Judith Schalansky: An Inventory of Losses
To my mind, Rebecca Solnit’s books are a perfect read for a train journey. (Train journeys. Remember them?) Her long, elliptical sentences ask you to sink into them, far away from distractions. I always go away feeling stretched, challenged, fired up by new thoughts and intriguing ideas. Solnit is best known for her essays (most notably Men Explain Things To Me, which sparked the coining of the phrase “mansplaining”), but personally I love her longer form work best, particularly A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Solnit meanders from memoir to art history, psychogeography to myth, and she invites us to join her on her wanderings.
If anything, German author Judith Schalansky meanders even further than Solnit does. Like Solnit, she can inhabit any subject matter – from silent film to natural history. And also like Solnit, her wanderings aren’t just metaphors but are embedded in place and landscape: the reader joins her as she follows the source of the river Ryck, finding spring along the way, or loses herself in the Alps.
Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses (tr. Jackie Smith), which appeared in English last year, takes a different ‘loss’ as a starting point for each chapter: the Caspian tiger, the disappeared island of Tuanaki, Armand Schulthess’s remarkable sounding ‘encyclopaedia in the wood’, to name just three. Some chapters hone in on their subject matter with meticulous research, complimented by a refreshing frankness about the blanks research can’t fill. Other chapters peer at their subjects side-on, in elliptical, sometimes unnerving short stories, which offer up surprising connections when you examine them more closely. Hats off to Jackie Smith, whose elastic translation shifts seamlessly between Schalanksy’s different genres, voices and modes – a particularly remarkable feat, given that this is her first literary translation.
Perhaps my favourite chapter responded to Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s lost film The Boy in Blue, in a queering of Greta Garbo:
“The perfect choice to play the girl who turns Dorian Gray’s head. Heavenly! That would have been it! Monroe as Sybil and she herself as Dorian. Yes, that would’ve been it, the perfect comeback role … The great Garbo, ruined by the little Monroe … Goddammit, that would’ve been it. And she’d known it.”
I mean, who wouldn’t want to watch that movie?
I have to confess, I was a little nervous when I started An Inventory of Losses (despite the absolutely gorgeous book design, by Schalansky herself). The preface, on graveyards and loss and memory, was rather more sombre a read than I might have wished. Where Solnit offers bright horizons full of hope, Schalanksy’s landscapes are streaked through with slate grey. But just two chapters in and that apprehension had faded: Schalansky’s vivid storytelling and her evident passion for her subjects had me drinking in the text, turning the pages eagerly, and slightly bereft when a chapter came to a close.
About the authorAnnie Rutherford is an incorrigible bookworm and Jill of all (word-based) trades. She is the programme co-ordinator at StAnza (Scotland’s international poetry festival), a German-English literary translator, and runs Lighthouse Bookshop’s Women in Translation book group, among other things. She has been known to read while cycling (she does not recommend it), and can spot a misplaced apostrophe at a distance of fifty yards.
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