Es geht uns gut (We’re Doing Fine)
Carl Hanser Verlag, August 2005, 392 pp.
Winner of the German Book Prize
This novel begins on 16 April, 2001, with thirty-sixyear- old Philipp Erlach starting to clear out the pigeon droppings from the attic of a villa he has inherited from his grandmother in the suburbs of Vienna. He’s not thrilled by much in life: not by his tepid, erratic love-life with a married woman and occasionally the post-woman; nor with his half-hearted stabs at writing, nor this latest chore – the clearing out of the old family home. Why should he care? And yet, the ghosts of the past make their presence felt more strongly than he imagined possible.
The title of the novel is a reference to the years when the Austrian Post Office absurdly granted a reduction of two Austrian shillings to writers of postcards who kept their messages to fewer than six words (‘as though more words would add to the weight of the postman’s load’). It is of course ironically intended, for none of the three generations of Philipp’s family covered by the book can be said to be ‘doing well’. Philipp – convoluted, narcissistic, hypochondriac, post-modern, post-political, post-familial – is showing every sign of being the end of the dynasty.
We experience grandfather Richard when the bigwig days of his post-war government position are gradually giving way to a creeping senility which is cruelly comic to watch and the relationship to his daughter has become increasingly difficult and distanced. The lot of the middle generation isn’t particularly cheering either. Philipp’s father is a drifter, scarred perhaps by his first-hand experience of his army’s defeat by the Russians in Vienna in April 1945, while his wife, Philipp’s mother, is of that successful new brand of women holding down a career and motherhood at once. Her death during a boating excursion seems to be an accident, but fits into the mould of passivity characteristic of the younger generations of this family story.
Arno Geiger’s considerable forte is getting into the head of his creations, whether male or female – his character studies are outstanding. There’s much in this novel that deserved the accolades.