Ingo Schulze - Oranges and Angel
At the risk of splashing about a level of erudition unnecessary for this review, Henry James once said of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace that it was a “loose baggy monster”, a comment which seems to wend its way into all manner of articles, essays and reviews, this one included. In essence, it is the judgement of an author prone to his own difficult, baroque, elliptic works, criticising another writer for daring to encompass it all. Tolstoy wanted to write everything – James wanted to capture the inner machinations of emotions, ethics, morality and thought. Neither are necessarily the right way to approach a piece of fiction, and both certainly have their place.
Ingo Schulze's Oranges and Angel, however, is loose and flabby, and on top of that it lacks the attendant merit of being one of the greatest works ever written and a supreme example of the nineteenth century's astonishingly furtive experiments with the possibilities of the novel as an art form and its abilities to comment directly upon the problems of the human condition. Oranges and Angel is, instead, a loosely packaged travel narrative, tied together with the very frayed twine that is Ralf, a lush turned sober turned, perhaps, lush again – it is a family outing, a travelogue. It doesn't reach greatness but nor does it strive for it, and there is a great deal of fat attached to its stunted carcass.
Schulze introduces the narrator, a harpish, somewhat shrill character who primly and prudishly casts aspersions upon others while failing to reflect upon themselves. Ralf is the great menace, a character who seems appealing at first, but then become fouls, odious, a horror: “Just seeing his toothbrush next to mine revolted me, and suddenly it was a real effort to use the same toilet he did.” The crime? Ralf played with the narrator's children, ate some sandwiches, and borrowed a car.
The primary problem of the novel stems from the narrator's inability to properly examine the true hero of the story – Ralf – and to place him within his context. Some of the great works of literature have relied upon the narrator's ability to observe the larger than life characters who inhabit their novels – think Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima in Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives; think Von Humboldt Fleisher in Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift; think Carlo Campanati in Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers - These characters are incapable of being narrators, they are too powerful to be shackled by the narrative constraints of perspective, too elemental to have their thoughts presented in text, too huge and large and immense – they are the supremely observed. Ralf hints at this, his character nibbles at it, but the meanness and smallness of the narrator ensures that he never breaks free. At times, Ralf seems to be one of those impossibly magnetic people who compel us to do tremendous things – but too often he falls flat, a victim to the insipid viewpoint of a narrator unable to muster the vocabulary to describe him.
To that end, Schulze is at his best when his narrator is focused not upon the important aspect of his story – Ralf – but the dressings, the trimmings, the borders. Here, describing Naples:
Naples is a city that squanders its beauty, and not just in criminality and decay. All of a sudden the most splendid church emerges, but you can barely see the façade, let alone get a sense of it in its entirety. Its real splendor is often first visible from a back courtyard. Nowhere is the air so saturated with smells, and the air changes with every step you take. You are given the once-over, patted and jostled, silence doesn't exist.
And on it goes. Careful, methodical craftsmanship – a city is created as the sentences mount up. Schulze is a fine writer, when he is writing about the upholstery of things. Given the characters in this story – a pathetic narrator, Ralf who wishes to break free of the constraints but can't, a few children thrown in purely to be mentioned and forgotten, etc – it's a wonder anything happens at all. These characters don't so much pull against each other as float through their holiday, experiencing the events that most everyone experiences, and falling into the same troubles as everyone else. One suspects that a good ten or eleven of the twenty-one pages of the story could have been excised without any loss but a considerable gain to the patience of the reader.
The particulars don't matter. They don't. A family wanders about Italy. Read John Cheever for the same. Read Goethe for the same. Read any number of authors – why read Schulze? For Ralf – but Ralf doesn't deliver. Instead, the story limps toward an ending, having created a number of interesting scenes in which the splendour of Italy (and it would take a terrible author to ruin Italy) shine, but the people in it do not. Ingo Schulze is, one suspects, a fine writer, and there is much potential here, but the story got away from him. Whatever he thought it was, it wasn't, and whatever we are led to believe it is, it very much isn't.
Oranges and Angel by Ingo Schulze is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011, include:
---United Kingdom: Welsh: Roberts, Wiliam Owen - The Professionals
---United Kingdom: British: Mantel, Hilary - The Heart Fails Without Warning
---Turkish: Üldes, Ersan - Professional Behaviour
---Swiss: Stefan, Verena - Doe a Deer
---Spanish: Catalan: Ibarz, Mercé - Nela and the Virgins
---Spanish: Castilian: Vila-Matas, Enrique - Far From Here
---Slovenian: Jančar, Drago - The Prophecy
---Serbian: Arsenijević, Vladimir - One Minute: Dumbo's Death
---Russian: Gelasimov, Andre - The Evil Eye
---Romanian: Teodorovici, Lucian Dan - Goose Chase
---Portuguese: Tavares, Gonçalo M. - Six Tales
---Polish: Tokarczuk, Olga - The Ugliest Woman in the World
---Norwegian: Grytten, Frode - Hotel by a Railroad
---Netherlands: Uphoff, Manon - Desire
---Montenegrin: Spahić, Ognjen - Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead
---Moldovan: Ciocan, Iulian - Auntie Frosea
---Macedonian: Minevski, Blaže - Academician Sisoye's Inaugural Speech
---Lithuanian: Kalinauskaitė, Danutė - Just Things
---Lichtensteiner: Sprenger, Stefan - Dust
---Latvian: Ikstena, Nora - Elza Kuga's Old-Age Dementia
---Italian: Candida, Marco - Dream Diary
---Irish: Barry, Kevin - Doctor Sot
---Irish: Dhuibhne, Éilís Ní - Trespasses
---Hungaian: Krasznahorkai, László - The Bill
Index of titles by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Index of short stories under review
David J. Single