostly about the Russianness of Russians.

The stories vary in quality—and in length. Story 10 (they are untitled but numbered) tells a not very funny joke in twenty-eight lines. Story 28 describes the coming of spring in two lyrical pages: “Of an evening, shadows like tendriled plants climbed the walls, then faded, only to reemerge out of the twilight and wander up a neighboring building.” The atmosphere of Russia in every piece is at least potentially poetic and numinous; and as thick, palpable, fetid, impenetrable, and inflammable as the layer of grease and dust that covers everything there; or so it seems to the narrator.

He narrates at more than one remove: 33 Moments of Happiness has the device of the “discovered manuscript” popular in the nineteenth century. It begins with a letter from I.S. (Ingo Schulze) to a literary friend: he wants expert advice on how to publish a collection of sketches about Russia, which he found in a folder tucked behind his bag on the train from Germany to St. Petersburg. It must have been left there by a German businessman whose acquaintance he made on the journey and who got off during the night. The man said his name was Hofmann, and that is the clue: in spite of a missing f, Schulze’s stories can be read as Tales of Hoffmann, wild and surreal. Besides, one of them has a beautiful singer in it called Giulietta, along with an editorial note explaining that it is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “New Year’s Eve Adventure.”

Russia is a place where such tales could happen today. Some of them have narrators of their own, and some of these narrators introduce yet another narrator from whom they heard the story they have to tell: a Russian doll structure well suited to a book aiming to get at the innermost layers of the Russian soul.

German critics vied with one another to discover Schulze’s literary sources—it was like a competition to find the largest number of hidden faces in a …

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