Clemens J. Setz: Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre [The Hour Between Woman and Guitar]
Natalie Reinegger has just qualified as a care home assistant and got a provisional job in a private care home for the handicapped. While we initially follow her work at the home, we also follow her casual sex life. After she broke up with Markus, she mainly seems to have casual sex with men she picks up and records what they say to her, making a podcast of what they say, often while performing oral sex on them. Later in the book, she will start recording her own eating noises. She also gets harassed on Skype, which is not entirely surprising because her Skype username is Natalya Fuckpig (in English).
She has a variety of other issues. She is epileptic. At one time during the book, she thinks she has a lump on her breast. She has an imaginary mouse on her shoulder which she talks to. It is not clear how this mouse gets on with her very real cat. In short, she might not appear to be the ideal care assistant.
However, she does pass her probationary period and is given responsibility for one particular patient. He is Herr Dorm, who is in a wheelchair. He seems to be fairly independent, quite coherent and easily able to read and write (not all of the patients can read or write). However, there is an issue with him that Astrid, the supervisor, is initially reluctant to reveal. However, over a long team meeting, it all comes out. Herr Dorm was a stalker, though, apparently, the word is not politically correct and they are meant to call him a CAD (= compulsive affection disorder) patient. Both compulsive affection disorder and stalker, like very many other words in this book, are given in English in the German text.
Herr Dorm had stalked a married woman. The woman had been so upset by it all that she had killed herself. Patients can, of course, receive visitors but, while casual visitors are allowed, regular visitors are registered, so that they can gain immediate access. These details are stored in the patient’s file. Herr Dorm has only one registered visitor – Christoph Hollberg. Hollberg is the widower of the man Dorm stalked and who killed herself. Natalie is somewhat surprised by this but, nevertheless, Christoph Hollberg has been a regular visitor, every week for the past four years.
It is part of Natalie’s job to stay with the pair when Hollberg visits. They are able to go out and do so. She remains bemused by their relationship. At times, they behave like children, even playing hide and seek. Korm excitedly looks forward to the visits, usually wearing make-up, though Hollberg himself says that he never misses one of the regular visits. She asks both of them separately about the nature of this friendship but does not get a concrete response from either of them.
She is bemused by Korm on his own, as he has strange quirks. For example, he once asks her whether she is a man or a woman (she is very thin), though, as he got an erection when she was applying ointment to his neck and has commented on her breasts, he must surely know. He sometimes seems to get very upset for little or no reason and even physically attacks her on one occasion.
Gradually, however, she realises that something is not quite right with the relationship between Korm and Hollberg. It seems to be little things but Hollberg is clearly, to her, having a go at Korm. This slowly develops over the course of the novel, as does both Natalie’s inadvertent involvement and her awareness of what is going on.
While I have focussed on the main plot thread – the relationship between Alexander Korm, Christopher Hollberg and Natalie Reinegger – there is a lot more going on. This is a huge novel – 1021 pages long – and Setz packs a lot into it. We learn a lot about Natalie’s life. I have mentioned her casual and freewheeling sexuality, which includes a return to ex-boyfriend Markus and a Lesbian fling. She has an active social life, often centred around a club called Souterrain. We learn a lot about her relationship with the patients, and not just Korm but other ones she has to deal with, not always successfully. We also learn a lot about her colleagues in the care home and their relationship with her and with one another, as well as with the patients and, indeed, the patients’ families. Her relationships, as mentioned, are not just with humans but also with her imaginary mouse and her real cat. As is common for her generation, she also has a strong relationship with technology and pop culture. She spends a considerable amount of time on her IPhone, texting, chatting and so on. Apart from the fictitious app she uses for her podcasts, Setz does not mention specific apps or programmes but we can assume that she is using the standard ones. She also enjoys watching live broadcasts and nature documentaries on TV.
This involvement with technology is clearly one of the themes of the book but there are others. Language is certainly one. We all use codes – words and expressions that are known to and used by a select circle. These may include professional jargon, words and expressions (including made-up ones) that have a special meaning for friends, family and colleagues, the language used by the young, emoticons and so on. We see a lot of this here. Korm and Hollberg seem to have a code they use between one another as do the care home staff. Clearly, the language of technology is to the fore, both as regards IT and the language of psychiatry. Setz also invents words that he uses as narrator and that his characters use. More than once I had to Google words/phrases, only to find the only examples were from this book. There is even a chapter called Dictionary (in English, of course), which involves Natalie and friends looking up strange words in the dictionary.
One other area where he dabbles is luminous details. This term – Setz uses the English term though he (not very helpfully) translates it literally into German as leuchtende Details – is a concept devised by Ezra Pound (though Pound is not mentioned in this book, except in a quotation about luminous details). Pound’s definition was Any fact is, in a sense, ‘significant’. Any fact may be ‘symptomatic’, but certain facts give one a sudden insight into circumjacent conditions into their causes, their effects, into sequence, and law. To put it somewhat more simply, they refer to allusions to strange domains of knowledge, often related to each other in idiosyncratic ways. Setz or, rather, his characters do not seem to be fully aware what luminous details are but they certainly play with the idea when there seem to be strange connections between things and events.
This book is way too long but Setz keeps going all the way. There are no huge plot revelations but a few minor ones and clearly the Dorm-Hollberg situation has its twists and turns. Despite the length or, maybe in part because of it, I did enjoy the book, as Setz gets the reader right into the story and the lives of the main characters, of which there are quite a few I have not mentioned. I cannot see this book being translated into English – only one of his novels has been translated so far – though it has been translated into French.
First published in German 2015 by Suhrkamp
No English translation
First publication in French as es femmes sont des guitares (dont on ne devrait pas jouer) in 2017 by Actes Sud
Translated by Stéphanie Lux