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the complete review - fiction
Die Vertreibung aus der Hölle
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- Die Vertreibung aus der Hölle has not been translated into English
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B : ambitious but only partially successful
See our review for fuller assessment.
|Neue Zürcher Zeitung
||Peter D. Smith
From the Reviews:
- "Doch steht in Robert Menasses Erzählen dem Detailreichtum vieler Einzelmomente ein merkwürdiger formaler Schematismus gegenüber. Zum Beispiel wirkt es auf die Dauer monoton, dass ausschließlich aus der, wenngleich mit Zoomobjektiv ausgestatteten, Zentralperspektive erzählt wird. Sie liefert zahlreiche Ansichten, aber nur wenige Einsichten." - Thomas Wild, Berliner Zeitung
- "Robert Menasse, so scheint es, hat sich zu sehr in die Materie versenkt und dabei zu wenig in Betracht gezogen, dass das Ästhetische dem Inhaltlichen keineswegs äusserlich ist. (...) An seinem genuinen Erzähltalent kann es keinen Zweifel geben. Es ist alles da -- nur die rechte Mischung, die den Meister ausmacht, hat er immer noch nicht gefunden." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "(E)in im strengen Sinne literarisches Werk. Der Autor verzichtet auf jenen der Alltagssprache angenäherten Jargon, der für viele Produkte der neueren deutschsprachigen Literatur kennzeichnend ist. Sprachlichen Realismus in den Dialogen strebt er nicht an. (...) Gegen Ende droht der Roman dem Autor zu entgleiten." - Thomas Rothschild, Die Presse
- "Menasse hat sich statt dessen für den Mittelweg eines historisierenden Realismus entschieden, den man ihm so bieder gar nicht zugetraut hätte. Vielleicht ist es manchmal auch mit dem Erzählen einfach nicht getan. Hätte Menasse, statt seine früheren Romane durch objektives Erzählen überbieten zu wollen, sie nicht besser unterboten ? Aber wir können uns trösten. Wir haben ja zwei Romane in einem Band. Und einer davon wird im Gedächtnis bleiben." - Christoph Bartmann, Süddeutsche Zeitung
- "Menasse narrates the life stories of two men whose fates are interwoven. Yet this is much more than a Bildungsroman. Menasse's novel is a cultural history, an exploration of the dark past of Europe and the persecution of the Jews." - Peter D. Smith, Times Literary Supplement
- "Die Art und Weise, wie diese beiden Geschichten miteinander verschränkt sind, bezeichnet der Begriff der Engführung aus der musikalischen Satzlehre nicht schlecht: Robert Menasse wiederholt sein Thema durch eine zweite Stimme, bevor er das erste ganz durchgeführt hat." - Gunther Nickel, Die Welt
- "Der Fortschritt der Geschichte liegt, zumindest was diese Familie betrifft, in ihrer zunehmenden Verblödung. Die Fallhöhe zwischen den beiden Romanteilen, die manche Kritiker bemängelt haben, ist in Wahrheit seine Stärke. Der Abstieg von der erzählerisch sehr starken historischen Tragödie über die studentische Burleske bis zu den literarisch eher dürftigen Sprechblasen des Hildegunden-Comics in der Romangegenwart ist ein Zugewinn an Menschlichkeit und Komik." - Iris Radich, Die Zeit
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:
Robert Menasse's Die Vertreibung aus der Hölle focusses on two lives: that of the historical figure of Samuel Manasseh ben Israel and of Viktor Abravanel, a contemporary Austrian historian.
Manasseh ben Israel is a child of the Inquisition: born in Portugal, his parents were victims of the Inquisition, the family only narrowly escaping and then beginning a new life in exile, in Amsterdam.
Abravanel, born in 1955 as Austria regained its independence, was not directly affected by World War II, but the experiences of that time carry over from his parents and grandparents, a cloud hanging over him that he can not disperse.
The novel is concerned in part with the actual hells of those times -- the Inquisition, especially, as well as, to a much smaller degree, the Nazi-horrors -- as well as the expulsion (and apparent release) from these hells.
But the hells are not escapable: they continue to haunt the characters, and the societies into which they have fled.
Amsterdam seems a place of freedom and safety compared to the Portugal of the time, and modern Austria a civilized place compared to its recent Nazi-incarnation, but hellishness and inhumanity prevail here too -- often unrecognized by those in their midst.
Menasse essentially frames the novel using a contemporary incident, Abravanel's twenty-fifth high school reunion.
After never attending any of his class reunions, Abravanel decides to make an appearance at this one.
He is one of thirty who comes; among the others are seven former teachers and the principal.
At the beginning of the event -- a meal in a private room of a restaurant -- the students are asked to summarize their lives since graduation.
When his turn comes, the historian Abravanel turns the tables, saying that one of the things of interest to him in understanding who a person is is knowing who that person's teachers were.
And then Abravanel offers more of their past than the teachers acknowledged back in high school, reading out their Nazi party membership numbers and affiliations.
It's enough to clear the room.
Vergangenheitsbewältigung -- dealing with and overcoming the past -- is never popular sport, and Austrians are reputed to avoid it more than most.
Certainly those at the reunion want nothing to do with it.
The only one who remains in the restaurant with Abravanel is one classmate, Hildegund.
She and Abravanel enjoy the repast that has been ordered (insisting that all thirty portions of each course be served).
It leads to a long, aimless night in which much history -- personal and public -- is dredged up, leading to the two main strands of the novel.
In one, Abravanel's life unfolds, from beginning to present, focussing on his formative years.
In the other, a mirror-image life unfolds: Samuel Manasseh ben Israel's.
Both lead double-lives: Jews, more or less, educated, more or less, as Catholics, torn between traditions and people.
(Manasseh ben Israel, due to a horrific accident (a ritual gone wrong), even bears a monstrous scar, a daily reminder of his duplicity.)
Menasse moves back and forth between the two lives (dropping in in the present every now and then too).
There are many similarities between the lives of Samuel Manasseh ben Israel and Abravanel.
They are raised in families that, at least in part, suppress their Judaism.
They are outsiders, and they are weak.
Both boys are sent to boarding schools -- Manasseh ben Israel to a Jesuit one, as his parents are being tortured by the Inquisition.
Both children are kept in the dark about a great deal by their parents and other adults.
For example, his parents contrive to distract Manasseh ben Israel as they are taken away by the Inquisition -- much as Abravanel's father is tricked to avoid him seeing his father hauled away to scrub the streets with a toothbrush under the Nazis.
Again and again children are not told about the reality around them, forced to piece it together for themselves (which they generally do not do very well).
It is not even only the often ugly truth that is kept from Manasseh ben Israel and Abravanel: their lives are completely in the hands of adults, and they are given little say and practically no information.
When Abravanel first goes to school he is not even aware that his parents have put the required school supplies in his schoolbag: whatever is necessary is done for him, but clumsily, and without taking him into consideration.
Both these characters have fairly unhappy childhoods, trying to survive on the periphery, trying at all cost not to become centers of any sort of attention.
Manasseh ben Israel finds some fulfillment in academic and then professional success, but it is almost never a complete success.
He almost always remains second-best.
Abravanel, incredibly slow in maturing, also finds no release in reaching adulthood:
(...) bald merkte er: Das war nicht der Beginn der Freiheit, sondern etwas viel komplizierteres: der Beginn des Bewußtseins der Unfreiheit.
Awkwardly Abravanel tries to make a place for himself.
Wilhelm Reich and Marx become the dominant influences on the young student.
He becomes a political activist, only to be dropped rejected and expelled from this community under the weight of a false accusation.
Another day, another hell.
((...) soon he realized: this wasn't the beginning of freedom, but rather something much more complicated: the beginning of the consciousness of the absence of freedom.)
Manasseh ben Israel enjoys greater success, but he never finds true fulfillment.
He is, at various times, an important figure, writing best-selling tracts, involved in important political-religious negotiations, an admired teacher (of Uriel da Costa and Spinoza, among others).
Die Vertreibung aus der Hölle is a long book, but without longueurs.
Menasse keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and the back and forth between 17th and 20th centuries help hold the readers attention.
There are a mass of episodes, often well done: Manasseh ben Israel's family's escape from Portugal, the horrible school-life the characters endure, Abravanel's fumbling university years.
The novel reads well.
Much of the historical detail is well-done, and often interesting.
Scenes from life in the Portugal of the time of the Inquisition are striking, and the descriptions of life in grey Austria of the late 1950s and early 60s also ring true.
The larger picture still eludes Menasse most of the time, but the close-ups are quite effective.
From the parallels between the Inquisition and the Nazis -- down to the society that is formed to remember the victims of the Inquisition (the Gesellschaft zum Andenken an die zu früh Ermordeten) -- to the horrors of boarding school life (in both the 16th and 20th century), Menasse does do a great deal quite well.
Still, it is not fully convincing.
It doesn't all add up.
Menasse admirably avoids easy answers about dealing with these impossible pasts.
He explores the complexity of the issues, and conveys their maddening, frustrating complexity.
But there are also gaps -- in the story and in the conclusions.
Certainly, too much of Manasseh ben Israel's later life is presented only as highlights -- while Abravanel's career between graduation and the high school reunion is almost entirely glossed over.
Worse is that both central characters are and remain decidedly unsympathetic.
They are weak and they remain weak.
Indeed, almost all growth seems entirely inward.
Even Manasseh ben Israel, who undeniably did contribute to society, seems terribly small, his true accomplishments largely brushed over -- indeed they are presented as little more than accidents (rather than achievements).
There is an unpleasant (though perhaps realistically human) pettiness to both characters, and especially Abravanel.
The reunion stunt, especially, is largely an embarrassment (as Menasse/Abravanel acknowledge, in part), though Menasse should get some credit for the unexpected turn of admissions at that end of the novel -- one of the few really neat twists.
Abravanel is clearly an autobiographically-based character, similar in age, background and experience to Menasse.
Bits are undisguisedly autobiographical: a description of how Abravanel's paternal grandfather avoids Abravanel's questions about the Nazi-period can be found almost verbatim in Menasse's personal essay, Sterbensworte (also published in Erklär mir Österreich (see our review)).
Opening himself up, Menasse is at his best: the autobiographical scenes, from childhood to the early student years, are brutally honest and real -- in stark contrast to the very artificial scenes from the present, Abravanel and Hildegund's long night.
Still, the novel is perhaps too true for its own good, as Menasse does bog down in autobiographical and biographical detail, forcing some connexions and generally perhaps reading (or rather: writing) too much into the two lives portrayed here -- and taking them to places they can not go.
There's a lot to be said for fiction; less for fact-as-fiction, the too fashionable and too popular approach that Menasse embraces here.
Menasse continues to try to come to terms with his (and his family's and his country's) past and present.
There are some successes here, but not enough.
Menasse writes well, but his approach (and his characters) will not find favour with all.
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Die Vertreibung aus der Hölle:
Samuel Menasseh ben Israel:
Other books by Robert Menasse under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of German literature at the complete review
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About the Author:
Austrian author Robert Menasse was born in 1954.
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© 2001-2010 the complete review
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