Reviewed by Scott Doyle
This is a curious collection of nine stories that engage with their dry humor and absurdist play, but also distance with their tendency toward abstraction, and the absence of a fully inhabited physical, sensual world. They often read less as stories, and more as a mixture of parable and philosophical tract and comic monologue—all poured into a soup pot and stirred by the likes of Calvino or Kafka or Bruno Schulz. Distinctively designed by the boutique Los Angeles Press Les Figues, the book even looks like a pamphlet. Each page is split, with the English translation above and the original German below.
The first story, 23 December, begins as a straightforward search for a Christmas tree (in that season “full of anticipation in which hope puts its feet so doggedly against darkness”); but then veers off into existential parable, the woods full of wandering pilgrims looking for lost things.
Dyke Crest Lane No. 1 is one of the more emotionally engaging stories, and follows the afternoon of a young schoolboy with a mad crush on a girl, Ingrid. For him, “life is made up of nothing but heartbeat and the wild desire to meet her at last, or even just see her.” The story broaches philosophical concerns as well (the boy is influenced by his older brother’s pre-occupation with “the spiritual and mental currents that flow between human beings”), but feels securely grounded in character.
The Construction Worker is perhaps the book’s most successful piece of absurdism. “There he is again with his hammer-drill, and I might have known he would be,” the story begins. A single construction worker haunts the narrator his entire life: drilling holes in the hospital’s delivery wing during his birth; tearing down school walls while as a boy he is attempting to learn physics; and later in life even following him on holiday. In desperation, the man and his family retire to the countryside—where (at least our narrator imagines) his tormenter shifts tactics and orchestrates the passage of mooing cows and cawing crows.
In The Churchgoer, the narrator contrasts his own profoundly mediocre existence with those who might be viewed as examples of success, briefly considering Goethe and Shakespeare, and (in a hilarious passage) Winfried Posch, the inventor of the screw seal. Ultimately he determines that only one man, Jesus Christ, can be declared a complete success; and he embarks on an investigation of those qualities that set Christ apart by studying His representation in churches around the world. The story is sad and funny in equal parts.
Elsewhere, philosophical abstraction gets the better of the stories—such as in A Talk with Thomas (which also takes place in a church), where the narrator ruminates on the “riddle of human existence” finding a “self-evident expression.” Or the title story, where a character remarks how “our entire lives consist of unintentionalities.” At such times the voice became, for me, just too disembodied; the story observed from too great a remove; the world of the story not inhabited in a satisfying way.
It should be noted that a certain theoretical bent is present in the larger series of which A Happy Man is a part. Each year Les Figues Press issues a subscription “TrenchArt” series in which works by two prose writers and two poets, as well as a more theoretical introductory book, form a “larger discussion of contemporary aesthetics.” A little dry to my taste; but those with an interest in poetics and aesthetics are encouraged to check out other offerings. Each Les Figues title is introduced by a noted author and critic. A Happy Man features an introduction by Judith Freeman cleverly written in the manner of a Thormählen story.
Publisher: Les Figues
Publication Date: 2008
First collection?: No
Author bio: Born in Germany in 1945, Axel Thormählen has lived in Sweden since 1968, writing fiction and working as a translator. He has published three novels in German and one in Swedish, and two story collections in Swedish. Six of the stories in A Happy Man were previously published in English as The Water Tower (Holmby Press).
Read an interview with Axel Thormählen
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