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The incommensurability of death then is the dominant theme and determines the style and content. Alice avails herself of the modern world, phoning for taxis, visiting cafés and state-of-the-art hospitals, yet these are the limits of reference. There is only one reference to literature, an unnamed SF novel being read by her husband. It is as if the loss of religious context has also emptied art and literature of consolation; the fate of art has followed the fate of theology. It has disappeared, more or less. However, while characters have bland, pan-European names and live in bland, pan-European cities, as if to emphasise the universality of the incommensurable, there’s only so much that can be drained from the particulars of place and time before it disappears into silence. As well as evoking obscure pathos, such motifs and metaphors inevitably invoke a tradition.

For example, in an otherwise insignificant moment, an unidentified, “multi-legged” insect drowns in Alice’s latte macchiato. The readerly impulse here is to recognise a possible allusion to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, and thereby to appreciate the implications of this absurd event. We may ask: is German literature drowning in consumer culture? Instead, or in addition, we ought to admit the tension this moment generates, when literature tries to exhaust literature by means of literature...

Steve Mitchelmore reviews Alice by Judith Hermann.

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