We've all read numerous novels that deal with the subject of death, however as we know most of them present it in a nostalgic form or a reflection on one’s life or the hardship facing those dealing with the inevitable. It is rare to come across one that treats the subject as a common thread throughout, the ways we deal with it, the feelings, the avoidance of the topic.
Enter “Alice”, more a collection of five short stories than a novel - the sections are titled “Misha”, “Conrad”, “Richard”, Malte” and “Raymond”. Each story has Alice as the linking character and each story’s title being the name of the person who dies. Interestingly all male characters!
This is a bleak, dark, but at the same time enlightening (if that is possible) work. Death is presented as it would generally occur, visiting a person in hospital who is dying from cancer, helping a friend who is looking after a housebound invalid though their last days, out and about and talking one day, gone the next or even suicide. All of these subjects get a clinical viewing from Judith Hermann.
If you like your novels to be embellished with enough peripherals to take your mind away from the reality of death, then this one probably isn’t for you. Even though it does contain some quite vivid descriptions and passages of routine life (drinking a beer, walking through the park, stacking a dishwasher) those sections specifically target the futility of the characters involved and their inability to address the elephant in the room – the dying person.
They brushed their teeth. Standing next to each other at the sink on a blue towelling mat, in front of a mirror that had gold and silver shells glued to its frame. They saw each other in the mirror, their different faces.
Misha would like this, Alice thought, to see us like this. He’d be very happy, he’d say, Well, you see? – He knows. He’s got to know.
Good night, Alice said. Sleep well, Maja.
Yes, Maja said, good night. You sleep well, too, Alice.
Of course the title character Alice is the lone common thread, along with various descriptions of insects (which I must admit I didn’t get), and her relationship with each of the dying, or dead, characters is also a common theme. To such an extent I did wonder if the fifth story would link the whole together. No spoiler though so I won’t be telling you if that happens or not.
We’ve set a date for the funeral. In three weeks.
And what if Richard hasn’t died by then, Alice asked.
Oh, by then he’ll have managed that, Margaret said.
They’d discussed the subject two weeks ago; Margaret and Richard had talked about it in front of Alice. Alice has listened. At first she thought it was indecent, unseemly, to be talking with Richard about his own funeral, but instead it turned out to be the natural thing to do. Not unseemly. Richard had said he wanted his friends to carry his coffin, not the gravediggers. No sermon by a minister, no quotations. If the weather’s good, that would please him. Margaret had taken notes on the stationery pad: Whom to call, who should be there, no one should stay away. The food: sandwiches with plum jam, meatballs, and beer.
As you can see from the two short quotes above, this is a stark, tight and fact driven story, to the extent that quotation marks are not used. I could say this is “very Germanic in style” but I haven’t read anywhere near enough German literature to make such a comment. This is an intriguing look at a taboo subject, one that each and every one of us will go through, being treated in a clinical and open manner. For that alone it has to be commended. All up though I much preferred the two previous novels I have read from the same shortlist, “From The Mouth Of The Whale” and “New Finnish Grammar”, however this is still a solid entry on what is turning out to be a very enjoyable reading shortlist.