A Comedy of Letters
by Michael Krüger
Translated by John Hargraves
Harcourt, 192 pp., $23
Tucked in alongside a passport, this urbane sliver of literary black humor would be perfect for reading en route to the Frankfurt Book Fair, arming attendees with a few cannily entertaining views of the scholarly publishing world to pass along during the upcoming hospitality hours in tribute to a distinguished native son. A prize-winning poet and novelist, Michael Krüger has been head of the Hanser Verlag publishing house, and editor of the journal Akzente for many years, and knows whereof he writes in this perilously sharp-eyed tale.
An unnamed narrator has arrived from Germany in Turin for the funeral of Rudolf, a novelist and scholar who has led an academic institute housed in one of the city's urban palazzos for 20 years. Observing the service, he sees others who have lost a colleague, while he has lost his only friend.
Atop the institute, Rudolf has occupied a penthouse apartment with a rooftop terrace that shelters a motley crew of animals, seeming to belie the writer's irascible and contradictory nature, including a widowed peacock, a hedgehog, chickens of both barnyard and exotic varieties, the occasional migrating mallard who drops in, and dwarf rabbits all named after characters from Proust. Presiding over this peaceable kingdom is an aged and malodorous dog named Caesar, now mourning his departed master, who somehow maintains the menagerie's one abiding rule, that eating each other is verboten.
Retired from his own career at the fringes of literary academia, the narrator is also Rudolf's literary executor, charged with assessing the value and the destiny of Rudolf's life work. Ensconced in a lurching armchair, he is soon shuffling through cartons of manuscripts and research under the wary eye of Marta, Rudolf's overbearing assistant of many years, hoping both to "get to the core of the real-life drama" of Rudolf's life, which he suspects Marta of wanting to conceal, and to locate The Testament, Rudolf's last unpublished work, a novel the writer has intended to end all novels.
At night, leading him through the penthouse on clicking heels, Marta has introduced its rooms in a succession of strobe-light views, flipping light switches on and off. A comedy of manners as much as letters, The Executor casts a cool eye on every foible of personality fostered amid academic and intellectual grandiosity, from backbiting scholars belittling each -others' careers, to academic colleagues conniving to stiff each other over the lunch bill, and the damning use of the word "interesting" to describe a work precisely when it is not. Characterization doesn't count for much, so that Rudolf's lifelong marriage to Elsa, hospitalized since his death with a stroke, is measured mostly in terms of her role as the rooftop gardener.
Youth is also given short shrift. A suicide at 60, Rudolf never liked holding seminars or reading his students' papers; in his view, nothing "except how not to dress and feed yourself" was to be learned from the young. Small children are mentioned at the funeral only for the action their restless shenanigans can stir into the scene, and all students remain voiceless, just hanging out and smoking in the institute halls, except for three tittering Thai girls who show up in the mornings to feed the animals.
When certain unsavory revelations start to arise out of the boxes, Rudolf's intellectual legacy is the first thing threatened. Then an unexpected triangle of competing women surfaces, including not just Elsa and the officious Marta, but Eva, an art historian known to both men since their student days. Remembered by the narrator as a put-upon feminist of "self-indulgent passivity," and dismissed most of the time by Rudolf for a dubious intellect, Eva has in fact been in an amorous correspondence with the dead man that suggests they were on the verge of beginning a new life together.
Rudolf's motive for suicide is thus in question when a fresh household sorrow leads Marta to spend a night in the narrator's bed. By next morning, however, the only impression she has left is of the sound of her teeth grinding in her sleep, "as if trying to pulverize her dreams in a pestle"; and in a long reflection on the relationship of Rudolf and Eva, the narrator now recalls in an offhanded way that he may once have been her lover, too.
In a suave and stately careen between hermetic memories of Rudolf and the predatory interests of the three women, the narrator also recalls his recent communications with his friend, consisting mostly of long-distance phone calls Rudolf made during his lecture tours, in-between delivering the same paper under various titles that he'd been delivering for years. In the small hours of the night, the writer would describe his crotchety struggle to beat the odds of perceiving his own work as reduced to "'a boneyard of trivialities.'"
Increasingly Rudolf had become a joyless gambler, resorting to all sorts of new tricks to outsmart the fate that had dealt him a losing hand, to beat the impossible odds against his being able to complete his Testament.
Events, meanwhile, grow increasingly haphazard, with only a thread of intellectual gamesmanship persisting through the sinew of John Hargraves's lean and elastic prose. And when it turns up, what will The Testament actually be: a novel to end all novels, or a literary parlor game in which the narrator might unknowingly disassemble the work beyond reassembling in the course of pursuing the writer's carefully contrived clues?
Embedded in this worldly and comic scanning of his lifelong professional ecosystem is more than a trace of suggestion that this writer might also be clambering through a rat's nest of crafty verbal manipulations while running out of intellectual steam. And writers of a certain age who sense any susceptibility to late-onset writer's block might prefer to keep their reading glasses aimed a little short of its mocking, if somewhat scary, journey through all their doubts, delusions, and stubborn down-to-the-last-instant dreams.
Edith Alston is an editor and writer in New York.