The enduring power of brief encounters

A trio of novels that are connected by their surprising manner of finding their way to us

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

If this month’s novels have anything to connect them, it’s a sinuous, surprising manner of finding their way to us. Truth, or a well-made untruth, will out.

Whereabouts Jhumpa Lahiri Bloomsbury £14.99

Jhumpa Lahiri seemed to have gone a bit quiet after becoming the darling of the books pages in the early 2000s; her rich stories of Indian-American life appeared to have dried up. Now it looks as though two processes were at work: first, she was establishing a name as a Hofmann-level identifier and translator of superior Italian fiction and an editor of quality (her Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories is one of the best anthologies I’ve read).

But her new novel Whereabouts also shows an effort to reinvent her fiction as significant as that of Rachel Cusk, whose Outline trilogy (2014-18) discarded traditions of character, plot and setting for something simultaneously austere and rich. Similarly, Lahiri has pared her work down to an autofictional core, whose calmness and simplicity gives the reader space to think.

The novel takes the form of 46 short reflections by a woman as she relates her daily life in a (seemingly Italian) city. She is unnamed, unmoored, unattached but not unhappy. She wanders the streets like a European Vivian Gornick or Alfred Kazin, meeting bad friends (“I’d love a tiny place like yours”), taking pleasure in small things (buying a sandwich made by a man who greets her as an old friend “reminds me I am not forsaken”), and forging necessary connections: at a nail bar she revels in the contact, hand placed on hand, with the beautician.

The links she makes with townsfolk are partial, temporary, given and received without obligation; and eventually we come to see that these stand in place for the connections she has left behind. On these narrative islands we find that her mother makes her afraid to be “excessively alive” (shades of, well, most fictional mothers), or that her late father seemed to share Philip Larkin’s view of holidays as being “essentially a kind of penance for being so happy and comfortable in one’s daily life” — but Larkin was never a parent. It’s little wonder that the woman, now, finds the sea’s “thundering boom that devours everything” so “reassuring”.

Whereabouts overflows with exquisite little jewels of the narrative art

The structure made of brief scenes has a number of effects. It focuses the book on how, in the words of Jean Renoir via James Salter, “the only things that are important in life are the things you remember.” A corollary of this is that Whereabouts reminds us of how much filler most novels contain. The particulate approach also means characters can be introduced and despatched within a page — her father comes, her father dies — with no false tone; and finally, the layering of seemingly slight incidents on top of one another creates durability.

Whereabouts overflows with exquisite little jewels of the narrative art: a brief encounter with an ex-boyfriend; sweet observations on the pleasure of buying things for secondary purposes (stationery, suitcases); an addiction to acquiring her neighbour’s household goods; swimming in the lanes of a municipal pool, where “eight different lives share that water at a time, never intersecting”.

The only plot comes from a sort of movement towards certainty, as we go from possibilities proliferating (“I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with”) to preparations for departure (“something’s telling me to push past the barrier of my life”).

To return to where we came in, there is another unusual feature in how Whereabouts came to be hereabouts. Lahiri wrote it in Italian, where it was published in 2018, and has now translated it into English. I dispute the suggestion by her publisher that rewriting it in her first language is “an extraordinary feat of artistry”, but perhaps this double-working is what gives the novel such a resonance and sense of permanence, despite its unfussy surface.

Every few years we are treated to an un- or rediscovered novel about Nazi Germany: remember Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, or Heinz Rein’s Berlin Finale? This year it’s the turn of Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s The Passenger, which both is and isn’t new. It was written in 1938 and first published in England the following year — under the pseudonym John Grane — as The Man Who Took Trains.

The Passenger Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (trans. Philip Boehm) Pushkin Press, £14.99

The book has a hard act to live up to: the author biography is a rollercoaster in nine lines. Boschwitz, born in 1915, studied at the Sorbonne and settled in England in 1939, but was interned as an enemy alien and shipped to Australia.

He was allowed to return in 1942, but his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine and he was killed, at the age of 27.

His novel is now republished as The Passenger, and the first positive sign of the book’s quality is the fact of a translation by Philip Boehm, whose versions of Ingeborg Bachmann and Herta Müller have been exemplary. This is, however, a book whose interest rests as much on the circumstances — on the fact — of its being written as the quality of its writing. Boschwitz’s hero is Silbermann, a Jew in Germany in 1938 who doesn’t look Jewish and so can evade immediate persecution: at least until he has to say his name.

Silbermann is a successful man, in partnership with a gentile party member, but the cushion provided by his money exists first to prolong his agony for narrative purposes, but also to show that there is no protection from ideology. Little by little, death by a thousand cuts approaches: his son in France struggles to acquire a visa for him; a hotel asks him politely to leave; a friend screws him over on the sale of his property.

This expository approach is apt for a book which, for all its pace and power, isn’t subtle

Still, he now has a suitcase full of cash, and a touching faith in the rule of law (“even if it’s full of anti-Semites, it is still the government, and this is something they simply can’t allow”). And so he finds the best way forward is to keep going forward, taking train after train around the country. “I am no longer in Germany. I am in trains that run through Germany. That’s a big difference. I am safe, I am in motion.”

On trains, of course, you meet people, and much of The Passenger is given over to Silbermann’s conversations with representative others: a fellow Jew; a woman who believes herself to be helpful (“But tell me, why do the Jews put up with all of this?”); even his business partner turns up again, like a bad pfennig.

This expository approach is apt for a book which, for all its pace and power, isn’t subtle: like Alone in Berlin, it was written quickly and it shows. But it’s given added force by the knowledge that even the author didn’t know the ultimate destination of the policies he brings to vivid life. If we didn’t know horribly better, it would all seem like so much fiction.

Bear Marian Engel Daunt Books, £9.99

Marian Engel’s Bear comes to us from a more traditional, if still roundabout, route: it was the author’s final novel, published in Canada in 1976 to acclaim (“the best Canadian novel of all time” — National Post), notoriety (“the most controversial novel ever written in Canada” — Canadian Encyclopedia) and, er, whatever (“plausible as kitchens” — Margaret Atwood); and this is its first British publication, 45 years later.

The hook for Bear, from which it hangs its reputation, is a wow-or-whoa monster that threatens to block the actual reading of the thing: this is “the novel about the woman who has sex with a bear”. Publishers have collaborated in this extra-literary funfair, with the cover of a 1977 US mass-market edition of the book (below) showing a bare-breasted woman, hair awry, being inefficiently groped from behind by Ursus americanus.

It’s a story of struggle between nature and learned behaviour, and of the risks of anthropomorphism

And in the face of lines like “She cradled his big, furry, asymmetrical balls in her hand” it’s easy to be distracted and fail to see the glory beneath the story: an original and bouleversé account of the awakening of Lou, a stereotypically quiet librarian, who travels to a remote island to catalogue an estate. Once there she encounters the local bear whose “whiff of shit and musk” marks it out as “indisputably male” (thanks!) and she simultaneously finds that out of the city, she feels more animal-like.

It’s a story of struggle between nature and learned behaviour, and of the risks of anthropomorphism: “She felt like some French novelist who, having discarded plot and character, was left to build an abstract structure, and was too tradition-bound to do so. She felt weak, unable to free herself from the concrete.” But free herself she does, as indicated by the injunction: “Bear, I love you. Pull my head off.”

And it’s a measure of the diversity of literature that Bear isn’t the only woman-animal love story we’re due to see this year, with Rachel Ingalls’s superior Mrs Caliban due to be reissued in the summer too. As to who’s better off, Lou with her ursine lover or Jhumpa Lahiri’s solitary flâneuse — perhaps she too is heading up north? — that’s the sort of gap that great fiction must leave for the reader to fill.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover