The Literary Chick Review-The Essential Marcus Aurelius

The Literary Chick Review-The Essential Marcus Aurelius

Has your rule been literally plagued by disease? Have you been the object of adoration, but also of hatred? Has the market devastated your 401(k)? Ever lose a loved one? Miss your train to Great Neck? Had to fend off invaders from the east? Whatever the setback, Marcus Aurelius will get you through it.

A cornerstone of Stoicism, his meditations can help retrain your brain to reign in emotions and act – or not – with a clear eye. Stoicism is all about being impervious to life’s vicissitudes. “Be like the jutting rock against which waves are constantly crashing, and all around it the frothing foam of the waters then settles back down.”

For stoics, the difference is between being defeated or enduring. It is the difference between saying, “Oh, I am so unfortunate that this has happened to me,” and “How fortunate I am that, even though this has happened to me, I continue uninjured, neither terrified by the present nor in fear of the future.”

Aurelius, Emperor of Rome from CE 161 to 180, knew what he was talking about. He was pulled into a war with Parthia after a Parthian land-grab. Upon the war’s conclusion, returning soldiers brought back a plague that devastated Rome. His empire was also attacked by fierce Germanic tribes and he later had to fight a rival, Avidius Cassius, to keep his crown. Meanwhile his home life also brought misery. Aurelius’ suffered the loss of a number of his 13 children, such that he wrote that rather than pray: “‘How I may not lose my little child,’ one must pray ‘how I may not be afraid to lose him?’”.

Stoicism was influenced by the teachings of Socrates. Aurelius studied other foundational tracts written by the former slave, Epictetus. The philosophy emphasizes fate, reason, and self-restraint. In his own writings, Aurelius stresses the shortness of life and that one should live according to principals that allow him to have respect for himself, rather than react to what motivates others or how others view him.  He writes “Remember also that each man lives only the present moment: The rest of time is either spent and gone or is quite unknown.”

This translation, by John Piazza and Jacob Needleman, is clear, concise, and user-friendly.  Those wanting to delve deeper can certainly find more detailed editions, but Piazza and Needleman cherry-pick the most universal principals that are as relevant and troubling to people today as they were to one of the grandest Roman Emperors of his time.

It is unclear as to whether Aurelius was writing for posterity or to clear his own thinking, but his tome is the Mother of All Self-Help Books. The next time your home gets destroyed in a Donnie Darko type catastrophe, or your business goes bust, or something you bought yesterday goes on sale today at 50% off, it might be tempting to have a drink, but consider picking up your Marcus Aurelius.

Come to think of it, you could do both.

The Literary Chick Review – Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

The Literary Chick Review – Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Reader, he drove me mad.

Truth can lie between two different realities.

In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester’s plans to marry Jane are frustrated by the revelation that the long-suffering man is already married and in fact, his mad wife is locked in the attic. But what is her story?  And if she is ‘mad’, how did she get that way?

The wife is Antoinette Bertha Mason Rochester, nee Cosway; she prefers Antoinette. Rhys is masterful showing the descent of Antionette’s life and mind as well as the gradual rise of Rochester’s contempt and control of her. The evolution of Antoinette’s voice from clarity to ‘madness’ is exquisite and sad.

Like Rhys herself, Antoinette is of Creole descent. We meet her growing up in Dominica with her widowed mother and disabled brother. From the beginning, Antoinette is unsure of who she is. As white Creoles, they are rejected by both the English and the Blacks, who call them “white cockroaches.” As women, they lack status or agency. After the Emancipation Act frees the slaves, Antoinette’s slaveholding family, once wealthy, becomes destitute.

Antoinette’s mother pursues the only option she believes is open to her, and marries a rich white carpetbagger, Mr. Mason. Mason decides to replace the family’s remaining servants with Eastern coolie workers. The staff overhears, however, and they set fire to the home, Coulibri, resulting in the death of Antoinette’s brother and leading to her mother’s emotional devastation.

Mr. Mason abandons his mad wife to abusive caretakers and sends Antoinette to convent school. It is his responsibility to identify a husband for her, howe

ver, and he does. It’s an unnamed English gentleman, though readers of Jane Eyre will recognize him as Mr. Rochester.

As a second son, Rochester needs the money bequeathed to Antoinette by her stepfather. They wed, and at first the match seems successful. Rochester breaks down Antoinette’s reserve through affection and physical passion. Antoinette responds, opening herself to experience a happiness her childhood had trained her to never expect.

Yet Rochester has a nagging distrust of his exotic Creole wife, and antipathy for Dominica.

Geography becomes a proxy for the perceptions and misperceptions of the spouses. Neither view the home of the other as “real.” Antoinette sees England as cold and dark; in her eyes Dominica is lush, beautiful and fragrant. Rochester views the technicolor Dominica as ominous and threatening, as if he were about to be devoured by a giant Venus flytrap.

And then there is the Sargasso Sea, a dead-calm oceanic mire that Dominica borders upon. For Antoinette, it’s a metaphor for her deepest fears. For Rochester, it is a physical barrier between himself and his beloved England.

Rochester receives a letter received from a man who may or may not be Antoinette’s brother by her father and one of his slaves. The letter warns Rochester he was tricked into marrying a degenerate girl with a family history of madness. These allegations prey on Rochester’s insecurities and cause him to abruptly reject Antoinette.  Her fragile sense of identity shaken and desperate to win back her husband’s affection, Antoinette resorts to means which unintentionally goad Rochester into acting on his worst impulses. The rift between them devolves into a chasm leading to her own undoing.

Rochester drags his broken wife to cold and dark England, where he confines her to the attic, under the care of servants paid for their discretion.  

The Wide Sargasso Sea is a stunning work of understanding and empathy for all characters in this book – and the next.

Review: Stefan Kiesbye’s Berlingeles

Review: Stefan Kiesbye’s Berlingeles

Stefan Kiesbye’s Berlingeles

By Brian Santo

The titular joke in Berlingeles is that Americans finally get their wall; it’s just not where they thought it would be. German-born novelist Stefan Kiesbye trains his jaundiced gaze on the current state of affairs in the United States (his adopted country) and takes just a short leap, timewise and conjecturally, to a future in which the Confederacy has revived itself and is in an armed standoff with the Union and its allies, Canada and Mexico.

Los Angeles is the Union’s last loyal enclave in California. The weak Union can barely protect it, but the Confederacy is not strong enough to overrun it. So the Confederacy isolates Los Angeles in precisely the same way the Soviet Union once blocked off East Berlin, hence the portmanteau that residents adopt for their city. As with East Berlin during the Cold War, once you find yourself in Berlingeles, it is difficult if not impossible to get out.

Berlingeles is a move toward cyberpunk, a genre that is new for Kiesbye, who has worked mostly in the horror vein. Characters in Berlingeles who can afford the equipment navigate through an augmented reality called “the Fleece.” They can live up to 140 years if they have the money to occasionally “scrub” the biological systems they have that still function, and replace the ones that don’t with spare parts that are apparently cybernetic. Those upgrades are exceedingly valuable, and in a city that has already begun unraveling toward chaos, they come with the risk of having criminal gangs bloodily claim them for resale.

Berlingeles is reminiscent of The Sprawl, the vast metropolis imagined by cyberpunk godfather William Gibson that stretches continuously from Boston to Baltimore. Both The Sprawl and Berlingeles are urban, decadent, decaying and, in some areas, exceedingly dangerous.

But though Berlingeles has the trappings of cyberpunk, it isn’t really. In straight-up cyberpunk, the technology matters. Cyberpunk authors typically have some interest in the societal implications of technology, how it might change the way people behave and how they relate to each other. Or at the very least, some tech bauble or other is a plot device. Kiesbye doesn’t seem to care about technology either way. In Berlingeles there is no scientifical macguffin, and the technology that people use doesn’t seem to make them any more or less apt to treat each other badly.

And the characters treat each other very, very badly. It’s an effect that being walled-in can have.

They desire nothing more than escape or release – perhaps in love, perhaps in Mexico. But Berlingeles is cordoned off, wretched, brutal and getting worse. The same can be said of its inhabitants. Building emotional walls is as necessary and reflexive as breathing. Every interaction involves some form of menace or degradation or both. The result of engaging with any other person is almost always more misery, isolation and alienation for everyone involved.

Everyone is manipulative or manipulated, and whether they’re one or the other changes from one interaction to the next, dependent entirely on relative power, whether expressed as wealth, sexual attractiveness, or physical menace. Sex is transactional and perfunctory when it’s not repellent – for readers, if not for the characters. At one point, Kiesbye describes relationships as what couples wish to inflict on each other.

Between the physical wall and all the abuse going around, it appears unlikely anyone in Berlingeles will ever find escape, let alone freedom, no matter how hard they look. Those who persist in looking, however, include Gaz, an entry-level hoodlum, Sophie, a prostitute with a heart of stone, and K., a former novelist.

Sixteen-year-old Gaz does precisely what the gang lord Rat instructs him to do – deliver packages, dismember someone for their parts, kill for reasons that will remain obscure if Gaz knows what’s good for him. Gaz is obsessed with the damaged complex of tunnels below Berlingeles. He intuits that there might be a path out of the city down there, for someone enterprising enough to look and desperate enough to try to elude the tunnel inhabitants who appear to have drifted farther from humanity than those on the surface.

Gaz and Sophie are lovers, for lack of a printable term that conveys the disinterest and grubbiness involved. Being a hooker is merely what 14-year-old girls in Berlingeles do. Sophie aspires to make it to Mexico, encouraged by her Mexican grandmother Ida, who might exist only as a Fleece memory, but who can be caustic and bullying all the same. Sophie is trapped in a yet another way, however. She’s too naïve to figure out how to play the angles – perhaps too uninspired to realize that there are angles to be played.

K. is one of Sophie’s clients. He is in his 90s, has one new arm and one new leg, and resists the thought of leaving Berlingeles for fear of missing his beloved B., a would-be lover who, pre-Wall, promised to come find him in Los Angeles. He gave up writing novels years before, when a younger rival published a book strikingly similar to the one K. was only just finishing. Worse, the rival’s version was much better, as K. himself acknowledges. K. appears to have a secret, and it might be that long ago he killed his wife, or so a Berlingeles homicide detective seems to believe.

K., being a writer, might be a stand in for Kiesbye himself. Or perhaps Kiesbye wants the reader to think of Kafka’s K. or Josef K. Perhaps the single-letter moniker is just a fake-out. In a city in which everything seems meaningless, can a name signify anything?

Kiesbye is impressively imaginative in the construction of his Berlingeles, but some elements of his future show how difficult prognostication can be. In the mystery genre, Carl Hiaasen has spent decades trying to exaggerate the weirdness of Floridians, but his fellow Sunshine Staters, as prodigiously inventively whacked out as they are, keep upping the ante on real-life craziness (e.g., “Florida woman dies after nude domestic dispute on jet ski”).  

In Berlingeles, Kiesbye occasionally gets stuck in the futurist’s version of the Hiassen Bind – how to imagine something weirder than what exists now. For example, Berlingelenos are fans of an animated Fleece series about a cartoon bear whose hapless top half is frequently at odds with his severed, flatulent bottom half. The series follows the halves’ misadventures with their friends Tea Kettle, Swiss Cheese, Celery Stick and Eggshell. It’s barely (pun intended) odder than Aqua Teen Hunger Force on Cartoon Networks’ Adult Swim.

But again, these are details, and though the details in Berlingeles add up to verisimilitude for the future that Kiesbye has constructed, in the end they matter as much as the technology. If anything matters in Berlingeles, it is people and their collective fate.

In that way, Kiesbye’s Berlingeles is reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon. In the novels of both, characters discover they have somehow been conscripted to play roles in what are apparently consequential plots or vast conspiracies that they are only partially aware of and not sure they have identified correctly. Characters discover they are connected in unexpected and sometimes inexplicable ways, and they struggle to discover if they’ve been manipulated into forging these relationships or if their meetings are merely chance and coincidence.

Pynchon’s novels traffic in paranoia, sexuality that is occasionally burlesque, and absurdity that bends toward the comedic. Some Pynchon characters feel as though they are contributing to the making of history, but there’s still the possibility they’re merely being swept along in some historical current, involved yet unable to truly affect anything. In Pynchon’s universe, there are no easy answers, and we might be asking the wrong questions anyways. It’s never entirely clear there is a mystery, and if there is, it might be unsolvable.

Berlingeles traffics in nihilism, however. Sex is grotesque, and any humor is accidental. There is no question there are powerful people engaged in plots and machinations. The conspiracies are real, but they’re going on at such a high level, who can afford to care when they’re busy trying to survive all the brutality and depravity? And history? As consequential as technology or animated celery sticks.

Kiesbye describes himself as a pessimist, but perhaps he’s less pessimistic than he thinks. A reader is apt to walk away from a Pynchon novel amused but feeling an existential helplessness that the world is too complex and too weird to fully ken, let alone do anything about it.

Kiesbye’s characters might be stuck behind walls, but Kiesbye’s readers are not. Recoiling from all the degradation and misery they find on the page, they might come away alarmed at how close America is to bungling its way toward a society too reminiscent of Berlingeles, replete with a civil war and walls both metaphorical and – if some get their way – literal. You want walls? Germans know from walls. Be careful what you wish for, and if you miss the message, Kiesbye pounds it home by quoting Ronald Reagan’s exhortation to Mikhail Gorbachev.

In the end, a reader might walk away from Berlingeles considering that wall-lessness might be possible, but we’re going to have to want it badly enough to actively reject walls. It might be hard. It might even be unlikely. But trying to inspire readers to think about our collective fate? Since when is writing a cautionary novel a pessimistic act?

Brian Santo is a journalist and occasional contributor The Literary Chick web site.

The Literary Chick Review – The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes

The Literary Chick Review – The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes

“Young man, you’re case it is proven clear
We’ll give you seven years penal servitude
To be spent far away . . . 
And the very first thing that you’ll know is
You’ve landed in Van Diemens Land”


In 1787, Great Britain couldn’t keep up with its burgeoning criminal population and began expelling its convicts to jail compounds on a sparsely inhabited continent on the other side of the globe. England exiled over 160,000 men, women, and children to this inhospitable land of poor soil and unwelcoming habitat. In the “The Fatal Shore” we meet some of the most enterprising and notorious of the exiles.


Some of the first folk heroes of the island continent that would later be named Australia came from this criminal class. Food was scarce, and soon everyone was starving. Prison overseers gave guns to certain able-bodied men to hunt down sustenance in any form. The Bushrangers slaughtered kangaroos en masse. Depletion of the nearby roo population drove the men, dogs, and guns further into the bush, where they ended up competing with the Aborigines for meat. Literally unshackled, many of these insurgents stole the guns and the dogs and stayed in the bush.

There wasn’t much for them to go back to. Treatment of the criminal class steadily became harsher, approached the level of sadism under Major Joseph Foreaux. Flogging with a cat o’ none tails was the most frequent punishment inflicted, leaving lasting physical and psychological scars. The only act of defiance left was to try to avoid showing pain. “The scarred back became an emblem of rank. So did silence. Convicts called a man who blubbered and screamed at the triangles . . . a sandstone (Sandstone is a common rock around Sidney; it is soft and crumbles easily.) By contrast, the convict who stood up to it in silence was admired as a pebble or an iron man. He would show his stripes (strip for punishment) with disdain, and after the domino (last lash) he would spit at he feet of the man who gave him his red shirt.”

The hated prison Macquarie Harbor was on the isolated West Coast of Van Dieman’s Land, later renamed Tasmania. The only person to break out and live was Irishman Alexander Pearce, who accomplished the feat twice. The first time he escaped with seven other convicts in a sea craft. Upon landfall, they slogged their way through a land lacking in forage, growing ever hungrier. One of the men, Kennely, joked, “I’m so weak, that I could eat a piece of a man.” But then six of the escapees ganged up on the seventh and made short work and short ribs of him. Eventually only Pearce and Greenhill were left. Then Greenhill made the mistake of falling sleep.


When Pearce was recaptured he told his story, but other convicts assumed he was lying to cover for comrades still at large. Young

Thomas Cox approached him, assured Pearce of his fitness, and begged him to escape again. They had traveled only a few days when they came across King’s River. Cox confessed he could not swim, and more likely out of rage than gluttony Pearce killed him.

Pearce was recaptured, and again gave a truthful account of his escape. This time everyone believed him. He was hanged, autopsied, and his skull sent to The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where it may still be.

A non-fiction book that reads like fiction, this richly detailed history reads with a narrative flow that leaves the reader with a deep understanding of Australia’s Hobbesian birth.

Song lyrics from The Black Velvet Band

Black Magic Realism: John Rechy’s First Novel

Black Magic Realism: John Rechy’s First Novel

JOHN RECHY IS BEST KNOWN for his groundbreaking 1963 novel City of Night, which burst on the scene with its bebop prose sketching the street life of a sought-after but elusive “youngman” on the make. Much of the book is reportedly autobiographical. Yet, while City of Night was Rechy’s literary debut, it wasn’t his first novel. That was Pablo! — which has finally been published, 70 years after the 18-year-old Rechy wrote it.

Early manuscripts tend to be interesting only for the glimpses they provide of the brilliance to come. That’s not the case with Pablo! Here, the writing is already mature, and the story told is captivating. Themes Rechy will return to again and again in subsequent works are boldly developed. Rechy submitted the novel to publishers at the time, but it met with rejection. Perhaps the controversial religious themes, the overtones of incest and pederasty, the witchcraft and animal possession, were just too startling to absorb. Rechy reached out to Nobel Prize–winning novelist Pearl S. Buck, who wrote back saying that, while she had “no doubt that you’re talented, […] from the sample you sent me, I don’t believe I could help you in your writing.”

Meanwhile, Rechy found a publisher for City of Night. While it’s not unheard of for an author to release a spurned earlier effort after achieving some success, Rechy decided to hold Pablo! back. By one account, he did not want to be seen as capitalizing on the popular response to City of Night. Another account suggests that he was concerned the novel might be dismissed as juvenilia. Whatever the reasons, the manuscript languished in Rechy’s archive, unnoted even by scholars of the author, until 2014. That year, Rechy won the Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature given by UC Santa Barbara. During his acceptance speech, he mentioned the existence of Pablo!, striking the interest of literary critic and UCSB Professor Francisco A. Lomelí. Lomelí encouraged Rechy to finally publish the novel, facilitated the publication process, and wrote an analysis that is included as an afterword in the Arte Publico Press edition.

The reason Lomelí was taken by Rechy’s account of Pablo! is because the author seemed to be describing a previously unknown foray into magic realism. In that form of writing, elements of the fantastic are interwoven with realistic representations. The modern genre can be traced back to Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), but the term was not coined until 1955, when it was used to describe the writings of several Latin American authors, such as Gabriel García Márquez and Miguel Ángel Asturias. Asturias’s masterpiece Men of Maize, which borrows liberally from Mesoamerican legends, was published in 1949 — the same year, as Lomelí notes, that Rechy finished Pablo!Given the bleak darkness of Rechy’s novel, the author has perhaps carved out his own new niche — call it “Black Magic Realism.”

The characters are all from an ancient race, descendants of the Mayans and different from “the Mexicans,” whom Rechy refers to as “the new race.” Three stories repeat and weave braid-like through the book: the Mayan moon longing for the sun, the beautiful yet poisonous girl who lures men to their doom, and the clash of the stone-faced god of the rural Indians with the Catholic God of the Mexican people — two warring deities who might be one and the same, after all. Rechy shifts time and place to tell the tale of a boy who cannot love, of the sorceries of his mother, of the disquieting effect he has on those he meets, and of the Mayan girl who obsessively seeks him, just as the weeping moon seeks its lover sun.

In Pablo!, the distinctions between the real, the magical, and the mythical blur, coalescing into a hallucinatory whole. A girl turns into a flower, faces laugh and taunt without moving, a body leaves its head to wander during the night with animals that are restless souls of the dead. There is magic in the world, and it bodes ill.

Just as the distinctions between the real and the magical are blurred, so the distinction between Mayan and Mexican becomes ultimately unimportant. Both peoples are heir to the same sin, and each individual member of the race is doomed to repeat that sin, damning their children to the same fate. All the while, the Mayan god and the god of the Mexicans remain so similarly unresponsive to human misery that they might as well be one. In this world, there is no mention of redemption, and certainly not of salvation. The only thing a man or woman can hope for is some measure of happiness — and afterward, perhaps, vindication. As Rechy writes:

[B]ecause in another life that spirit, then in a body, had, like the man my father but unvindicated, found an individual happiness in the small world of self, which is evil, because only god is omnipotent and all those like us must toil forever until death and then the soul will be cleansed and it shall return to the god who is both the god of the Catholic people who have come with images of the saints and the god too of the ancient people, which is the sun …

In Pablo!, men and women, generation after generation, choose a brief happiness in that “small world of self” — and soon regret their choices. The characters are doomed to the same inevitable fate. They might as well be archetypes, and so they are: the main characters are known simply as the man, the boy, the woman. Pablo is the only person named in the book, and only at the end. Shouting his own name is his declaration of intent to be the exception, the one who breaks free from all that has come before him.

In this and other ways, Pablo appears to share autobiographical details with the author. Indeed, the novel could be considered a highly allegorical account of Rechy’s life, anticipating his more obviously autobiographical novels, such as City of Night and Numbers (1967), and his straightforward memoir About My Life andthe Kept Woman (2003). Pablo is the lithe boy with the desperate eyes who seeks and seeks; he is a character we find over and over in Rechy’s later fiction and in his memoirs. Like Rechy, Pablo is a storyteller who fictionalizes elements of his life. He mesmerizes villagers with tales of his beautiful mother and the mirrored palace where they lived; he also tells of the father who beat her out of jealousy for the love she gave to Pablo. These are clear reflections of Rechy’s own parents: his beautiful, loving mother, with whom he was very close, and his distant, frustrated, often angry father. When the villagers ask what became of the beautiful woman, Pablo quietly says that she was taken away in a black box. With this admission, the magic of the tale is destroyed, and the people chase him from the village.

The story abruptly shifts to the doomed girl who falls in unrequited love with Pablo. But Pablo has no desire for love: he tells the girl that their relationship is a lie, in order to drive her away. What he seeks is a different way, a way out; his aspiration — in yet another echo of the author’s life — is for a form of experience he assumes can only be found somewhere else. In his memoirs, Rechy emphasizes that he repeatedly sought ways to escape from El Paso — through reading (he mentions Paul Bowles and Federico García Lorca), through acting in his father’s company, even through writing a letter to Shirley Temple seeking a position as her dance partner. Pablo also imagines gaining fame and admiration for his dancing. When he shouts his own name, it is less a declaration of an autonomous self than a plea for others to recognize him as an individual. He needs recognition in order to live, to break away from his sad and alienated childhood.

In his memoir, Rechy writes of how, as a young man, he came across a misplaced tome on Mayan legends when combing through books on theater production. He was fascinated by the tale of the sun and the moon before the creation of the world: the moon, desperately in love with the sun, weaves gauzy bridal veils of clouds upon which to join with her lover (in Pablo!, Rechy describes them as ethereal “hammocks”); but the sun’s day-breaking brilliance drives the moon away, and the moon is only able to catch yearning glimpses of the indifferent, dazzling sun. In Rechy’s retelling, Pablo is the sun, the object of worshipful love, first from the girl, later from a rich patron, identified only as the man with the crumbling face. He rejects both, one insensitively and the other out of fear, knowing he is incapable of reciprocating their love.

Rechy will represent himself in a similar way over and over again, in his later fiction and in his autobiography. In City of Night, he is the self-contained hustler, aloof from the people who desire him. In Numbers, Johnny Rio compulsively seeks validation by counting the many men he attracts while never reciprocating. In About My Life and the Kept Woman, he relates how Allen Ginsberg challenged him to recognize the psychology of wanting to be desired. Ginsberg, the blunter of the two, spoke of the power of the receiving partner, the power of attracting such attention.

In Pablo!, Rechy already intuits that this possible way out — through the recognition of the other — might just be a different path to “the small world of self,” the shared sin of the ancient people and the new race. The story ends with the boy Pablo screaming wordlessly as he destroys his own image in a mirror. He has danced and danced, but has been answered not with the applause he seeks but with silence and indifference. And thus this magical black diamond of a tale cataclysmically shatters into a million glittering shards.


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Marilyn Macron is a graduate of New York University and Fordham University School of Law. She is a practicing attorney, voracious reader, and book collector. She promotes reading and events as The Literary Chick™ (

All For Nothing – Walter Kempowski TLC Review

All For Nothing – Walter Kempowski TLC Review

By Marilyn Macron


There is a mass exodus of refugees fleeing in below-zero weather; ultimately, 300,000 will perish. In their path is Georgenhof manor, where the well-to-do von Globig family goes about its days insulated not only from the cold but also from their imminent doom. MotherKatharina is warned by her husband via telegram from Italy to flee with their son and Auntie, but feeling invincible in the family citadel, she instead spends her days reading, cutting flower silhouettes from black paper and, head in the clouds, gazing out the window in her room. Her bookish son, Peter, is left alone to view what transpires, and he relates what he sees through his unquestioning child’s eye.

The Georgenhof soon becomes a pit-stop for an endless stream of the dispossessed, including a stamp collecting political economist, a Nazi violinist, a painter, a baron, and a Jewish refugee. The violinist even plays while rumbling sounds of fighting can be heard in the distance, recalling Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Vagueness and an inability to connect, however, do not keep danger at bay and reality shatters the von Globig family forever. Peter, the young son, is the only one to escape from the old world to the new.

What makes this book remarkable is the Kempowski’s restraint with emotion; he conveys none, trusting readers to intuit the feelings of the characters from their actions. This opens the story to multitudes of interpretation, as readers with different points of view might have different perceptions. Similar to what could be called The Isherwood I Am A Camera style (although Isherwood never used that phrase and apparently became annoyed when asked about it) facts are presented with almost no embellishment. It might be risky to give readers nothing to interpret but simple facts, albeit presented through his own lens, but trusting readers so implicitly is a rare act of respect by an author. Kempowski exercises this technique to perfection.

Max Frisch is another writer who has occasionally adopted this approach. He described it in an interview, “There are other ways to show them-body language, or silence-that can be very strong. And maybe, too, one has a distrust of words; one fears that they won’t be interpreted correctly. It’s very difficult to describe a feeling and not to lie a little bit, to put it on a higher level or to blind yourself. So I don’t trust myself to describe my feelings, but I like to show them by a piece of art. And as a reader I’m the same, I don’t like it if the author tells me what I have to feel. He has to urge the reader to get a feeling of shame or of hope. So there’s a lot of feeling, there’s a lot of emotion, but . . . not expressed in words.”


Perhaps the reason Kempowski exercised such restraint is that it meant too much to him. According to Kempowski, “Peter,’ obviously, is me – a second, a multiple self-portrait. Without that, I could not have written the book.”

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