Book Review: The End of the Novel (1991)
by Alan F. Zundel
“The End of the Novel” is a brief and amusing book that’s not for all tastes. When I saw it the title piqued my curiosity, as I have been struggling to get a novel written. Turns out it is about a novelist struggling to finish his novel. I had to read it!
The author, Michael Krüger, is apparently a well-regarded poet in Germany. I know nothing about contemporary German literature, so had never heard of him before. (I can’t read German either; the copy I had was translated into English by Ewald Osers.)
The opening line is a killer: “I let him die.”
The first paragraph then goes on for a few more tantalizing sentences before reaching a long, convoluted, comma infested jungle of a sentence that I had to read more than once to make any sense of it. Was this due to the clause-ridden nature of the German language, the writer’s stylistic sensibility, or an awkward translation?
None of the above. Turns out it is a parody of the writing style of a ludicrously pompous novelist, the character who is narrating the “story.” I put story in quotation marks because the plot is pretty thin. This is also part of the satire.
The nameless narrator has decided to kill off the main character in the novel he has been slaving over for several years. He decides on suicide by poison, and recounts his laborious process of creating the proper literary effect with the death. By the end of the first chapter we also learn the author’s motive for this decision. The hero has to die, he tells us, “so as to return my freedom to me.”
The author goes on to describe the trivial events of the following days, as he observes scenes in the little farming village he has holed up in and encounters various other characters for whom he always has hidden contempt. All of this is fodder for his writing, in which he will contrive to bring out the deeper meaning of it all.
Instead of finishing, re-reading and doing the final revision of his novel, as he planned, he finds himself cutting out sections, pages, and eventually whole chapters, always with a sense of relief. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that by the end of the book he has abandoned his novel with a feeling of triumph.
What keeps you reading is not any suspense about how it will end, but rather the humorous juxtaposition of this character’s inflated self-regard and the ordinariness of his life and behavior. I smiled a lot reading it, knowing how writing can get you bound up in your own thoughts as though they were precious jewels, when often they are simply screens behind which life is passing you by.
“The clouds over the lake had pale-pink translucent edges, from afar came the whirring noise of a lawnmower over the hump of the little hill beyond which lay the village, on the narrow path between the property where I worked and the reed-grown lakeshore stood the day’s first pair of lovers, gazing, while rocking in close embrace, so peacefully into each other’s eyes that they could not possibly have any inkling of the dramatic decisions that were being made a hundred yards from them. I coughed persistently to order to dispel the image of the lovers, which interfered with my formulation of the final sentences.”
What a couple of sentences! He starts with a poetically observant depiction of a lovely scene and the most engaging of human relationships, a real novelist’s recreation of life, only to end by focusing on himself and the importance of his own writing. The beauty and hazards of writing are nicely captured here.
I found this stuff to be funny, provoking a lot of smiles and an occasional semi-embarrassed laugh of self-recognition. Writers have a lot in common. If you are a writer, whether professional or amateur, you will probably see something of yourself in here—hopefully in exaggerated form.
The book is, as I said, brief, at just over a hundred pages, so the joke doesn’t wear too thin before the ending. I finished it in a couple of sittings and enjoyed just about every page.
Why I chanced across this particular book—about a would-be writer at odds with his own creation—at this particular moment—while I am contemplating my own avoidance of my incomplete novel—is one of those mysteries of life that may or may not have profound meaning.
But then, isn’t that what a writer does: looks for profound meaning when the profundity of life is forever beyond the reach of our words.