In these columns talk has often turned to common themes in modern Scottish literature, but I hope the previous 49 novels, when taken as a whole, show as much diversity as unity, with different voices sometimes dealing with the same topics, but more often realising something completely new. In case this hasn’t come across, this month’s novel, Andrew Crumey’s ‘Pfitz’, unarguably stands on its own. It covers philosophy, literature, architecture, morality and even (psycho)geography, and Crumey has great fun uniting these themes to create a memorable one-off.
From the opening pages ‘Pfitz’ asks questions about existence, creation and art, introducing a Prince who desires to create the ideal city of Rreinnstadt, one which will only ever exist on paper, and if that seems a strange concept we have only just begun. To realise his creation he needs not only cartographers, to map the city , but also biographers, to bring the subjects of Rreinnstadt to life, and it is in these people’s lives, while they busy themselves creating other people’s lives, that the intrigue begins.
What drives the novel is unrequited love, as a cartographer, Schenck, seeks to get close to and impress a biographer, Estrella, by professing to have discovered the lost story of ‘Pfitz’, a servant to Count Zelneck, which Schenck has written himself. His ‘fiction’ uncovers mysteries and possibly murder in both worlds, and it is not only the reader who starts to question just what is real and what are ‘mere’ stories.
The novel it most resembles is Voltaire’s satire on 18th century western society ‘Candide’ as, like that text, it contemplates exactly what makes a society and the individuals who constitute it, but ‘Pfitz’ also touches on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant and David Hume. In fact, the city under construction reminds me of Hume’s Edinburgh, when the whole ‘personality’ of that city was being changed with the planning and construction of the New Town, something seen as modern and idyllic. If you ever wanted proof of how a city is changed by how it is built then look at Edinburgh before and after this time and you will find it.
As Schenck continues his deceit in pursuit of Estrella he discovers other inconsistencies and irregularities, as some biographers are found to have been living vicariously through their subjects, even becoming confused as to which life is which. And this is the big idea from which all the others arise from in ‘Pfitz’, namely “What does it mean to exist, and who determines our lives?” Or, as Edgar Allan Poe put it, “Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?” Don’t expect any answers, but you’ll have great times thinking about it. This is not a novel to simply read, it demands not only your attention, but interaction.
And at this point I could have had a musical interlude from Propaganda, who put that Poe poem to music on their album ‘A Secret Wish’, but I’ve decided to go route one with a track from one of my favourite albums. From ‘Sister Feelings Call’, this is Simple Minds with ‘Theme For Great Cities’:
‘Pfitz’ is an unapologetically clever novel of ideas, but it is also a love story, a murder/mystery, a fantasy and a comedy full of lust, revenge, treachery and dancing bees. Among the many theories it posits is that the reason any art is created is to ultimately impress someone who you desire, and that is one of those theories that is hard to disagree with, far more disprove. Even writing these reviews; you could ask who are they for, and why are they written? On reflection, I think I can answer that, but luckily I’ve just run out of words…
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: New Zealand born Kirsty Gunn is one of Scotland’s best writers and it is an oversight on my part that she hasn’t yet appeared on these pages, but I will rectify that next month.
Her most recent novel, ‘The Big Music’, was many critics book of the year for 2012. Set against the backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, like ‘Pfitz’ it questions what it means to create, and specifically how the form of music relates to the culture which shapes it.
Competition Update: Thanks to everyone who has entered the Dear Scotland writing competition. It is now closed and the winners will be announced on the 23rd December.