Do They See Through the Murk?

Traveler of the Century

by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 564 pp., $30.00
Private Collection
Gustav Klimt: Forest Slope in Unterach on the Attersee, 1916; from the exhibition ‘Gustav Klimt: 150th Anniversary Celebration,’ on view at the Neue Galerie, New York City, until August 27, 2012

Literature can be hard work. Here are two writers, William Boyd and Andrés Neuman, at different stages of their careers, determined to offer complex literary novels together with the kind of high-tension plot that can attract a wider readership. Each sets his story in a tirelessly researched historical period and place; atmosphere is to be had in abundance, likewise comedy, eroticism, and violence. If toil were a guarantee of achievement in art, these novels would be among the finest.

Just turned sixty, the Scottish but African-born William Boyd is a known quantity. Contemporaries will recall with affection the comedy and drama of A Good Man in Africa (1981) and An Ice-Cream War (1982). Professional and productive, he has written some fifteen novels since, all seeking to combine the intelligently literary with the exciting and readable. One is struck by the many different settings of his tales: South West Africa in World War I, Manila in the early 1900s, Berlin and Los Angeles in the 1930s, Nigeria during the Biafran war, not to mention of course London and Edinburgh in various periods (the list could be much longer).

Many of the novels move back and forth from one country or continent to another and the reader is always carefully filled in on town or landscape, decor and customs. Clothes are important; Boyd goes to a great deal of trouble to dress his characters, particularly the women, describing style, colors, cloths, and textures. But all this meticulously portrayed reality only points up a deficit of deeper knowledge. Boyd’s central characters find the world enigmatic and dangerous. It’s no surprise that Waiting for Sunrise is prefaced with a line from Hemingway: “A thing is true at first light and a lie by noon.”

The most disturbing source of enigma, more often than not, is oneself. As this novel opens, Lysander Rief (Boyd rarely gives us an “ordinary” name), a young English actor, is in Vienna in the summer of 1913 to follow a course of psychoanalysis with the Freudian psychologist Doctor Bensimon. His problem, or problems, can be deduced from the following account:

The last time he had tried to have sexual congress with a woman had been with a young tart he’d picked up in Piccadilly. He counted back: three months, ten days ago. It was days after he had proposed to Blanche and was purely by way of necessary experiment…. The girl was pretty enough in a lurid way with her paint on but she had a black tooth that was visible when she smiled. He had started well but the inevitable result ensued. Nothing.

Not premature ejaculation, then, as Dr. Bensimon at first supposes, but anorgasmia: to put it brutally, Lysander can get it up and get it in but he can’t come. Readers may feel, however, that a man who can propose to his beloved one day and “purely” by way of experiment go to a prostitute the next may have, if we can risk the pun, other issues. One of these is his parents: slightingly, Bensimon only becomes truly interested in Lysander when he discovers that his long-dead father was the celebrated actor Halifax Rief, a dominant figure who still determines, if only in reaction, much of his son’s behavior. His mother, much younger than his father and for a while the infant Lysander’s sleeping companion after his father’s death, will also turn out to be at the heart of the younger man’s difficulties.

Encouraged to keep a diary of dreams and reflections, Lysander comes up with the classic repressed memory: one summer afternoon in early adolescence, having moved into the manor hall of his new stepfather, Lord Faulkner, Lysander had taken The Rape of the Lock into the gardens to read, proceeded to masturbate over thoughts of Belinda, fallen asleep with his trousers open, and, on being woken by his alarmed mother, protested in a daze of denial that Tommy Bledlow, the gardener’s son, “did this to me”; as a result, the gardener and his family were dismissed.

The anorgasmia would appear to be a symptom of Lysander’s inability to come to terms with his thoughtless, destructive behavior of years before. Bensimon has a solution: parallelism. Our past is an imaginative construct that can be altered, at least in our heads. He puts Lysander under hypnosis and reconstructs the afternoon in an innocuous way, creating a “parallel” memory. Despite the fact that the original memory remains in the pages of his diary, Lysander, as he soon has occasion to discover, is cured.

One of Boyd’s aims in this novel is to evoke that point in history when, partly thanks to Freud’s ideas, the world was becoming more intensely sexualized and society galvanized by anxious disagreements over the role of sex in our lives. Walking around Vienna, Lysander is attracted to a poster, or fragments of a poster, which he is never able to see whole. It shows a “scantily clad maiden…almost naked, cowering, hands pressed to her sizeable breasts, cupping them protectively, a semi-visible filmy swirl of self-supporting veil protecting her modesty at the plump juncture of her thighs.” Someone, in a fit of “prudish bourgeois outrage,” is mutilating the posters, preventing Lysander from viewing the whole picture and creating a sense of enigma.

No sooner has he seen the posters than Lysander meets, unaware, the model for the naked girl. On his first visit to Bensimon, as if the whole world were organizing itself around his personal problem, he encounters two people who will be central to his life and appear to represent opposing traits in his character. The petite, ebullient, and disquietingly erratic Hettie Bull bursts into the waiting room, cadges not one but two cigarettes from Lysander, and delays his appointment by demanding “in a kind of frenzy” to see the analyst first. Alwyn Munro, soberly dressed in banded tie and stiff collar, emerges from the doctor’s studio and opines that Hettie “looks a bit dangerous to me.” Munro turns out to be a military attaché at the British embassy and will step in to help Lysander when Hettie ruins his life in grand style.

A sculptress living with a famous painter, Hettie invites Lysander to a private viewing of her partner’s show. Dressing to go, Lysander combines “a stiff-collared white shirt” that reminds us of Munro with “a scarlet, polka-dotted, four-in-hand tie” that seems more in line with Hettie’s world. “A splash of bold colour,” Lysander reflects, “to show how artistic he was,” something his father would have found vulgar. With this uncertain identity he walks straight into an affair with Hettie, or Andromeda as she sometimes signs herself.

For Andromeda is the distressed maiden in the poster Hettie modeled for. At the show, Lysander discovers the original design for the image, which advertises the opera Andromeda und Perseus by Gottlieb Toller, drawn by Hettie’s partner, Udo Hoff. “One mystery solved,” Lysander congratulates himself. In fact the mystery of Andromeda has only just begun.

Reversing the stereotyped roles of male artist and female model, Hettie invites Lysander to model for her and seduces him. To his relief he discovers that he can now achieve orgasm, though he immediately accuses her of having “plotted and planned…this diabolical scheme” from the beginning. She confesses that she did. A disquieting aspect of Lysander’s character emerges: he is a man who reacts rather than acts. He is seduced rather than seducing. He constantly feels that he is the victim or puppet of some conspiracy. Yet he never says no. Apparently this has to do with his profession; as an actor he accepts roles and is obedient to a script.

The affair begins; the couple meet regularly in hotels. Vienna has been described as a polite and proper city beneath which flows a “river of sex.” Even the young maid at Lysander’s respectable boardinghouse sells her favors to guests for a reasonable price. Declaring his happiness while Hettie shoots up cocaine on the bed, Lysander is very much in the stream:

Hettie found a book of pornographic Japanese prints in Hoff’s library and brought them to the barn so they could experiment. She took his penis in her mouth. He tried and failed to sodomize her. They had a go at emulating the contorted positions illustrated, studying the pages as if they were architects inspecting a blueprint.

Later, Hettie gives Lysander a copy of the libretto for Andromeda und Perseus and signs her dedication Andromeda. Our hero is now inside the myth, though hardly a Perseus figure. All appears to be going swimmingly until the police arrive at his boardinghouse and arrest him. Pregnant and afraid her boyfriend will react violently, Hettie has accused Lysander of rape.

It is all very literary, playfully and pleasantly so. Every detail calls to another in an intensifying pattern. Lysander is now the victim of the same “crime” he once committed. To excuse himself for his sexual behavior he had shifted the blame elsewhere, altering a family’s destiny; to excuse herself, Hettie has accused him, with dire consequences. Fortunately, as Lysander languishes in his prison cell, Munro appears from the British embassy. His Majesty’s government has generously paid his bail and he is to be allowed to await his trial under house arrest at the embassy.

Nothing, it now seems, would be easier than to demonstrate that he and Hettie had been having an affair and that the rape charge is unfounded. But Hettie comes to the embassy and persuades Lysander that if he tells the truth, Udo will kill her and thus their child as well. Always accommodating, Lysander decides to escape and, despite having to forfeit the bail as a consequence, the British diplomats connive. Disguising himself as a loud-mouthed Italian musician with a stolen double bass and felt hat, Lysander walks through a police cordon at the railway station and boards a train to Venice.

All this and more occurs in the first third of this 350-page novel. One would have thought it was material enough to see Boyd through to the end. The reader wonders how Lysander will deal with his fiancée back in London, whether he will see his child in Vienna, how he will pick up his acting career, if he can solve the deeper psychological problems that have to do with his mother, whether it really is possible, over the long term, to substitute an inconvenient but accurate memory with an innocuous and false one. They are fascinating questions, but Boyd has a different plan. It is now 1914, the war is about to start, and our story is set to metamorphose into an extremely complex spy thriller.

The next two hundred pages are packed. As if they had planned everything from the start, the British intelligence services intend to make Lysander repay his bail by risking his life in a mission to Switzerland where he will use his language skills to force a German consular official to reveal the source of coded information he is receiving about British troop movements. Just as he succumbed to the plans of women, Lysander accepts and brings all his acting ability to the scheme. Doing so, he casually kills and tortures, discovers to his amazement that the code used by the German spies is based on the libretto of Andromeda und Perseus, is shot in the chest, and speedily recovers to be given the job of hunting down the London-based bureaucrat who is sending vital secrets to the enemy. Needless to say the elusive spy is given the codename Andromeda.

Meantime Boyd never fails to describe with the utmost care each new scene, be it a London theater, the trenches in France, a steamer on Lake Constance, a café in Geneva, or a Zeppelin bombing raid of London, and he works hard to bring together Lysander’s psychosexual problems and the literary atmosphere of the earlier pages with his wartime duties and the thriller plot. But it is indeed hard work and by the time he arrives at the crucial twist, which has everything fitting neatly together, the reader is weary of it, nostalgic for the sophistication and lightness of touch that made the first part of the novel such a pleasure. On three occasions, Lysander finds himself alone at night anxiously “waiting for sunrise.” On the last of these Boyd makes the meaning of the book’s title explicit: “Sunrise and clarity, he thought—at last, at last.” But it is not to be. Nothing will be explained. “Maybe this is what life is like,” Lysander reflects. “We try to see clearly, but…the more we strive the murkier it becomes.” This may be so, but the machinery Boyd deploys to bring his hero to this melancholy conclusion is all too clear and laborious.

Rodrigo Sanchez/dpa/Corbis
Andrés Neuman in front of a picture of himself at the Guadalajara Book Fair, 2009

Like Waiting for Sunrise, Andrés Neuman’s The Traveler of the Century begins with a journey in the German-speaking world. A young traveler, Hans, arrives from Berlin by horse-drawn carriage at the small town of Wandernburg. As the carriage approaches, the town, as its name might have warned, seems to move; when Hans passes through the gates, the town walls have an odd thickness that suggests “how hard it would be to leave.” Tired, he asks to be put down at a seedy inn where he is greeted by the ominously named Herr Zeit and given a room with scratching sounds under the floorboards and a spider weaving cobwebs above his head. When the coachman asks if he has a corpse in his heavy trunk, Hans replies, “Several.”

Where, when, and who are the questions the reader is invited to ask. The fictitious Wandernburg is “impossible to pinpoint…on any map because it has changed places all the time. It shifts so much between regions it has become all but invisible.” At one level the town’s “mobility” would appear to be a metaphor for the mutability of history and fortune; after the recent wars Wandernburg has ceased to be part of Saxony and become part of Prussia. But there are frequent hints that this is a magical place: Hans has the impression that the streets are not fixed, that shops yesterday on one corner are now on another, and that sometimes “Wandernburg rotated suddenly like a sunflower turning to follow the sun.” Planning to stay only one night, he soon finds it impossible to leave. The very indefinition of Wandernburg seems to hold him.

As place is never precisely established, neither is time. The Napoleonic era is over, the 1848 revolutions are yet to come, but it’s not clear where we are in between. Throughout the novel’s 564 pages the author provides an abundance of geographical and historical detail while systematically blurring the line between reality and fantasy. The young Hans, usually but not always the object of our attention, is given no surname, offers few details of his past beyond the fact that he studied philology, has visited more countries than would seem possible for his age, and works, when he does, as a translator. Whatever secrets he protects appear to be hidden in his heavy trunk, which he allows no one to open and from which, over the course of the novel, he pulls out a remarkable quantity of books.

The enigma is somewhat resolved if we consider the connections between Hans and Andrés, Neuman that is, the novel’s author. Argentinean by birth, the thirty-five-year-old Neuman has lived in Spain since he was fourteen, studied philology, spent time in Germany, and translated the poems of Wilhelm Müller, who died in 1827, around the date our book is set. As a name, Andrés has affinities with Hans, and the latter is certainly a “new man” in Wandernburg. Interviewed about the novel, his fourth, Neuman has spoken of seeking to write about the nineteenth century “with all the historical memory of what happened afterward, both in terms of history, politics and literature.” It is actually hard to imagine how one could write about the past without the knowledge of what happened afterward, but perhaps Neuman’s point is that in this novel there will be no pretense that the knowledge isn’t there. In fact, in many of the book’s conversations, political and literary, Hans seems uncannily aware of twenty-first-century debates, about political union in Europe, for example. Insofar, then, as we need to pin down his identity, Hans is an authorial alter ego who travels in the past and gets stuck there for a while, because the past is intriguingly indefinite, and because he falls in love.

Neuman is even more bookish than Boyd. There are hints of Kafka, Borges, Mann, and many other celebrated writers. There are learned and clever conversations that go on for many pages, elaborate set pieces, purple passages, essays on literature, history, aesthetics, and politics. The plot, however, is familiar and simple: Hans gets drawn into the salon of widower Herr Gottlieb where long evenings of conversation with local worthies and their wives are presided over by his daughter, the brilliant and beautiful Sophie. In love with Sophie and constantly exchanging glances with her in the room’s mirror, Hans argues heatedly with eminent, arch-conservative Professor Mietter, “the most cultured person in Wandernburg,” seeking to impress his hostess with his sparkling wit and liberal views. Sophie is impressed but alas already betrothed to Rudi Wilderhaus, an aristocratic hunk whose boundless wealth is to save Herr Gottlieb from imminent ruin. Other members of the salon are the Jew Herr Levin and his wife, who has recently converted to Catholicism, the frivolous but pleasant widow Frau Pietzine, and the Spanish businessman Álvaro, who is having an affair with Sophie’s maid Elsa, becomes Hans’s confidant, and is well placed to offer us an exhaustive account of recent Spanish history.

Nobody is in a hurry. They discuss Fichte and Goethe, Walter Scott and Schiller, the nation-state and European trade, and much, much else. Occasionally, attractive aphorisms rise above the surface of debates that readers may feel they have heard before. As for the relationships between characters, everything is seen as a matter of winning and losing, with the freethinking Hans seeking to get the better of the reactionary Professor Mietter in order to score another kind of victory with Sophie. Neuman aligns himself with Hans in his evident love of cleverness and his eagerness to win the reader’s admiration, so that the text is interspersed with virtuoso set pieces (usually of about three pages), such as the one where Sophie plays with her fan. Here is a fragment:

The discussions that followed were accompanied by a series of placid undulations from the fan, whose leisurely movement gave the pleasing impression that the conversation was taking the right direction. In a sudden fit of excitement, with a deft thrust Hans invited Sophie to abandon her position as spectator and join in the lively debate he was having with her father. Sophie was not prepared to yield this much terrain, yet the rim of her fan lowered an inch.
Emboldened by these minor victories, Hans got carried away and made some impertinent remark—the fan snapped shut, tracing an emphatic “no” in the air. Hans retreated, qualifying his remark with exemplary sophistry to such an extent it seemed he had meant the exact opposite, while not allowing his face to betray the slightest sign of distress. Sophie pressed the ribs of the fan against her lips, faintly mistrustful but plainly interested.

When Hans is not at the salon, or fighting off Lisa, Herr Zeit’s pretty daughter, who has a crush on him and like all young women in the novel is concerned to escape from the subordinate role in which women of the time found themselves, he is on the edge of town at the organ-grinder’s cave. Nameless, because he has no need of a name, the organ-grinder, who plays his barrel organ every day in Wandernburg’s main square, epitomizes the well-loved street artist, full of deep wisdom, careless of personal hygiene, living frugally, and sleeping in a cave, with no ambition for celebrity. Hans shows his superior sensibility by appreciating the organ-grinder’s merits, something others of his class overlook. A long set piece describes how a barrel organ is made and tuned, while Hans’s evenings at the cave allow him to meet members of the laboring classes and reflect on employment rights and social tension.

In contrast to the wisely charming organ grinder, the local priest, Father Pigherzog, keeps a disturbing diary detailing the state of his parishioners’ souls, thus giving us more information about the characters and revealing, not unexpectedly, the bigotry, avarice, and hypocrisy of the Church. But Pigherzog is not the only unpleasantness: halfway through the novel a masked rapist starts to haunt the alleys of Wandernburg, sneaking up on solitary women and holding a knife to their throats while he has his way with them; in short, the reader is invited to worry for Sophie.

If Sophie’s father is a Gottlieb, her mother was a Bodenlieb, and after a couple of hundred pages the earthy side of her gene pool finally manifests itself; interrupting the propriety of his pastiche of nineteenth-century prose, Neuman tell us: “Beneath Sophie’s ample skirts, among the folds of her petticoat, wrapped in white muslin stockings, her thighs clenched, tighter and tighter.” Soon enough, she and Hans are in bed together, “wrapped around each other like scrawled handwriting.”

Of wishful thinking there is no end. Around the time the affair with Sophie begins, Hans, now short of money, contacts Brockhaus, a publisher in another town, and in no time at all is being paid good money to translate poetry. This improbable development allows him to invite Sophie, who, it turns out, is a remarkable linguist, to collaborate on an anthology of European poetry, something that gives her an excuse to spend hours in his hotel room and Hans/Neuman the chance to tell us all he knows about translation and poetry.

An extended analogy is established between the translator’s interpretative skills and the lover’s sensibility to his or her beloved. It is the kind of parallel that confuses rather than clarifies and seems mainly aimed at aligning translation and literature in general with an idealized romantic transgression of repressive social mores. As the couple “alternated between books and bed,” we have paragraphs like this:

How can we speak about free trade, Hans pronounced as he lay next to Sophie, of a customs union and all that implies, without considering a free exchange of literature? We should be translating as many foreign books as possible, publishing them, reclaiming the literature of other countries and taking it to the classroom! That’s what I told Brockhaus. And what did he say? Sophie asked, nibbling his nipple. Hans shrugged and stroked her back: He told me, yes, all in good time, and not to get agitated. But in such exchanges, said Sophie, it’s important that the more powerful countries don’t impose their literature on everyone else, don’t you think? Absolutely, replied Hans, plunging his hand between Sophie’s buttocks, and besides, powerful countries have a lot to learn from smaller countries, which are usually more open and curious, that is to say, more knowledgeable.

Meantime, there is no need to sympathize with the cuckolded Rudi Wildenhaus because he is rich, privileged, and nowhere near as intelligent, literary, and witty as the lovers. He has no opinions, for example, on the internationalization of literature or the difficulties of translating poetry from four or five different languages.

At the evil heart of Boyd’s Waiting for Sunrise is a rich, highly respectable man whose pedophilia leaves him open to blackmail. When, toward the end of The Traveler of the Century, with terrible predictability, the masked rapist tries and fails to rape Sophie, he is revealed as none other than the right-wing intellectual and upholder of conventional proprieties Professor Mietter. In both books, then, liberal positions prevail by depicting an emblematic opponent as prone, because of his repressive views, to criminal sexual perversity.

Neuman is a very gifted writer, he can be funny and charming, he has put in an enormous amount of work, but beneath its glittering surface this is a novel of stereotype and received ideas, an overly long romance that interminably aligns youth, beauty, wit, and spirituality with the profession Neuman has chosen and beliefs he never subjects to serious scrutiny. It is a crowd pleaser for a certain type of literary reader. And it has pleased some. In Spain it has won two prestigious awards, the Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize. One trusts that this is more a reflection on the temptation for prize juries to confuse ambition with quality than on the real state of Spanish literature. Of the two books under review, I would prefer Boyd’s a thousand times.