What I’m Reading: Benjamin Stein – Das Alphabet des Juda Liva

This author caught my attention when I read somewhere that he was in the tradition of Leo Perutz, an Austrian author writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, whose novels would probably be classified as Magical Realism today. He is not particularly popular, but not completely forgotten either (Borges, among others, regarded him highly), and I read two of his novels a few years back which I both loved. My interested in Benjamin Stein piqued, I checked out his work so far (currently three novels and one volume of prose – none translated into English yet, although Canvas is apparently scheduled for a release in September 2012) and decided (as I’m a sucker for reading chronologically) to give his first published work a try.

As it turned out, Das Alphabet des Juda Liva owes more to another Austrian writer of roughly the same period as Perutz, namely Gustav Meyrink, whose work has even stronger tendencies towards the fantastical. He is still well remembered today for The Golem, and Stein openly references both that novel and the legend it is based on in his own book – the Juda Liva of its title is none other than Rabbi Loew, creator of the Prague Golem.

Das Alphabet des Juda Liva takes place (for the most part) in 20th-century Berlin and Prague, but it is steeped in Jewish legend and Cabbalistic mysticism. It is nested into several narratives frames, it contains a host of characters (quite a few of which are either related to each other or lovers), it jumps back and forth in time (not just the narrative viewpoint, there appears to be some actual time travel involved, too), between places and (I suspect) realities, and about halfway through it I noticed that I did not have the faintest clue anymore what the hell was going in this novel.

The author keeps grasping new characters apparently out of thin air, throws them at the reader, then sets them in relation to five other previous characters whose names one barely remembers, and while one is still struggling to figure out in what time period to locate them (or is it an alternative reality?), the novel has already moved on to a bunch of new characters (or are those previous ones? the names do seem somewhat familiar…). Now, it is of course entirely possible that this might have been avoided with more careful reading and some note-taking, but having approached the novel with a rather relaxed attitude, I was completely lost und utterly confused.

I kept reading on, carried by my own momentum, while wondering whether I should just give up and shelf this as DNF, or maybe start over from the beginning, when I noticed something surprising – I was actually still enjoying reading the novel even after it had fallen apart for me, and never felt like it dragged even after reading it to its conclusion. What carries the novel along even after it has crumbled into a series of barely connected vignettes is the sheer power of the author’s imagination that turns even contemporary Berlin into a place where the strange and mystical can happen and the impact of his writing that – in marked contrast to the fevered fantasies it spins out – remains cool and collected throughout, but never grows distant, rather a like a somewhat wry observer, who cannot quite believe what he is seeing, but finds himself rather fascinated by it regardless.

As fascinated as I found myself with Das Alphabet des Juda Liva – I am rather hoping that will eventually get around to reading at a second time, this time paying somewhat closer attention. Probably not before having read Benjamin Stein’s other novels, though…

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