Book ninety-five of the year is finished: The Eternal Philistine by Ödön von Horváth. It’s a pre-war novel from Germany, recently translated and published by Melville House, and part of their Neversink Library. I’ve been reading it on the bus in the mornings (the full walking commute was abandoned in the summer on account of the unexpected hazards of early morning mosquitoes). I suppose it’s entirely appropriate to read it on transit, as the story is largely about a hapless guy named Kobler taking a train trip to Barcelona on the hopes of meeting a rich Egyptian woman. Kobler is entirely unlikable: he’s broke, he’s vulgar, and he’s opportunistic. Reading the book public transit, then, is even more fitting when you find yourself sitting across from a man wearing a tshirt that reads ‘I’m the guy you have to blow to get a drink around here.’
I admit that I did not enjoy the book as much as I would have hoped, though the introduction, written by Shalom Auslander, is bright and vibrant:
The story takes place in Munich, in the dark years following World War I. The German economy is depressed, and so are the people. The citizenry is struggling with the question of whether, through rapprochement, to join the greater Pan-Europe, or whether to go it alone (I think you know how that story ends). Nobody in this novel is particularly moral, or bright, or kind, or wise, least of all Kobler himself. After losing his job, defrauding a customer and impertinently ripping off the car’s real owner, Kobler decides, on the suggestion of his bitter xenophobic landlady, to go to the World’s Fair in Barcelona. His goal, incidentally, is not to gain a greater understanding of other cultures:
[...She] had convinced him that a considerably larger assortment of Egyptian women could be found at an exhibition of the entire world than in the most luxurious of luxury hotels.
Kobler’s got a thing for the Egyptian ladies, you see.
The thing he has for them is their money.
It’s a deeply dark book, also funny, but filled with the foreboding that comes from a writer working in pre-war 1930s Germany, who is alarmed by what he sees. To say ‘pre-war’ and ‘alarmed’ feels insufficient and incomplete. The book was written shortly before the humanness of a people collapsed into savagery and cruelty, when there was an inkling that something very wrong was about to happen and when depravity had its cold hand on the door knob. So to say that this book is not entirely enjoyable is not a mark against it, I suppose: it’s creepy because it is a story written on the cusp.
That was book ninety-five of the year.