The counterpoint to the movie I wrote of yesterday – The Great Beauty – is the book I’m currently reading – Going To The Dogs.
The Great Beauty is set in contemporary Rome, grand and ancient. It features the creative well-to-do leading a life of endless parties and dinners and intellectual discourse round and round. Going To The Dogs is set in Berlin during Weimar Germany, just after the stock market crash of 1929. It’s provocative and lewd and anything is possible.
On the surface, the protagonists could hardly be more different. One is a 65 year old Italian sophisticate and intellectual. The other is an unemployed German half his age. One has known success and has settled into a life of comfort and sensuality, as well as minor celebrity. The other is talented and intelligent, but lost in the mess and muck of an era in transition – before the Nazis. One leads a gilded life and possesses a manner of charming cynicism; the other is an affable moralist, but without a position in life, and no future.
The differences are obvious, but there is much that ties them together. The worlds they inhabit are vibrant and decadent, though in different ways. One has lost an essence and the other lacks it. Both are observers. Both experience a form of detachment. Both of them quest, one by belated circumstance, and the other by nature. And both possess that quality we called sensibility in the post yesterday.
I find them as two sides of the same coin, very different at first glance, but sharing fundamental attributes. I wonder if they met what they would think of the other, but in between them I find myself drawn to both.
In the case of Fabian, the protagonist of Going To The Dogs, the reasons for that are less clear than they were yesterday.
I like Fabian – he’s smart and thoughtful and a decent human being. He’s capable but unmotivated, though not because he’s lazy. His is more a existential lack of motivation, though he remains curious about what he finds in the world about him, and at times he’ll seek out difference as if to learn from it. He reminds me, in memory anyway, of Ulrich, from The Man Without Qualities. They’re the same age, and both are seemingly searching for the thing that might light them up inside. In their way, both are outsiders, though not by choice. It’s as if something present in most people is absent in them, though it doesn’t stop them from joining in and trying.
It’s a rich vein of literature this, particularly in European art over the last century. I can only guess that it coincides with much of progress and modernisation and conflict along the way which, in combination, have had the effect of drawing us further from the fundamental and numbing our sensibility. Along the way, some get lost in all the white noise. Which is one reason why the experience of lockdown lately has been so profound in some ways – much of the white noise has been muted, and other things heard.
It’s always appealed to me this trope, and think this is the basic story here. Jep, from The Great Beauty, has coddled himself in lifestyle. He’s given way to the white noise. Then he hears something through the noise and it harkenns to him things that were precious to him, but which he let go. In Fabian, he’s conscious of the white noise, though maybe it’s something he couldn’t articulate in so many words. He’s aware, all the same, of a basic distance between him and the world he has yet to reconcile. At times he thinks he will do the conventional but it appears the world is against him and won’t allow it. Even when he wishes it…
That’s a common part of this – fate has condemned…