Wolf Haas’s The Weather Fifteen Years Ago has the dual distinction of being the most obscure title on this year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist and also the most formally experimental. Although before you run away and hide, I should say right now and here that this is also one of the most readable and engaging titles on the longlist—despite its formalist tendencies.
Which, given Haas’s background, makes a bit of sense. Haas is most famous in Austria for his “Detective Brenner” crime novels that “present the exploits of a cantankerous ex-cop plagued by migraines” (according to Thomas S. Hansen’s afterword). The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, originally published in German in 2006, may be his first non-thriller, but the way in which the reader pieces together the plot from the five-day long interview between Wolf Haas and an anonymous female book reviewer, functions sort of like a mystery.
In the novel The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, Wolf Haas is being interviewed about a book he wrote with the same title that is more or less a prolonged story of unrequited love. The novel inside the novel revolves around one Vittorio Kowalski, who appears on a game show to show off his ability to remember what the weather was like in a particular small village in the Austrian Alps every day for the past fifteen years. In and of itself, this is a pretty remarkable, but the Haas of the novel knows that there’s something more to the story . . . Why would a man memorize the weather every day for some podunk town where his family once vacationed? (A: A girl. It’s always a girl.)
From this seemingly innocent, yet oddly compelling story, a whole world unfolds, one that’s both intricate in terms of its plot (there’s a lot more to this little summer love than one initially expects) and in terms of how the interviewer talks with (fictional) Haas about the way the (imaginary) book is written.
I know that sounds confusing, but here’s the opening page just to give you a sense of how easy it is to fall into this book and how many levels this works on:
BOOK REVIEW: Mr. Haas, I’ve been going back and forth for a long time about where I should start.
WOLF HAAS: So have I.
BOOK REVIEW: Unlike you, though, I don’t want to start at the end. Actually—
WOLF HAAS: Strictly speaking, I don’t start at the end either. I start with the first kiss.
BOOK REVIEW: But in a way that’s the whole point of the story you’re telling. Or, the way I see it, the goal toward which everything moves. Speaking strictly chronologically, it belongs at the end of the story. Your hero has been working toward this kiss for fifteen years, and in the end he finally gets it, but you don’t describe this scene at the end. Instead, you prefer to put it right at the opening.
WOLF HAAS: There were actually a few openings I liked better. My problem wasn’t so much the beginning, or how I should start, but where to put the kiss. You can’t just stick it at the end, where it belongs, so to speak. But that would be intolerable. When someone has been waiting for, or as you say, working toward, a kiss for fifteen years, and hten he finally gets it, how are you supposed to describe that?
BOOK REVIEW: While I was reading, I wondered if you were declaring war on the reviewer by moving the conclusion to the first page.
WOLF HAAS: That would have been pushing it too far.
This infamous kiss—described so precisely, clinically in Haas’s imaginary book—is what the Book Reviewer and (fictional) Haas then build to in their interview, and by the time you as a reader actually get there, the weight of the moment is incredible . . .
It’s a lot of fun to puzzle out the various plot points of the imaginary book under discussion, and I’d be interested in hearing from other readers as to whether they think the imaginary book is supposed to be all that well written. The Book Reviewer seems to have a lot of respect for it, and for (fictional) Haas’s writing, but at the same time, there are scenes she describes that seem interminably dry:
BOOK REVIEW: When you read this passage, it’s almost maddening how you describe the wedding guests in such a detailed way. Here, of all places, when all you want to know is if, and how, Vittorio Kowalski escapes, you lose yourself in the artistry of describing Anni’s wedding dress. When it first appeared three days ago, Anni called the color “vanilla.”
WOLF HAAS: Three days and seven hours ago, yes.
BOOK REVIEW: And now it says it was by no means vanilla. And then there follow some digressions about vanilla ice cream at the swimming pool and you even give the price of a scoop of vanilla ice cream at that time.
That’s what makes this book a lot of fun: to imagine the imaginary literary work behind all these allusions and discussions. And (the real) Haas does a marvelous job of making this feel like a genuine conversation. Sure, belief is suspended when you consider the idea of a book reviewer spending five days talking to an author about a single book (not to mention the implausibility of just how precisely she seems to know the book . . .), but still, the conversation flows and as the book progresses, it gets more and more engaging. The “metafictional” frame never distracts from the story. And speaking of the “metafictional” element, I’ll end with a long quote from Hansen’s afterword about this:
All metafiction confronts readers with clearly playful literary experiences. Haas chooses to do more than interrupt a plot line with meta-narrative or digression; he presents the whole narrative in this form. The result produces some intriguing puzzles to engage readers in constructing their own interpretations and even alternative story lines. The often argumentative conversation between the fictional author and the interviewer, in which they disagree about interpretation and even plot, establishes the unreliability of any narrative point of view. “Haas” claims to tell Vittorio Kowalski’s quest for love, and in doing so, he betrays an identification with his character so close that at one point the third person and first person pronouns merge: the narrator’s “he” (describing Kowalski) slips into “I.” To add to this shifting point of view, the time levels in the tale are also porous. The narrated sequence of events does not unfold chronologically but emerges according to the associative vagaries of interviewer and author—and both comment on this fact. Time is almost an exercise in praeteritio, which is driven by disclaimers like “we won’t mention the fact that . . .” or “I’ve cut a certain passage.” These strategies themselves generate new content and propel the reader through various associative digressions toward the dramatic climax.
Definitely worth reading.
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