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Gertrud Leutenegger: Panischer Frühling [Panic Spring]

The narrator of this novel is living in London, in the Whitechapel Road area. (This is in the East End of London, with a high immigrant population, as we learn from the book.) It is not clear why she is in London. She is not asked why she is there but admits that, were she to be asked, she would not have a ready answer, except it seems to be a sort of escape. She seems to spend much of her time wandering around London and enjoying the sites and history of London, a flâneuse. Indeed, she seems very well-informed about the history of London. For example, when looking at Cleopatra’s Needle, she comments that one of the sphinxes is damaged, caused by a German bomb on 4 September 1917 and left unrepaired to remember the event. (Of course, she could have got this information from the Wikipedia article, as I did.) On another occasion, she happens to be by St Saviour’s Dock and mentions that she is standing at the exact place where pirates used to be hanged in the eighteenth century. It is not just the history of London that attracts her. She is particularly attracted to the Thames, though she finds it a strange river, with odd swirls and currents, which make it difficult to see which way it is flowing. She even sees entire oak trees floating down the Thames and, on her regular walks, invariably ends up on the banks of the river. She is also interested in the immigrant culture, observing the Bengalis in the area where she is living.

At the beginning of the book, she notices how quiet it is. She is in the centre of London in the early morning and she cannot hear any planes, as she usually does. She quickly realises that this is because of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, which disrupted air traffic for a while in Europe in April 2010. Indeed, this becomes something of a theme, as she continues to notice not only the relative silence but keeps seeing reports on the volcano and its effects on TVs in shops and cafés, which she assiduously follows. When it is over, she suddenly notices the noise of the overflying planes and how news reports are replaced with the usual accounts of some horrible crime in one or other British city. The ash from the volcano which, she is surprised to find, does not cover London reminds her of Ash Wednesday when she was a child. Indeed, the various natural beauties now and again remind her of life as a child back in Switzerland. Her father was a vicar and the family spent time in the summer with their aunt and uncle, with a large garden and a disturbed neighbour who seemed to spend all day screaming, and it is this that she continually harks back to. But the history also reminds her of home. She sees the grave of a young royal child in Westminster Abbey (it is, in fact Sophia, daughter of James VI of Scotland and James I of England, who died after forty-eight hours), which reminds her of her own (adult) daughter, also called Sophia.

Just as we are beginning to wonder where this novel is going – is it just a paean to London, with a bit of nostalgia for her childhood in Switzerland thrown in? – we start to get a plot. While crossing London Bridge (a bridge she admires for its great simplicity, even though she is reminded of past London Bridges, with their houses and shops and frequent destruction, either by the strong current or because of fire, insurrection or the like), she notices a homeless man selling what is clearly The Big Issue, a magazine sold exclusively by the homeless. He looks like a Renaissance portrait. He claims to recognise her but she says that she has never been there before. He replies that, while London Bridge is his favourite spot, he sells the magazine in other parts of London. When she sees him again the next day, he takes her to see his Jamaican friend, who is playing steel drums, but without drumsticks (which were stolen) but with his bare hands. She is ambivalent about seeing him. Should she seek him out, which she wants to do, or should she avoid him, which would be more seemly? He starts to tell her of his life. He grew up in Newlyn, Cornwall, son of a fisherman. He tells her of his antics with the other fishermen’s sons, of his grandmother who lived in nearby Penzance and of how his father went out fishing one day and never returned, while he and his grandmother waited all night and then scoured the beach for remains of the boat. Indeed, when he tells her about sea and the fish, she tells him that she had not seen the sea till much later in life and the only live fish she had seen were tiny ones, though she is able to tell him a story about an eel her uncle caught. London ist voll von Geschichten aus der Ferne [London is full of stories from far away], she says to herself. One of her best moments is when she learns his name – Jonathan – as he recounts a story about his grandmother speaking to him and the grandmother uses the name in the story.

Her relationship with Jonathan blossoms but remains entirely platonic. As can happen with other relationships, she looks forward to seeing him but, at the same time, does not want to appear too eager. She goes so far as to say (to herself) that for her joy had a name and that name was Jonathan. They continue to exchange stories, which seem to relate to one another in their various ways. For example, she tells a story about seeing barn owls and he responds with a story about a cushion cover his grandmother had which had barn owls on it. The ash cloud comes back when the latest issue of The Big Issue features it and the pair look at the photos and talk about it. Again we get a Proustian moment, for when she sees the icebergs in the photos of Iceland, she suddenly gets an urge for an ice-cream (the German for ice and ice-cream is the same word, Eis). There is also a bit of tragedy in the story – Gillian, the evacuee that Jonathan’s grandmother befriends and Jonathan’s Jamaican friends’ sister, whose wig shop, for which she had saved up, is burnt down for no apparent reason, causing her to run away.

Not a huge amount happens in this book but Leutenegger writes very beautifully and tells what might be described as a platonic love story, a love story without any physical contact and with the two parties continuing to use the formal Sie [=you] with one another. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could have been quite dull but Leutenegger’s skill let us see not only the joy of her infatuation for this homeless man but also the interesting comparison between his life in Cornwall and hers, with her parents and sister in the summer, with their aunt and uncle. The different stories of the narrator and Jonathan have a life of their own but often cleverly merge. Her observations of London – both its history and people – are also superbly done. Initially, I felt that this book was going nowhere but, as I got into it, I began more and more to appreciate Leutenegger’s skill. It may well be underappreciated – there are no fireworks, no great ideas, no moving passions – but it is a book that becomes a joy to read.

Publishing history

First published in 2014 by Suhrkamp
No English translation
First published in French in 2017 as Panique printanière by Zoe, Carouge-Genève
Translated by Lionel Felchlin