New Books, by Claire Messud

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Schiller’s Garden House, Jena, by Wilhelm von Lindenschmit the Younger © akg-images

Schiller’s Garden House, Jena, by Wilhelm von Lindenschmit the Younger © akg-images

By the year 1800, the French Revolution was over, the ancien régime a thing of the past, the temporal power of the papacy crushed. Amid this turmoil, a tight-knit cohort of writers, editors, philosophers, poets, and socialites coalesced in the Thuringian backwater of Jena to foment a different kind of revolution. There they developed the ideas that led to the flourishing of German Romanticism, from which would spring, as Isaiah Berlin wrote, “all kinds of diverse movements—anarchism, Romanticism, nationalism, fascism, hero worship.” The author Peter Neumann, himself a poet, has taken this company as his subject in his novelistic group biography Jena 1800 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), admirably translated by Shelley Frisch. It’s an exhilarating account of a remarkable historical moment, in which characters known to many of us as immutable icons are rendered as vital, passionate, fallible beings.

First at the university in Jena there was the influential philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who went further than Kant in situating all knowledge in subjectivity, and the playwright Friedrich Schiller, a close friend and collaborator of Goethe, and the author, among other things, of the poem “Ode to Joy,” which Beethoven set to music. These professors welcomed younger writers and thinkers, including the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, whose presence soon lured his roommate from Tübingen, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The remarkable Schlegel brothers—August Wilhelm, a critic whose German translations of Shakespeare are still read today, and Karl Wilhelm, a novelist and philosopher known as “Fritz”—brought together the poet and aphorist Novalis, about whom the British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald wrote her masterpiece, The Blue Flower; and the poet and fiction writer Ludwig Tieck. The wives of the Schlegel brothers were important figures in their own right. Caroline, married to August Wilhelm, was a noted intellectual and salonnière; while Dorothea, married to Fritz, was a novelist and translator, as well as the daughter of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and the mother, via her first marriage, of the painter Philipp Veit.

When the Schlegel brothers arrived in Jena, they joined an already vibrant philosophical community: although not there in person, “Kant was omnipresent,” Neumann writes, the catalyst behind everyone’s work, and both Schiller and Fichte were already established, if controversial, academic superstars. August Wilhelm and Caroline made their home in Jena in 1796, and Fritz and Dorothea later moved from Berlin to join them. Dubbed by Fritz a “family of glorious outlaws,” the four hosted a celebrated weekly salon in their shared house. They “made a pact to call themselves Symmenschen (‘sym people’),” in reference to those who were “highly adept, jointly and individually, at both symphilosophieren (philosophizing as a group) and symfaulenzen (idling as a group).” They founded a journal, the Athenaeum, aiming to foment aesthetic revolution:

“Truth” could never be expressed in a halfway manner out of consideration for others. Vapid unanimity would be unacceptable. Diversity of opinions and perspectives, and conflict, would not merely be tolerated; Fritz and Wilhelm were explicitly provoking disputes as their declared editorial principle.

Fritz and Dorothea got to Jena just before Schiller departed in December 1799. By the following spring, Caroline, recently recovered from a serious illness, traveled with her daughter, Auguste, and Schelling to Bamberg, where the latter was to deliver lectures. Caroline’s marriage was unraveling. Young Auguste died of dysentery on the trip, and Schelling, a proponent of Brunonian medicine, was blamed by some for her death. Fichte, meanwhile, called the “Bonaparte of philosophy” by his students, had been forced to leave Jena following accusations of atheism, and moved to Berlin.

Hegel joined his old friend Schelling in Jena in 1801. The latter, a prodigious student at the Tübinger Stift, had been made a professor at Jena three years prior at the tender age of twenty-three. Hegel, five years older, felt he had “already lost too much time” and devoted himself to a treatise distinguishing between the philosophies of Fichte and Schelling. He also embarked on a new philosophy of nature, which was indebted to Schelling but owed more to the astronomer Johannes Kepler: Hegel “embraced the ancient Platonic notion of a harmonia mundi, a harmony of the world that could be grasped by means of reason.” Eventually, of course, Hegel’s work would outshine Schelling’s, and the latter would be consigned to a lesser role in Western philosophy.

Neumann, in drawing his subjects, selects marvelous vivifying details: we learn about Fichte’s bedbug infestation; that Goethe called all his servants “Carl” regardless of their real names; and that whenever he was upset Schiller sniffed rotten apples that he kept in the drawer of his standing desk. We learn, too, that Caroline’s beloved, doomed daughter Auguste had, by the age of twelve, studied Greek and read Shakespeare and Cervantes, and was “more like a sister” to her mother.

In lively, precise, and accessible short chapters, the book conveys both the earnest intensity of those heady days and the entropic forces that swiftly brought them to a close. By the end of 1801, “few members of the group remained in Jena.” Fritz and Dorothea moved to Paris; soon thereafter, Caroline divorced August Wilhelm and moved to Würzburg with Schelling. August Wilhelm entered the employment of the French woman of letters Madame de Staël, and accompanied her on her travels. “The dream,” Neumann writes, “had come to an end. The beautiful Tower of Babel lay in ruins.”

Out in the Country, by Gertrude Abercrombie © Whitney Museum of American Art/Scala/Art Resource, New York CityOut in the Country, by Gertrude Abercrombie © Whitney Museum of American Art/Scala/Art Resource, New York City

Out in the Country, by Gertrude Abercrombie © Whitney Museum of American Art/Scala/Art Resource, New York City

Sarah Manguso’s first novel, Very Cold People (Hogarth, $26), describes a time and place diametrically opposed to Jena in 1800: the seriously Waspy town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts, in the late twentieth century. There is no dizzying philosophical conversation, no revolutionary passion, no dramatic flourishing. Rather, the novel is a searing catalogue of pinched bitterness that might best be summarized as “no fun here.” But with her gemlike apercus, Manguso renders this bleakness oddly fascinating.

Ruthie, an only child of Jewish and Italian parents, lives (or perhaps hovers) in a state of peripheral loneliness that evolves, as she grows up, into something much worse: beneath the surface of the town lurk unspeakable horrors, psychological and sexual abuses that warp successive generations. While Ruthie’s father seems benignly if coldly absent, almost all the grown men in her life—from the local policeman to her late grandfather—are guilty of appalling crimes. Escaping Waitsfield seems Ruthie’s only hope; the question is whether she can get out alive.

Manguso, the acclaimed author of numerous books of poetry and memoir, has a distinctive and pungent style. She is known for her aphoristic precision and intense, adamantine paragraphs. Her novel thus has the effect of a series of sharply focused snapshots. Of her mother’s attire, for instance, Ruthie observes: “She wore velour pants and jackets and called it a suit. You could see the lines of her underwear under it. She liked to wear the smallest size she could squeeze into.” And of her friend, she notes: “Bee’s most prominent characteristics were that she wanted to be a newscaster when she grew up and that she hated the wallpaper in her room.” When Ruthie suggests painting over the wallpaper, Bee is terrified. “But she wasn’t scared of getting in trouble; she was scared of losing the second most interesting thing about herself.”

In girlhood, then, Ruthie is not blighted by compassion. Her venom is absolute. While her mother in particular is a target of contempt, nobody escapes her scathing eye. The novel would seem to suggest that the local culture, social and familial, is behind this pure—Puritan?—ungenerosity, but surely it derives also from the temperament of the novel’s protagonist, who is variously ashamed of and disgusted by her parents’ thrift, their fragility, their mournful limitations.

As Ruthie recounts her maturation and her growing apprehension of the darkness around her, she finds a certain tenderness for her younger self. “I like to visit with the exhausted girl who once was me,” she confesses. “I pick up the toddler and hold her until she is still. I stroke the little girl’s hair.” At the last, Ruthie can even see her brutalized and disdained mother with greater clarity, though it doesn’t help much. “It wasn’t her fault that they had rendered her inhuman,” Ruthie recognizes, “but I still had to get away. Otherwise I’d never stop hating her, and then I wouldn’t have been any better than anyone else in that shit-frozen town.” Perhaps the novel’s darkest irony is the intensity of Ruthie’s own damage: she’s the coldest one of all, her heart a burning shard of ice.

Photograph by Rinko Kawauchi, from her book Rinko Kawauchi: Illuminance, The Tenth Anniversary Edition, which was published last year by Aperture © The artist

Photograph by Rinko Kawauchi, from her book Rinko Kawauchi: Illuminance, The Tenth Anniversary Edition, which was published last year by Aperture © The artist

The nameless narrator of Jessica Au’s novel Cold Enough for Snow (New Directions, $14.95) also tells of her relationship with her mother, and the tenor of the narration is hardly effusive. Yet the effect is of the gentle quiet of snowfall, rather than the lethal frigidity of an icicle.

Au, the author of the 2011 novel Cargo, published in Australia, is the winner of the inaugural biennial Novel Prize, offered by New Directions in concert with Fitzcarraldo Editions in the United Kingdom and Giramondo in Australia. Cold Enough for Snow was selected for this honor from more than 1,500 entries.

Au’s is a book of deceptive simplicity, weaving profound questions of identity and ontology into the fabric of quotidian banality. The (presumably Australian) narrator and her mother—the latter originally from Hong Kong—visit Japan together: “We did not live in the same city anymore, and had never really been away together as adults, but I was beginning to feel that it was important, for reasons I could not yet name.” The narrator has carefully planned where they will go and what they will see—museums, a particular church, etcetera. For one leg of their trip, she has envisaged a considerable hike “through forests and towns and mountains that had once joined the imperial cities,” but she realizes that to ask her mother to undertake this “would have been almost cruel.” Her memory of her mother as youthful doesn’t correspond to the reality before her, and she decides instead to go for a walk alone, leaving her mother in the hotel.

This seems perhaps a small matter, but it’s also a central theme of Au’s nuanced story: this narrator has desires, quite fierce ones (earlier she had made her mother walk further than was comfortable, simply to fulfill her own touristic wishes), and struggles to see her mother as she is, rather than as she had throughout her childhood, a vision that remains “strangely fixed.” It is a challenge to see what is, as opposed to what we wish to see, and it is a challenge simultaneously to honor other people’s wishes and one’s own.

The narrator remembers working as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant in her hometown while at university. It was a period in which many of her decisions, both at work and with her then boyfriend, involved adapting to accommodate others: “If a customer wanted to talk, I could be engaged. . . . If they wanted to be left alone, I was capable too of being calm and quick.” Similarly, she could read her boyfriend’s emotions, and strove to respond appropriately. When he took her out to a fancy French restaurant, she was “conscious of how important it was to enjoy this meal, or at least to seem to enjoy it. I thought that if I tried hard enough my effort would become real happiness.”

Where, she wonders, had she learned “that the best thing was still to be desired, even if you did not desire, even if you did not much like the person who desired you”? This sense of innate, perhaps gendered inadequacy would surely resonate with Manguso’s Ruthie. As for its provenance, their cryptic mothers must at least be a partial source. In Ruthie’s case, we can judge chiefly by her mother’s bilious quips and criticisms. But in Au’s novel, in an earnest conversation about the soul instigated by the narrator, her mother reveals

that she believed that we were all essentially nothing, just series of sensations and desires, none of it lasting . . . . The best we could do in this life was to pass through it, like smoke through the branches, suffering, until we either reached a state of nothingness, or else suffered elsewhere.

The narrator feels her mother wants her to concur, but, she writes, “I found that I could not and worse, that I could not even pretend.” By the trip’s end, though the two have said “little of substance to each other,” the narrator comes to see that there can be mutual acceptance and love without understanding.

Not much happens in Au’s novel—a short-lived conflict with the innkeeper when the narrator returns from her trek is a high point of tension—but nonetheless, significant emotions, memories, and thoughts are meaningfully conveyed. What matters, the novel reassures us, is constantly imbricated with the everyday, just as alienation and tender care can coexist in the same moment.


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