Thomas Glavinic is a young Austrian writer who has won various awards and scholarships in his home country. Pull Yourself Together is the third of his books to be translated into English. Its a sort of coming-of-age novel about Austrian teenager Charlie Colustrum, an over-weight boy with bad skin who lives with his alcoholic mother.
The book opens on the night Challenger space shuttle broke up in mid-flight in 1986, and finds Charlie about to lose his virginity with his first girl-friend. We then follow the course of Charlie’s youth and young-adulthood through to the night in 2003 when the space-shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry. I suppose that as far as marking the path of a life goes these markers are as good as any!
Although Charlie’s mother is an alcoholic he has a number of close relatives including the “aunticles” (a pair of stern and demanding sisters), and a very old great aunt who acts as a fount of wisdom and a refuge for Charlie when he needs top-ups of unconditional love or much-needed schillings (this is pre-euro days of course).
Each chapter records various events in Charlie’s life as he moves through seventeen years of his life. Despite his weight (a constant worry to him), he manages to get through several girl-friends during his progress through college and on to a variety of jobs. The story is told in the first person and Charlie has a self-deprecating, ironic voice which allows the readers to hear his inner commentary on the things which happen to him.
Charlie likes to think of himself as a philosopher and attempts to cover up his sense of inadequacy by wearing a black cloak and carrying around volumes by Nietzsche and Kant. In reality he is consumed with superstitious fears and has an unhealthy dependence on self-help guides. At the end of each chapter he tried to draw a life-lesson from episodes in his life in the form of a “note to self”, such as,
- Human sexual relationships are an ill-developed system showing grave deficiencies
- Sometimes when you’ve made a fool of yourself you’ve really opened the door to something new
- When you’re sitting there consumed with hatred, remember that youth and dependence will someday come to an end.
There are hardly profound insights into life, but they are amusing in the context of the Charlie’s mishaps.
This is a humorous book and Thomas Glavinic sets up Charlie with scenes which provide endless scope for appropriate social disasters such as a summer spent going door to door in Germany trying to sign people up as Red Cross donors, or a few weeks spent training to be a taxi-driver. Although I was not over-impressed with the book to start with, I soon got really into the character and found myself racing through the book to find out what happened next. It really is very funny at times.
Tim Key and Gogol’s Overcoat
There was a very funny programme on the radio yesterday which can be heard on BBC iPlayer for the next seven days here: Tim Key and Gogol’s Overcoat. Actor, writer and performance poet Tim Key makes his own journey into the background to one of the great short stories of Russian literature by Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat. (sometimes called “The Mantle” and available for free download from Project Gutenburg here: The Mantle and Other Stories).
The programme was so good I had to go and read the story for myself. If I’d not heard the programme first I might have wondered what it was all about. I realised by the end that its a profound story which hides some important thoughts among the absurdity of the events it describes.