Pensive, slowly paced study of decidedly nonromantic lives in Romantic-era Saxony.
Put strangers around a common table and you have possibilities, in life and in literature. Thus the driving premise of The Magic Mountain, and thus Argentine novelist Gorodischer’s slender book, which she has called her most worked-through. The common table in question is in the home of German mystical poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, pen name Novalis, who once said “Philosophiren ist delphlegmatisire”—paraphrased, to philosophize means getting off your butt and doing something. But Novalis died in 1801, and now, later in the 19th century, the inhabitants of his home, now a boardinghouse, have retreated into themselves. One dreams of a room with a view, preferably “in a country in the Americas,” where she can lean out the window and see flowers and sun and sea, but here in inland Saxony she must make do with a less appealing view, if one with the virtue of placing no one else’s window within sight of hers. An officer of long-ago wars; a fellow “coughing, sunken-chested, with red rashes on his cheeks and white patches beneath his eyes”; and a proprietor with “large, strong hands, amazon legs, and nervous eyes” all live in (and perhaps, it seems, even haunt) the house on Scheller Street, with its distant view of the Danube and its tobacco-impregnated air (thanks to a nearby cigar factory). There is much languorous talk and not much movement; Gorodischer uses long, unhurried sentences to suggest the contours of a way of life that, if civilized, is on the edge of collapse, a world of toasted marzipan rolls within warm kitchens, while just outside are “strange things…presences, as if they were little animals that cannot be heard and yet proper Christians, heads held high, saying no, not at all.”
Gorodischer writes a poetic, vigorous prose. Her story, dreamlike and start-and-stop, takes effort, for though brief, it is dense—and well worth the trouble.