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I’m glad Marek van der Jagt is a Viennese philosopher, because he has a very small penis—a “big toe,” “half a pinky”—and it’s “slowly disappearing.” He fantasizes about taking the potato peeler to it; a plastic surgeon won’t enlarge it (not small enough). The trouble is those lovely girls from Luxembourg with whom he was to experience l’amour fou (Milena: “Andrea . . . Come look at this . . . ” Andrea: “You have the penis of a dwarf”). That messes him up a great deal. But who is “him”?
Likely not Marek van der Jagt, the Viennese philosopher who wrote The Story of My Baldness, which “Marek van der Jagt,” philosopher and tutor of learning-disabled children, admits “could just as easily have been called The Story of Wasted Talent” but excuses by invoking Mom’s sage words: “When you’re standing in a darkened corner of the room, you can’t expect to draw a map of the city.” It’s narrator van der Jagt who writes of the advantages of putting down the “official version” of his mother’s death under the rubric of fiction, but asks how it feels “when your lie becomes the truth to the rest of the world, a truth that has even made the papers.” How long it took for the gears to turn I don’t know, but when the judges of a prestigious debut-novel prize discovered that van der Jagt—who’d dismissed Dutch novelist Arnon Grunberg in the papers—was really Grunberg (who won the prize a decade ago), I hope they didn’t question their judgment. (They rescinded the honor.)
Baldness is filled with cracks about an industry obsessed with the next big thing—a publisher calls van der Jagt’s stepmother (whose debut, How Old Women Can Get Rich, became an international bestseller) “a mouthpiece for a forgotten generation”—but the comically melodramatic story doesn’t trip over motive. It’s weird and moving despite itself: a light-handed perpetual piss-take.
Grunberg’s Phantom Pain, ignored when it was published in translation earlier this year, is something else. It’s not light, but funny in a retch-in-the-gutter sort of way: It sours, like real literature. Many have recorded art’s futile urgency, but rarely so blithely. There’s hardly a mention of the actual business, a few macho aphorisms: “For the writer, life was a tainted mussel . . . already in your mouth, but you could spit it up just in time, before the food poisoning really kicked in.”
This comes from the book-within-a-book The Empty Vessel and Other Pearls, the last heretofore unpublished work of the high-living, increasingly broke and uninspired Robert G. Mehlman—author of a standout debut (268th in the World, out of print) about his father’s ill-fated tennis career (a bad call prompted him to chomp an opponent’s calf at Wimbledon, resulting in a lifelong ban), the Sydney Brochstein cycle (out of print), and other works (out of print). His son, Harpo Saul (“my parents had discussed the advantages of having an abortion”), gives the intro and conclusion, providing a mini-bio of a man who sacrificed everything not for the book, but to the book.
E.g., after another of Mehlman’s psychiatrist wife’s patients kills himself, a parental fight ensues and Harpo writes a letter to God. Mehlman finds the letter and publishes a “reply” along with other doting Letters to Harpo. Empty Vessel, if merely a chronicling of his actual life (how he met his wife at an all-night deli, whiffs of “existential loneliness,” his affair with the titular “Empty Vessel”), betrays a writer who’s garrulous, undaunted, but clearly unsure of his craft (“Chimneysweeps don’t foreshadow anything, do they?”). His memory is “in [his] balls,” and so’s his writing, and Grunberg brings the two together when an impotent Mehlman attempts to masturbate in the bathroom at a performance of Wozzeck, his “weenie . . . getting smaller and bloodier.” But, he thinks, “the blood on my hands made me truly masculine.”
Throughout, Grunberg seems willing to use the page, to profane it in such a way that the whole ostensible profundity of the thing, the novel or whatever, is blown apart—mentions of hangnails, addenda, maxims that only skirt cliché because really self-truths are always rote. As for Mehlman, he never writes his opus, instead producing the “literary cookbook” Polish-Jewish Cuisine in 69 Recipes, “genius” according to critics, and now in its 34th edition.