In a sequence of overlapping short stories, a cast of loners and romantics explore how our anxious present is mirrored in the uncertainties of the inter-war period with its crashes and crises. Ultimately it conveys a coded warning from history about what can come to fill the void when universally accepted notions of democracy and liberal capitalism are being questioned – just as they are now.
Ashley Stokes’ restless and rootless characters dream of idealised cities or moments in the historical or personal past which they feel could offer them escape. Historically – Sally Bowles and Fritz Lang’s “M” join hands in Weimar Berlin, a faceless soldier wanders through a war-torn city looking for his lost love, an artist high on modernism gets caught up in a political assassination in Fascist Italy. Personally – they dream of capturing that unfulfilled promise, that missed perfect kiss, that unresolved moment, that thing that should have lived.
The stories accumulate until their origins are revealed in the notebook jottings of one harassed teenage boy growing up in a fantasy of the Third Reich in Surrey.
Ashley Stokes is a Creative Writing lecturer for the OU, a Bridport Prize for Fiction Winner and his short fiction has appeared in over twenty journals and anthologies. His first novel TOUCHING THE STARFISH (Unthank Books, 2010) was described as “a work of an anarchic imagination stuffed with incident and mordantly humorous observations.” Eastern Daily Press.
“Lovers of mitteleuropa period fiction, or of contemporary fiction, or ideally both, will love this book. It’s Joseph Roth meets Roberto Bolano, and it is simply wonderful.” David Rose, author of Vault: An Anti-Novel (Salt, 2011).
THE SYLLABUS OF ERRORS
includes the stories:
STORMING THE BASTILLE
A SHORT STORY ABOUT A SHORT FILM
TOMORROW BELONGS TO ME
THE PRETTIEST GIRL IN BERLIN
THE FIRST SUGGESTION OF NIGHT
THE SYLLABUS OF ERRORS
I REMEMBER NOTHING
INTRODUCTION TO THE SYLLABUS OF ERRORS by DAVID ROSE
Lovers of mitteleuropa period fiction, or of contemporary fiction, or – ideally – both, will love this book. It’s Joseph Roth meets Roberto Bolaño, and it is simply wonderful.
Actually, not so simply. And the comparisons are not hyperbole; I choose them with care.
Roth, writing through the Twenties and early Thirties, wrote exhaustively in his fiction of the slow build-up to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its civilization in the First World War. It wasn’t a case of being overtaken by History – he used the material for its premonitory parallels with the build-up to the Second; the hysteria of fin-de-siècle Vienna (“the laboratory for the scientific study of apocalypse” according to Karl Kraus) foreshadowing the violence of Weimar Berlin and the greater collapse of European civilization.
Stokes now shunts the parallel a stage further: Weimar Berlin, Fascist Rome paralleling present-day London. Many of the stories in The Syllabus Of Errors end violently, on the streets of London as much as of Berlin. Fanciful?
George Steiner, in In Bluebeard’s Castle, described the First War as a willed breaking of the tensions of the enervating ennui of a generation of peace after the Napoleonic era, breeding a “nostalgia for disaster”. Mainland Britain has now had a generation (65+ years) of peace. Maybe the riots, gang war, street knifings, flirtation with terrorism are a similar snapping of tension.
In the first story, Island Gardens, the central character, an English teacher teaching in Berlin, now back in London, cruising around Piccadilly Circus in search of his Russian girlfriend, an ex-pupil in Berlin, remembers explaining to her that German had as many words for anxiety as English does for horrible people. We are beginning, perhaps to need them in English. Ahnen in particular, which is what he is feeling – a vague, unspecified dread.
In another story, Tomorrow Belongs To Me, a history teacher goes to the fancy-dress party of his Head of Department disguised as M, the Peter Lorre character in the Fritz Lang film. An unknown girl dressed as Sally Bowles, “not the one from Cabaret, the original, in the book”, recognizes his disguise, and the need it disguises, the only one to do so. They slink off from the party together to enact a scene from a movie of their own.
So maybe we should add Isherwood’s name to the other two? But Isherwood spent his life as a tourist. The characters in Stokes, all of them, are exiles, exiles from their own lives, trying to reconnect by their search for roots, precedents.
So we are back to Roth, the supreme writer of exile; and to Bolaño, the modern equivalent, his twin themes being exile and violence, and the links between them.
Like Bolaño, Stokes dares his readers to follow him. In one story set wholly in Weimar Berlin, The Prettiest Girl In Berlin, an ex-soldier, mentally and physically maimed, prosthetically-transformed, wanders the streets, winding through the bloody shoot-outs between Communist Spartacists and Right-wing Friekorps in search of a pre-war love. It takes huge risks of obscurity but they are entirely justified; we share the bewilderment of the soldier to the end. It’s an immensely powerful story, a George Grosz painting come to life, to music by Hanns Eisler.
Another, set in pre-Fascist Rome, involves a mural artist and Mussolini supporter so vividly drawn I wondered if he were modelled on the Fascist propagandist artist Mario Sironi, but the links are tenuous, and besides, the character, Dario Inchesa, is too strongly delineated from within for it to matter.
These are a series of linked, overlapping stories, but the links function subliminally. Motifs recur: a metal jaw, for example, transmuted from literality to figure of speech; characters appear as extras in a story, then reappear as leading actors in their own, many of them teachers – of English, History or Art – many with an interest, professional or personal, in Hitler Studies.
But in the last story there is the teasing possibility that there is a stronger link binding them together, as the product of the imagination of its narrator, yet another Hitler Studies academic whose teenage interest in the subject was fuelled by a friendship with a (possible) ex-Nazi.
This, though, is not a reductive “explanation” of the book: the preceding stories are just too powerful, too closely imagined, too fictionally autonomous to be reduced to a “Usual Suspects”-type unravelling. It is, rather, yet another layer of significance.
And this story brings us back again to Bolaño, whose funniest, most inventive book, Nazi Literature In The Americas, The Syllabus Of Errors invokes, perhaps confronts. Stokes more than stands up to the comparison.
There’s a verve and crackling wit throughout, sharp observation and pinpoint characterization lacing the eloquence of loss. There is brilliantly witty dialogue, but there not just for its wit but to reveal depths of the characters, dimensions of their predicaments. And a wonderfully wide range of cultural allusion.
But it’s the eloquence that lingers when you finish the book. In the story Abyssinia, Mellis, an Art Historian facing redundancy describes his first encounter with a soul-mate, Caitlin, whom he later loses to the university’s philistine Human Resources manager. It’s in a small provincial art gallery displaying an installation, The Archive Of Water.
That installation – normally an art form Mellis despises – touches him as it touches Caitlin. It consists in a series of glass tubes containing meltwater from Greenlandic glaciers, some tubes clouded, some sparklingly pure, but in all of them, the “waters are like memory” with “the vanishing point elsewhere”.
This functions as a perfect description of this book.
Review by Troubled Scribe, 7th January 2013.
Review by Sabotage, 12th January 2013.
Concrete interview, 6th February 2013.
Review by WordNerdz, 14th February 2013.
Review by Laura Wilkinson, 14th February 2013.
Review by Rum and Reviews, 19th February 2013.
WordzNerd interview, 19th February 2013.
Fleeting Five: 20th February 2013.
Review by Neverending Stories, 5th March 2013
Radio CKCU interview (Soundcloud) with Hans Ruprecht, 5th March 2013.
Review by Here Come the Lobsters, 2nd June 2013.
Review of the Saboteur Awards: 5th June 2013
Review by Litro: 1st August 2013.