We live in a dystopia . Very hard to imagine any imaginative young writer, poet or novelist, producing a work of uplift in the Covid-infected, climate-changed planet, where all the governments of the world seem to be either grossly incompetent, or hideously corrupt or both. . Whenever you think the post-Christian generations began, – at the time of the French Revolution? Or much later? Post-Second World War? – it is striking that the Biblical templates borrowed by the post-Christians are now those of apocalyptic destruction and disaster. Optimistic socialists of 1945 might have looked forward to a New Heaven and a New Earth. The generations under 30 do not see that world coming to pass.
Young Greta Thunberg is the environmentalist Joan of Arc. But most people, certainly most young people I know, do not want to believe that the world can be saved. Like latter-day Anabaptists or Muggletonians, they derive evident satisfaction from the thought that humanity, and the world it inhabits, is heading for incineration. The inside of their heads must be like one of the more apocalyptic canvases of John Martin.
Valerie Fritsch is one of the young stars of German-speaking literature at the moment.
Born in Austria in 1989, her novel Winters Garten was published five years ago now and has already achieved a sort of classic status. It deserves it. Like Rilke or Pasternak, she has written prose fiction as if she were writing a poem. She does not go in for explanations, so we do not know why the European country in which we find ourselves is deep into a disaster. In one of the most memorable scenes, the hero peers down from a harbour wall and sees the corpses of innumerable naval officers, many of them wearing their medals, and gleaming like fishes beneath the sea. They are only one example of a current wave of mass suicides.
Anton Winter, son of a violin maker, had an upbringing outside the unnamed city, on his grandparents’ farm or estate. The garden where he roamed free, and where ladies sat among the rhubarb patches, seems timeless. At first the reader wonders whether it is an historical novel, possibly a Vienna of the time of Musil. But we are soon brought uncomfortably forward into a time beyond our own. Anton has left the superabundant, tickly planted world of the grandparents behind and now inhabits a tower block in the city . From his prefabricated Grenfell-like block, h e can look down on the ruins of the city.
The grandparents’ world was far from idyllic. His granny kept the foetuses of all her miscarried babies in jamjars which were buried with her. But she lived in a recognizably Catholic, or ex-Catholic world, with a figurine of her Guardian Angel on a gold chain round her neck. Anton must find, or be, his own Guardian Angel.
He is a bird-breeder, and as the disaster in the modern city gets worse, he meets, and begins to make love to, a red-haired mysterious woman called Frederike, who is working in the hospital, which is now almost entirely devoted to a maternity unit. She helps to deliver a child who, it turns out, is Anton’s nephew. They all – his long-estranged brother, the mother of the child, Frederike and he, retire to the now more or less deserted and ruinous garden of childhood. I won’t spoil the surprise ending for you, but I strongly recommend the novel. The scenes in which, from the unbearably cold house, they gaze across the snows to the distant city in flames will long stay in my mind as an image of what the modern pessimistic imaginative mind sees when it looks out of the window.