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Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Story of Mr Sommer

suskind-story-mr-sommer If I had to describe this book in a single sentence I’d probably say: This is a children’s book for grownups. We all enjoy reading children’s stories. The lovely thing is that those of us who have been lucky enough to have children of our own get to extend that pleasure into adulthood without feeling silly reading to them. When you have a good look at it, I think you’d agree that children’s literature often deals with pretty adult issues, loneliness, prejudice, depression, and death just to mention four things, but it does so in a far more straightforward way than adult literature.

I’ve gone on a bit in recent reviews about authors who tell us stories but don’t tell us why. We see events unfurl before our eyes that we have no control over and we’re left after they’ve reached their inevitable conclusion none the wiser. Well I can remember that childhood was like that. I was witness to many things that I didn’t fully understand at the time. As a grownup I’ve since made determinations, added two and two together and gradually come to misremember the past as we all do attributing insights to our younger selves that were beyond us at the time. This is how I came to understand The Story of Mr Sommer. Unlike many children’s stories we’re never in any doubt that our narrator is now an adult looking back almost forty years to a very different time.

I’ve seen this novella described as an accelerated bildungsroman – in the UK the nearest common expression would be a coming-of-age novel but it doesn’t really fit with either of those. In a military setting a bildungsroman would involve a raw recruit leaving home and undergoing some kind of baptism by fire before returning as a battle-hardened soldier but nothing like that happens in this book. Other than your common-or-garden childhood upsets – not being noticed by the girl of your dreams,  sucking at piano lessons – our unnamed narrator’s childhood is quite a pleasant one, what he tells us of it. There’s no Classroomobstacle he has to overcome: he doesn’t stutter or have one leg shorter than the other. About the only negative thing is that because he lives in Unternsee (Lower Lake) and everyone else in his class (including his beloved Carolina) lives in Obernsee (Upper Lake) he seems to spend his entire childhood alone.

When I noted that I imagined that this was where Mr Sommer would feature – sommer is German for summer by the way and there is a definite seasonal feel to the book – I expected a friendship might grow between these two unlikely people, a kind of Germanic Goodnight Mister Tom. But that’s not how Süskind plays it. Only once does the boy actually meet Sommer face to face or, to be more accurate, he is present on the sole occasion when his father tries to be neighbourly offering Sommer a lift in his car one stormy night. Other than that Mr Sommer is almost always on the periphery of the boy’s and everyone else’s life. Considering he’s the titular character Sommer barely appears much in the story at all. Apart from the encounter with the boy’s father, our narrator only sees Mr Sommer twice more and, discounting the local gossip, it is these three sightings that are all he has to go on in determining what kind of man this is.

Other than that what we have here as some humorous – and one icky – memories of childhood beginning with this enormous sentence:

In my old tree-climbing days – a long time ago now, many many years have passed since then, I was just over three foot four, my shoe size was a child’s ten, and I was so light I could fly – no, that's no exaggeration, I really could fly – or nearly, or let’s say it was within my power to fly, if only I’d put my mind to it and tried as hard as I could . . . I can clearly remember the time I all but flew, it was on an autumn day in my first year at school, and I was just on my way home from school, and there was such a strong wind blowing that without even spreading my arms I could lean into it at a sharp angle like a ski-jumper, or even more without falling over . . . and when I ran down the grassy slopes of School Hill into the wind – because the school was on a little hill outside the village – and I pushed off just a little way with my feet and spread my arms, then the wind lifted me up, and I could quite easily jump five or ten feet up in the air and twenty or thirty over the ground – or maybe not quite as high and Hillas far, but what’s it matter! – anyway, I was almost flying, and if I’d just unbutton my coat then and held my coat tails in both hands and spread them like wings, why, then the wind would have picked me up altogether, and I would have soared off School Hill with the greatest of ease, across the valley down to the woods, and then across the woods down to the lake where our house stood, and there, to the boundless astonishment of my father, my mother, my brother and my sister, all of whom were far too old and heavy to fly, I would have executed a stylish loop over the garden and swung out over the lake, going almost to the opposite shore before finally leisurely letting myself be wafted back, and still be home in time for lunch.

I remember being that boy. Fortunately, for me and my family, I never had to go up or down a hill like that on the way to school and so never had such an opportunity but had I had then I’m sure I wouldn’t have been so slow to unbutton my coat and to hell where I ended up landing.

The aerodynamic properties of school coats is not what really interests the boy at that age, however, it’s climbing trees, particularly those where you need to hug the trunk and shimmy up until you find a safe branch and it’s after falling from one of these branches, one belonging to a white fir and located some fifteen feet above the ground, that he becomes intimately acquainted with Galileo’s First[1] and Second[2] Laws of Gravity; when not learning physics the hard way though he is happy enough to learn his “English vocab and irregular Latin verbs and maths formulae” while perched amongst the peaceful treetops free from “distracting calls from [his] mother [and] peremptory summons from [his] older brother.”

It is into this storybook-quality childhood that Mr and Mrs Sommer arrive, she on the bus, him, on foot, in fact he goes everywhere by foot even during the worst of storms; Sommer as you may have already guessed declines the lift from the boy’s father but not without revealing something about himself to the boy – the father is more irritated with himself for resorting to the use of a cliché when he tells Sommer, ‘You’ll catch your death of cold!’ – because this is the only time we get to hear him speak:

Mr Sommer stopped. I think he stopped just when he heard the words ‘death of cold’, he froze, so suddenly that my father had to put the brakes on so as not to drive past him. And then Mr Sommer transferred his hazel stick from his right hand to his left, turned towards us, and, ramming the stick repeatedly into the ground with an air of stubbornness and exasperation, he blurted out, loud and clear, the following sentence: ‘Why don’t you just leave me in peace!’ That was all. Just the one sentence. Then he slammed the passenger door shut, transferred his stick back into his right hand, and marched off, without a single look back.

Needless to say people are unable to stop themselves forming opinions about the Sommers. His wife appears to be the sole breadwinner (she makes dolls which she sells by mail). She is the only person who interacts with their neighbours in any way (once a week she does the family shopping) but apart from that she’s never seen. Her husband, on the other hand, is seen frequently; from early in the day until late Cycle at night come rain or shine Mr Sommer is to be found out on one of his walks. It is all he does. He walks, stick in hand masquerading as a third leg, mile after mile after mile with an empty knapsack on his back, empty apart from a sandwich, a tin water bottle and a rolled-up waterproof cape with a hood and this we only learn because once, while up a tree contemplating suicide, the boy spies Sommer below – that is their second encounter and a revelation it is because this time Sommer doesn’t realise he has an audience. He makes sure he doesn’t. He searches all about, peers in the bushes, looks all round the tree and listens but he doesn’t think to look in the tree above him. Convinced he is alone he throws down his stick and rucksack and lies on the ground:

[N]o sooner was he lying down than he emitted a long and ghastly sigh – no, not a sigh, because a sigh already affords some relief, it was more like a groan, a hollow anguished sound from deep within his chest, blending despair and longing for relief.

Piano What the hell is going on here? Wouldn’t you like to know? Well, I’m not going to tell you. And I’m most certainly not going to mention their third and final meeting except to mention that by the time this happens our narrator is now five foot seven, weighs over seven and a half stone, wears size seven shoes, has smoked half a cigarette and has twice been to the cinema; he is still playing the piano but he hardly climbs trees any more. He has also become “an enthusiastic cyclist,” having discovered that “cycling was almost like flying.” Considering his early experiences with “the dark art of riding a bicycle” this is a significant accomplishment.

One of the reasons people gave for picking this book up in the first place was the cover. On flicking through I was also delighted to find, like any good children’s book, there are frequent drawings by the French cartoonist Sempé, one or two of which I’ve used to illustrate this review. The book is also printed on good quality paper. In fact, to my mind, the whole thing screams, “Present!” Although I bought the book for myself knowing, I have to admit, nothing about it – I simply wanted to read another book by Süskind and this was a lot shorter than Perfume – but now having read it, it is definitely the kind of book I would buy my daughter (now thirty by the way) as a gift; indeed I have bought her similar in the past.

Although written in a style that much younger children could cope with I’m not sure where I’d draw that line though. One of the Goodreads reviewers suggested thirteen and although it’s an arbitrary age I tend to agree. I think younger children would be deeply dissatisfied with the lack of information about Sommer and his wife and also some of the humour – all the discussion about falling out of trees, for example – would be lost on them. That said the discussion of snot during a piano lesson – the one ‘icky bit’ I mentioned earlier – would appeal to the youngest of kids if treated purely as a self-contained short story which given the anecdotal nature of the book is an easy thing to do. So, yes, you could read The Story of Mr Sommer to your kids at might but if you do then you need to be prepared for many questions. The physics ones will be the easy ones, put it that way.

I have to say I enjoyed this book. It’s a book that you could easily rush through in one sitting. It’s 127 pages long but only 100 pages of actual text. I actually read it over three days not wanting to rush it and, seriously, having just finished it I could easily have turned back to the first page and begun again. The Sommers are a mystery and the fact is that we only ever have a few facts to go on. In many children’s stories there will be a mysterious neighbour like Sommer, the one whose front door the kids dare each other to go up to, and in these stories one or two of them get to discover the truth. That’s not the case here and so the narrator can only go so far in what he tells us about Mr Sommer. What he can tell us is the effect that his encounters with this odd misanthrope have had on him and that’s really what the story is about, three key moments in his childhood and early adolescence that helped shape his view of humanity.

It’s out of print now. The book originally retailed at £7.99 but I’ve seen copies on Amazon.co.uk for as little as a penny plus postage. And that’s my kind of price.

***

Patrick Süskind was born 1949 in Ambach, Bavaria, to the literary translator and political journalist Wilhelm Emanuel Süskind. Between 1968 and 1974 he studied Medieval and Modern History in Munich and Aix-en-Provence before becoming a freelance Suskindscreenwriter. In 1980 The Double Bass, his first play, became an international success and has been shown on stage in Germany, Switzerland, London, Edinburgh and New York. In 1985 he published his only novel to date, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which goes on to be made into a successful film. In 1987 he rejects all prizes (the FAZ Literaturpreis and the Tukan-Preis, most famously), dodges the media and slowly withdraws from the public. Next to nothing has been heard of him since.

In 1987 he published the novella The Pigeon, in 1991 The Story of Mr Sommer, in 1995, his short story collection Three Stories and a Reflection. A pair of essays, On Love and Death appeared in 2006.

REFERENCES


[1] d = ½g x t2 – distance equals half the product of gravity by time squared

[2] v = g x t – velocity equals gravity times time

17 comments:

jakill said...

Hi Jim. I've come over from Asoielee.com and am really pleased to be back here again.

This is a fascinating review of a mysterious author's out of print book. I'll see if I can get a 1p copy.

Jim Murdoch said...

I went and checked, jakill, but I'm afraid you'll have to pay a whopping great 9p for a hardback.

Kass said...

The cover and the drawings would definitely attract me too. There's that quality of irreverent humor in them.

Jim Murdoch said...

They're definitely an added bonus, Kass. I think more books should have illustrations.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

This book sounds unique and interesting. I enjoyed reading "Perfume" and have a feeling I’d enjoy this one, too. Thanks for the review.

Jim Murdoch said...

From what I hear, Jane, Perfume is nothing like this book. I've not read it though and I somehow missed the film when it came out too.

Dave King said...

This reminded me of an incident from my early teens which I had almost forgotten. My first long solo cycle ride - to Canterbury. I guess it must have been 60+ miles each way. On the return, the day turned stormy. Huge head winds and driving rain. A kindly lorry driver stopped and offered a lift. I politely declined. These days I would have been drilled to decline. Not then. I wanted to do it. Happy days - and happy days is the impression I get of this story, despite indications to the contrary.

Ken Armstrong said...

This one is for me... I can just tell. I loved Perfume ('thought the film adaptation to be only average).

I am reminded of one of John Le Carre's earliest novels - A Murder of Quality - where, as I recall, flying coat tails featured in an interesting manner.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think that’s a fair assessment of this one, Dave. I’ve just finished reading a book about the Clydebank Blitz and the one thing that struck me about it was the relationship between the adults to the children. For one thing they almost all knew their names. I couldn’t even tell you the name of any of the kids in this block of flats. Actually there might be just one little girl. That shows you how much attention I pay.

And, Ken, I've read A Murder of Quality and Call for the Dead both after I’d seen the BBC adaptation of le Carré’s later ‘Smiley novels’. I remember enjoying them not that I can remember much – it much have been fifteen years ago – and certainly nothing about a bike ride. Beckett had a great love of bikes – I’ve got a couple of articles tucked away somewhere where people discuss the number of times bikes appear in his work (some people really have nothing better to do with their days) – and the only other anecdote I have about bikes is the fact that John Cleese never learned to ride one. Not even when he was at university and everyone was doing it.

The book by the way is nothing like Perfume and nothing like The Pigeon either.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Jim, an intriguing book--it almost sounds like one of those books you read while a tweenie--and remember forever. And I believe adult books should have glorious illustrations like these.

Jim Murdoch said...

Of course there are arguments both for and against illustrations, Conda. It’s like when you’ve seen a film adaptation before you read the book it’s very hard to shake the images you now have in your head. But on the whole I am in favour of some kind of pictures. Cost is obviously a factor but I’ve seen pen and ink drawings that have worked quite well.

Rachel Fenton said...

I've just cast aside Perfume at the first murder, so I'm not going to rush to buy this, however I may stretch to nine pence when my disgust abates to simmering dislike.

Jim Murdoch said...

Perfume really hasn't called out to me at all, Rachel, but it will be nothing like this one. At the very least this is a helluva lot shorter. Never a bad thing in my book.

tmamone said...

I remember seeing my mother read this book when I was a little boy. It was an adult book with child-like illustrations. I flipped through it and read what happened to Mr. Sommer (I won't spoil it for those who haven't read it). I practically forgot about this book until last night when I had a dream about it. Now I'm gonna have to find it through inter-library loan and read the rest of it!

Jim Murdoch said...

That’s the thing, tmamone, a young kid could read this book quite happily and enjoy it just like young kids will enjoy a film like Shrek but so many of the cultural references aimed squarely at the grownups in the audience will miss them. This book doesn’t go that far but there is definitely an . . . what shall we call it? . . . an overtone perhaps that kids will miss. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment.

B. Streetman said...

this is one of my all time favorite books. thank you so much for writing about it...

Jim Murdoch said...

You're very welcome, Burgin. Thanks for leaving a comment.

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