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Nell Dunn podcast – TLS


A discussion with Thea Lenarduzzi and Lucy Dallas about Nell Dunn and her book of interviews from 1965, Talking to Women, now reissued by the Silver Press.

Nell Dunn, Talking to Women – TLS


Interviews are the least praised, and least appraised, of literary forms, particularly those devoid of commentary. Perhaps this is because their intimate relationship with speech is thought to decrease their value as writing. In Talking to Women, however (originally published in 1965, and now re­issued by the Silver Press), the novelist and playwright Nell Dunn shows how stimulating the form can be, expertly steering her conversations to appear uninhibited and freewheeling. Consisting of nine interviews conducted in 1964 with female friends who range from society heiresses to factory workers (Dunn herself was both), the book provides a rare portrait of what happens when women get together to talk.

Nell Dunn by Snowden, 1982

You can read the rest of this review at the TLS website where it was posted on 17.7.2018 as “Something to Say For Herself”. The print version appeared in the 20.7.2018 issue.

Matthew De Abaitua, Self & I – TLS


It’s hard to know how to summarize Self & I, Matthew De Abaitua’s memoir of the critical period in his life during which he worked as an amanuensis for Will Self, falling under his influence. It is partly a hagiography with Self as the holy saint of literature: visionary, intoxicated and in possession of the keys to the magic kingdom – but it is also a study of working class ambition, an exegesis of the Self canon, a critique of masculinity, a window onto the last pre-digital moment, and a review of that bankrupt and hollow decade in which even the counter-culture was in hock to the establishment. Self & I begins as Tony Blair is elected leader of the Labour Party and ends three years later with the literati and the art crowd celebrating as the country follows suit; an Epilogue takes us to 2003 and Blair in Basra giving a motivational speech to the troops. “This was the true end of the Nineties: the party that became a war.”

In 1994 De Abaitua is a twenty-two year old student on the Creative Writing course at UEA when Self blows into town. Lately divorced, the writer hatches a plan to escape the scene of his marital breakdown in London by moving to a remote cottage in the Suffolk countryside. In order for him to write free from distraction, he employs De Abaitua as a sort of family stand-in, someone who can furnish the cottage and keep the “Will Self industry” ticking over. De Abaitua answers Self’s mail, transcribes his interviews (with Adam Phillips, Martin Amis, and Self’s elected “mentor”, J. G. Ballard), arranges trips to Brazil and Australia for him and waits like a lonely wife for his return. He is also a substitute son, a literary heir of sorts who Self takes it upon himself to mentor and correct: snorting whenever the babbling De Abaitua succumbs to cliché, encouraging him to use his dreams for surrealist experiments, and generally advising the working class lad on how to get ahead in literature: “Don’t be too chippy. People don’t like it”.

De Abaitua has no illusions about his role: “amanuensis…translates as slave-at-hand”, he notes; and unlike a family member he “must not – in any way – contribute to [Self’s] sense of guilt or obligation.” (Guilty memories get in the way of moving on, of creating new fictions.) Yet the twenty-two year old is thrilled by the idea of their intimacy, fancying himself a partner-in-crime: “We’ve staked too much on the virtues of vice to change course now.” They embark on long treks across an appropriately Ballardian hinterland – a nuclear power station looms over the sea into which Self plunges, taking the “Sizewell cure” for his scratched and infected face, lacerated during opiate nightmares. De Abaitua thinks of the two of them as a latter-day Withnail & I; Self’s cultural reach is more extensive: their posture, he smirks to a visiting journalist, is more akin to the Ladies of Langollen.


To the young De Abaitua, part of Self’s mystique as a writer is his shamanic familiarity with transcendence (getting constantly off his head on whatever’s to hand: alcohol, mushrooms, Horlicks home-brewed with local poppies, “special cigarettes”), while maintaining a fastidious work ethic. He is at his desk every morning at nine, instructs his protégé on “the importance of clean work surfaces”, prohibits television, or reading and listening to music at the same time (“else we become inattentive”), and takes vigorous constitutionals.

During one of Self’s absences, De Abaitua’s parents visit the cottage and this opens up memories of the life he has left behind on the outskirts of Liverpool. Here, the role-models he had were an older brother who beat him to “toughen him up”, friends who jump on any sign of someone getting above themselves, a father whose “sense of how to behave in the world” is learned from his job in the police, and Terry, a dockworker he meets when temping during the student vacation: “Terry and I assume the role of bad mentor and unlikely pupil”. When he tries to talk to Terry about art and literature (De Abaitua is reading A. S. Byatt’s Possession) his co-worker man replies scornfully, “What’s the point of that?”, it has nothing to do with the hard reality of his life which he offers up as a cautionary tale. Against these men, Self seems the perfect mentor, introducing De Abaitua to a world of cerebral disobedience that offers a route away from Poverty Lane – the street where he played as a child. The eager student, now learning how to behave from Self, recites the writer’s catechism: “non-compliance is how we make ourselves attentive to the true social relations that control us.”

But as his time at the cottage comes to an end, and De Abaitua is left drifting at the edges of the literary world, we await the inevitable challenge to Self’s conception of the way things are. He does not openly rebuke his mentor, nor betray him: De Abaitua’s dedicated explication of Self’s writing displays the kind of attention born of love. (Rebuke he reserves for himself, with many self-lacerating references to his festering ambition, his failures as a “nearly-writer”). Yet when he comes to the subordinate story of his own life, “a footnote in history”, it is full of observations that reflect back on “Self Country”. For De Abaitua’s is another country altogether, in which ecstasy is not something you get from amyl nitrate but from the relief felt at the change of shift by manual workers bored out of their minds.

What’s interesting here is that having demonstrated his mastery of the Selfian mode, De Abaitua chooses not to represent himself in this vein. His own life story is told in resolutely realist fashion: no arcane vocabulary, “exploded metaphors”, or disproportion of scale, all beloved by Self and tactically deployed in his fictions. This tells us something about the class-bound nature of culture in Britain. Even later in life the fear of affectation does not leave De Abaitua. As a Creative Writing lecturer he still feels fraudulent, imagining his students thinking: “Does he know what he sounds like?” De Abaitua’s accessible style also hints at the luxury of Self’s outlawry, and at its loftiness. “Will doesn’t do small talk” the young man learns early on in their relationship; a manner De Abaitua tries to emulate but finds impossible to sustain among the coercive communality of Liverpool’s pubs and clubs.

Not that any of this is Self’s fault, he is his own man with his own demons and these old debates about the politics of literary aesthetic will not be resolved between the two of them. But for De Abaitua there is the question of where his initiation into Self Country leaves him. After a depressing period at the Idler, where an anti-work credo is extolled by upper-class entrepreneurs, De Abaitua meets up with Self again. The older man, sensing him at a loss, does what all good mentors do, telling De Abaitua to stop procrastinating and have his say: “You have to step up, Matthew”, because in the end for the writer there is only the work.

“I have not forgotten our white cottage”, the young De Abaitua reads from Les Fleurs du Mal in 1994, reclining on the sofa in the Suffolk cottage he is sharing with a remarkable and troubled writer. Baudelaire’s elegiac phrase seems to anticipate De Abaitua’s future self, looking back at this moment. Then he recalls his mentor’s lesson: “Forgetting . . . keeps us moving forward”. However, understanding the value of a lesson does not mean always having to obey it. Matthew De Abaitua did step up, publishing three novels. But perhaps his greatest achievement will be this compelling reminiscence of the time he spent with Will Self, which, however fraught with ambiguity, turned out to be a spur to the life he had always wanted.

Aminatta Forna, Happiness – Spectator


In her keynote lecture for a conference on The Muse and the Market in 2015 Aminatta Forna mounted a powerful advocacy for the political novel, challenging the assumption that politics or ‘subject’ undermines literary aesthetic. “A political novel can fail as a work of art as much as any other novel”, she argued, “but the fact that it is political does not sentence it to failure.” Her own approach to fiction is something like Paul Klee’s approach to his art: where Klee talked of taking a line for a walk, she says, “when I write a novel it is like taking a thought for a walk”. In Happiness, Forna’s fourth novel, the thought up for consideration is that in the west many people’s lives are so sheltered they have become terrified of suffering, pathologising even ordinary loss or grief as trauma. Perhaps this desire for safety, she speculates, has also led to a fear of incomers – a fear expressed in blindness to the many migrants at work across the city, or in terror when confronted with wild creatures in urban territory, with the sudden “opalescent eye shine of an animal” in the road.

These fears are scrutinised, and countered, in Happiness by Attila, a debonair Ghanaian psychiatrist visiting London for a conference on PTSD, and Jean, an American wildlife biologist in the capital to study urban foxes. They are both adapting to life after recent losses: his incurred by the death of a beloved wife, hers by a divorce that has separated her from her son. The two collide on Waterloo Bridge one winter evening and then again in a nearby underpass when they intervene to stop a white beggar from being attacked. These collisions are followed by many more to the point where London, the novel’s third major character, is depicted as a place that continually puts one kind of person, or animal, in the path of another: a Bosnian street performer opens the door for a fox meandering through the National Theater; a Sierra Leonean traffic warden notices a boy loitering alone by the Thames; and a flock of parakeets make their home in Nunhead Cemetery, aggravating the local council but delighting the joggers and dog-walkers.

Not all encounters are welcome or convivial: one frightened woman crosses the road to avoid coming face to face with a recently-bereaved acquaintance. Against such antipathy, Forna proposes that rather than fencing off our lives in fantasy (“prelapsarian gardens”), the best hope for survival, and, indeed, for happiness, is to cultivate “a sense of something that goes beyond [our]selves”. Once worlds collide it takes curiosity, empathy and will to draw people together. When Attila tells Jean about his runaway nephew, caught up in an immigration sting, she realises she can help him, having knowledge of the city from tracking foxes. She also has access to a network of people who assist in monitoring the foxes’ movements: migrant road sweepers, traffic wardens and security guards, all with expertise in London’s street culture. And they volunteer to search for the boy. The reason they are willing to help is their sense of solidarity, something echoed in the silent nods of acknowledgment that pass between Attila and other black people as they make their way through the city.

Aminatta Forna

The correlation of Forna’s idea that some in the west have become insular and enclosed, is that those most exposed to suffering – having learnt from it – may have developed greater emotional resources. In her rather Nietzschean novel, which emphasises knowledge, tenacity and resilience over victimhood, this is demonstrated time and again. Which is not to say that Forna is an idealist. Happiness is an outward-looking book, yet in passages that punctuate the London story, set in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Iraq, the ravaged places where Attila has worked with civilian and combatant victims of war, there is no doubting the suffering that human beings inflict upon one another, and upon other species. Here, Forna thinks deeply about our responsibilities and how we can all get along. Attila tells Jean: “Some in my profession believe animal cruelty is an early indicator of worse to come”. While she points out that foxes have moved into cities not, as widely held, because we stopped hunting them in the country, but because fast food means “the sidewalks have turned into ‘all you can eat buffets'”. Where Jean is fascinated by the culture of the natural world and inter-species relationships, Attila responds to the horror he’s witnessed by cultivating his love of food, dance and language, conversing with a colleague in Esperanto, the dreamed-up speech of international fellowship.

The novel ends with Attila’s own conference keynote lecture in which he calls on the work of Frantz Fanon, R.D. Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement, to argue that “trauma does not equal destiny”. He also returns to his love of Robert Graves who went back to the trenches, deciding “he preferred the suffering of war to the insufferability of civilisation”. Goodbye to All That might well have provided an alternative title to Forna’s piercingly intelligent and interrogative novel which, like the earlier book, registers tectonic shifts taking place in the world and provokes us to think anew about war, and what we take for peace and happiness.

Angela Carter Interview: “Alienation isn’t necessarily a bad thing” – TLS


I was saddened to learn of the recent death of the Guyanese writer Wilson Harris. In 1985 I was employed by Tariq Ali and Darcus Howe to work as a researcher on a film they were making about Harris for Channel 4. He had moved to London in 1959; the following year, Faber and Faber published his debut novel, The Palace of the Peacock. By the mid-1980s there were rumours he was in line for the Nobel Prize but nothing came of it. Despite a fascinating canon of novels, short stories, poetry and non-fiction as well as a knighthood in 2011, he remained an isolated literary figure, living in the suburbs of Chelmsford. Today, he is perhaps most familiar to those who study postcolonial literature.

As part of my research, I interviewed Wilson and spoke to younger Guyanese writers he influenced such as Fred D’Aguiar and David Dabydeen. I also interviewed Angela Carter – a family friend for whom I occasionally babysat – who knew Wilson and admired his work. We talked, initially, on the phone. She described him as the “Guyanese William Blake”, adding “it’d be fun” to promote Wilson; “he’s an extraordinary man”. She told me about meeting him in Austin, Texas, where she was teaching creative writing and he lectured every spring semester. One night they all went out to dinner with a student who was a Vietnam war veteran. “Wilson took a deep breath and started explaining to this man why capitalism was wrong, why corporal punishment was wrong. Somebody had to explain to this man how the world really is, and Wilson did it in a very unassuming way. Talk to Wilson about that: how he changed Hank from writing about killing people to writing about being guilty about killing people. And there were many others like him.”

Shortly after this conversation I visited Carter’s home on The Chase in Clapham. We chatted about pop culture and film – Angela used to visit the Ritzy in Brixton when I worked there as a projectionist, she was knowledgeable about cinema and loved to talk about it – then we began the interview proper.

You can read the interview, published in the TLS on 27.3.2018, here.


Aidan Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down; March Hares – TLS


Why do some writers of significant, or even major, fiction fail to find a secure footing in the canon? The obvious marks of achievement for an author are remaining in print, market success and critical acclaim – the extent to which writers are assimilated into the story of literature, recognized for their place in a national tradition or as part of a literary movement. For those who fail to maintain availability, sales or notice, and whose neglect seems palpably unjust, we have the much-used compensatory phrase, “a writer’s writer”. Usually offered as high accolade, indicating appreciation by an elite circle of peers, it can mask a more uncomfortable truth about the failure of critics, academics, publishers and the reading public to find room in the house of fiction for books that are held to be in some way unfamiliar, uncompromising or heterodox.

Sometimes the cause of such neglect is baffling: “Why he isn’t better known, I simply don’t understand, because he’s outstandingly good”, Philip Pullman wrote recently of his favourite overlooked writer, MacDonald Harris. Often, though, there is an observable kinship between novels that get lost along the way: many are themselves concerned with ideas of waywardness, homelessness or oddity, with marginalized people and places. All too often their portraits of obscurity are projected back on them, with the result that they are themselves neglected. One example of this treatment is the writer’s writer Christina Stead, hailed over the years by Mary McCarthy, Angela Carter and Jonathan Franzen, yet despite successive rediscoveries, never breaking through to a more general acceptance.

In some cases, overlooked novels achieve notoriety precisely because they have been left to languish at the periphery. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), falls into this category, as does Aidan Higgins’s debut novel, Langrishe, Go Down (1966), reputedly the greatest Irish novel serious readers may never have heard of. Writing in the Irish Times, Derek Mahon confirmed not just the novel’s reputation, but the author’s, as “fugitive . . . a thing of hearsay among initiates”. Langrishe concerns four sisters (one already dead) marooned outside Dublin in Springfield, one of Ireland’s decaying Big Houses. The novel is set in the 1930s as fascism creeps across Europe; the Langrishe women are creatures living at the edge of the continent and the end of their wits: ignorant, impoverished and condemned to the loneliest of spinsterhoods, which has turned them in on themselves and set them against one another. The two sisters who narrate the novel fret continually about their fall from respectability, wondering how they have arrived at a place so far beyond the pale.

With Langrishe’s latest revival by the Apollo Press, John Banville, in a new after word, has declared the book a “masterpiece”. But he also acknowledges its rough passage, quoting Higgins’s rueful observation that a fortnight after Langrishe’s publication, “sales sank to a dribble”, while Samuel Beckett’s scathing assessment – he thought it “literary shit” – did little to improve the book’s fortune. Beckett was a friend to Higgins, however. And it was on his recommendation that John Calder decided to publish the novel. The unjust evaluation was probably born of a horror of “Oirishness” – the “old-fashioned and placating nature” of Irish “yarnsters” which Higgins himself lambasts William Trevor and John McGahern for in March Hares, a posthumous collection of non-fiction from the Dalkey Archive. Perhaps Beckett felt that Langrishe failed to lift itself sufficiently out of the grip of Irish history and tradition, or to find a new form as rigorous as his own – “as cold as refrigerators” is how Higgins memorably describes Beckett’s late style in the opening salvo to March Hares, “The Hollow, The Bitter and the Mirthless in Irish Writing”.

By the time Higgins took up the pen, the authors he admired – James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Djuna Barnes – were either dead or past their prime; the scene had moved on to the more radical formalism of the Nouveau Roman, making his high modernist style seem out of step with the era. During the postwar years, the anglophone world was slow to catch up with the demolition of “réalité” that was invigorating French fiction, Beckett being the exception: he was living as an emigré in Paris. Then, in the 1950s, Calder began publishing not only Beckett in English, but also many of the Nouveau Roman writers. By 1966, when he brought out Langrishe, ideas about exhaustion and bankruptcy were in the air. Angela Carter’s first novel, Shadow Dance, which was published at the same time, has a pervasive sense of people living in aftermath, embroiled in traditions and beliefs that are decaying or worn out. And the following year saw the publication of Frank Kermode’s influential collection, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the theory of literary fiction; written with knowledge of the Holocaust and in fear of impending nuclear war, Kermode identifies the apocalyptic strain of the literary imagination.

Aidan Higgins, by Suzy O’Mullane, 2002

Part of the problem for Higgins was the way critics placed his novel. Because of its Big House subject, historical references (James Connolly, Éamon De Valera, Constance Markiewicz, etc) and melancholy lyricism, many thought of it primarily in a national context – another brick in the wall of “old Irish miserabilism”, as Eimear McBride described the tradition recently on Radio 4 – as existing, therefore, in a space disconnected from these continental debates about literature and politics. But this is perhaps a category error: Langrishe is not an example of the isolation of Irish culture, but rather a work that critically dissects it. Disputing the novel’s reading by many reviewers, Higgins underscores this point in another piece included in March Hares. In it, he asserts, “on the subject of misunderstandings and cognate matters, may I be here permitted to state categorically that Langrishe, Go Down is not a Big House novel, nor ever was intended as such”.

John Calder, thinking back over some of the writers he championed during his (heroic) career, singled Higgins out as “greatly under appreciated”. “He is a very strange man”, Calder told an interviewer in 2013, “A great writer, though.” No doubt lack of appreciation played its part in that strangeness, leading to some of the bristliness on display in March Hares, where he returns repeatedly to the matter of Ireland’s “deeply conservative reading public”, the fantastic sales of the “sobsisters” (Nuala O’Faolain, Frank McCourt), the ever-present faces of the fashionable literati (Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle), his own remaindering (out of print again), and the all-too-brief mentions of his work in anthologies of Irish literature. Yet he is astute enough to understand that, for an artist, there is existential validation in being excluded: “To feel out of place is, to be sure, quite a salubrious state for a writer to find himself in”. No doubt this is why writers at the edge so often become experts in reinvention. Higgins’s own talent for redeployment and recycling – characters reappear, later memoirs replay passages from earlier fictions – is at odds with the complete lack of wherewithal demonstrated by the Langrishe sisters. He has said the women were based on himself and his brothers, who had grown up in the house that Springfield is modelled on: the sisters, he writes, were characters “in drag”. Presumably one of the reasons for changing their sex is that women more plausibly embody the “weakness” and redundancy that he was intent on exposing.

Langrishe contains some of the most poignant and beautiful writing to be found anywhere on the evanescence of time and the cycles of nature. Inlaid against this lyricism, though – as is often the case in studies of lateness – there are moments when people start to regard themselves anthropologically, and odd notes of the parodic edge into view: “Pray sir, did you ever meet a lady who is a sort of specimen of a bygone world?” Carter’s critique of Britain as a country past its sell-by date still manages to find a way forward for her characters: in the new Sixties culture of camp and cut-up, they recycle and sell off busts of Queen Victoria, clown noses and soldiers’ uniforms. But at Springfield, though the Langrishe women, cloistered in their only heated room, are also surrounded by detritus from the past – pictures of sabre-waving soldiers, a “blackamoor” statue, a sarcophagus vase-stand – these symbols remain oppressive because the stay-at-home sisters have no countering point of view, no way of learning how to flount authority or play in the ruins of their history.

The only outside voice in Langrishe comes from a German doctoral student, Otto, who takes up residence in the gatehouse, lives off the land and pays no rent – a situation the sisters, in their “stifling stasis”, are incapable of doing anything about despite a desperate need for funds. With his masterful manner and apparent knowledge of all things, Otto quickly seduces Imogen, the youngest and prettiest of the sisters, the family’s “one hope”. But because of the novel’s a-chronology, the reader knows from the outset that the hope of this affair, begun in the summer of 1933, is doomed: Langrishe opens in the winter in 1937, with the once lovely Imogen now surrounded by stout bottles, her hair and teeth falling out; it closes after two deaths and a funeral in 1939, “squashing” all hope for the Big House inhabitants and, following the Anschluss, for Europe as a whole.

“Mother Eire was never young”, Higgins writes in March Hares, chastizing Joyce for his mythologizing, and in Langrishe she is a brute, an old hag who squashes the lives of the Langrishe girls like insects. The novel ends with Imogen back in the deserted gatehouse, hiding away among “rotting wainscots” and “mildewed walls”, “spiderwebs” and “dead flies”. In another passage from March Hares, entitled “Ancestral Voices”, Higgins says (playfully, camply) of his own upbringing: “In those stagnant times how we fairly trembled before Authority!” His novel Langrishe, Go Down deserves to be more widely known, not only for its extraordinary mournful beauty, but also for its apocalyptic vision of a culture’s squandering and rottenness, for its thoroughgoing dismantling of the Irish house of fiction, and as one of the great works of European anti-authority.

Jenny Erpenbeck, Go Went Gone (translated by Susan Bernofsky) – Spectator


The title of Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel, Go Went Gone, and the autumnal tone of its beginning – a Classics professor retires, leaving him at home raking leaves, mulling over memories of his wife, and wondering about the body in a nearby lake – suggests that this will be a book of endings, something akin to Anita Brookner’s stories of self-absorbed people in the twilight of their lives.

But Richard, now professor emeritus, proves to be a more unpredictable character. For a start, unlike many of Brookner’s loners, there is the strong force of history in him. A precarious beginning under fascism and war, then a life shaped by the GDR and its abrupt cessation in 1989, has left him and his circle of friends adrift in the new Germany. They have only memories of their vanished country and some sense that the place in which they now find themselves, with its advertised values of reason and law, is not all it’s cracked up to be. For a start, Richard’s pension is smaller than that of his West German compatriots. Not that he’s complaining: as a child versed in “proletarian internationalism”, he’s fully aware that compared with many on the planet, he’s well off: “Richard knows he’s one of the very few people in this world who are in a position to take their pick of realities.”

The question of what constitutes reality lies at the heart of Erpenbeck’s writing. In Go Went Gone she is at pains to show that what is often taken to be universal can be tendentious or dogmatically insisted upon, despite what ought to be glaring limitations. The body submerged in the lake and Richard’s interest in underground systems (escape routes from the Nazis, tunnels from the Middle Ages) suggest that beneath the “veneer” of reality, much in life is hidden or suppressed.

When Richard watches a News programme about a protest tent city built by refugees in the middle of Oranienplatz, he realizes that he has walked through the square without noticing this challenge to everyday life. As an academic, the recognition of his trammeled view, with its implicit lack of curiosity, rankles him mildly. So with nothing better to do, he embarks on a homemade project to discover where the refugees come from and what it is that they want.

Jenny Erpenbeck

At first he sits on a bench in the square and takes notes. Then the authorities make an agreement with the refugees to dismantle the camp. Some are relocated to an unused block in a nursing home near Richard, where he finds men on mattresses four or five to a room, many depressed and sleeping in the middle of the day. But some are awake and – like Richard, with little to occupy them and no way forward in their lives as they are forbidden to work – they agree to be interviewed. Richard’s questions seem detailed but beside the point, as if, rather than facing the immediate crisis in their lives, he’s testing for humanity: “Do people have pets?” “What kind of place did you like to hide as a child?”

These conversations produce a gentle comedy of cultural difference and, for Richard, a series of realisations. The first is how little, for all his classical education, he knows about the world the refugees come from, even though, as he reacquaints himself with the story of Black Athena, he is reminded that the roots of Western civilization lie in North Africa. As he had walked through the square without seeing the refugees, so he knew of these facts but never assimilated them. Only now, through his new friendships, does the knowledge becoming meaningful. That he is unaware of where many African countries are on the map, unfamiliar with their capitals and languages is, of course, an indictment not just of Richard but of Western ignorance in general: “The American vice-president recently referred to Africa as a country.”

He becomes closer to the refugees, inviting them to his house, sharing meals and taking them to appointments with the authorities during which he starts to understand how the law is stacked against them. The Dublin II treaty prevents the men from applying for asylum (Germany is not the first European country they arrived in) and the Berlin authorities retract their agreement.

Richard’s dawning awareness brings to mind Ted Hughes’s epiphany, the fruit of his engagement with East European dissidents, about the “spoilt brats of Western civilization…deprived of the revelations of necessity”. Erpenbeck’s tone is not so dramatic: her clear, unshowy prose never draws attention to itself – at times her novel even reads like a primer, reflecting the way Richard learns like a child through reading and friendship about how the world beyond him has shaped his own.

Yet this is a highly sophisticated work in which blatant injustice (however disregarded) exists together with forces that lurk beneath the surface. At a birthday party for Richard celebrated with old and new comrades, the light falls and everyone gathers round a fire. There are stories shared by all about guilt, regret and loss, memories that usually remain submerged, too unbearable to think about, but which surface here in the company of friends. This perhaps is the common ground which earlier socialist writers were intent upon, and the scene is relayed by Erpenbeck with extraordinary emotional power, her analytical skill now matched by a tenderness to human beings that remains utterly unsentimental.

At an earlier moment Richard bemoans the fact that the loss of the GDR has meant the loss of grand ideas about humanity: now only individual action is possible. It is a sentiment that the East German writer to whom Erpenbeck seems most indebted, Christa Wolf, also expressed, saying she no longer believed in ideology, and after the fall of the Wall progress would only occur through pushes made at ground level. The inevitably cruel ending looms for the refugees and they rise once more from their beds to organise another protest, remembering the dignity they found in the Oranienplatz resistance. They know their rooftop protest will not succeed, but as Angela Carter once observed, we organise to keep our spirits up.

The verdict on the refugees’ case finally arrives and the question for Richard remains the old one: what is to be done? His answer, and the way he draws his German friends in to help, suggests some reconciliation of the grand idea with individual action, a new kind of solidarity and a way forward.

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