Two years ago, I reviewed Takis Würger’s The Club whose exploration of entitlement through the appalling behaviour of an Oxford University boxing club struck horribly familiar chords. Stella, his new novel, also tackles discomfiting territory this time through a love story about a wealthy young Swiss man and the beautiful artists’ model he meets in wartime Berlin.
I was a young man with money and a Swiss passport who had thought he could live in the middle of this war without having anything to do with it
Friedrich grows up desperately trying to please his mother who is keen for him to realise her own frustrated artistic ambitions while following in the footsteps of her German father who drank the family fortune away. He’s lonely child, instilled by his often absent father with a need for truth and filled with a longing for travel. When he hears rumours of disturbing events in Germany, he takes himself off to Berlin. The city is festooned with swastikas, papers are constantly checked and neighbourhoods are routinely stripped of their Jewish inhabitants but the opera house is full every night and oysters are available to the few that can afford them. When he attends a drawing class, he meets Kristin. Unlike anyone he’s known before, she’s bold, beautiful and a talented jazz singer performing in the Melodie Klub, one of the fabled nightclubs that drew Friedrich to Berlin. There he encounters Tristan, an eccentric, aristocratic jazz fan who becomes a friend of sorts. As Friedrich and Kristin fall in love, she visits him daily, luxuriating in the hotel’s comfort but never staying the night. Half-way through this brief novella, Kristin becomes Stella, revealing her real identity. By the end of it, Friedrich begins to understand that he has no idea what the truth is or what he has become caught up in.
In this country, only the pretty stories are rumours. The ugly ones are all true
At just short of two hundred pages, Würger’s novel is brief but extraordinarily powerful. Given its dedication to his great-grandfather who died in the camps, it also feels very personal. The novel is structured by month, each one opened with a summary of events in which Nazi atrocities and diktats are interspersed with random trivia, making them all the more chilling. Friedrich tells his own story, his narrative punctuated with witness statements detailing betrayals of Jews written in cold, stark legalese, the source of which is revealed in the author’s note at the end of the book. He’s the novel’s moral compass, a thoughtful man who notices things, aghast at what’s taking place around him yet deeply in love, his naivete countering Stella’s complexity and contradictions. Würger’s writing is spare and vividly evocative, the luxury enjoyed by Friedrich and Stella in stark contrast to the depredations of the war raging outside. The Club left me impressed and admiring but Stella is even better. I wonder what Würger will tackle in his third novel.
Grove Press UK: London 9781611854497 197 pages Trade Paperback