Henrietta Foster is a freelance journalist and TV producer for the BBC. Her latest film, Beyond The Grace Note, is about women orchestra conductors. She is writing a book about Hungarian Jews.
Alois Hotschnig sent me a copy of Ludwig’s Room about a year or so ago. Accompanying the book was a postcard of a fearsome blue dragon by Albrecht Dürer, and on the reverse was a greeting in pencil. I mentioned his gift to Tess Lewis, the translator of the book, and that I was very much looking forward to reading it. Quick as a flash an email came back saying that as I had just been through a bad emotional break up, I was not to read the novel under any circumstances – any circumstances whatsoever. It was not a book for the broken-hearted. A little taken aback I did, however, obey my wise and good friend.
A few weeks ago and with some trepidation, I decided that I was now sufficiently robust to read Ludwig’s Room. I was also curious to discover why it would have been so harmful for the recently dumped. Like Dürer’s dragon, it is a spiky, frightening, bleak and at times difficult book to read. But also like Dürer’s mythical beast, it is finely drawn and deceptively engaging. At times, it is very funny in a self-deprecating rather black-humoured way.
Ludwig’s Room is set in a Carinthian landscape of darkness and gloom. Kurt Weber used to spend his holidays in Villach visiting his great uncle Georg in his lakeside villa, unaware that Georg was sizing up his family as to who would inherit his house. Most evenings Georg would take Kurt rowing in a boat on the lake – to visit the sunny side. While on the lake Kurt asked questions that were never answered. Kurt particularly wanted to know why Georg spent the night in a locked chamber known as “Ludwig’s room” – and who was Ludwig? In fact the very mention of the name “Ludwig” was a sign for the two of them to return to the house. The nightly ritual ended with Kurt tying up the boat, and Georg going into Ludwig’s room for a few hours. Kurt slept in the room next door. He got used to hearing Georg shuffling papers and pacing the floor before leaving in the early hours of the morning.
The novel is set very clearly on “the shady side of the lake” and all the characters talk about only visiting the sunny side. “It is not a good time for anyone here on the lake . . . the lake was Georg’s deathbed. He went out in his boat and never came back.” The natives resent Kurt’s inheritance and his decision to live in Georg’s house. He attempts to bring light into the house by chopping down the forest that his uncle planted – a tree for every relative. The locals are furious and let him know that he is destroying the place. He throws away pictures and furniture from the house. They are furious about that too. Yet it remains a damp, miserable place – swampy, mist-ridden, overgrown and grim.
The Villachers’ favourite saying is: “You are only truly at home when you have someone in the graveyard.” Death is all pervasive. A lot of time is spent in the novel visiting family graves. The local churches have fonts full of “frozen holy water” that cannot even bless or protect the local people from themselves. Wedding guests are seen as “future funeral guests.The rays from the sun of divorce can’t pierce the wedding clouds, not yet, they beget and they propagate, they become parents and die off.” It is a bleak place inhabited by wintery, impoverished souls.
Kurt writes, echoing his great uncle: “Come join me in my fear – there is room enough for two.” More truth. It is a terrifying landscape. The fear seems to emanate from the locked room known as Ludwig’s room. Kurt finally gains access to it: “In my family there is a long tradition of suicide.” So long a tradition, that the myth surrounding Ludwig’s Room is that Uncle Paul killed himself in it. The one thing that Georg tells Kurt about the room is that the story about Paul is not true. Again echoing his great uncle, Kurt says: “I have a dead man in my house, and that dead man is me.” There are many dead men in his house, but it is the fate of Ludwig that needs to be unravelled.
One day a woman turns up and demands to see Ludwig’s room. Kurt grants her access and through this reticent and disturbing presence he finally learns the truth about Ludwig. Kurt allows her free rein of his place. She tells him that she comes back to the house to “track our past selves. Ludwig’s and mine. Here in the present I return to the paths we shared, and I still cannot reach us. I lose sight of the two of us every time.” She also states that: “Ludwig . . . he died because of me, you understand, he died instead of me and I survived in his stead.”
Eventually Kurt discovers a secret room off the locked room, and Ludwig’s fate becomes clear. He and the woman were part of the resistance movement against the Third Reich. The carpenter who constructed Ludwig’s actual room was the man who betrayed it and Ludwig to the Gestapo. The woman betrayed him by going there to see him, despite being told that such a visit would result in his certain capture, torture and death – which it did.
What Hotschnig captures so brilliantly and so vividly is that powerful feeling one gets in Austria that every exquisite view, or landscape, is drenched in the blood and suffering inflicted upon the Jews, and those few who took their side during the war. One can stand in most picturesque market squares, or see those beautiful “Sound of Music” yellow churches and lakes, yet still know for certain that death is everywhere, no matter how many trees are chopped down, or photographs burnt. “Every place is the scene of a crime.” Even the tunnel Kurt uses to escape out of Austria into Slovenia he discovers was built by Waffen SS prisoners – “our origins are our downfall.”
I now see that if you are suffering from emotional turmoil, Ludwig’s Room is not the book for you. Kurt himself says that “my record of relationships is nothing but a record of wounds.” That could be said of any relationship in the novel – happy or unhappy. Near the end of the book, Kurt writes that he is “immersed in a story that was not mine.” This is where Hotschnig succeeds completely. His readers have become caught up in his story, but it is a story that is about everyone – and no one.
Alois Hotschnig is known in the German-speaking world as an accomplished stylist, which must be a translator’s nightmare. How do you reflect and embrace his unique style? Tess Lewis’s sparkling translation gives non-German readers a heady and lasting glimpse of the wit and sheer power of description that are the hallmarks of Hotschnig’s work. Ludwig’s Room is a small, but solid, Carinthian masterpiece from one of Austria‘s finest authors.
Copyright © Henrietta Foster c/o BookBlast Ltd, London.
Ludwig’s Room by Alois Hotschnig | Translated from German by Tess Lewis | Seagull Books £14.50 | ISBN-10: 0857422049 | ISBN-13: 978-0857422040 | recipient of a PEN Translates award in 2013
Alois Hotschnig was born in 1959 in Carinthia and lives in Innsbruck. Hailed the ‘best writer of his generation’ by Süddeutsche Zeitung, his books have won major Austrian and international prizes including the Federal Chancellery of Austria’s Literature Prize, the Italo Svevo Prize, the Erich Fried Prize, the Anton Wildgans Prize, the inaugural 2011 Gert Jonke Prize, and the ORF Radio Play of the Year Award.