The lives of several expatriates intertwine in 1960s Toronto in Arnold’s (Interlude in Ravenna, 2010, etc.) latest novel.
Sebastian Marisch moved to Canada from East Germany shortly after World War II. Now, in the 1960s, Marisch lives in an apartment building that’s full of nostalgic conversation. The building’s owners are Yugoslavian, and another tenant is Hungarian, and they often reminisce about what they left behind. So, too, does the sultry, aloof Petra, whom Marisch feels “personifies the ideal German woman,” unlike American girls who “take a pre-charted course through life” and “turn into cheerleaders.” A love triangle forms between Marisch, Petra and Natalie, an Israeli psychology major at the University of Toronto, where Marisch is a political science graduate student. Jazz serves as the soundtrack to Marisch’s life, and it provides a backdrop to his reflections on his personal travails and the political landscape. Like the music he listens to, Marisch’s musings can be pointed and lyrical; he riffs as jazz musicians do, as he ponders art, history, American and European values, and other subjects, creating a collage of references. During his reveries, he draws comparisons between the people and situations of his life and those in avant-garde films. He describes one such film, in which “past and present alternate,” as having “more style than content,” and the same can be said of Arnold’s unstructured novel, which includes hypothetical situations created by Marisch’s laughing gas–induced fantasies. The characters are similarly hazy—Natalie, for instance, has even fewer distinct personality traits than the enigmatic Petra—and the prose can be clumsy (“He considers himself not being an outdoors man”; “When buy brandy, buy a German product”). At their best, however, Marisch’s observations can be as thought-provoking as the music he favors.
An impressionistic reflection on displacement that’s hampered by sometimes-confusing prose.