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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Brecht at Night

by
Mati Unt


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Brecht at Night



Title: Brecht at Night
Author: Mati Unt
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 208 pages
Original in: Estonian
Availability: Brecht at Night - US
Brecht at Night - UK
Brecht at Night - Canada
Brecht at Night - India
  • Estonian title: Brecht ilmub öösel
  • Translated by Eric Dickens

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing, creative historical fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 9/8/2009 Thomas McGonigle
TLS . 12/2/2010 Frank Burbage


  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he Estonian author and innovative stage director makes Brecht a curiously compelling contradictory character. His portrayal is very appealing as a reflection of the alienating reality of his plays -- those plays, in highlighting their artificiality, give audiences some distance to enable them to think and act for themselves. This may sound tedious, but Unt is simply too good of a writer to allow the reader to come to this conclusion." - Thomas McGonigle, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Throughout the novel Unt enjoys ridiculing Brecht's obsession with dialectics. Indeed, the very structure of Brecht at Night subverts our belief in the utility of dialectics as an interpretive model, because its genre is so unclassifiable. (...) This novel is a playfully ironic rebuke, but a rebuke nonetheless." - Frank Burbage, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Near the very beginning of Brecht at Night Mati Unt warns:

I have obtained all the information here from various sources, but I am intentionally absolving myself of the responsibility of writing what could be termed a "documentary novel."
       Nevertheless, this is very much a historical novel that, at least in its outlines, closely follows facts -- and, eventually, even comes to look very documentary.
       Brecht at Night centers around German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht's time in Finland in 1940, as he waited to get a visa to travel on to America. The background here is significant, as Finland was still fighting the Winter War against the Soviet Union when he arrived, and this was also the time of Soviet expansion into the Baltic states (including Unt's Estonia). In Finland, Brecht and his family are helped and supported by Hella Wuolijoki, an Estonian-born Finnish playwright (and industrialist).
       While Brecht ostensibly supports the working class, he does like his creature comforts -- and looks towards the safety of the United States, rather than the Soviet Union, in picking his destination as he flees from Nazi Germany. Unt does a nice job of capturing the complicated, sly, pampered character (and his womanizing ways, as he juggles his entourage of doting women): Brecht was a literary genius, but also had a tendency to avoid making tough decisions or commitments. Unt is sympathetic to the character, but also shows him as the obviously flawed man he was, someone who it was not always easy to like. Appealingly, Unt does offer a few creative turns -- such as having Brecht dance the fandango (and sing: "of the faraway island of Tahiti and of the Moon").
       At one point Unt maintains that it is dialectics that is "Brecht's greatest love", and he frequently has Brecht see (and put) things in dialectical contrast. It works quite well, especially in this time full of political compromises -- though Unt perhaps doesn't need to point out every dialectical example.
       While Brecht's story is central, Unt constantly sets it against both the local (Baltic and Finnish) situation, and World War II being fought elsewhere in Europe. At times it is a litany of rapid and devastating changes that are occurring all around. As Unt sums up:
     What else happened ? History is a fairy tale !
       Brecht's life in exile here isn't particularly eventful; Finland is a stopover for him, this merely a transitional period that he fills as circumstances allow. With his entourage (women and children), and Hella's company there is, however, enough that is quirkily entertaining -- and Brecht's own ways and attitudes, to politics and women, in particular, also make for material that Unt knows how to work with.
       The novel is divided into relatively short chapters or scenes, and Unt keeps the action moving, bogging down only occasionally when there is too much historical exposition at a stretch. The stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect -- plus the peculiar Finno-Ugric ways (strange language, high suicide rate, the fact that people: "try to strip naked during times of excess") -- help, too. As Brecht notes (when he steps on a frog in his hotel room):
     We now find ourselves on the far plains of the north and we shouldn't therefore draw any precipitate conclusions. All sorts of things can happen up here.
       Eventually Brecht's story gives more way to the historical circumstances, including the new regimes in the Baltic, as all sorts of things are, indeed, happening here. Among others, Unt introduces another M.Unt, an historical figure who was the first Minister of the Interior of Soviet Estonia, and Unt allows the other-Unt to tell his own story, too. Indeed, the novel comes to rely more on the straightforward documentary, providing actual documents (including, for example, a part of a list of books to be destroyed under the new regime), as well as (in dialectical presentation ...) some of Brecht's own poems. The novel becomes a record of the fall and transformation of Estonia in that period.
       Authorial asides frequently appear in the novel: Unt doesn't get more than three words into his story before he interrupts himself and makes his presence as author felt. The reader is made aware, from the very get-go, that the Brecht-story is only part of this, that Unt is grappling with more. And so he pops up repeatedly in the text, finally and most personally in a section where he addresses not the reader but rather writes a letter about the book he is writing and the issues it raises. He notes again Brecht's fascination with the extremes of the dialectic, a duality of thesis and antithesis, but wonders:
     We Estonians, perhaps we do not want to have either of the poles of the dilemma.
       Brecht at Night is nicely formed around two main strands, Brecht's life in 1940 and the fate of Estonia in that same period. Each is interesting on its own, as the novel is both a character/artist study (of a fascinating man) and history study (the overlooked story of an overlooked corner of Europe), but they are also deftly connected.
       A good read that manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 May 2009

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Links:

Brecht at Night: Reviews: Mati Unt: Bertolt Brecht: Other books by and about Bertolt Brecht under review: Other books by Mati Unt under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Estonian author Mati Unt lived 1944 to 2005.

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© 2009-2012 the complete review

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