Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig (tr. by Tess Lewis)

Peirene Press continues to do a great job in discovering top-quality European fiction – novellas and short story collections which always have something interesting to offer. I’ve reviewed a couple of their novellas on the blog, The Mussel Feast and The Blue Room, both of which are excellent thought-provoking reads. Peirene curate their books by theme, and Maybe This Time (a collection of short stories first published in Austrian German in 2006) is the third in their Male Dilemmas: Quests for Intimacy series.

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Hotschnig’s stories are quite difficult to describe, but the experience of reading this collection is akin to experiencing a lucid dream, one that blurs the margins between reality and the imaginary. In her introduction to the book, Meike Ziervogel, founder of Peirene Press, says of Hotschnig’s work ‘outwardly normal events slip into drama before they tip into horror,’ and I can see what she means by this statement. Initially, many of these stories appear to be heading in a certain direction, but then something shifts, and we begin to question our understanding of events. In some instances, the change is relatively subtle, but in others we are rapidly pitched into dark and unsettling territory.

In The Same Silence, the Same Noise, we encounter a man observing his neighbours as they sit in deckchairs on their jetty. As the story progresses, he becomes obsessed and irritated by his neighbours’ presence and their indifference towards him, so much so that he begins to feel a growing sense of paranoia:

They lay next to each other on their deckchairs, arms by their sides, legs bent or straight. For hours they didn’t move, not even to wave away the mosquitoes or scratch themselves. Every day, every night, always the same. Their stillness made me feel uneasy, and my unease grew until it festered into an affliction I could no longer bear. At first, I had thought them part of the idyll I had come here to find, but now their constant presence irritated me. When I realized how easily one could see into my house from their jetty, I felt annoyed, caught out, exposed. Under surveillance, even. Yet I was the one who never let them out of my sight. (pg. 12, Peirene Press)

As this story progresses, the narrator steps up his observations, distancing himself from his friends in the process, and he realises his fixation with these neighbours is an attempt to escape from his own life. And this brings me to one of the main themes in Hotschnig’s collection, that of identity:

They refused contact, yet they willingly exposed themselves to me. I had caught the scent of their lives, which obviously had reached some sort of premature end. I had fed on them, devoured them, and now I wanted more. I couldn’t resist absorbing their most fleeting emotions as my own, and so I carried them inside me and I lived out their disquiet, which was also my disquiet (pg. 17)

In the most unnerving story in the collection, Then a Door Opens a Swings Shut, an elderly woman leads a man – his name is Karl – into her house where he is confronted by a sprawling collection of dolls. Three of the dolls, which the woman calls ‘her children,’ represent her successful grown-up daughters. The situation takes a more disturbing turn when the woman introduces her visitor to Karl, a doll that bears an exact resemblance to the man himself. As our narrator allows himself to be drawn into the old woman’s life, there is a blending of identity between the man and the doll. It’s a very creepy story indeed, one that reminds me a little of some of Yoko Ogawa’s dark tales in Revenge.

Hotschnig explores another aspect of identity in Maybe This Time, Maybe Now (one of my favourites) in which a family come together and wait for Uncle Walter, the one member of their clan who never visits on these occasions. The narrator’s parents live in constant hope that Walter might show up one day, just to have everyone together for once. As we observe the family gathering, it’s almost as though the narrator’s parents fail to recognise others as individuals in their own right. No one else seems to matter except the elusive Walter; all other family members are subsumed into an amorphous formation. Here’s an extract from an early section of the story:

But Walter doesn’t come, at least not while we are there. We don’t make up for his absence, those of us who are present, and no matter how hard we try to distract them, to make them forget about Walter, it never works. The rest of us do count for something, but not enough compared with him, since Walter’s absence makes us all invisible in our parents’ eyes and in our own. Those who are missing are noticed, but only until they come through the door, join those who are waiting and disappear into the group. It’s always the same game, who’s there and who isn’t, how many are we now, and who might then still come and who not. (pg. 59)

As the story progresses, we begin to doubt Walter’s existence. After all, the younger family members have never laid eyes on him either in the flesh or photographs. He exists only through stories that pass through the family, through the expectations and dashed hopes that have passed from one generation to another:

In this sense, we have always lived with Walter. We know him and don’t know him. (pg. 60)

In another favourite story from the collection, Two Ways of Leaving, a man follows a woman as she goes about her day. At first we are led to assume that this man is a pursuing a stranger, perhaps for somewhat voyeuristic reasons. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that these two individuals are connected is some way. Hotschnig cleverly leads our train of thought in a particular direction, only for the story to tilt slightly thereby challenging our assumptions in the process.

As I’m writing this post, I can see another theme emerging from this intriguing collection of stories – that of observation, the act of observing others from a distance, how we make assumptions about their lives, situations and motives. And there’s a good dose of ambiguity to these tales; in fact, I found a couple of them quite tricky to pin down. Hotschnig leaves plenty of space to allow the reader to draw their own interpretation of events, to make these rather eerie dreamlike stories their own. There is much food for thought here.

Stu at Winstonsdad’s blog has also reviewed this collection.

Maybe This Time is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: I won a copy of this book in the Peirene Press PeiQuiz – my thanks to the publisher.

21 thoughts on “Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig (tr. by Tess Lewis)

  1. hastanton

    I love the PeirenePress titles ….all so different and adventurous . I have got the next in the Coming Of Age series to read and review. I am also going to review Meikes own novella Clara’s Daughter this weekend.
    As I get older I’m am getting into shower stories more and more ( maybe it’s a memory thing !) so will def keep an eye out for these !

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      The Peirene Press books are great, aren’t they? I don’t know how Meike manages to find such a diverse and interesting range of books; each one feels like a mini adventure. Under the Tripoli Sky is nearing the top of my reading pile, too, and I’m looking forward to it as I can’t recall the last time I read a book set in Libya. Also, I’ll be very interested to hear your thoughts on Clara’s Daughter – report back, please!

      I do like short stories, and there’s a lot to be said for brevity. I turned to this collection in the middle of reading a couple of chunksters (#3 in the Neapolitan novels and a doorstop for my book group), and these stories proved to be the perfect palate-cleanser. Just what I needed at the time.

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I’ve still to read a Peirene Press book – I’m a little nervous about embarking in case I get hooked and I need to start another collection….. :)

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Well, there’s every reason to believe you’ll get hooked on these Peirene titles once you start! In all fairness, I do think you’d like these stories as they strike me as being your kind of thing.

      Reply
  3. Col

    I’ve never heard of Peirene Press or the author or anything else you mention! Which on one hand is great as I will definitely look for this but on the other makes me wonder where my head is all the time – I’m clearly living too much in a Waterstones bubble!!!!! Note to self – get out more!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Haha! Well, I’m glad to have introduced you to Peirene Press and a few of their titles as they’re definitely worth a look. Now I come to think about it, I only discovered Peirene a year or two ago when I started to set up my reading of translations.

      I know exactly what you mean, though, as it’s so tempting to gravitate towards the latest ‘buzz’ books and the ones on promotion (especially in the big bookshops).

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    You read such interesting sounding books Jacqui.

    These tales sound fascinating. There is something disquieting in certain situations involving the observation of others and it sounds as if these stories capture some of that.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Brian – I certainly try to! Yes, there’s a real sense of unease about many of the stories in this collection. The observation theme just came to me as I was writing my post, and I find the whole idea of being followed rather unnerving. All in all, quite an unsettling set of stories, but very good…and I liked their ambiguous quality.

      Reply
  5. realthog

    I must keep an eye out for this collection — you make it sound positively mouthwatering! So many of the Peirene Press titles have been recommended to me by various parties. PP should set up a US office so their books (as opposed to their ebooks) would be a bit better distributed over here.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It’s a very interesting collection of stories, John. Some of the stories (such as the title story with Uncle Walter and Two Ways of Leaving) are relatively straightforward in terms of form (albeit very intriguing), but others are quite strange indeed – the one with the doll, for starters. Another of the stories — I didn’t mention it in my post — feels a little like being trapped in the middle of a David Lynch film: something along the lines of a cross between Lynch’s Lost Highway and Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Very disorientating and unsettling. And the author leaves much to the reader’s mind and imagination, so you really have to try and work out what’s going on.

      That’s a good point about Peirene’s presence in the US as I wasn’t sure about the availability of their titles over your way. Their books are great, so I hope you’re able to get hold of a couple at some point.

      Reply
  6. Gemma

    This sounds intriguing. A great review, and another book to add to my list! I haven’t read of Peirene Press’ books but everything I’ve read seems very positive. I will definitely have to check them out.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Gemma. It’s definitely worth taking a good look at Peirene Press as they’ve published some great books. The Mussel Feast would be a terrific introduction, and it’s a favourite among bloggers and reviewers alike.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It’s the story with Karl and the doll that reminds me of Revenge, but possibly one or two of the others as well. The first story in the collection (the one in which the man watches his neighbours on their jetty) feels very eerie…

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    One of my favourite Peirene titles (and that’s saying something!) Don’t seem to have reviewed it though – probably a bout of laziness on my part. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts instead!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you! I’m so glad to hear you loved this one, Grant. I agree, I think it’s one of my favourite Peirene books, too. It’s a great collection of stories, and there’s plenty scope for the reader to come up with their own interpretation of events. I often think the skill in writing a really good short story is knowing when to stop, when to leave enough room for the reader to carry the story forward, and Hotschnig seems to get this. Shame you didn’t review it as I would have loved to read your thoughts – perhaps you should reread and review?

      Reply
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  9. Tony

    Definitely one I enjoyed, a very twisted collection of stories. I’ve also read his novel ‘Leonardo’s Hands’, another I’d recommend :)

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      ‘Twisted’ is a good description, Tony. I haven’t come across anything else by this author so I’ll take a look at Leonardo’s Hands. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Reply
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