Three 1930s novels I read in the last twelve months

Juan Emar – Yesterday (Peirene) translated by Megan McDowell

“My thoughts were more or less along these lines: ‘What could an ostrich matter to me?”

Álvaro Yáñez Bianchi, who wrote under the pen name Juan Emar, was associated with surrealists and Dadaists in Santiago and Paris. And actually, that bit of information probably gives you a better idea of what Yesterday is like than any description of the plot I could give. (the plot is, a man and his wife go to various places and events during a day).

Nowadays ‘surreal’ has become a synonym for ‘weird’ but surrealism was a way of looking at a world too brutal to be viewed directly. The mood of Yesterday, with its public executions and zoos and green-and-red canvases is one of unease and dread, with a narrator who questions every facet of reality until even the act of questioning takes on an unreality. Which possibly makes it sound really academic and humourless, which it isn’t. Well, maybe academic, but with some great jokes. I loved it.

Irmgard Keun – After Midnight (Penguin Modern Classics) translated by Anthea Bell

“These days, it means quite a lot if a desperate man, ready for anything, refrains from killing someone else.”

As much as the narrator of Yesterday is cursed to over think every tiny thing he experiences, the narrator of After Midnight (published in 1937, in, and about, a Germany already a long way along the path to collective madness) is surrounded by experiences she wishes she didn’t have to think about. It is a novel populated by people who know anything they say or do could be reported to the authorities. Where a sense of hopelessness is beginning to permeate every human interaction.

And yet, because the novel is also an incredible character study and there is a lightness to the prose that is hard to describe, After Midnight is so much more than a state-of-the-nation novel. Halfway through the book it was already safely one of my favourite novels of the first half of the twentieth century and I was making plans to buy all of Keun’s other novels. Then it rained while I was out and my book got soaked. So now I have plans to buy all of Keun’s other novels and another copy of After Midnight.

George S. Schuyler – Black No More (Penguin Classics Science Fiction)

“She believed the Bible from cover to cover, except what it said about people with money”

Schuyler has a pretty muddled reputation. His political journey from socialism to a conservatism so strong that by the sixties he opposed any action against apartheid South African made him a controversial, and often isolated, figure. But, reissues of Black No More, his 1931 novel, written long before his political opinions lurched to the right, have cemented his importance in the evolutions of science fiction and Afrofuturism.

I am, in several ways, hugely under-qualified to assess Schuyler’s politics or his place in the canon, so I’m not going to do either. I quite enjoyed the book though. Like most satires, it probably has a bit too much of the fuck-the-world-and-everybody-in-it attitude, and is too focussed on its argument, to work as pure story. But as the world is still plagued by racism and people still use organised religion for their own gain, that might be a moot point. His arguments, whether right or wrong, are still relevant.


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