Traveller of the Century is set in post-Napoleonic Germany, after 1815, at one of the great turning points in European history, and in a country at the centre of Europe, struggling to come to terms with new ideas conflicting with tradition and custom. It opens with a man, Hans, travelling by coach towards Wandernberg, a town of shifting boundaries and situation, “sit. approx. between the ancient states of Saxony and Prussia”. It is winter, Hans is cold, and he breaks his journey at Wandernberg, at an inn. The innkeeper is Herr Zeit, whose name (Mr Time) underlines one of the themes of the novel. It is some time before we learn the name of the inn, and we never learn Hans’ surname. He is addressed as Herr Hans by most of the characters, placing him in an intermediate position between the servants and the aristocrats whom he meets. Much of the novel is taken up with the conversation at a salon at which Sophie, daughter of a minor aristocrat, presides.
It’s a novel that can be read in several ways. But the main interest is that the characters are discussing poetry, philosophy, literature, the rule of law, economic systems, and so on. You get drawn into thinking about these issues. Sometimes you’ve read the book or poem referred to, or know something about the topic, and feel a glow of cultural satisfaction, but sometimes you’ve never heard of it. Sometimes you go away and look it up. The novel is rich in its depiction of relationships, and you have to think about what X meant when he said what he did to Y.
It is a long novel (584 pages), packed with metaphor, metonymy and allegory, and indeed almost any figure of speech known to man (and, no doubt, many that I don’t know of, and therefore didn’t pick up). Readers and reviewers have suggested that it would have been improved by the removal or curtailment of certain parts. But everyone suggests different parts to be excised. Some would curtail the discussion at the salon, some would excise the organ grinder, a fount of folk wisdom who lives in a cave and whose dog has its own dialogue, and for some the murder of a series of young women and the comic policemen who investigate is extraneous. You can take away from this novel what you like. But Neuman is setting out the beliefs and concerns of the people he depicts. It is 1820, or thereabouts. There are resonances with the present day, but they are incidental. Europe is what she is today because of her history, and you are bound to see the past in the present.
At the time of the novel the Napoleonic Code, a liberal code based on the rights envisaged by the French Revolution, and which had been applied in countries under French rule, was being set aside. The German states reverted to their previous codes, a much less liberal legal system, after 1815. Young men like Hans regretted this loss, even though they had become disillusioned with Napoleon. There’s one scene which sets out one of the themes of the book. Hans is talking about the years 1811 to 1814 when he was at university, at Jena. “The question I kept asking myself then, and which I still ask myself, was – how the devil did we go from the French Revolution to the dictatorship of Metternich.”… “Or, more generally, how the devil had Europe gone from the Declaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen to the Holy Alliance.” Well, we know now. We’ve seen it many times since. To every revolution there is an equal and opposite counter-revolution. Well it isn’t quite like that. Each revolution leaves behind some traces of itself.
Andrés Neuman is a writer, poet, and translator, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who was taken to Granada, in Spain, where he now lives, when he was very young. He’s a philologist with a degree in Spanish Philology from the University of Granada, where he also taught. Could only a philologist could have written this novel? Hans is a translator and a philologist. ‘Philology,’ Sophie said, bewildered. ‘Didn’t you say philosophy?’ ‘No, no, philology … and he goes on and on. Poor Sophie. Interesting that Professor Mietter, another habitué of the salon, and Hans’ verbal sparring partner, is a Doctor of Philology. Small world. (Philology is the study of language in written sources; it is a combination of literary criticism, history of words, and linguistics.)
The novel was translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. Caistor is a British journalist and translator who has twice been awarded the Valle-Inclán prize for Spanish translation. Garcia is also a writer and professional translator. The fact that they are experienced, professional translators is particularly important, given the complexity of the structure and the writing. For example the dialogue is written without the use of speech marks so that speech is embedded in the narrative, and with the selective use of parentheticals to mark off different speakers. Caistor and Garcia said, in an interview, that they understood that Neuman’s intention was to mingle voices, rather than write linear. And although it’s not the common practice among English-speaking writers, it is closer to the way a group of people talk. Just you listen to a discussion: two people talking at the same time, interrupting each other, and interweaving comment and riposte. If you wrote it down, it would be just like this book, and it is how beginners at writing novels often write, before they learn ‘better’ at some creative writing class.
Hans embarks on a love affair with Sophie, who is betrothed to one of the more important local aristocrats, Rudi Wilderhaus. In an interview Caistor and Garcia say that they discussed certain aspects of the novel with the author, and Neuman insisted that the love-making scenes should not be prettified in any way, as he wanted to underline the difference between his approach and the traditional romantic nineteenth-century novelistic tradition. The descriptions of love-making are explicit and graphic. However, if a novel has two characters who are beginning a relationship, it’s dishonest not to deal, to some extent, with the nature of that relationship. This is where Fifty Shades of Grey, and James Bond or Dan Brown novels are dishonest. Of course, it’s a matter of judgement, both by the writer and reader, where the bar should be set. I think Neuman got it right, and I think DH Lawrence would have agreed, perhaps envious that he couldn’t be quite as explicit as Neuman.
Caistor said that something he particularly liked was the insistence in the novel on the way that European culture was interconnected, and that comes across very strongly. So we’re into intertextuality: the notion that a novel reflects and references other novels. Mere allusion is not enough. Hans refers to Goethe’s novel, Elective Affinities, which deals with the unsettling effect of the arrival of a young woman on a long-married couple. Adultery is implied, rather than explicitly described. Later novels, such as Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Effie Briest, those great 19th century depictions of adultery, explore the ambiguities of married womens’ experiences. We know both Fontane, who wrote Effic Briest, and Flaubert, knew Elective Affinities, and it seems likely that Neuman had read Madame Bovary, at least. Hans and Sophie are not, technically, committing adultery, but what they do is much the same. There is an interesting frisson between Hans and Elsa, Sophie’s servant, an intelligent although uneducated woman, full of regret that she cannot read the love letters that she carries between Hans and Sophie.
The epigraph page starts with a quotation from Wilhelm Müller’s poem, Der Leiermann, the organ grinder. In Germany and Austria the profession of organ grinder was at times reserved by law for ex-soldiers, always old men, and often seen to symbolize Death. Der Leiermann was the last poem of Der Winterreise, the winter journey, and set to music by Franz Schubert. The song is very different to the rest of the song cycle, desperately sad, and written at the end of his life by Schubert when he knew his health was failing. Hans arrives in winter at Wandernburg, his own winter journey, but things look up. Spring arrives. He meets Sophie, and all is well for a time. So it is for Anna Karenina, she meets Vronsky. Madame Bovary escapes from the boredom of her father’s farm. Effi Briest, a very young girl, is married off to an aristocrat and gains her own establishment. Sophie likewise is to marry an aristocrat. But then it all goes wrong for these women. Vronsky is not what he seemed, the doctor disappointed Madame Bovary. Effi Briest is neglected by her Prussian lord, and Sophie finds how much more satisfactory Hans is than Rudi as a lover. Philip Larkin told us that sexual intercourse began in 1963. He meant if began in writing, in novels and in poems, fostered by the acquittal of the publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but it had been discovered many times before. It is there in all of these novels.
One thing that connects Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Effie Briest, Goethe’s Elective Affinities and Traveller of the Century is the sense that all of these women have that they must achieve something before death calls, and their dissatisfaction with the life they have. There are differences and similarities in how they get there. Or fail to get there. The level of self-destruction they achieve varies, and it’s interesting to see why. Sophie has said how sad she was that she could not go to university at Halle to study and there’s a very telling scene in which Sophie speaks of her mother., and she says “From what I have been told she was rather pretty, and, like all women from here, domestically minded, fond of saving on clothes and staying at home.”… “When I was a child and I asked people about her, they would say “Your mother was a great beauty!” so I ended up assuming no one considered her particularly intelligent”. What a terrible thing for a clever woman to have to say about her mother.
But perhaps Sophie doesn’t destroy herself. At the end of the novel Hans and Sophie have parted, everything left up in the air, nothing resolved, and Hans has gone away in a coach. Later that day Sophie is waiting for a coach? Where is she going?