Saturday, January 21, 2023

House of the Nine Devils


House of the Nine DevilsHouse of the Nine Devils by Johannes Urzidil
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I write this review, I am listening to Lech Jankowski's "Pause in Shadows" from his album Street of Crocodiles . This is done with intent, as I want to set the proper mood for this review and felt that Jankowski, whose music has been used by the Brothers Quay, echoes the Central/Eastern European tradition in his music. Though Jankowski is Polish and author Johannes Urzidil was a German-Czech-Jewish writer born in Prague, I see some tenuous connections. Jankowski's music, as I have said previously, has been used by the Brothers Quay. The Brothers Quay filmed a short based on Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles, Schulz has been called "The Polish Kafka," and Kafka and Jankowski knew each other and spent time together (along with Gustav Meyrink). So pardon my syncretism as I create my own little artificial Central European world in my head. I live here, so I get to make the connections.

The artifact-qua-artifact of this Twisted Spoon Press book is solid. The hardcover is elegant, with a silk ribbon spilling from the headband for convenience in marking pages. It is just the exact right size for a book, in my opinion: 5.5" x 7.5" and about .75" thick. It really sits in the hand perfectly. The cover, a negative photo of what I presume to be the titular "House of the Nine Devils" is understated, but complex enough to draw one in. I will definitely be buying more Twisted Spoon books in the future, especially at the price point. That's a lot of great book for $23.00.

And what about what's inside? Let's explore. I should begin by saying that, while I bought the book thinking it was fiction, the autobiographical elements tell me that it's not. Or, if it is fiction, it is extremely well-realized. One feels immersed in Urzidil's life throughout. For those who despise non-fiction, I say give it a chance. You'll find that often, as they say, truth is stranger than fiction, and there is enough of a dose of strangeness throughout to whet the appetite of those who love "The Weird".

The title story, "House of the Nine Devils," tells the uncanny tale of a house that might have been the residence of both Faust and Tycho, or maybe neither. A mysterious visitor and his portrait appear and disappear, and the house itself may be the cause, but maybe not. We are never quite sure and this unsurety places the story somewhere between quaint mystery and unsettling frisson. I was reminded, ever so slightly, of the strangeness of Danielewski's House of Leaves. A fabulous start to this volume!

"Vacation in Flames" is far more beautiful than the title indicates; even sublime. Childhood innocence is somehow betrayed and upheld at the same time, with a profound and moving respect for beauty being the tie that binds. It is a haunting tale, but in a light, lovely way, a gentle haunting, if you will, with an ephemeral character who may or may not be a ghost. This story will stick with ne for some time to come.

It was with "New Years Commotion" that I began to suspect that the book was not fictional. I'm still not completely sure if "New Years Commotion" is autobiographical or not. The narrator claims so, but is the narrator a fictional entity or Urzidil himself? Regardless, the author has captured, quite effectively, something that has happened to most of us: being a child who has lost something and is desperately searching for it, along with the many little steps of experience that come with that.

"Porter Kubat" threads its way through Bohemian society among military officers, ballerinas, porter-messengers, and a young man who becomes entangled by his own guilty conscience in a labyrinthine societal maze of which he has little understanding. Like others in this volume, it is a tale of waning innocence, of the shocks of life, all enmeshed in Prague's streets, theaters, and barracks. A sublime story.

"We Stood Honor Guard" is not a story, but a powerful essay (clearly non-fiction) on the causes of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The relevant argument holds relevance to any historical or contemporary empire, including the one in which I now live: The United States of America. This is critical to "keeping things together". Simple, yet genius.

The question of why the Francisco-Josephinian era (including the brief reign of Charles) actually came to an end repeatedly elicits all manner of possible historical, political and other explanations, enough to fill up thick books and which, taken on their own, may ring true, but that nevertheless mean very little. For they are only symptoms of an overall attitude. And this overall attitude in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was characterized by utter lovelessness, by the absolute lack of kindness or the willingness to ever do anything for anyone except oneself, by the indescribable callousness and selfishness of everyone. It was the ignominy of an all-embracing mutual lovelessness that ultimately destroyed that era. And if one objects that selfishness is fundamental to being human, is a part of our individual social and political nature, the answer to this is simple: it's exactly what ruins human beings and empires, what has always ruined them, and what will keep on ruining them in the future, however rich or powerful they might happen to be at times. As Heinrich Mann once so magnificently expounded during the First World War, this was what ruined the Second French Empire, what ruined czarist Russia, Wilhelmine and Hitlerian Germany, Britain's world empire, the list could go on and on, backwards and forwards, as long as it is selfishness that underlies the political rationales ostensibly causing these collapses - ostensibly because empires do not fall apart due to external causes but begin to crumble from within. These may be truisms. But, as Goethe once remarked, we have to keep on repeating the truth, since the falsehoods all around us are constantly being repeated as well.

In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, everyone hated and no one loved. Everyone sought their own advantage, no one was willing to make a sacrifice. At best they made a deal and cheated their way around it. How was such an empire supposed to hold together?

A long, seemingly meandering coming-of-age story, "The Last Tombola" starts on the most banal of notes, a father's request to his 13-year-old son to deliver a letter to the father's superior. The story "jumps," then ends on an unexpected note that colors the entirety of the story, flipping a switch on that reveals highlights and shadows from the previous 29 pages. It's done naturally, as well, without artifice.

In "The Assassin," Urzidil's encounter with Gavrilo Princip, who changed world history by triggering the events that led to World War I and hence, World War 2, etc.) turns from a chance encounter of morbid curiosity to a rather erudite philosophical analysis of world events and those behind them. Frankly, his implications are horrifying when one thinks of Trumpism, not because of Trump himself, but because of the impetus behind him, the bleak social fuel for the Trump movement's engine.

Again, I don't know if Urzidil is writing fiction or memoir here. But "A Night of Terror" in which he and another soldier spend the night in a friend's apartment hiding from police will stick with me, either way. If it's a fictional story, I wish it was real. If it's truthful, then truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction. Perhaps it lies in that strange limnal zone in-between, much like the narrator.

"One Last Deed" takes place in a real-dystopia: Nazi-occupied Prague. It's a dark reminiscence punctuated by the light of laughter. Old enmity turns to new friendship and provides a gift from the past, a gift that Urzidil would have liked to forget, a gift that ultimately saves his life. This is a powerful, good story about being human.

"Step and Half" starts and spends most of its pages and energy in describing Urzidil's relationship with his step-mother, recounting her acidic personality and comical mannerisms. I won't say what "Half" represents, but I will say that the story takes a melancholy and poignant turn once this element is introduced. This has caused me deep introspection.

Resignation, melancholy, and triumph swirl around "Paternal Prague," and I am struck by the vision I have, while looking into that whirlpool, of my relationship with my own dead father. Though I haven't had Urzidil's self-same experience in life, I read about his relationship and feelings toward his father, and I understand him clearly, as if we had inhabited the same emotional space for a time.

The collection (translated into English for the first time, incidentally) is profoundly moving. I had bought the book largely because I am hungry for more work by Central and Eastern European authors in translation. I am being fed. Well fed.

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