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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Gretel and the Great War

Adam Ehrlich Sachs

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To purchase Gretel and the Great War

Title: Gretel and the Great War
Author: Adam Ehrlich Sachs
Genre: Novel
Written: 2024
Length: 213 pages
Availability: Gretel and the Great War - US
Gretel and the Great War - UK
Gretel and the Great War - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyable approach and take

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 12/6/2024 Dustin Illingworth

  From the Reviews:
  • "No staid work of history, this. Sachs draws from the madcap, darkly comic tradition of postmodern European fiction to reimagine the continent’s catastrophic destiny. (...) Throughout, we feel the author’s personal stake in this narrative. Like Thomas Bernhard before him, Sachs is a very funny writer unafraid of italics and exclamation marks, which he marshals against the absurdity of the world." - Dustin Illingworth, The New York Times Book Review

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:

       Gretel and the Great War is labeled 'a novel' but appears to be presented as an abecedarium of stories whose origins are explained in a brief (one-page) introduction.
       It's a somewhat convoluted backstory: in 1919 a "mute young woman was found wandering the streets of Vienna". The neurologist whose care she was entrusted to wrote up her case for an academic journal -- asking then also for any information from anyone who might know her identity or history, and receiving a single reply, from a patient at a Carinthian sanatorium claiming to be her father. He says her name is Margarete -- known as Gretel -- and asks that the doctor continue their ritual of her being told a bedtime story daily; he provides one, and sends another daily until there are a total of twenty-six, after which he is never heard from again. The introduction notes that it is unknown whether the neurologist read the stories to the young woman, or what happened to her; the letters were eventually sent to Hans Prinzhorn's: "celebrated collection of the art of the mad", and while they were not included in his famous Bildnerei der Geisteskranken they turned up: "in his archives some eighty years later".
       The chapters -- the stories -- are labeled 'A' through 'Z' and each comes with a more or less alliterative chapter-summary-heading: 'The choirmaster can feel the congregation's contempt as he conducts the canonical composer's cantata ...' and the like. There are also connections between the stories, with recurring characters and variations on themes. Among the most significant presences is that of a Dr. Krakauer, with many of the characters -- mentally unstable (or at least considered so) in one way or another -- committed to his sanatorium
       The psychoanalytic atmosphere of the place and times -- Freud's Vienna -- pervades the novel, with many of the stories having the feel of case-study patient-dreams, often tinged also with a fairy-tale quality and with surreal and fantastical elements to them. Many different varieties of deep obsession -- often unattainable ideals -- as well as delusions are presented here. Relationships between parents and their children figure prominently -- with also the loving but absent father of Gretel often addressing her directly in his communications, commenting on his tales or wishing her a 'Good night' at the end of his stories.
       Among the stories is also one of a naturalist, who becomes so absorbed in a task that when he successfully completes it and:

takes his daughter's hands for a celebratory waltz he realizes that besides being all grown up now and nearly as tall as he, she has been struck dumb in the interim. She no longer laughs, squeals, or speaks. She keeps silent and stares straight ahead.
       What has happened here is: "deduced by a certain museumgoer, a neurologist by trade", as he reads all this -- so suggestive of what has happened to Gretel -- into an object on display at the museum, one more of the ways that Sachs nest the different cases into various (often partially overlapping) stories.
       There are few mentions of actual places: while much is clearly set in Vienna, the city is only named in the introductory section, as the place where Gretel was found. The First World War comes up in various contexts, and the collapse of (the Austro-Hungarian) empire profoundly affects characters and situations -- manifesting itself also in the story where: 'The obstetrician observes the old ways again ...', in which the young doctor attends to the old guard -- a Duchess, who appears in several of the stories -- and takes steps to seeing to its destruction and then, freed, also finds himself pregnant after a fashion:
Yes, something really is growing inside of him ! The obstetrician can feel it kicking and thrashing. It's impatient, it is ready to be born, it yearns to see the light of day. But it's not a fetus. No, it is no fetus. It's a nation-state.
       So too then the final story -- where: 'The Zionist zigzags ...' -- closes with the nascent idea of "the Jewish State !"
       Grounded in the realities of the thoughts and conditions -- artistic, political, social, etc. -- (and the popular psycho-analytic approach) of those times around the end of the First World War in Vienna (while avoiding most real-life specifics), Sachs spins out fantastical variations in looking into the minds, neuroses, and obsessions of the men and women looking for hold here, so many of them driven to different kinds of what amounts to madness -- or very creative leaps of the mind -- in struggling against the realities of the world around them.
       Cleverly subversive, the tales -- and the way they are interwoven -- are enjoyable, making for a loose, surreal panorama of the place and time and the mind-games the characters play with and on themselves in struggling to maintain a hold as so much shifts around them.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 June 2024

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Gretel and the Great War: Reviews: Adam Ehrlich Sachs: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Adam Ehrlich Sachs lives in Pittsburgh.

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© 2024 the complete review

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