Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fames to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! Adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side, and now ‘tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: —do I wake or sleep?
Ode To A Nightingale– John Keats
Above is the last verse of Romantic poet John Keats’ “Ode To A Nightingale” and I am probably correct in guessing that not one novel has used the poetic themes of the inevitability of death, of pleasure being fleeting and of transience interspersed with sexual interplay. “What remains of my life down here, Sophie echoed, kneeling.” Although the scenes are more reminiscent of D.H Lawrence instead of “Fifty Shades of…”
“The Traveller of the Century” is a complex novel exploring history, metaphysics, death, language, translation, the sense of belonging, literary criticism and more in its 578 pages (my edition’s length). We begin with the mysterious Hans, a travelling translator, arriving in the ever shifting city of Wandernburg. His intent is to stay one night and travel onwards, but he becomes distracted by the city and its inhabitants and continually delays his departure – “I suppose travel has gone out of fashion, the new fashion is to arrive”. This is where we as readers become distracted as we fall for the charm of the ever shifting city and its mysterious inhabitants.
Hans befriends the nameless local organ grinder and spends hours contemplating nature and dreams in his cave. He then meets the alluring Sophie, who is engaged to Rudi, the not-so-smart but dashing son of a local textile magnate. Hans is eventually invited to Sophie’s Friday salon, where the local celebrities (Professor Mietter and Herr Urquiho the most prominent) debate history, literature, politics, Spanish, French and German senses of identity and of course philosophy. As Hans’ obvious intelligence and rebellious streak comes to the fore in these discussions his attraction to Sophie comes to the fore. Their affair being conducted in front of everybody but through the false view of a mirror (a mirror is also present during their love making meetings at the Inn where Hans stays).
…why do you travel so much? Let’s just say, Hans replied, that I am unable to live any other way. I think if you know where you’re going and what you’re going to do, you’re likely to end up not knowing who you are. My work is to translate, and I can do that anywhere. I try not to make plans, and let fate decide. For instance, a few weeks ago I left Berlin. I was thinking of going to Dessau and decided to stop off here for the night, and now look – by chance I am still here, enjoying talking to you. Things don’t happen by chance, said the organ grinder, we help them along, and if they turn out badly we blame chance. I’m sure you know why you’re still here, and I’m delighted you are! And when you leave you’ll know why you did so as well.
Even though the core of this novel may be presented as the affair between Hans and Sophie and their translations of great European literature together, it is the philosophical discussions and debates, pervaded by an air of the mystique of the city that traps you and the movement of the seasons that seeps into you as the reader. There are numerous sub plots, an unknown masked rapist who strikes in the ever shifting back alleys after dark, the local peasants fight for better working conditions, an affair between other characters, religious fervour and more. All keeping you on your toes.
As you can see from the quoted paragraph above the presented style of the discussions, not to mention people’s thoughts, are presented in a linear format and this requires persistence at times. Personally I didn’t find it distracting but did find some of the massive dissertations in the salon quite tedious, which is a reflection of my lack of knowledge of the topics being discussed more than their literary merit. Besides that criticism there were a few sections or sub plots that I thought irrelevant or simply out of place, however these were few and far between. The themes covered in this novel and so multi layered and frequent you could probably take to it numerous times and with 20 different coloured highlighters and still be no closer to uncovering all of the shifting nuances and themes.
The novel ends with a 4 page single sentence – something that wasn’t attempted in the previous 574 pages, again another distraction to this reader. A challenging read and one that will not suit all tastes. Of the three shortlisted novels that I have completed this is my least favourite, which does not mean I am critical of it, we just have a very solid list this year and I’m probably getting a bit long in the tooth for some of this brain food.