Olsen’s latest novel details the lives of formally inventive artists over the course of a day in 1927 while deploying some literary innovations of its own.
Berlin in 1927 was home to a number of thinkers, writers, artists, and filmmakers whose work would change the 20th century. Berlin in 1927 was also a liberated society on the brink of falling prey to fascism, adding a harrowing sense of tension to any retrospective account set in that time and place. This novel from Olsen (Dreamlives of Debris, 2017, etc.), whose work often makes use of innovative structures, pays homage to the creative figures who populated that world. Structurally, it moves from artist to artist—including Käthe Kollwitz, looking back on her life; Rosa Luxemburg, pondering the volatile politics of the time; and Billie Wilder, considering the nature of desire and taking a historic view of the making of art. Olsen employs an array of literary styles, moving from prose to newsreels to a screenplay and a shot-by-shot breakdown of a short film. At times, it reads like a postmodern take on modernist fiction, a contemporary homage to the work of John Dos Passos. The vignettes following these characters sometimes leap headlong into their pasts or futures even as the action of the book confines itself temporally to one day, and the narrative itself is well aware of the horrors to come in Germany: One newsreel alludes to a series of newborns as being “every one an Aryan King or Queen!” The combined effect of the different styles on display here is virtuosic, but Olsen never loses sight of the bigger scope of history—or the tragedies the future will hold for most of these characters.
This novel manages the impressive task of being both experimental and accessible—and thoroughly moving to boot.