Furtive desire in a house of secrets and lies
SOMETIMES people are required to justify the activity of reading ( and it is an activity, not the passive pursuit many think), as if it were a slightly shameful habit, like chewing fingernails or smoking, a habit made all the worse by one’s inability to conceal it in public.
Hence my slight sense of discomfort when reading The Spectacle Salesman’s Family on the train. It’s mandatory to read MX, OK to read the latest Harry Potter, at least on my line. But you can be an object of curiosity if you are holding something unknowable. As the bland cover of the proof copy of The Spectacle Salesman’s Family offered no hints to surrounding commuters, I was questioned.
‘‘ It’s about a Jewish family in 1960s Germany,’’ I answered. That didn’t quite close the door, as I’d hoped. ‘‘ You like reading, do you?’’ To someone standing in an overcrowded carriage stuffed with more iPods and mobile phones than there are people to use them, and performing internal muscular miracles in order to stay upright and hold on to their book, their bag and their patience all at once, that has to be the stupidest question you can ask.
But it was a salutary experience. That furtive sense we have when immersed in fiction, when — even on the train — we’re expected to be reading something accessible, useful or informative. Furtive desire infuses this strange but eventually beguiling first novel from Viola Roggenkamp, a German journalist who for 30 years has worked for leading weekly newspaper Die Zweit .
And by strange I also mean difficult, at least for the first 100 pages or so, during which the author develops character and voice but at the expense
of story. Adding to these problems are ones, I suspect, of translation, and also of simple punctuation, which makes hard work distinguishing between the narrator’s thoughts, her spoken words and the dialogue of other characters.
Eventually, though, a series of insubstantial but endearing glimpses into a German family’s life settles into a story that becomes increasingly tightly wrought, as we see the narrator, 13- yearold Fania Schiefer, slowly beginning to apprehend the context of her life. She and her older sister have been brought up to understand almost everything about their family’s histories on both sides, but very little about themselves. Consequently, even the fact that they are Jewish is a revelation.
‘‘ Are they Jews?’’ asks one of the girls in Fania’s class. Fania ‘‘ was instantly electrified. That word. There it was at last. And I had to keep a careful check on what they did with it.’’
Despite their mother’s anxious attentiveness, their most important desires and needs remain unmet. Poised between post- war paranoia and late ’ 60s political and sexual revolution, Fania comes to embody imminence. Roggenkamp exploits this tense balance of the teenage sensibility in scenes that usher the narrator through experiences that broaden her knowledge, for instance of her parents’ past as victims of Nazi racism and in particular her mother and grandmother’s suffering, but also confuse and sometimes restrict her understanding.
The Shiefer family is affectionate and tightly knit, united in its tragicomic obsession to buy the house they live in. Yet it is also full of secrets and lies. Thus Fania never really knows if her sister is having an affair with the despised landlord of the house, which he may or may not want to sell to them. And which he may have acquired illegally from a dispossessed Jewish family that fled to Brazil.
Ultimately, Fania surrenders to narrative and it is fiction in particular that forms the most important turning point in her life, signalled right at the end of the novel. An erotic though not shameful experience with the mother of a friend is centred on their mutual reading of Goethe’s 1809 novel Elective Affinities. This novel, which argues for a pre- determined chemical attraction between humans that supposedly governs all passion, marriage, conflict and free will, becomes Fania’s emotional, intellectual and even physical catalyst. All through her schooling, Fania is unable to write properly, but somehow, almost miraculously, her essay on the topic ‘‘ Write about a book you enjoyed reading’’ is perfectly formed, the best in the class. Her reading of Elective Affinities has been so fluid and attentive, it reveals that surrendering to the right book can inspire the right words. It arouses within her a voice. It’s a nice little justification for the activity of reading, for those who desire it. Debra Adelaide’s new novel, The Household Guide to Dying, will be published by Picador in June.