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Thursday, 14 February 2019

Book review: At the Edge of the Night, Friedo Lampe (2019)

This extraordinary work first appeared in German in 1933 but was suppressed by the Nazis. The original text wasn’t published in German in its complete form until 1999 and this translation follows that text. It gives us for the first time access to a rare and unusual example of Modernism that has fortunately survived time and politics to emerge, now, as a strange little gem of a novel. It has an odd structure like a collage and a large cast of characters and it examines themes such as propriety, capital, death, desire and what was in its day the forbidden realm of homosexual love.

The entire novel takes place in one night in September in Bremen, a port city in the north of the country, and the narrative dips into the lives of different people – a girl asleep in her bed dreaming; a man playing the flute by the window of the room he rents from a widow; a wrestler preparing to go on stage at a local entertainment venue, the Astoria; two men who are about to embark on the Adelaide, a steamship in the harbour, but who go out on the town for a few hours to kill time – so that it is focalised through different characters in what is almost a haphazard way.

What emerges is a work of great richness that embraces a whole society, even though the method that is used to achieve this outcome is unconventional. The closest analogues I can think of for the psychogeography that is set out in this novel are Fernando Pessoa’s luminous imaginings of Lisbon. In Lampe’s text, the heteronormative routine of a town awake after dark in an era before television and the internet leaves you breathless with expectation as to what will happen next. Despite the fragmentation of the narrative, discrete stories emerge to engage the reader.

What will happen to the announcer who dislikes the way the hypnotist at the Astoria treats his young son? What will happen to Hein Dieckmann, the gay wrestler who has just pummelled his adversary to within an inch of his life? What will happen to Bauer, who the two men travelling on the steamer know from earlier days and who is now a steward on-board working under a sadistic captain? What about Peter, the young man who goes with a prostitute but who cannot perform? What about the prostitute’s father, who is the keeper of the park where live the swans and the rats the sleeping girl dreams about?

What will happen next? In a story made up completely of disparate threads none of which is tethered to a conclusion, the idea of what is normal ends up seeping into the fabric of the story in such a way that it becomes all-pervasive. What is normal in Germany in 1933? What kind of society elected the Nazis to power?

Well, a society such as is described in this book. A society that tolerates the abuse of women and children but that idolises strongmen. A society where people restlessly seek the fulfilment of desires – for booze, fun, dancing, sex, fried sausages eaten in the park before going to bed – and where they fear death and are made to feel uneasy by art. Reading this book it is paradoxically all too easy to imagine the coming disaster even though what does eventually arrive seems to be unthinkable given the mild September night we experience in the fiction. Truly, this is work for the ages.

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