At the Blue Monkey offers pieces of a life that don’t fit together, its mystery never solved
“Doesn’t even matter. Take her to bed and everything’s perfect: total disorder.” That’s how German author Walter Serner ends the short story, “Meg the Troublist,” and if you think you need more context to grasp its meaning, don’t worry; it doesn’t make much sense even after you’ve read the preceding pages. This is typical of the author’s gambit (always a gambit) throughout the 33 stories in At the Blue Monkey, originally published in German in 1921. The first English translation of this collection comes from Wakefield Press, whose fascinating catalog includes works by well-known figures like Georges Perec and obscure and seldom-translated talents such as the Catholic writer Léon Bloy and, well, Serner. Translated by Erik Butler, Serner’s stories are so disjointed they become maddening, but the cumulative effect of nearly three dozen such puzzles is finally intriguing and meaningful in its own way.
Born Walter Eduard Seligmann, Serner was one of the founders of the Dada movement, and although he broke with the scene before turning to writing, his anarchic prose has no use for conventional narrative and character development. Each of Serner’s stories throws you in the middle of unknown characters who are just as mysterious several pages later when the plot ends without any real resolution.
This much is clear: the book’s characters, as if in a skid row Winesburg, Ohio, are underworld figures: thieves, prostitutes, con-men and others up to, as one title promises, “Shady Business.” This story begins, “Ever since van Brenken looked him the in the eye, Mister Kossick’s game had been heading south.” Seems like the start to an ordinary gangland tale. But as the subtitle indicates, these are “33 outlandish stories,” their bizarreness coming not from anything fantastical or Lynchian but from a stubborn refusal to give the reader much to hold on to. Serner is no Damon Runyon, whose vivid gangsters come alive like Looney Tunes animations. Serner’s thugs and molls, even when plying their nefarious trade, sometimes “had considerable difficulty staying in character.”
You see, van Brenken isn’t really the character’s name, though the reason for the deception isn’t made clear; his co-conspirator Winnie (also not her real name) is even more elusive: “she performed a series of mysterious gestures that van Brenken, for all his years of practice, couldn’t decipher.” “Shady Business” comes some 30 stories into the book, and the author is clearly letting the reader in on his ruse. By the end of the story, van Brenken, after Winnie has stolen 400 francs from Mister Kossick (although Kossick claims she made off with 600), van Brenken is wondering what suit he should wear when next he meets their mark. Serner’s prose is as elusive as his fictional charges, each personage a runt screaming to nip at the teat of your attention, and failing to catch hold, trying again until, eventually, Serner’s formula becomes kind of endearing.
Critic Ben Ratliff recently mused that the late fall singer Mark E. Smith, “seemed more like a chaos theory or a control force than an entertainer.” That sounds like what Serner was working on with these stories, which superficially have some of the traits and aims of short fiction but rather deliberately fail at achieving them with anything resembling conventional grace or tension. “To-tal dis-or-DUH! To-tal disor-DUH!” could be a Smith incantation, and it might help to bark Serner’s tales aloud over a thudding beat and rotating coterie of musicians in varying stages of proper tuning.
What’s the point of these exercises? The futility may well be the point. Serner left the artist’s life and became a schoolteacher. He converted from Judaism to Catholicism, though that didn’t keep him and his wife Dorothea from being rounded up by the Nazis (who banned his work in 1933) and killed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942. Did this maestro of chaos ever find order, the bigger picture that connected the mismatched pieces of his life and art? At the Blue Monkey offers pieces of a life that don’t fit together, its mystery never solved. There’s no closure to speak of, but if it raises any questions about the nature of fiction and life, its job is done.