Thirlwell, who made a splash in 2003 with a controversial debut novel (Politics), and earned a spot on Granta’s Best Young British Writers list, returns with a portrait of the elderly satyr as an artist.
Visiting an alpine spa town to reclaim the villa expropriated from his late wife’s Jewish family in the 1930s, septuagenarian English banker Haffner muses over a lifetime of erotic self-absorption as he racks up a couple of new conquests in the debased, farcical mode that is an aging player’s last resort. The novel opens with Haffner concealed in a wardrobe watching a young couple tryst—with the connivance of the woman, lissome yoga instructor Zinka. Soon she has become the banker’s unlikely partner, but he finds their entanglement increasingly perilous. He is also fighting off Frau Tummel, a plump matron who betrays the impurity of their dalliance by professing love. The (minimal) plot concerns the Englishman’s attempts to negotiate Middle-European bureaucracy and take possession of his wife’s beloved girlhood home; the tone is determinedly intro- and retrospective as the narrator, Haffner’s much-younger friend, chronicler and legend-builder, explores a life spent in the vain, reckless pursuit of gratification. Haffner’s libertinism is less like that of a Philip Roth or Martin Amis antihero, more like that of the Caesars, whose monstrosities of appetite are his hobby. And Thirlwell ruthlessly exposes what happens to empires as they turn inward and consume themselves. Haffner comes to seem not a charming rogue but—could it be?—a rare instance of purity. “The true libertines are the geniuses at repetition,” the narrator remarks. “Everyone can improvise. The true talent is in the persistence.”
At times arch and too clever, but so minutely perceptive that it all works.