December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter (trans. Martin Chalmers). Seagull Books. 130 pp., $20.00.
Other than Adolf Hitler and Mikhail Gorbachev, the only recurring character in December is a monk named Andrej Bitov. Alone in his mountain cloister, he has devised a system of reckoning the centuries such that “three hundred and forty-one years have the substance of five hundred.” The years between 1789 and 1792, in his system, constitute a century, as do those between 1918 and 1989. “The RIGHT TO SELF-DETERMINATION OF TIME,” Bitov reasons, “MUST BE ACKNOWLEDGED LIKE THAT OF THE PEOPLES.”
As if in accordance with Bitov’s system, the days of December have a weight beyond their numerical value. Composed of thirty-nine short stories by Alexander Kluge and thirty-nine images by Gerhard Richter, December is a calendar that reveals the inadequacy of calendars, a book of hours that undermines time.
The stories are contained in two sections, calendar and commentary. The first part of the book goes through the days of December, providing one or more stories for each. The days are chronological but the years vary: 1 December takes place in 1941, 2 December in 1991, 3 December in 1931, and so on. Though one narrative takes place in 1832 and another in 21,999 B.C., most center around one of two focal points: World War II, and 2009 (effectively, Kluge’s time of writing; the German edition of the book was published in 2010).
These stories contain a series of accidents, crises, and missed opportunities, including the story of Hitler’s near-end in December 1931: as a result of icy roads and an inebriated chauffeur, Hitler’s car missed a fatal collision with Goebbel’s by a gap of only forty centimeters. Kluge provides this information in a footnote, and comments that he himself was almost born into a world without Hitler. (This episode, and the alternate universe it suggests, seems to haunt Kluge; the version of the story recounted December comes almost verbatim from an earlier collection of his stories, translated by Martin Chalmers and Michael Hulse as The Devil’s Blind Spot.) “One accident,” Kluge observes wryly, “attracts another.” Though it comes up early in the month, the story of Hitler’s accident presents, as if in a tight knot, many of the problems that the rest of December will try to unwind: the problem of good and evil, accident and will, the influence and persistence of history, and, perhaps most of all, the problem of the turn, that is, a moment of time in which things imperceptibly shift. These unstable and twilight hours are, for Kluge, the moments that are worth reckoning, the moments in which everything is determined.
The second section of the book, “Calendars are conservative,” is a series of narrative and philosophical vignettes about various authorities’ attempts to control time. Revolutionary calendars, competing Christian chronicles, Islamic divisions of time into spheres, and even a discussion of the future perfect tense all ultimately reveal that the multiplicity of time is an illusion, an all-too-human invention. Our elaborate systems of reckoning have no effect outside of our own minds; as far as nature is concerned, time is singular: “By nature no year ends,” Andrei Bitov says, “Six thousand years of prehistory are necessary in order to bring about the ‘turn of the year,’ a cut in time. Without religion it’s quite impossible.”
Although the stories often deal with international incidents (World War II in England, financial crisis in the United States and Greece, a train accident in New Zealand), December is really about a German winter, a German century. Although Andrei Bitov claims that “All times are different, a British and a Russian century can certainly not be compared,” his calendar divides up centuries according to dates which are significant to Germany: 1871, 1918, 1989. The musings on good and evil, too, are preoccupied with German history: on 8 December 1941, a nameless character claims that “evil falls statistically behind” and is merely “at the experimental stage.” Kluge’s logic is fiendish, his sense of humor deeply ironic, but, perhaps inevitably, there is something serious behind this irony, and at times the reader cannot be sure whether a particular sentiment is made in earnest or in jest. The shifts in Kluge’s narrative voice are not immediately detectable and seem, in retrospect, to have changed according to atmospheric pressure—or rather, to “time pressure.”
Gerhard Richter’s photographs—all of snow-covered trees—are, like Kluge’s stories, formally similar to one another, both reassuring and unsettling in their repetition. The photos are usually framed in such a way that it is difficult to tell where the ground or horizon lies; scale is impossible to determine (in this respect the images bear the history of Richter’s abiding interest in blurred and non-figurative art). They do not appear regularly in the text, but incessantly: they interrupt the text and hold it together, grounding and abstracting it at once. The photographs, considered as a group or series, recall Richter’s 2002 work 4 Standing Panes, in which four large panes of glass were hung, one in front of the other, until whatever reality was visible through them was translucent, hazy, and fractured, as if seen in reflection on a faceted surface. One image alone does not carry the weight of four, or of thirty-nine. When taken together, the portraits of the forest—a German forest—accrue new and accelerated meanings.
The images are both clearly contemporary (in that they are color photographs) and mythical, by turns the landscape of the Brothers Grimm, Christmas, and the ninth circle of Hell. They accompany all time in the text, and to this extent, they serve as illustrations. It could also be said, however, that they are the true core of the book, the representatives of nature against which Kluge’s characters struggle and hopelessly brandish their calendars. Nothing human appears in any of the photographs save the last two, in which we see a distant house or apartment building and a snowy road; the end of the December is our Menschendämmerung, the twilight of the species.
Richter’s images have their own way of subverting time, which is not identical to Kluge’s way; ultimately, however, both image and text reinforce the same conclusion: time is weather. “We don’t need any weapons to fight the Russians,” comments a German general in an early story, “but a weapon to fight the weather.” December, the product of two authors marked by the violence of the twentieth century (both Richter and Kluge were born in 1932, only a few days apart), chronicles our search for weapons, not against earthly enemies, but against the weather; that is, against time. In a particularly brilliant moment of irony, Kluge describes a Nazi plan for “active intervention in weather conditions,” in order to try to break the spell of extreme cold that has settled over Europe in December 1941:
DYNAMIC METEOROLOGY does not investigate the actual state of the weather but concentrates its observations on the large-scale movements of the overall circulation which precede and create the distinct shifts in weather. As is proper for a National Socialist, this ‘totality’ is to be ascertained with the tools of INTUITION and not with the methods of PROVABILITY.
We need shelter from the weather, weapons against the abuses of time, but—clearly and consistently, as Kluge seems to say—our means are insufficient. One character remarks that grammar is the only weapon our consciousness can command, but this too is ironic. Kluge, preoccupied by accidents, disasters, and sudden collapses, does not trust anything unequivocally.
The deepest wish in December is to slow down, to linger, even briefly, to resist the artificial cuts in time. Despite the cool, cerebral nature of much of Kluge’s prose, the most frequently recurring emotion is a desire for closeness, for being or staying together; the most frequent relationship among characters, that of old friends. On 30 December 1940, two German rabbis, in exile in Cambridge, carry on a Talmudic discussion of good and evil all through the night, as if, like Scheherazade, they would delay the murderous morning with their stories: “The conversation every night, the feeling of being together in safety, could not last long enough for them.” Yet what they are speaking of is the murder of Abel by Cain, that is, the betrayal of a bond of love. Numerous other characters in the book—from Dante’s version of Satan to the mythological Norse giant Ymir, and even Hitler in his car on the ice—are all struck down, or nearly so, “by a ‘companion’.”
Kluge presents thorny challenges to the best of translators. His syntax is convoluted even by German standards, and he often uses unusual words of foreign origin, describing, for instance, the meeting of two lovers with the verb kopulieren (copulate), and referring to grammatical tenses by their French names (futur antérieur). This contributes to the dry comedy of his stories, and though it does occasionally sound odd in German, it tends to sound noticeably odder in English translation. Martin Chalmers, who has translated Kluge before, navigates his style with elegance. He makes Kluge as readable in English as he is in German: he preserves his peculiar voice and skillfully conveys his difficult and compelling style. Abrupt, often mysterious phrases have been translated as directly as possible: “Key word: BASILISK GAZE,” for example, or, “In December 1941: ‘as if snow-blind’.” Chalmers has also toned down a few of Kluge’s trickier neologisms: Zeitkorsett (literally ‘time-corset’) is rendered simply as “timeframe,” Zeitkomprimation as “time compression,” Komprimation being a readily understandable, but strangely Latinized, version of the more common Komprimierung.
The intelligence of Chalmers’ translation is all the more admirable because December is, in a way, about translation itself. There is the translation between systems of reckoning, that between the competing wills of humans and gods, and that which sits in the very structure of the book. December physically ferries the reader back and forth between word and image, prompting a search for equivalents, as well as for those lost elements that have no equivalents. The space that December inhabits—a winter at once ominous and intimate, the last breath of the year in anticipation of its end and rebirth—is not unlike the space of translation. In one of the last stories of the book, a Muslim astrophysicist and a European ambassador—old friends—sit and talk together in the lobby of a grand hotel: “These hotel liners are stranded like embassies of a sunken world, but inside reflect a mental comfort which suggest a state of affairs in which one could make oneself understood among people everywhere in the world.”
This line is, like so much of December, as much ironic as genuine, as much inside time as out.
Madeleine LaRue is a graduate student at the American University of Paris. She works as an assistant at the Center for Writers and Translators.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- The Sri Lankan Loxodrome by Will Alexander The Sri Lankan Loxodrome, Will Alexander. New Directions. 112 pp., $14.95. Nothing is given. Everything remains to be constructed. I do not know beforehand what the poem is going to say, where the poem is going to take me. The poem is not “expression,” but a cognitive process that, to...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Madeleine LaRue