Nadja Spiegel, Sometimes I Lie and Sometimes I Don't, Trans. by Rachel McNicholl, Dalkey Archive Press, 2015.
Love, injury, deception, uncertainty, and self-sacrifice: debut author Nadja Spiegel is hardly the first person to write about these things, but the way she has written about them is incomparable. Constructing virtuoso depictions of life in a style that lets them get right under your skin, Spiegel's precise, brittle, seemingly straightforward prose paints a vibrant picture of human compromise and cooperation with both humor and restraint. Bittersweet, made up of just a few simple strokes, these stories herald the arrival of an important new voice in European literature.
Austrian author Nadja Spiegel’s debut collection of experimental short stories, Sometimes I Lie and Sometimes I Don’t, describes individuals struggling to retain their senses of individuality. In the coy story, “lisa and elias and me,” Ines involves herself in a casual sexual relationship with the same boy on whom her best friend crushes. She reasons that keeping her romantic affair secret is a form of loyalty to her friend’s happiness. Like most of Spiegel’s narrators, she resists attachment out of a desire to remain unfeeling. She affects nonchalance concerning Elias’ inattention. One begins to feel that her record of events is not just unreliable but overly forgiving on her own questionable decisions. There is also much self-abasement as a form of deflecting others’ acts of unkindness. This is in keeping with the young narrator’s knowing voice, one that is convinced of its own prescience. But her own jealousies emerge as Elias returns Lisa’s advances: “Sure he is, I say. Maybe he really is that kind of guy, I add and bite my tongue before I say the kitchen belongs to me. But what use is a tongue anyway? I’m not the kind of girl who needs a tongue; I’m not the kind of girl who has anything to say.” Here, Ines’ habitual diplomatic handling of Lisa’s innocence almost gives way to the articulation of her own possessive feelings about Elias. Ines is an unromantic lover for Elias’ convenience and for fretful Lisa’s sake, a believer in Elias’ dutiful courtship. But in truth, she is neither. She knows that among company, she is a sham. There is always the sense that Spiegel’s narrators are learning and relearning the rules of propriety; that they are struggling to negotiate public expectations. For this reason, her characters are hapless misfits, loners, or drifters. In the public sphere, they are forced into roles.
Among the protagonists in these fictions, most of the characters in orbit seem to happily admit all their duplicity as necessary role-playing in a dishonest world. By the story’s conclusion, Ines has managed the acting without consequence to either party. More importantly, she has also clung to her sense of herself as a girl who enjoys being romanced but understands that at her age, most boys’ attentions will be shallowly motivated. She deftly slips into roles and lucidly perceives the wants of others. Her confession, “Sometimes I lie and sometimes I don’t” is her recognition of this deftness. But Elias denies her the same tokens of affection he freely awards Lisa. The tragedy is that she craves approval from Elias against her knowledge that he cannot give her the profound sort of love that she desires. She understands “Elias is not the kind of guy who falls in love. He only loves, for instance.” Ines’ isolation, one of the necessary trials of adolescence, is more keenly felt because of her heightened sense of awareness.
The daughter-narrator in “how we forgive” also suffers from a sense of loneliness when the pieties afforded to the dead threaten a truthful commemoration of her mother. Spiegel complicates questions of decorum by suggesting that the girl accidentally caused her mother’s death while she was at the wheel. “how we forgive” is a story that seems to have been penned by the narrator in a precarious state of emotional instability. The self-consciousness typical of adolescence has been carried to a state of paranoia. Even the most mundane detail recalls to her the scene of her mother’s death: “In the restaurant later, when it’s dark, the men’s coats on the window ledges look like rolled-up dead kittens.” This is a narrator writing with a palsied hand and a fitful mind. She discloses her world with a lens unsteadied by the intensity of her emotions. The writing, characteristic of Spiegel, is a form of stream-of-consciousness, one that feels raw with the proximity of the experience described: “I sever my hands at the wrists, cut my cheekbones out of my face and pull my Achilles tendons out of my heels. I have two sets of each already, since my mother died.” There is desperation to this writing, as if all the contained self-hatred were finally allowed a means of expression. The daughter feels that the acknowledged rituals of mourning, whether the praise regarding the noble faces of the dead or certain trite consolatory phrases, falsely evoke her mother.
Spiegel is often preoccupied with the struggle of how to remember the dead, the difficulty of which Roland Barthes lamented in both Camera Lucida and Mourning Diary. The question asked in these stories is thus: How to preserve the memory of an individual against oblivion? Barthes believed in the power of the photograph as a representative evocation of his dead mother. “How we forgive” ends with the daughter attempting to write a story about her mother’s death. Writing as a form of healing in the wake of trauma is nothing novel. However, in this instance, the daughter writes in protest of the public codes of mourning that have depersonalized her mother to just another corpse awaiting burial. Ultimately, the daughter rejects the forgiveness offered her, but not as a matter of absolving herself. What irks the narrator is that to forgive an implicated individual is to ultimately construe death as the result of a logical series of events. It is to think that death can be rationalized, that it can be perceived as an understandable event. For the narrator, this sort of conventional thinking papers over the true senselessness of death. She writes that the other mourners “forgive for no reason.” The sentimental rituals of mourning do a disservice to the narrator by understating her experience of grief. The daughter’s evocation of her mother, to “pronounce her name as she was,” is motivated by a desire to vocalize the extent of her loss amidst all the suffocating pieties.
The strangled voice is a recurring theme in Spiegel’s varied fictions. In “fatherland,” a child yearns to hear his submissive mother articulate herself. Anne, in “meta plays the violin,” seeks acknowledgment from a more talented best friend. Denied confidants, most of these characters reflexively turn inwards, as if they were resigned to the immovability of their circumstances. What is curious is that even when systems of oppression are overthrown or subverted, these characters remain inarticulate. For instance, in “fatherland,” when the abusive father dies, Spiegel concludes with an image of the mother and son at the kitchen table both wordlessly fumbling in the dark: “They sit there until night comes. They don’t know what to do with the night.” An oppressive father described for them well-defined roles. It is an irony that when afforded the alternative — the freedom to speak without consequence — each cannot overcome their habitual reticence. These are voices that have been silenced to a lingering state of muteness. For Spiegel, the recovery of the individual voice after years of suppression is akin to the learning of a foreign tongue.
In this precocious collection, the tyranny of public spaces, the result of inviolable laws of behavior, polices these narrators from self-expression. One feels that most of these stories are diary entries logged by young men and women straining against their own invisibility. These thwarted children, with their voices unheard in lived life, recover their senses of personhood on the page. - Darren Huang
It’s difficult to write about Nadja Spiegel’s debut collection of very short stories: they’re so slippery. They “spool” and “rewind” (these are her words about the voice of “Ophelia”, who is old, but somehow also isn’t, until she’s dead and the whole thing is hardly resolved). The creations of the Austrian author, who is still in her very early 20s, can at first glance seem slight: vignettes of contemporary romantic and family relationships whose elusive protagonists do “nothing in particular” – until they reveal themselves as something a lot darker and more complex. At the start of her tales, most of which are told as internal monologues, it is often unclear how characters are related to each other, or even whether they are male or female.
Many feature doubles, twins, and couples without boundaries: where does one character start and the other finish? There is an intimacy that could be romantic but could be familial, which, in several stories does get too close for comfort. There is no difference between skin and skin, of sisters in particular: “We said nothing for so long that I couldn’t tell where my body ended and hers began.”
For Spiegel, bodies are unreliable indicators of personality. “We were actually pretty alike, we just had different shells,” says an ugly sister of the one she believes to be more beautiful. People are a mystery, because they are often not quite as they appear: “my problem,” says one narrator who has a relationship with her life-class model, “was trying to dissociate Milo’s outer shell from Milo himself.” When he, in turn, paints her: “The way he looked at me made my body irrelevant; it was an artist’s gaze.” She refuses to display the resulting abstract painting in case anyone sees “her” naked.
Spiegel writes on experiencing beauty as an observer who breaks the body down into spare parts in the name of love, or art. As they have only a glancing association with identity, the way bodies fragment is sometimes funny and sometimes horrific, but this fragmented sensibility also allows for moments of awkward sensuality: “Hannes pointed at my thigh, at the hole in my tights, and touched his index finger to my skin; it fit perfectly into the rim of the hole.”
There are many liminal states of dress and undress in the collection: characters are draped in nighties, sheets, towels. Evasive, fey as indie-pop, these are emo stories in which teenagers and twentysomethings make advances to each other via little compliments and gifts. Spiegel’s protagonists drink “hot milk and honey”, they eat Nutella, they offer “a packet of chocolate biscuits”. There are many small, cute things, that somehow turn big and dark, and the stories are littered with sudden images (and acts) of violence: “When Paula played the piano, her face was a derailed train.” There’s a lot of music in these stories and musicians, for music is an alternative to words, which are untrustworthy. Even the stories’ titles are set in shy (or petulant?) lower-case.
The inadequacy of language is particularly evident in Speigel’s mistrust of names: “For three weeks I never heard Malika say anything other than I am Malika,” says one narrator, who fails to know Malika any better via the use of that word. Sometimes Spiegel’s characters are called K and X; sometimes they are called “Marie” but at the same time, “Eiske”; sometimes just “the mother” and “the son”. This use of formalism links Spiegel to other Austrian writers, particularly Elfriede Jelinek, and Thomas Bernhard.
In the end, the collection is about the failures of language, especially to describe human identity: “I can’t find the words for the sentence. I can never find words for my sentences,” says one of Speigel’s protagonists. “And if someone were to ask me Whatisyourname, my answer would be: I don’t know,” says another.
What is left? Things that can be suggested, but not solved by anything Spiegel can put on the page. We’re left with an equation of coexistent facts, equal and opposite: “a) What everyone knows: Meta plays the violin. b) What no one knows.” - Joanna Walsh
Debut collection from an award-winning Austrian author, a fresh new voice in innovative fiction.
The themes explored in these very short stories are both timeless and quotidian: life and death, love and sex, family and friends. Narrators negotiate family and relationships and the uncertainties of young adulthood. What distinguishes Spiegel is her willingness to experiment with form and language. Her strengths as a stylist are what make her debut shine, and those strengths are all on display in “How It Is,” one of the most successful stories in this collection. Written in short bursts of memory and suppressed emotion, doubling back on itself to express feelings that are complex and inescapable, this story has an exquisite shape. The narrator is a young woman describing her sister. It’s not until the second page that the narrator states one of the fundamental facts of this narrative: “My sister is an actor.” The reader already knows this, but it’s clear that the narrator needs to say this—finally—even though she’s no more enthusiastic about her sister’s vocation than their bitter, willfully unhappy mother is. Like much experimental fiction, this story is short on action and devoid of plot, but it’s rich with the razor-sharp language of someone who would rather observe and record than talk: “What’s up? My voice sounds like birch bark, rough. If I peel it, it would sound like: Go away.” The reader doesn’t have to take “How It Is” as autobiography to believe that this protagonist who doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up might turn out to be a writer.
This collection is unlikely to bring new readers to experimental fiction, but fans of authors like Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus, and Jenny Offill will want to check it out. - Kirkus Reviews