Francis King

Miracles of compression

In the course of a lifetime of fiction reviewing, I have come to the conclusion that, though my colleagues are prepared doggedly to persevere with the reading of a novel from its muddled opening to its inconsequential end, they will read no more than four or five stories in a collection.

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Klaus and Other Stories

Allan Massie

Vagabond Voices, pp. 187, £

In the course of a lifetime of fiction reviewing, I have come to the conclusion that, though my colleagues are prepared doggedly to persevere with the reading of a novel from its muddled opening to its inconsequential end, they will read no more than four or five stories in a collection. What always guides them in this lazy choice is that one of the favoured stories will be the title one and another the most substantial. Since the title story is also the most substantial — in effect a novella — in Allan Massie’s Klaus, one can be absolutely certain that it will be the one on which every reviewer, including myself, chiefly concentrates.

The central figure here is Klaus Mann, oldest of the six children of the novelist Thomas, a figure of such intellectual grandeur that his son felt constantly intimidated by him as he compared his granite genius with his own mercurial talent. With his sister Erika, later to enter into a marriage of convenience with W. H. Auden, Klaus had an almost incestuous relationship during their early years. The third important figure in a life of homosexuality, drug-addiction and opposition to the Nazis, was the great German actor Gustaf Gründgens, Erika’s first husband, whom she divorced.

A profound dissatisfaction with a life that he was impotent to change drove Klaus from country to country. After Paris, his initial place of exile from the Nazis, he sojourned briefly in Switzerland and the Netherlands before becoming a citizen of Czechoslovakia and then the USA. Finally, he was back in postwar Germany as a newspaper reporter. It was in Cannes in 1949 that he killed himself with an overdose of heroin at the early age of 42.

Clearly Massie’s chief problem has been how, in so short a space, to impose some sort of coherence on a life so chaotic. The other problem has been the amount already written about Klaus — in his autobiography, in his novel Mephisto (about his lover Gründgens), and by subsequent biographers. Massie does not attempt a chronological story but shuttles adroitly between separate periods in the life of his hero. The evocation of transient pick-ups, days of despair, and the obsessive craving for drugs, sex and drink is beautifully sustained; but those not familiar with the framing events may well suffer intermittent confusion.

I found myself wishing for more about Gründgens, a character obsessed, like many actors, with himself and his career. He adroitly concealed his distaste for the Nazis and survived the war, his popularity intact. Whether he was heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual is still a matter for dispute. No doubt Allan Massie decided to convey so very little about him because others, particularly Klaus, have already conveyed so much.

The remaining stories in the collection, rarely more than half a dozen pages in length, are usually miracles of compression. But sometimes this compression turns a story into the literary equivalent of one of those parties at which too many guests, jostling and screeching, are crowded together in a room far too small to hold them all comfortably. A case in point is ‘Venetian Whispers’, about the rumoured existence of some Turner drawings that show Byron rogering Margarita Cogni and being ridden by a curly-headed Venetian boy.

One of the shortest of these short stories, ‘Bertram’s Funeral’, begins: ‘They knew him in the village as “the writer”, but none of them had read his books.’ Massie here seems to be speaking from his own heart. Why does the public at large not better know this supremely elegant stylist, so masterly in every genre?