Book Review: We Are Doing Fine

A recent novel exploring inheritance and history is the first of a two-part review

Austrian author Arno Geiger’s 4th novel We Are ­Doing Fine won the ­prestigious German Book Prize in 2005 | Photo: Wikipedia

VR_13_5_p9_cover_arnogeiger_webTumult sweeps away heritage, the Proverb says: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” But in two notable novels out of the German-speaking world, the authors suggest the reverse is also true: Chronic disorder – from world war to intimate betrayal – can yield not a dearth, but a surfeit.

Arno Geiger’s We Are Doing Fine (2005, trans. 2011) and Katharina Hagena’s debut novel The Taste of Appleseeds (2008, trans. 2013) employ strikingly similar conceits. The central character inherits a grandparent’s house. Sorting through it provides the narrative pretext for an investigation into past generations. We follow the Nazi-era generation at various life stages, finally robbed of memory by dementia. The sexually rebellious daughters of the post-war and counterculture years make their appearance, then turn into mothers. Finally, the third generation faces a crisis of historical and interpersonal meaning.

We Are Doing Fine – the subject of this first half of a two-part review – is the more masterful book by far, more nuanced and better structured. It surprises the reader in the way life does – often quietly, but nonetheless unsparingly. A review of Hagena’s The Taste of Appleseeds, richly told while imperfectly plotted, will appear next month.

In Geiger’s opening, pigeons fly to and fro, crisscrossing between the attic of protagonist Philipp Erlach’s newly inherited house and the public monuments of Vienna. They link the public and the private, individual and historical. And in the attic, they’ve left layers and layers and layers of excrement to be cleared away.

The (metaphorically rich) pigeon predicament – and Philipp’s decision simply to scrap everything from the house – brings two workers into his house and life. These sections stretch the work’s realism to include Beckettian absurdities – entropy, disability, bathos. One worker’s inexplicably fine Mercedes, for instance, turns out to reek incurably of the suicide that rotted there for two months. The other worker, a Pole, opts not to speak, ever. For his part, Philipp introduces himself to a neighbor by pulling himself halfway up the high wall between their properties, hanging on his elbows and yelling a greeting – all while absentmindedly wearing a gasmask he donned earlier to help clear away the pigeon shit.

As Philipp reflects elsewhere, “Undamaged people do not look like this.”

Aside from the workers, Philipp has few interactions save those with his dismissive, married lover of ten years, a meteorologist named Johanna who hails from “one of the best-managed wrecked marriages of Vienna.” They are paralyzed; she stays with her husband for the sake of her child while he waits endlessly for her, complicit in his fate: “He only looks for closeness when there is no danger of being asked for it.”

A dreamer without a profession, Philipp occupies his days idling on the front steps. He scribbles in his notebooks seemingly to no end, writing, for instance, a little comic sketch of a relative from centuries past. Johanna expresses only distain for such whimsy, but we as readers view Philipp sympathetically. His creative impulses are, after all, not entirely dissimilar from those of the novelist, Geiger, whom we are reading.

While Philipp’s consciousness focuses many chapters, others treat his parents and maternal grandparents. Each is situated in time by a date; Geiger writes everything in the present tense. The reader experiences the past from 1938 to 2001 as an unfolding and compelling immediacy.

In the first of such chapters, “Tuesday, May 25, 1982,” Philipp’s grandmother Alma awakens early to spend some time alone in the house, beehives and garden. Her husband Richard will ruin the peace with his bullying dementia when he awakens. But for now she can allow this, her childhood home, to bring back the “years when she went to elementary school, where the classical writers were read even to the littlest ones: ‘People pass each other without seeing each other’s pain.’ ”

“No one can imagine that today,” Alma thinks, of another memory.

Austrian author Arno Geiger’s 4th novel We Are ­Doing Fine won the ­prestigious German Book Prize in 2005 | Photo: Wikipedia

Austrian author Arno Geiger’s 4th novel We Are ­Doing Fine won the ­prestigious German Book Prize in 2005 | Photo: Wikipedia

In the chapters on Alma’s husband Richard, Geiger explores how patriarchy limits men and their relationships. The Richard of 1938 cannot bear to ask his wife if she would enjoy sex from behind, for fear of disgracing himself in her eyes. Nor does he know “how far he can go” in playing with his children; he fears closeness will make them “lose their respect for him.” And the Richard of 1962 is no better – he lies rather than tell his wife that the political party for which he has served for decades has asked him to step down. Intimacy evades Richard; it requires a vulnerability he cannot give.

The novel juxtaposes Ingrid’s 1970 self against her 1955 self – a headstrong young university student who both defies and internalises her father’s criticisms of her lover Peter, a former Hitler Youth fighter and the poverty-stricken inventor of the board game Do You Know Austria?

The last Peter section is dated 1978, where he remains “someone in whom defeat has made deposits like arteriosclerosis.” Yet, casting off for a Yugoslavian road trip, his family manages a scrap or two of self-forgetting.

Meanwhile, back in Vienna, in the grandparents’ house, the furniture is screwed to the floor, a vestige of 1945 precautions against Soviet looting that hits at one of the novel’s central conflicts: successful past defenses versus newer needs for freedom and change. Do read Geiger’s quietly brilliant novel: Philipp’s solution to the deadlock may surprise you.

Dismantling the past, it seems, is not the only way to make room.

We Are Doing Fine 

by Arno Geiger (trans. Wolfgang Nehring)

Ariadne Press, (2011) pp. 325         


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