A neo-gothic novella dripping with creepy.
It’s 1905 (or is it?) and Paul Severin, a gnostic painter, sits on a train through the Black Forest. His ultimate goal is a small village where he once met a mysterious girl called Talitha by a pond in a clearing in the woods. On the train, another young(ish) man starts speaking to him, by the name of Algernon Blackwood. He spent years at a boy’s boarding school in the same village, and is also heading back to find out what happened to this mysterious girl who seems more like a woodland nymph than anything human. It turns out that they met the same girl twenty years apart, and she hadn’t aged a day. The story is in the late 19th century Gothic tradition- laced with folklore, the supernatural, quaint language, curses, boarding schools, art, philosophy and middle-class men. The author, Pechmann, is a translator from English specialising in 19th century novels. It’s not surprising that his writing shows clear traces of this literary style and moment.
The story is short (around 170 pages) and it felt rather compact. It didn’t waste any time. At the same time, it was so dense that I sometimes had to re-read whole pages, especially because Pechmann uses shifting times and perspectives to his advantage. This book is unapologetically clear as mud, and you have to love it for what it is.
There was a huge amount of references among the pages, ranging from occultist and late 19th century symbolism and spiritualism in Paris, to Yenish travellers, old Black Forest folklore, theology, Gnostic philosophy and art history. I love my art, but I don’t particularly love philosophy or theology. Although it felt like there was a reference embedded every other sentence, they were deftly woven into the story so it never felt like too much. It never felt like Pechmann was laying it on too thick or showing off his knowledge for the sake of it. At the same time, I think it would be difficult to love this book if you are not an art lover or interested in the supernatural, the theology isn’t quite so important.
However, as a translator, I absolutely adored the passage detailing Severin’s experiences in the bookshop where he re-examines a passage in the Bible in German translation and in its Greek original, which explains the Biblical Talitha’s resurrection from the dead. I thought to myself, this would be difficult to translate if the words chosen aren’t as controversial in English versions, and wow, this is how you incorporate a translation problem into a novel. Interpreting a single verb in a positive or negative light could hold the key to unlocking the mystery of Talitha. I would then be trying to translate a passage about a translation problem? Very meta.
I absolutely loved the supernatural elements to the story. Talitha is never quite explained, she’s some kind of immortal/possibly human dead/alive ghost/vampire Yenish girl who seems to be able to induce timeslips by her mere presence? I still wasn’t sure after finishing the book, and I think I’ll have to read it again to make my mind up. I am a huge fan of a good ghost or horror story, and while this was certainly creepy, it was never gory and it never felt cheap.
The Yenish elements in the story were also incredibly enjoyable. It can feel like such a stereotype to cast a gypsy (I am half Romani, and for me, gypsy is not offensive, so I’m using it, suck it up) girl as ‘mysterious’ and ‘other’, but Severin’s Yenish background lessened the othering to me to an acceptable level. His own experience (and being able to speak her language) helped Talitha to open up, and he ultimately possibly ‘freed’ her. Nothing in this book is particularly certain.
And lastly, Pechmann’s handling of languages was beautiful. He’s a linguist himself, and I only really think multilingual authors actually do justice to language barriers in books. So many authors skim over language barriers without addressing them or turning them into an opportunity for narrative play (while I’m sitting there thinking, hey, how come this white settler is communicating with this Native American chief without any communication errors or grammatical differences, either the settler is speaking fluent Cherokee or the chief is speaking fluent, idiomatic English, neither of which is particularly likely seeing as its the 1700s and these groups do not have much contact. I think I’m going to put this book down and find another one now.). So I was so jazzed to read a book which really maximises language differences. There’s a smattering of English in there, as well as French, Yenish and Black Forest dialects, all of which lead to miscommunications and puzzles. Yay languages!
There are few lowlights for me, but the persistent male gaze is probably my only problem with the book. I get it, 19th century literature was obsessed with beautiful, mysterious ‘muses’ who turned out to be really flat characters, but I’m not sure if this novel is subverting or challenging this at all rather than just perpetuating it. In places, it felt very boyishly Old Etonian in its objectification of the only female character. She is their inspiration, their muse. She doesn’t mind getting naked and swimming around in the woodland pond amongst the waterlilies. She’s flighty, ethereal and doesn’t speak much. She’s a male fantasy. Is this still okay, or is this just tired? An overdone trope? Or is Pechmann satirising this fantasy – it’s all in their heads, she doesn’t actually exist? I can’t decide.