Arno Geiger won the very first German Book Prize in 2005 with Es geht uns gut, (We are doing fine, translated by Maria Poglitsch Bauer, Ariadne Press, 2011), and is one of the best-known authors in the German-speaking world. The Happy Secret charts the author’s incredible evolution from a rubbish-collector rooting through Vienna’s bins – a self-confessed ‘vagabond, a tramp, … a nobody’ – into a distinguished literary figure.
The author lets readers into his secret life: hours of sifting through refuse and recycling bins in Vienna over twenty-five years, principally in search of written material. Geiger is simultaneously fascinated and ashamed by what he is doing, and horrified at the idea that his parents might find out about his secret. He explores the significance of what people throw away, observing how the composition of the city’s rubbish changes over time and considering what this tells us about society, as well as touching on the ethical question of collecting rubbish.
Geiger describes his early years as a writer – how he develops his clandestine habit from the age of twenty-four, and how the books and letters that others have thrown away have a positive influence on his writing. The book is also a meditation on relationships, life and death, with excursuses on his aging parents, in which he returns to the subject matter of The Old King in His Exile (translated by Stefan Tobler, And Other Stories, 2017).
Geiger’s father suffers from dementia and later dies; his mother, long separated from his father, suffers a stroke and subsequently requires the author’s constant care. The author’s progress as a writer is interwoven into the narrative, with descriptions of awards, workshops and publications as they occur. These various strands are organised into unnumbered chapters.
This is an entertaining, highly readable, bravely honest and beautifully written book, offering a fascinating insight into how Geiger has collected and filtered material for his novels. He highlights the value of the authentic writing he finds in old discarded letters, which he contrasts with the sometimes arch, overworked language of fiction.
Very few authors are prepared to let readers into their private lives with such candour and wit. The Happy Secret is already a bestseller in Germany: an excellent book, concisely written and refreshingly different from most autobiography.
Rights sold: Sweden, Lindelöws.