Austrian Michael Köhlmeier’s reinvention of the novel with Idyll with Drowning Dog and Madalyn

Michael Köhlmeier is a man of his times. One of the most respected writers of his generation in Austria, Köhlmeier is a novelist who has also played important public roles – as moderator of the leading news round table “Club 2” on ORF national television, and interviewee on public affairs, as he was in Profil in early February on what the presidency of “turbo-populist” Donald Trump means for America and Europe.

So it is not surprising to discover that his writing, too, is of its time, which blends fiction and memoir in an endless struggle to capture the truth of his experience.

Köhlmeier’s most personal and moving book, Idyll with Drowning Dog, first published in 2008 and now available in a superb English translation by David Dollenmayer, is unstintingly autobiographical. But he transforms the struggle to make sense of existence into a gripping read, offering readers the chance to draw their own meaning and lessons from his text.

The author is persistent in his attempts to grapple with the tragic accidental death of his daughter Paula, a promising young writer whose talent is evident in her short story collection Maramba, published posthumously in 2005. In Idyll, Köhlmeier seeks paths through his loss and reflects on the possibilities and limitations of literature as a means of working through bereavement. The book charts the navigation of these limits against the backdrop of the author’s hometown of Hohenems in the depths of winter.

Idyll with Drowning Dog and Madalyn
Michael Köhlmeier
(Trans: David Dollenmayer)
Idyll with Drowning Dog and Madalyn
(Ariadne Press, 2016)
228 pp
€14.00 // Cover courtesy of publisher

Alongside the family tragedy, the author recounts the visit of his eccentric editor, Dr. Johannes Beer. The latter comes to stand for the terrible banality of existence, which threatens to rupture a painstakingly woven web of hard-won meaning. The narrator sees his meeting with this visitor as an unwelcome intrusion into his life; he senses keenly the dissonance between working relationships and the private sphere.

The conflict comes to a head when Beer turns out to be a fool, cavorting about in scenes bordering on the slapstick. Köhlmeier’s narrative prowess is revealed in his ability to read human fallibility through the lens of cultural tradition; he alludes to an extravagant mixture of foolishness à la Jacob Grimm, the wise fool from King Lear and Joseph Conrad’s unscrupulous Mr. Verloc (from The Secret Agent). Beer’s lack of self-knowledge is thus given a literary frame, suggestive of the slippery boundary between life and art.

Publicly private

As it is, Beer is more preoccupied by the stray dog who follows him around throughout the story than he is with the tragedy suffered by the author, about which he does not enquire at all. Instead of trying to communicate meaningfully, the bereaved father hallucinates a conversation with the editor in which he pours out his heart, thinking aloud about how writing is a form of holding on, how the lost daughter might live on in his imagination, how memory lives between the real and the invented.

Dr. Beer’s obvious indifference raises the question: to what extent is it desirable, even advisable, to set such deeply personal material before the eyes of a tactless readership? In this tightrope walk between vulnerability and the need to tell, writerly cowardice and fear of judgment (from the editor, who represents a wider public), Köhlmeier demonstrates the difficulty of any public attempt to deal with private grief. The result is a battle for the humanity and dignity of remembrance.

The end of the book points to a possible way forward, perhaps the only possible way: direct confrontation with one’s own mortality. The large dog who has been following Dr. Beer around falls through some ice. While the editor runs for help, the author risks life and limb to rescue the dog.

Köhlmeier’s Idyll with Drowning Dog shows the power of literature to counter personal tragedy with dignity and expressive craft.