On Worthiness and The Cult of Personality

TheColliniCaseSchirachF20308_fThe second novel shortlisted for this year’s International Dagger Award for translated crime fiction that I’ve managed to read is Ferdinand von Schirach’s THE COLLINI CASE. It is virtually a novella – at 190 pages of large-ish font and loads of white space – which makes it difficult to review meaningfully without committing the sin of spoiling and that just won’t do. If you want some details Mrs Peabody Investigates offers the best, spoiler-free synopsis I’ve seen of the book as well as providing some interesting discussion points. For a brief sense of what the novel is about I will say it concerns the legal case that eventuates when one man murders another in a luxurious Berlin hotel. The murderer never makes any claim to his innocence nor offers any motive for his brutal actions.

The judges’ comments published along with the shortlist for the aforementioned Award come into play with respect to this novel

“Questions of quality led to two long discussions by the judging panel: one is whether a socially important book which is otherwise not exceptional in originality or aesthetic quality is, nonetheless, an ‘outstanding’ book…Crime fiction can alert its publics to failures in laws and law enforcement, on the street, in the courts, and in legislation. It can perform the work of historical memory and bring injustices to public attention. Three of the shortlisted books raise these questions: one performs the work of publicity and has called the attention of its society to a questionable change in its laws…”

It is, I now assume, this novel which achieved that undoubtedly remarkable feat, apparently causing a sensation in Germany when released there in 2011 due in part to the alarming legal loophole it identified.

I applaud the Award judges for giving due consideration to the complex question of whether or not the social worthiness of a book can, or should, outweigh its literary merits but I think, on balance, I would not agree with the affirmative argument. THE COLLINI CASE is a very readable novel and a perfectly competent one but as a work of crime fiction it is not, in my opinion, outstanding. In fact in some ways it is absolutely mundane. It relies heavily on absurd coincidences for its drama, the broad truth of the suspenseful element at the heart of the book is not terribly difficult to imagine from the outset, it is distant and cold in its tone and it has several scenes which are completely pointless (the most memorable of these being the long, graphically detailed description of the murdered man’s autopsy which includes providing the weight of each of his organs). I love crime novels which explore social themes or shine a light on some element of our collective history or behaviour which demands scrutiny but I am wary of awarding books which do this without also offering the quality of storytelling and character development that we demand of other novels. I would not like to see a trend towards rewarding those who spruik for a cause at the expense of those who are great craftspeople.

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My first inkling that there was something notable about Ferdinand von Schirach was a comment by Norman Price from Crime Scraps Review when he pondered this year’s International Dagger shortlist

It is a bittersweet irony that the first ever Israeli crime novel to be shortlisted D.A. Mishani’s The Missing File appears alongside a book by the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, Reichhsjugendfuhrer and then Gauleiter of Vienna, a man who served 20 years for crimes against humanity. No one could blame author Ferdinand von Schirach for the terrible crimes of his grandfather, but equally I don’t believe he can absolve his family name by writing novels, however well intentioned.

I don’t know enough about the players involved to know if absolving his family’s name was part of von Schirach’s intent in writing the book but what this got me thinking about was how much we know about an author can play into how we feel about their writing.

These days it is almost impossible for the humble reader to avoid coming into direct contact with authors. Even if you don’t attend the many festivals, conventions and online hangouts occurring every week in some corner of the real or virtual world you can – in fact are often demanded to – follow authors on Facebook, twitter and their blogs and even the relatively disengaged reader could get a sense of an author’s personality and often their politics with only a modicum of ‘research’ (i.e. googling).

But is all this a positive thing? Should THE COLLINI CASE be judged on anything that occurs outside the novel? Should Ferdinand von Schirach’s family history or current behaviour play any role when considering the merits of the book? I’d argue quite vehemently in the negative but I also know it is often difficult to separate what one knows about a person from what that person does. I’m still annoyed that I found Susan Hill’s politics so objectionable in a newspaper column I stumbled across online that I felt the need to stop reading her Simon Serrailler series even though I’d enjoyed the first two immensely. And conversely, in those instances where I do ‘know’ an author in some way and find myself liking them I sometimes wonder if my feeling towards the person influences how I feel about their writing. I suspect I am in the minority of readers who is wary of literary festivals and generally avoids author interviews, Facebook pages and the like because really all I want to do is read, not worry about whether or not the author of the book I love is a wonderful human being or an utter pratt.

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As for whether or not to read THE COLLINI CASE I think it’s a good (not great) novel that most readers will enjoy. It is deliciously short and the scenes involving the legal complexities of the case offer brilliant, compelling reading. If you are going to read it I advise avoiding the blurb and almost every review I’ve seen of it unless you’re comfortable starting out with no element of suspense at all.

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37 Responses to On Worthiness and The Cult of Personality

  1. Jose Ignacio says:

    I’m reading The Collini Case over this w/e Bernadette and I’ll be reading your post after writing mine. So far so good.

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  2. Kathy D. says:

    Wow, you raise some very thought-provoking questions here, which is a good thing. We have to think about the books we’re reading, the quality, characters and yes, the broader social issues that may be the focus of the plot. I’m glad you raised all of this. Readers will probably have different views about these points.
    I first was interested in The Collini Case after reading the eminent blogger, Maxine Clark’s review of it last year. I’ve intended to read it ever since, but a copy has not found its way into my city’s library system. I’ve waited to purchase one but now I will do so in order to read it and think through these issues.
    I’ve also read Mrs. Peabody’s post about it and the comments that followed. Her analysis then further encouraged me to read the book, as she dealt with critical moral questions, which arose during WWII and its aftermath.
    I’m going to reserve judgment on whether or not a book can be nominated for a prize based on the social, legal and moral issues it brings to the fore, until after I read it. The way Maxine told it, the courtroom scenes were riveting and good.
    So, I will pursue getting a copy and reading it, and then come back here to comment.
    I’m inclined to think the CWA judges were entitled to nominate this book because of its important content and message, but I’ll suspend judgment until I’ve read it.
    Thank you, though, for your thought-provoking blog.

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    • Such a shame that your library isn’t keeping up with the translated novels Kathy – I was lucky enough to get this one from my own library system.

      I shall be interested to hear what you think when you read it. The legal procedural part of the novel is definitely excellent, the problem for me is that this is a relatively small component of the novel.

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  3. Mrs P. says:

    Thanks for the link, Bernadette, and for your fascinating post and the questions you raise. I was particularly intrigued by the judges’ discussion about worthiness of content vs quality of the work – thanks for flagging this up (and will now add to my own post). I’d be inclined to agree with your position, but do find The Collini Case particularly interesting – and highly unusual – in that it was the catalyst for public discussion about certain aspects of criminal legislation (and I can see that this might have influenced the judges).

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    • I guess why this worries me a little Mrs P is that I wouldn’t know any of this about the book’s wider influence just from reading the novel. Indeed if it had been translated upon publication none of the book’s social influence could have been considered by the judges of that year’s International Dagger award as it wouldn’t have happened yet.

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  4. A really interesting post, with great points raised. I think I agree with most of what you say. And I say the word “think”, because, yes, it is a bit of a messy minefield to be walking about in.

    My main agreement is with your point in the negative for being short listed. Yes, the book has a valid reason for short listing, but if the writing doesn’t hold it’s place, then surely it shouldn’t be there. It needs to be a well written book about an important event. The judges say its not. Odd. I would however, be interested in reading it now, just to see for myself. Which I’m sure many people will and this will bolster the book no end.

    I also agree that if I find an author an odious person I won’t read their work. It seems as though I can then see them seeping through it.

    Do I avoid them though? No. It’s the authors own risk how they present themselves. They have to know this happens. If they’re willing to be exactly who they really are, without putting on a front, one – good for them, two – they must know if that real them is off putting, they do run the risk of losing readers. I love knowing and meeting authors. My experience has mostly been positive.

    Great post. I’m going to share 🙂

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    • Rebecca on the issue of avoiding the authors whose non-writing personality/beliefs don’t sit well with me I am not consistent – in the case of the author I mention in my post though my strongest desire was not to give her any more money by buying her books

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  5. Norman Price says:

    Bernadette, I do not think I could read The Collini Case with an open mind, and make a fair assessment of the book’s worth. It would be too difficult to dissociate the author from the horrendous crimes of his grandfather. I accept that as a fault on my part.
    But if it were to win the International Dagger I may have second thoughts.

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    • Oh it’s not a fault Norman…it’s human nature..I have done it myself for far less sensible reasons. Personally.I had no knowledge of his horrid grandfather before reading your post (my limited knowledge of WW2 history tends to be more focused on the Pacific than Europe) and so I did not feel that visceral reaction but I can understand it.

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  6. Pingback: #25 / Ferdinand von Schirach, The Collini Case | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  7. Sarah says:

    Interesting post Bernadette. I read the book, but for some reason didn’t review it on my blog. I enjoyed it but that’s probably as far as I’d go. It didn’t excite me although I could see how it was innovative.

    Your comment about the personality of authors reminds me of the time I had coffee with Maxine. She told me she didn’t care if she never met an author in her life. She was interested in the book. I miss the coolness of thought that came with her reviews. She didn’t care if someone was a nice chap. If the book was rubbish, she said so. Maxine, you are missed.

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    • Oh indeed she is missed Sarah…I was thinking of her as I wrote this post because it is a subject we did agree on and we had many chats about it – we once discussed the idea of a readers festival – where we could get the elements we like from writers festivals (i.e. meeting like-minded readers) but didn’t have to run the risk of meeting authors 🙂 Which is not to suggest all (or even most) authors I’ve met aren’t perfectly lovely people, but rather I prefer a book to stand on its own mertis.

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  8. Kathy D. says:

    Maxine’s review of The Collini Case is up at Petrona, which thankfully has been saved in its entirety. I reread it last night after reading this. It’s listed under her 2012 book reviews.
    Well, this post sent me to order the book, and it’s on the way.

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    • Hope you think it’s worth it Kathy…I just noticed that it’s not published in the US until next month which is probably why your library doesn’t have it yet

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  9. Rebecca says:

    The debate about aesthetic quality vs. social importance makes me think about why I had to read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair in undergrad. It’s not a well-written work, but the expose of the meatpacking industry led to the creation of the US Food and Drug Administration. I think what I’m trying to say is that I think it’s fine to shortlist the novel because it’s social impact outweighs its writing (just like I think it’s fine to add a muckraking piece of work like The Jungle to a college syllabus), but it’s probably not worthy of winning.

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    • That’s an interesting thought Rebecca…another one I’ll have to think about as I go about my day. I guess I tend to think that any novel on a shortlist should be a worthy winner but perhaps I am being too rigid in my thinking

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  10. LauraR says:

    Fascinating discussion. I can see both sides of the argument on this one – I agree with Maxine’s review, I felt that the courtroom arguments/legal aspects of the book were so v well done, and that the rest of the book does seem a bit mundane by comparison. I thought that the end section was sufficiently strong to justify the inclusion on the Dagger shortlist but can see why others would think otherwise.

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  11. I haven’t read the book, but still find the discussion very very interesting – the issues are very general. Also – I’d love to know what you found objectionable in Hill? I don’t much like her, but it’s not her politics, it was a book she wrote called Howard’s End is on the Landing.

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    • Moira she wrote an op ed piece for the Spectator (published online) about how evil Oxxfam is because they were selling second hand books at the expense of other sellers – including other charity shops – she had a right go at the organisation based mainly on her own somewhat warped-feeling opinions rather than facts (some stupid assumptions about all Oxfam employees driving 4 wheel drives and so on) and when I started tracing her online presence back I realised she was a non-believer in climate change science and held other beliefs that I found stupid. I figured the only thing I could do was to not provide any more money for her 🙂

      Her original piece is not online anymore but our friend Maxine did a post about it http://petrona.typepad.com/petrona/2010/02/speaking-up-for-oxfam-and-for-those-who-seek-to-do-good.html which gives you a teeny sense of what prompted me to strike her from my reading list.

      i’ve not read the book you mention – and now I won’t

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      • OMG! I’d have thought there were few things someone could write that would put me off totally, but that would. Oxfam is one of the great organizations of our time, I would go to the wall for them. I respond to ill-founded criticism of them as if someone rubbished my children. So I couldn’t agree with you more! And that’s before we even start on climate change… I’m so glad I know that about her now.

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  12. Kathy D. says:

    You’ve won me over on Susan Hill. I would find her views objectionable, too. Oxfam does use its funding for social good. And climate change! What more proof does anyone need than what horrific changes are going on with the weather, including over here with hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.
    I bought The Collini Case for $9 and think it’ll be worth it as friends will share. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

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  13. angelasavage says:

    Great piece, Bernadette. I plan to link to it in a post I am preparing ahead of time as I gear up to promote my new novel.

    Personally, I am grateful to have my work published in this day and age, and I’m more than willing to do my part on social media and at writers festivals to encourage people to read it. But I wonder how it all became necessary.

    I think of the books I love and how little I know about their authors. Why has the identity of the author become relevant to selling books now? When did the writing cease to stand on its own merits?

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  14. Pingback: Review: The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach (Trans. Anthea Bell) | The Game's Afoot

  15. Jose Ignacio says:

    A fascinating post Bernadette. You have raised some excellent questions. I tend to think that this book is worth more for its social significance than for its narrative quality,

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  16. Barbara says:

    Fascinating. I guess I think a prize for “best” should probably carry with it some sort of definition of what “best” means. If it’s “best work of crime fiction” then it should define “best” in terms of how well it fulfills readers’ expectations of the genre rather than “best” in terms of literary quality (alone) or in terms of most influential on society or in terms of most popular or most profitable.

    In reality, all prizes have places where social and political and economic forces influence what gets on the short list and what doesn’t. I rather doubt that crime fiction by men is as consistently of higher quality than that by women, as the Edgar award for best novel would suggest (while I will also acknowledge how hard it is for volunteers to read the hundreds of new books and make those calls – I don’t believe for a minute they are prejudiced readers; it’s more complicated than that). It’s fairly obvious in the case of the Nobel prize for literature that literary quality isn’t the only criterion, but it’s part of all prize determinations, explicit or not. This case was unusual in that the judges themselves confessed to these influences – which must have left the nominees feeling a little nonplussed. (Is my novel among the best, or actually just barely good enough, or good, but not for the usual reasons, or …?)

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    • This is a thought provoking answer Barbara…thanks so much. I do agree that some more objective definition of ‘best’ would really be needed for a full assessment to be made…and of course objectivity in such cases is difficult to find. I’ve always quite liked the criteria for Australia’s biggest literary prize – the Miles Franklin award – which is for “the novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases” – which goes a little way to being objective but even so of late we have had much debate about winning novels which are set outside Australia and don’t even involve any Australian characters and whether or not such novels can be said to present Australian life simply because they are written by Australians.

      I am now on my first ever judging panel and can attest to the difficulties involved – avoiding personal preferences and prejudices having too much influence; trying to compare books of vastly different style, sub-genre and so on; not having any judging criteria to go on (I suspect this might be unique to our panel); wondering if one has enough broader knowledge of the genre to be a good judge of ‘best’ or ‘quality’or whatever.

      You’re right though that the judges’openness about their qualms has made this a more overt case of what probably goes on in all similar panels.

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  17. Kathy D. says:

    Interesting that “The Jungle” was brought up here as a book of social importance but not necessarily as a work of great writing. I read Upton Sinclair’s book when I was 13; it was the first “adult” work of literary and muckraking fiction I’d ever read. Decades later, I count it as one of my top 10 lifetime reads because it educated me on so many issues and elevated my knowledge and thinking. It left a lasting impression.
    I’ll read The Collini Case and then figure out my opinion of this book.

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    • I hadn’t even heard of THE JUNGLE before Rebecca mentioned it above…I am going to have to go and do a bit of research now.

      Hope you think your $9 is well spent on THE COLLINI CASE Kathy.

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  18. Kathy D. says:

    This is a fascinating discussion, whatever we all end up thinking about The Collini Case and whether it should have been nominated for the Dagger Award or whether or not it should win.
    I’m wondering if you, Bernadette, have read Anna Funder’s book All That I Am, which won the Miles Franklin Award.
    There are rave reviews of this book all over cyberspace, and then some criticisms of the writing. I haven’t read it but it brings up important political history and issues, also having to do with WW II and the resistance to Nazism. The writing has been praised but also criticized.

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    • Kathy I’ve not read ALL THAT I AM yet though I’ve had a copy for ages. It seems to come with so much pressure due to all the recommendations so I think I’ll leave it a while longer

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  19. Kathy D. says:

    Perhaps Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle is a classic to U.S. readers because it exposed horrific conditions in the meatpacking industry here. I remember that when I read it at 13 I became a vegetarian for awhile so powerful were the descriptions. I wonder if it resonates with readers outside this country.

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  20. Kathy D. says:

    I just finished The Collini Case, and am glad it was nominated for the CWA Dagger. It’s an important book, which stirred up much discussion inside Germany. Much of what is in it concerning prosecutions, actually legal protections of Nazi war criminals is actually quite shocking. What it says about international law during WWII is equally shocking.
    It’s essential that all of this history come out to public view.
    Even if it’s not a brilliant piece of literary writing, the legal issues are extremely important; the story must be told. And as a legal mystery, it’s a good one.
    I think the author was quite sincere in revealing all of this and objecting to the laws that exist to protect perpetrators of the worst cruelty.
    I first became interested in this book due to Maxine Clarke’s favorable review of it, and I agree with her sentiment.
    However, I think all of the discussion about it here, at Mrs. P.’s blog and elsewhere is all good. It forces us all to think more deeply on so many levels.
    I’m still shocked at much of the book’s content.

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    • Kathy I do agree that the legal issues raised in THE COLLINI CASE are shocking – it would be nice to imagine that such things are consigned to the pages of history but I wonder…however modern day injustice is the topic for another day.

      Glad you felt reading the book was worthwhile

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