Ödön von Horváth

Discussed this week: Stefan Kiesbye, Your House is On Fire, Your Children All Gone; Ödön von Horváth, Youth Without God; Kim Fowley, Lord of Garbage

Three books up for discussion this week. One is a series of surreal, often horrific vignettes set in an isolated German town; one is a parable for doing the right thing in the face of mounting totalitarianism; and one is the tale of a renowned musician’s early years.

In its early pages, Stefan Kiesbye’s Your House is On Fire, Your Children All Gone plays out like a German take on Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Innocence and barely-comprehensible supernatural horrors share time; there was one moment, involving a series of escalating dares on a frozen pond, that made me gasp. But as his characters age, Kiesbye’s focus moves from the supernatural to more quotidian horrors. Demons and witches give way to adulterous lovers, betrayed friendships, and splintering families. And while this transition isn’t a shocking one — Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! proceeded along similar lines — it felt a bit disappointing. There was a sinister irrationality to some of the earlier sections, a sort of punctured reality that suggested Kelly Link at her best. Once you’ve seen the Devil waiting in a tent in a quiet German town — and done his bidding — the charge of an illicit tryst seems less weighty.

Children behaving badly also figure prominently in Ödön von Horváth’s short novel Youth Without God. Here, the narrator is a teacher in a country witnessing the onset of fascism. He’s young, comfortable in his position, and mildly disapproving of the shifts in politics around him. While he tacitly approves of his nation’s colonial adventures, full-on racism gives him pause — and so, early in the novel, he winds up confronting a particularly odious pupil of his. This leads to dissension within his class, some preferring to side with the thuggishly racist student, others opting for a more principled stance. While taking part in a camping expedition, still more conflict erupts, and the narrator finds himself in a positon not too different from a noir protagonist: innocent of some wrongdoing but culpable elsewhere, and possessing a secret that could upend his life. The ethical drama that ensues at times feels heavyhanded, but is also painfully honest in noting that doing the right thing in such a fraught environment won’t always lead to a happy ending.

Kim Fowley’s life in music has spanned decades, beginning in the late 1950s. Lord of Garbage is the first in a projected three-part account of his life, in which memories are juxtaposed with musings on his own condition written in verse. (It isn’t always the neatest fit.) Fowley’s narrative of an unlikely Californian childhood fits oddly neatly between memoirs by James Ellroy and Charles Mingus — though his story is more unhinged than either of theirs. (And Mingus’s Beneath the Underdog, let’s remember, involves pitched kung-fu battles.) At times it’s awkwardly written — Fowley’s account of talking to his parents when he was around six suggests either significant liberties taken with his own history or that Fowley was among the most precocious children of his time. But for all that some of his exploits made me engage in double-takes, and for all that his habit of capitalizing certain phrases grated, I’ll definitely be picking up the next volume of Fowley’s life story. The man was involved with some amazing musicians — some of them well-known, others obscure — and his life still makes for fascinating reading. (And listening.)

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