by Marlene Streeruwitz
translated by Katharina Rout
Published by Oolichan Books
252 pages, 1998
Buy it online
Running on Empty
Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman
The first time I visited England, the motorways overwhelmed me. Somehow, Austen, Bronte, and even Hardy had not prepared me for eight to 12-lane modern freeways with no official speed limit and fast expensive cars flashing past my right shoulder. I realized quickly that I was the victim of my limited education, that the England of my imagination had died with Virginia Woolf in 1941. Then, last fall, someone serendipitously steered me to John Berger, an English writer living on the continent. I read Berger's To the Wedding about a modern European family, the father motorcycling through Greece, the mother coming by train from Prague, the young couple in their van wending their way through France and Italy, to a very fin de millennium wedding. More, more, I begged. Give me More.
Marlene Streeruwitz' Seductions. (with a period) is More. It is a novel of modern Europe, translated from the German by Katharina Rout, and published in this attractive edition by Oolichan Books who purchased the English language rights.
The cover blurb, which I always read before deciding whether a writer new to me will be of interest, cites a quotation from Streeruwitz interviewed in Der Spiegel: "The real life of women... has had no place in art, and these entertaining books for the beach endlessly con us about this fact. The everyday life of women is... not accepted as literary material. With my text, I wanted to break this taboo... " The real life of women, art, literary material, taboo -- all hooked me. The quotation makes me want to counter immediately with Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro, whose stories deal with just such subject matter.
My reaction is a tip-off. If Streeruwitz is parodying "beach books," she is assuming knowledge of a genre unfamiliar to this reader. When she inserts "Part 3, Women's Years" on the title page, I have to ask to have the reference explained to me, fearing that cultural differences and my ignorance of European writing, put me out of the loop. But there are no other parts, this is not a serial; the novel is a reaction, an iconoclast's revenge. Even the title, suggestive of bodice-rippers, is in jest. The only seductions are intellectual, and the heroine declines, fights back.
Seductions. The period is deliberate. "Streeruwitz is adamant about the period in the title. It signals the unexpected. It interrupts the flow -- we, as readers, want to go with the flow, with the familiar -- the period stops us in our tracks," Oolichan tells me. I get the point, but really, is it worth all the effort? In this reactivity, this choosing to drive counter to the flow, there is a generation gap. Just do it, my contemporaries say. Just do it! Forget reaction; just act. Self-propel, from internal motivation. Seductions. (with a period) stands on its own two feet, even if those feet -- young, female -- are at times shaky and wet and cold.
In its 252 pages, there are no section or chapter divisions. The first paragraph is four pages long. Not really a paragraph then, but a self-contained scene, with no clues to help the reader. The sentences are short and choppy, fragments, run-on and quotations enjambed.
The writer's choice to use full stops only adds to that sense of breathless rushing, too busy to put two thoughts together cohesively, expecting the reader to do that part for herself. The words are a frantic racing as if your battery is dying, the headlights are dimming, the starter does not work; you are fine as long as you do not have to brake. Running on empty, without the energy to restart, desperate for a boost. The protagonist, Helene Gebhardt, is a barely-thirty Viennese woman, mother of two girls, separated, working part-time. Ashamed that her husband has left, Helene is in that dark place "after the loss of illusion and before the arrival of insight." Feeling powerless, grieving, in pain, having reached her limit, Helene keeps herself so busy, always moving, at everyone else's beck and call, that she does not have to think or feel.
My bias as a reader is towards old-fashioned storytelling. I look for a novel to introduce me to characters I can distinguish one from the next, with whom, even if I cannot identify, I can empathize. I want something to happen. I expect something to change. Will she ever learn? Who will be sacrificed to the goddess of plot? Such questions kept me reading Seductions. I enjoyed the intimate glimpse through the windows of Helene's car, of her apartment, her cafes, into her life, the life of her city, of Europe in the 1980s.
Seductions. is driver education, life skills for the new age. What to do when "things come up" at the office. Sex and the single mother. Leaving children alone to go mind a friend's younger child, or to meet a lover. An impecunious lover, who routinely stiffs you for the bill. Aggressive drunken driving. Alcohol, drug abuse, detox. But this is more than a cautionary tale warning young women to get your shit together before you have children, and not to expect any man to heal your wounds, to rescue you when you break down.
There is a lot of sex in this story. Desperate sex. As if jumping the bones of another body will give that necessary boost. Solitary sex. Unsafe sex, where a missed period can change your entire life. But there is the rub. Does it translate? Does a period have two meanings in German, I wonder? Are we the same or different?
The many allusions to North American culture surprise me -- Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Star Trek, McDonald's, Coke, Glenn Gould. It is both comforting and depressing to learn that even Austrians have Lotto dreams, waiting for their number to come up. The biblical allusions travel well. The men at the office are toasted with a "Pharisee." The Virgin Mary is replaced with an image of Our Lady of Fatima (a renewal of faith, revealing herself to children in a godless land?) The only cultural reference that clashes for me is the image of the unemployment office as a place of hope. But this story is set in 1989, before downsizing, devolution, recession, economic depression. It is the year of German unification, before the European economic union. Helene's spring-cleaning takes months. She imagines a disillusioned woman "hanging herself with her Hermes scarf." Who cannot identify with such shared humanity, knowing we have so much in common?
Helene herself identifies with victims -- fearing shadow robber knights, running from the murder and torture tools in the castle museum, from the dog collars designed to keep women silent. She acknowledges the woman killed in an orgy and dumped at the Prussian War Memorial, the victims of the Gestapo, those at risk of breast cancer. She knew Sophie Mergentheim, a woman charged with murder after killing her daughter and attempting suicide. In the long run, it is as if other victims throughout history have identified the risks and made the journey safer for Helene and her daughters. Only when she is driving does Helene take possession of the world, enjoying the illusion of control.
Moving between home, school, parks, grocery shopping, work, and lover trysts, Helene seems to live in her car. Her driving habits reveal her anger and aggression as well as her bad judgment. The traffic echoes her hyperactivity. A friend's frantic telephone call is a green light. Dropping a lover off at a station, red light. Hitchhiking in the rain, caution. Without her car, she is vulnerable.
The freeways take her away from the city into parks and forests; to ruined castles and hotels where the air -- the energy -- is different. Someone is sacrificed. Some things do change. There are no new stories; the magic is in the details and in the insights that come after a steep grade. Here, the minutia of daily living becomes More. Real life is transformed. It is depressing to be reminded that so many women still take the ring road and attempt to by-pass feminism altogether. But Helene's journey does merge into a sacred quest along well-trod routes to the shrine of the holy self, in a year when nations, continents come together. Venture on to this autobahn. You'll be exhausted when you reach your destination, but the trip is exciting. The glimpses into the lives of other women, the views and the vistas make it all worthwhile. | August 1999