What I’m Reading: Michael Köhlmeier – Idylle mit ertrinkendem Hund

Another German author who apparently has not been translated into English yet (although there are translations into other languages, like French and Spanish). Compared to Sibylle Lewitscharoff, Clemens J. Setz or Benjamin Stein, this is a very conventional kind of narrative, in fact seems to almost show off how old-fashioned it is by presenting itself as a very traditional novella. But appearances can be deceptive and are not to be trusted, as the narrator of this novella finds out when apparently solid ice gives in under his weight, and similarly the surface of the narrative gives only brief glimpses of the depths underneath where the actual story takes place.

Some indication of that is already in the title – “Idylle mit etrinkendem Hund” is self-contradictory, self-defeating even, for how can a drowning dog be idyllic? But this contradiction is symptomatic for the novella as a whole, in so far as the apparent idyl it presents turns out to be a landscape devastated by tragedy.

Idylle mit ertrinkendem Hund is told from a first person point of view, our narrator is a somewhat succesful writer, and ostensibly the novella is about a weekend visit of the writer’s editor at the home of the narrator and his wife. The editor, who the writer has only known as a very reserved and cultured person before, on close contact turns out to be a very quirky, even eccentric person in a manner that I found very reminiscent of Thomas Mann (who does seem to be a distinct influence for this novella in general). Thankfully, Michael Köhlmeier does not attempt to mimick Mann’s peculiar style of writing (which works only for Thomas Mann, as countless failed imitators have shown time and again) but develops his own – slow moving, with an almost casual tone of narrative voice, but which pays precise attention to detail and takes occasional humorous turns (which are all the funnier for being unexpected).

But the humour soon begins to fade when it is slowly revealed that not all is well in the narrator’s marriage. It is never made expliticit anywhere in the novella, but there are more and more signs that indicate even to the only moderately attentive reader that this couple has drifted apart, the woman withdrawing into her interior space (an artificial jungle that she is building inside their living room), the man spending a large amount of his time outside, taking long, solitary walks – they might be heading in opposite directions but those share their isolation. And then it is mentioned that they have recently lost their daughter – almost in passing, like it was something they had both gotten over and moved on with their lives. But by now the reader has become sufficiently sensitive to able to read the signs, and recognise this as the novella’s true subject – the way the narrator and his wife cope or do not cope with the death of their daughter, how their shared mourning has torn their relationship apart and how they are slowly, laboriously find some common ground again.

The way this is never told directly but plays out in asides and small gestures, in the cracks of their relationship’s surface as it begins to give in under the strain of the editor’s visit is not only masterfully done technically, but also makes this novella a very moving read – a very sad read, but not a depressing one as the ending leaves one with some hope that there might be a way for the couple to overcome their mourning and find the way towards each other again.

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2 comments

  1. This sounds rather beautiful, Heloise – one of those novels where what isn’t said is almost more important than what is said (The Remains of the Day springs to mind as the kind of thing I mean). If it’s even translated into English I might be tempted to give it a go. Perhaps the odd title reflects the story – in that what you first see is an idyll, but then you realise that there is something deeply, tragically wrong at the heart of it – the failing marriage, or (in the case of the title) a drowning dog?

    1. Indeed, it is part of the classical novella form that all the motifs play into each other, and the marriage and the dog are closely connected on a thematic level and when in the end the dog is saved that also signals that not everything is lost for the marriage either. Personally, I had maybe wished for something that was not quite so content to remain inside the boundaries of classical form, but for what it sets it out to do, Idylle mit ertrinkendem Hund is indeed a beautiful and touching read, and definitely something I can recommend.

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