New Books, by Joshua Cohen

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The Gregorian, Julian, Coptic, Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Tibetan, Zoroastrian, and Mesoamerican calendars—and the Mayan, which predicts that the world will end just days after this issue reaches your hands—all are attempts to turn time’s relentless progress into a cycle, a human model both of the seasons and of the rotations and revolutions of the heavenly bodies. And so the weekly sabbaths and yearly holidays, the semicentennial jubilees and septennial sabbaticals, the fiscal quarters and workaday 9 to 5, which give us a hint of eternity on earth and keep us from a continuous contemplation of death.

Greece was a civilization, Rome an empire—the former maintained dozens of calendars, but the latter established only one, because an empire has to collect taxes. Rome designated the first day of each month, the calendae, as the day when debts were due, and the sums were recorded in ledgers called calendaria. The tacky grids given out as promotions from banks and networked Google calendars followed. Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter’s December (translated by Martin Chalmers, Seagull Books, $20) revives a related tradition: the calendar as history, or the “chronicle.” Kluge’s texts—one for each day of the month—appear opposite images of winter wastescapes by Richter, together forming a stark, disconcerting record of a Germany frozen if not temporally then spiritually.

Born in Halberstadt in 1932, Kluge studied law at Marburg and philosophy at Frankfurt under Theodor Adorno, at whose Institute for Social Research—the Frankfurt School—he served as legal counsel. Adorno’s group of anticapitalist theorists had been dispersed by war; Kluge witnessed its revival. Max Horkheimer was lured back from Pacific Palisades; Jürgen Habermas was a new recruit. (Herbert Marcuse, though, remained in Cambridge, Erich Fromm in Mexico City.) An acquaintance with Fritz Lang led Kluge to his own film experiments. His Brutality in Stone (1960), one of the first cinematic comments on the Nazi regime, laid the foundation for the New German Cinema (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders). Kluge’s best-known films are Yesterday Girl (1966), Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed (1968), Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave (1973), and The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time (1985), which critiques the free-market reforms of postwar Europe and is accompanied by Kluge’s own narration: “Time is what you can measure with a clock. A child, a city, a love, death . . . these are clocks.”

Kluge’s texts, like his films, are non-fiction told with fiction’s techniques. His work in both mediums exemplifies the socialist struggle for an art made for, by, and of its audience, though the texts are indebted as much to Brecht as to Adorno—or to that philosopher’s most foolish dictum, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This was the rallying cry of a generation that had grown up on Nazi lit and the Reich’s perversion of Goethe. The movements that generation developed could all be filed under the heading Dokumentarliteratur (“documentary literature”), which at one extreme produced books of pitiless realism, and at the other merely reproduced and publicized the archives. Kluge’s Case Histories (1962) are biographical indictments of petit bourgeois Nazi life. New Histories (1977) is an atlas and almanac of a divided Germany, juxtaposing the Western rise and Eastern fall of industry and academe. The Battle (1964) is an account of Stalingrad montaged from telegrams, letters, command dispatches, and radiotelephone transcripts.

December features Gorbachev, Putin, Andrei Bitov, and “Alexander Kluge” interacting with chemists and biologists who might be as real as climate change or as fake as Die Glocke (“The Bell,” the Nazi time machine). Its interests include money, hell, and the Scholastic distinctions between tempus (mortal time), aevum (angelic time), and aeternitas (“the duration which only God experiences”). More quotidian is Kluge’s inquisition into the month’s origins, which he leaves unresolved between superstition and prudence: “Until 153 BC, December was the tenth month in the Roman lunar calendar which had three hundred and four days. After that the beginning of the year was put forward by two months but no one dared change the name of the month that marked the end of the year.”

“10 December 2009” is a typical day:

So-called December expenditures: the president of the Audit Office of the Hellenic Republic who is assisted by an advisor from the EU administration in Brussels has already been pursuing the usual “December expenditures” for two days. It was impossible to do anything about them. In every state budget in the world the unspent sums identified are disbursed before the New Year no matter for what purpose. Because if they were saved the budgeted sums could not be reapplied for at the previous level in the following year. It would be better, said the president of the Audit Office, a legal expert who had studied at Tübingen University, if the funds could be transferred to the following year. Then at least they would be spent on something useful. There is no discipline of balance sheets which functions from top to bottom. In Athens, where the Orthodox rite is followed, Advent is less important than in northern Europe. Furthermore, here the twilight hours are absent which in trading cities accompany work on the annual closing budget sheet.

About Richter’s photographs—I’d initially assumed they were paintings, masterly scenes of dull nature. But here Richter has renounced his famous ability to duplicate photography in paint, as if to advertise the perfection of his brushwork or the extent of his boredom with canvas. The result is both interminable and apocalyptic. Beeches hanging icicles over the snowfields will survive us. Calendars will not.

In January 1990, two months after the toppling of the Berlin Wall, Günter Grass made a New Year’s resolution: He would travel the length and breadth of his reunified country, all the while keeping a diary. From Germany to Germany: Journal of the Year 1990 (translated by Krishna Winston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24) is the fulfillment of that promise, a dyspeptic travelogue of the author’s radio and TV appearances, university speeches, journalism, hernias, toothaches, culinary tastes, opinions on the Gulf War, impressions of Mandela (thumbs up) and Elie Wiesel (thumbs down), plein air drawing (sketches of insects and huts), and the encounters he would develop into novels (drafts of The Call of the Toad and Too Far Afield).

Grass’s Wanderjahr walks in the footsteps of German Romanticism, but the shoes are big, and cameras and mics lie in wait in the forests. It’s not as if Young Werther or the young Heinrich Heine were asked in every burg to give public comment on the state of their nation. The plot of the classic bildungsroman is that of a sensitive soul set out from home to find both his fortune and himself. By 1990, Grass—born in 1927, West German from 1945, a Nobel Laureate in 1999—was assured of the former. It’s the latter that’s of interest. Here, Grass becomes his country’s premier pipe-chomping, schnappsy croaker—the man whose worst scandal before a 2012 poem condemning Israel was his either having concealed, for six decades, or revealed, in a publicity blitz in support of his 2006 memoir, his membership in the Waffen-SS.

Though that disclosure shocked Grass’s cohort of international intellectuals, such provocations were familiar to German readers. They’d already spent a decade dismissing the author’s objections to a unified Reich, delivered in feuilletons that became more strident the more they were ignored. When Grass proposed that West Germany’s economic and political dominance of East Germany was comparable to the Anschluss—the Nazi annexation of Austria—they shrugged, washed their Mercedeses, and built another mall.

October 2, 1990:

My last trip on the Reich Railway through what is still, for one more day, the GDR. Ute [Grunert, Grass’s wife] comments on the dirty toilet. Both of us find the chilly temperature in the compartment hard to take. Outside, the villages rush by as if forgotten. Collapsed barns, crouching church towers, the whole thing like a last refuge. This land of scarcity will stay that way for a long time: faithful to the snail, because the phases skipped by history and its assertions of fact cannot be rushed.

That the Italian left has always been more glamorous, and more dysfunctional, than its German counterpart has to do with latitude, and with style. Born in 1925, dead in 2003, Luigi Pintor understood that if communism was more bearable in summery climes, it was only because all politics were less feasible. During the war, Pintor escaped his family’s Sardinian wealth to join the resistance. Arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death, he was spared only by the fortuitous liberation of Rome courtesy of General Clark’s Fifth Army.

In 1968, Pintor was elected a member of parliament, representing Sardinia, and founded Il Manifesto, Italy’s—perhaps even Europe’s—most important communist newspaper, which debuted with a denunciation of the Soviet invasion of Prague. The following year, he was ousted from the Italian Communist Party. His official crime was “factionalism”; Pintor had split the ticket by acquiring too much power. Imagine a benevolent Berlusconi.

Ironically, it was only because Pintor regarded his paper not as the organ of the party but as his very own hand that he was able to turn a situation that might’ve been sinister into a triumph of the sinistra, the left. In Pintor’s own words, this hand would grasp the movement as if it were “a swallow”—just enough to keep it from flying away, not enough to crush it. The image is indicative of his style, which remained graceful and witty even through the death of his first wife, Marina, from cancer in 1979, and the deaths in the late 1990s of their children: Roberta, also from cancer, and Giaime, from a heroin overdose. (Giaime was named for Pintor’s brother, a scholar of German literature who’d also been a partisan and was killed by a mine.) In that tragic last decade of his life, Pintor wrote and published six books, three of which—Servabo: A Fin de Siècle Memoir, Miss Kirchgessner, and The Medlar Tree—have been collected as Memories from the Twentieth Century: A Kind Of Trilogy (edited by Alberto Toscano, translated by Gregory Elliot, Seagull Books, $27.95).

Pintor’s trilogy is also a clock. Servabo, Latin for “I will keep,” recalls youth (“fast bike rides, dusty roads, the white expanse of the salt deposits”), the death of Giaime I, war and prison in Nazi Rome, and the decline of the party; Miss Kirchgessner tells of the death of Pintor’s parents, and of his talent for and abandonment of a music career (the titular German woman was his prewar piano teacher, who “played a feeble instrument, but didn’t sound a wrong note.”); The Medlar Tree is a diaristic miscellany of Pintor’s memories of a man named Giano—possibly the author’s friend, or a double of the author—who “has decided to sit under a medlar tree to count the days, no longer succumbing to worldly temptations.”

It opens in June 1997 with media critique:

One can forgive the twentieth century everything, even the two world wars and the ones that followed, even fashion shows and Formula One races, but not the sin of having sacrificed cinema to television.

And comes to a close, with a scrap of Rilke, in November 1999:

O fountain mouth, giver, you, mouth, which
speaks inexhaustibly of that one, pure thing—

Giano is named for two-faced January. But his book’s 1999 ends before the millennium. His year has no December.


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