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Aiming for the heavens

Leo Robson reviews Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Jump Artist by Austin Ratner.

Bernard Malamud’s first novel, published in 1952, concerns a man who embarks on a baseball career in his mid-30s. “Oh my eight-foot uncle,” sighs a coach, when he sees Roy Hobbs approaching, “what have we got here, the Salvation Army band?” But Roy assures him that the only music he makes “is with my bat” and before long Roy’s bat has made good on his promise: “A noise like a twenty-one gun salute cracked the sky”.

In calling his novel The Natural, Malamud, 35 when he started work on the book, sought to correct a misapprehension about those who start, as the coach puts it, “way late”: from a rear-view perspective, everyone who achieves greatness was destined to do so. American literature is as happy telling tales of tenacious self-belief as of breezy self-assurance, and American literary history is as happy, or almost as happy, telling tales of Malamud as of Norman Mailer, of Annie Proulx as of S E Hinton. But while age doesn’t matter, temperament does and whether the route to the mound was circuitous or direct, first-time novelists – or as Time used to call them, First Novelists – are expected to aim for the heavens.

Ben Fountain and Austin Ratner both started writing fiction having travelled a fair distance along a straight career path – Fountain as a lawyer, Ratner as a physician. Of the two, Fountain, who is 54, is much the more commanding, one of the fruits of his long apprenticeship (he quit his job in 1988; a book of stories came out in 2004) being a capacity to make it look easy.

Not long after setting up as a writer, Fountain realised that he didn’t know how to describe things and went “to school” on visual and architectural dictionaries. And if he didn’t exactly prove to be what Americans call “a quick study”, then his straggling has something of the tortoise about it:

It was a mellow fall morning, the blue sky-dome stretched high and tight with that sweet winesap smell in the air, the honeyed, vaguely melancholy scent of vegetable ferment and illegal leaf burns.

The transect of sky through the open dome is the color and texture of rumbled pewter, an ominous boil of bruised sepias and ditchwater grays that foretells all kinds of weather-related misery.

It’s raining, sort of, the air pilled with a dangling, brokedick mizzle into which umbrellas are constantly being raised and lowered, up, down, up, down, like a leisurely game of whack-a-mole.

But Fountain’s evocations of mellowness and misery and mizzle, the speed and wit of his pen-portraits (a pastor is “a used-car salesman in sheep’s clothing”), his inventive deployment of commas and participles and his ability to pull off sentences ranging in length from one word to 120, count for only so much, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, for all its pleasurable jolts, is not a fully successful novel.

Fountain’s central decision has been to accord an unusual degree of wisdom to his 19-year-old hero, a Texan soldier on a fortnight's leave to publicise a crucial victory over Iraqi insurgents; and then to set him down, for the final day of the tour, in a Texas football stadium filled with reflexively pro-war journalists, businessmen and football fans who fail to recognise either the horrors of American imperialism or the narrow horizons of American idealism – a formula whose numbing constancy even Fountain’s prose, with its jostling of tones and registers, struggles to alleviate.

A football stadium in a state where support for the Iraq war was more sensitively phrased, or where opposition to the war risked slighting military efforts or casualty, would have made for a less lopsided dynamic – as would Billy paying a visit to Texas Stadium at a slightly earlier stage of development. Repeatedly, across the novel, we are informed that Billy’s breakthrough is a recent phenomenon. It is “only lately” that Billy has come to recognise “his state-sanctioned ignorance” as a “huge criminal act”; “lately” that he has felt the “definite need for something more” than blowjobs “in his life”; “lately” that he has decided that “prolonged eye contact from a fellow male” might not represent sexual desire, “a conclusion that required no small broadening of his view of human nature”; “lately” that he has been suffering “random seizures of futility and pointlessness that make him wonder why it matters how he lives his life”.

The catalysts for Billy’s “farther perspective” emerge with greater clarity than the lineaments of the perspective itself. Having wondered whether his “deeper sensitivities and yearnings” have been inspired by the war or by ageing, Billy later decides it’s a fusion of the two, the “way Iraq aged you in dog years”; but when Billy experiences the feeling that he has “more to lose” shipping out to Iraq the second time than he did the first, the reader has no choice but to follow him in wondering “what that was”.

On the whole, Billy provides too frictionless a vehicle for Fountain’s disappointment. Third-person narration ascribes to Billy reflections on the invention of new American football rules (“an insidious and particularly gross distortion of the concept of ‘play’”), on the “soul-squashing homogeneity” of American civic centres and hotel rooms, auditoriums and banquet halls. Billy notices the sports fans at the Dallas Cowboys game “fogged in by the general bewilderment of life. Oh Americans. Oh my people.” In taking up the cause not of an average grunt but a reformed grunt, Fountain displays a reverence for the virtues of the examined life that necessarily withholds full sympathy from the other soldiers in Billy’s squad, as well as virtually every other character in the novel.

Not long into the novel, a film producer interested in Billy’s story explains that a studio won’t commit until a star does, and that a star won’t commit until a studio does – a paradox that the narrator calls “so completely circular in the modern way”. But comparisons between First Novelist Ben Fountain and First Novelist Joseph Heller are misplaced, partly because,

in terms of breaking with the orthodoxy, the equivalent today of writing an anti-war novel 50 years ago would be to write a pro-war novel, and partly because Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an annunciation of promise rather than a fulfilment of it.

Austin Ratner, who shares a surname with Ben Fountain’s film producer, took a slower run-up, or a shorter walk, to The Jump Artist but his is nevertheless a tale of passionate commitment, with years bowed over cadavers and medical textbooks being suddenly traded for a desire to write the story of the Latvian portrait photographer, Philippe Halsman, before his arrival in the US in 1938 – a project that demanded much further study, albeit of a different kind.

Like Fountain, Ratner takes delight in the possibilities, denied in more narrowly empirical disciplines, afforded by figurative language: a thumb twitches “like a peristaltic worm”, a smile is “like a little electric current”. Otherwise, though, he seems paralysed by risk aversion. First-time novelists often make use of a classic model – for Malamud, it was the legend of King Arthur – but Ratner has called on every imaginable means of support, most obviously the epigraphs that come at the start of each chapter, some of which take the form of quotations that he was unable to incorporate into his narrative, others of which offer fat-handed pointers to literary analogues, such as the quotation, long after Philip has been acquitted of a crime he didn’t commit, of the whole first sentence of Kafka’s The Trial.

As fashioned by Ratner, in a flat, grey prose that only comes alive during moments of extreme terseness, Halsman is an inert figure, permanently scared or confused, incapable of a vengeful or worldly thought, penned in by his creator’s knowledge of subsequent historical developments (“Nothing can happen now, Philippe . . . You’re in France. It’s 1932”). Ratner’s hesitancy is most obvious in the extent to which he has, in his own words, “depended on significant research”. But diligence in relation to “the source material” is more likely to inspire gratitude from the keepers of the Halsman Archive than readers of The Jump Artist, not least because Halsman’s early years in Europe involved two difficulties, being falsely accused of his father’s murder in the anti-Semitic Austria of the late 1920s and being an inhabitant of Paris in the late 1930s, from both of which we know he escaped.

Ratner is within his rights to use an author’s note to inform the reader that the following pages are “based on a true story”. But he is communicating nothing so much as a fear of the reader’s unguided response when he explains, in his boastful-apologetic way, that he has been “inspired” by André Gide’s statement that “fiction is history which might have taken place, and history is fiction which has taken place” (more relevant, surely, to a book that doesn’t mix the two); or that his “goal was to use the techniques of fiction to imagine subjectively what Halsman suffered and overcame”; or that his book is “not a biography so much as an artistic tribute . . . more like a portrait or a sculpture” (Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac, in particular).

The Jump Artist was awarded the inaugural Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, though it would be hard to imagine a jury rewarding Ratner for anything other than scrupulousness. An indication of the reading experience on offer comes as early as the book’s first sentence, which is given over to claims about the events that form the basis of the narrative (“an early chapter of the Holocaust . . . now mostly forgotten in the English-speaking world”).

But just as a description of Innsbruck windowsills lined with “empty flower boxes” carries no greater force by virtue of being authentic, so Halsman’s story loses its rarity and distinction when transplanted into a literary form that imposes standards substantially higher than those of journalism and historiography for what constitutes the peculiar, improbable or strange.


Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis