Love Today: Stories by Maxim Biller

Ever have the feeling that you are simply not qualified to offer an opinion on a book you have read?  For a book blogger I have this feeling more often than I would like.  But I feel particularly that way about Maxim Biller‘s Love Today: Stories.

I am not that knowledgeable about short stories – not my favorite from – and I knew nothing about Biller to coming across this particular collection (his first in English).  I am also not all that plugged into the themes and or subject BIller focuses on: Germany, being Jewish, sex/relationships, etc.

So I thought it might be interesting to offer some quotes from the wildly differing reviews the book has received so far.

First up, Joshua Cohen he no like:

Though he’ll never be as famous here as he is in Germany, the following should be said: Maxim Biller is a bad writer. One wonders which is more incompetent, his prose or his soul. Blurb that on the billboards. Broadcast at will.

And that is just the first paragraph!  He goes on:

When one is a budget Raymond Carver, it’s probably better to slip from the bed at midnight and leave minimalism behind. Biller has cuckolded Carver’s stripped prose, as well as his subject — the impossibility of men and women getting along — and has mixed two other ingredients into this lightest of cocktails (Biller mixes metaphors, too, when he doesn’t altogether forget them): exaggerated Jewish pride, which comes from living in a Germany so rapidly changed, and the culture of “emo,” which can be defined as a wounded but willed innocence, whether lazy or scared, and is too often a capitulation to counterforce, a refusal to recognize the difficulties of love.

Francine Prose had a different take:

Set mainly in Germany and the Czech Republic, with side trips to Tel Aviv, France, and New York, these wry, elliptical narratives chart the passions and the discontents of men and women who vanish from each other’s lives and reappear without notice, and whom Biller often catches at the moment of confronting the mystery of what keeps them together, or what has driven them apart … Deceptively transparent, Biller’s brief, gossamer fictions may remind you of narrative poems in their ability to simultaneously elude and haunt you.

Francesca Mari’s review in The New Republic is a great deal more in depth and deals with the Carver connection directly and at some length.  A snippet:

Yet Biller’s vignettes, however indirectly, draw an idiosyncratic taxonomy of contemporary relationships. Biller offers experiments in love, trial after trial of a few different types. The aesthetic is a control; and, as is the case with most fictional worlds, the characters share a general mentality, if not the same exact mind. Every writer fashions characters and settings of a particular time and place — in Carver, the motel or the tract house (now probably foreclosed); in Yates, the Greenwich Village apartment or the trim suburban home; and in Biller, the mod rooms and cafe lifestyle of a German- Jewish-Czech artist. Of each writer, one senses that his characters are of a single breed of mind, and that the plot merely tests them in different ways.

Biller’s fragments are fresh and terrible — terrible being high praise. They are terrible in their effect, in their severe style and harrowing ability to arouse awe and anxiety simultaneously. The collection is called Love Today, which should set off some internal alarms. The two words are — or at least should be — mutually exclusive. So before going any further, we should clarify that Biller’s episodes are actually about the pursuit of love rather than what can assuredly be called love itself. In fact, whether love ever exists is almost impossible to tell. That is the ambiguity that makes Biller’s texts so seductive.

Sam Munson faults American critics for Biller’s lack of recognition:

A German journalist, novelist, and crafter of short stories, Maxim Biller is a difficult writer in the sense that his works yield up their meaning only with focused, strenuous effort. This is the best possible sense of a term overused in critical praise, and which usually appears as cover for incomprehension in the face of pseudo-profundities and structural Baroquerie. And this species of difficulty – genuine difficulty – must play at least a part in Mr. Biller’s sad lack of reputation here: If anything engages our literary tastemakers, it’s thundering, galloping banality. Ably translated from the German by the eminent Anthea Bell, Mr. Biller’s stories are, by contrast, cruelly brief. They speak almost entirely in obliquities and allusion. The prose is pellucid, and the themes limited.

But, for all its strict economy, “Love Today” (Simon and Schuster, 216 pages, $23) is a rich and strange book. Mr. Biller was born in 1960, in Prague, to Jewish parents who emigrated to Germany two years after the suppression of Alexander Dubcek’s government and took up residence in Munich. And Mr. Biller’s stories are examinations of ambiguity and flight, the impossibility of genuine escape, of the eternal recurrence of the past. This is fitting. Mr. Biller is firmly in the line of those Central European writers who are themselves concerned with memory, history, and desire — cynical, lyrical, lustful, cerebral artists such as Milan Kundera and Joseph Roth. He shares with them, as well, a strong ambivalence about the spiritual conditions of modern life.

He is not, however, without his own criticisms

Mr. Biller does pay a price for his brevity and the surgical economy of his means. Reading “Love Today” cover to cover induces a mild but vertiginous sense of repetition: The basic lineaments of “The Right of Young Men” – man, woman, interloper, the inescapable past – recur continually. In the volume’s best stories, this continuity matters less: The finely mapped contours of the characters, their muted but charged exchanges, weave in and out of the over-familiar elements, and fix our attention … But in the book’s lesser stories, Mr. Biller’s obsessions begin to feel emptied and sterile, placed in the service of no larger aesthetic cause.

So where does all this leave me?  Where I all too often find myself: awkwardly in the middle.  I find Cohen too harsh and I think there are some cultural issue behind his attack not just critical disagreements.

I can appreciate what Mari writes but don’t have the background to understand or disagree with much of it.  I read the stories over a period of time.  I enjoyed some of them while finding others strange.  Perhaps I didn’t give it the attention it deserves, however, as none of the stories stuck with me or grabbed my attention.

I think Muson offers the best brief description when he says that “Biller’s stories are examinations of ambiguity and flight, the impossibility of genuine escape, of the eternal recurrence of the past.”

I figure sometimes it is best just to admit you don’t know.  So you will have to deal with my ambivalence and find solace in the strong feelings of the above reviews.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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