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Erhard von Büren: Ein langer blauer Montag (A Long Blue Monday)
Paul Ganter is writing his story some forty years later. He is also writing a biography of Sherwood Anderson, though he is not entirely sure why. why write a book about Anderson? People can live perfectly well without Anderson, even English scholars can live without Anderson, no-one is waiting for another book on him. This, of course, reflects his own state of mind as much as his views on Sherwood Anderson. It’s all been for nothing, all in vain, a life wasted.
Paul is married to Erica and has two adult children but has moved into a flat on his own, not because of any particular marital discord but simply for a need to be on his own, nominally to write his Anderson book. He had been a teacher but had decided to retire from it though, again, he is not clear why, as he enjoyed it.
His early life had not been easy. His grandfather had a thriving building business but had gone bankrupt and took to drink. His father was something of a nomad, travelling round Switzerland at a time when most Swiss did not see their country except for military service. Though the father had, in theory, settled down, married and had three children (Paul has two older sisters), he could not hold a job for long, rowing with the boss, for example. When he did have a job, pay day meant pub day and his wife and family saw little of his wages. Their main diet seemed to have been potatoes in various forms.
Paul starts out doing an apprenticeship in business but soon realises he hates it and quits. Of course, giving up easily seems to be a family trait and he is well aware of this. He works as a bricklayer to finance going to teachers’ training college, though his mother needs much of the money he earns.
However, what this book is essentially about is Claudia. He had acted a bit at school so when a group of students decide to put on a play, Camus’ The Justes (The Just Assassins), he is asked to join and willingly does so. One of the actors is Claudia and he is immediately smitten. However, he is from the wrong side of the tracks and she is very much from the right side. He is shy, unsure of himself and very much lacking in self-confidence when it comes to the opposite sex. He hangs around town hoping to bump into her, which happens now and again. He even asks her to join him at the cinema to see a film. Paul is very much influenced by contemporary US drama and cinema and takes her to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he had seen the night before on his own. She did not really enjoy it and the date, if it was a date, did not lead to anything. Later films they go to all tend to be US films and also lead nowhere on the romantic front.
But then he has an idea to impress Claudia. Why not write a play of his own? It would not be one play but a trilogy. It would use modern techniques (back-projected photos, the main character sitting on the edge of the stage talking to the audience). It would be very much influenced by Tennessee Williams (and the films of Elia Kazan). Most importantly, it would be autobiographical, telling the audience (Claudia in particular) about his background but also about his feelings for her. He neglects his studies to work hard at writing this play.
We know from the very beginning that, whatever happened, he did not end up with Claudia, as he is married to Erica. While we know from the beginning about the trilogy, it is only later that we get glimpses of it (he talks us through it in a few cases) and what happens to it and to his relationship with Claudia.
This could have been a straightforward teenage love angst story, a young man from the wrong side of the tracks who tries to woo a young woman from the right side of the tracks. This is, of course, at least in part, the story of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, though it is the woman, Maggie (played by Elizabeth Taylor in the film), who is from the wrong side of the tracks.
However, von Büren is far too good a writer to give us a straightforward love from the wrong side of the tracks story. As in his previous works, he clearly sides with the common man and Paul Ganter is a common man. He comes from not only a poor background but a troubled one. His father and grandfather were drunks and his sister is deliberately disruptive at school. He tries to make something of himself but struggles with his first effort – the commercial apprenticeship – and abandons it, only too well aware that abandoning things is something of family trait.
His romantic life is equally unsuccessful, primarily because he is too shy and too focussed on one woman. However, despite feeling that he lacks determination, he states If you want something for long enough, you get it in the end. Spare no effort and it can be made to happen. That was the principle that guided my life but almost immediately afterwards, he accepts that I confused winning someone’s love with scrupulously doing one’s homework. He does write the play, struggling with it, as we see, influenced by Tennessee Williams and other US playwrights, and does complete it. In other words, he is, like many of us, a man of contradictions, a man who all too often unsure of himself and a man who does not recognise as much as he should the positive things in his life.
This is von Büren’s third novel and the third that I have read and it is another fine novel. There are no fireworks, no post-modernism, no magic realism, no biting satire but what there is is a first-class story, superbly well told, with both complexities and contradictions and the story of man who lacks confidence in himself, who is not sure that he has got what he wants out of life but who, like most people, muddles through and endeavours to come to terms with where he went wrong and where he is now.
First published in 2013 by Verlag Die Brotsuppe
First English publication in 2018 by Matador