Today on the blog I’m delighted to be kicking off a series of celebrations for the indie publisher Melville House Press on the occasion of their 20th anniversary! MHP is based in New York and issues a wide range of works; on the Ramblings I’ve previously covered books from their Art of the Novella and Neversink Library series, with authors from Irmgard Keun and the Strugatsky brothers to the eponymous Herman Melville; and I confess I still have a few unread on the TBR… However, they also publish works covering just about all of the genres – do check out their website! Anyway, when I was invited to take part in the celebrations, I decided to focus on one of the Neversink titles from an author new to me: the book is “The Eternal Philistine”, written by Ödön von Horváth and translated by Benjamin Dorvel.

Von Horváth was an Austro-Hungarian author, son of a Hungarian diplomat, and his family was always on the move. He studied in Vienna and Munich; began writing plays in German; and settled in Berlin, where his plays were raved about by everyone except the Nazis. Inevitably, the rise of the Fascists led to him relocating to Vienna, Budapest and finally Paris. It was here that his untimely death took place when he was sheltering under a tree in a rainstorm; a lightning strike brought down a branch which killed him outright at the age of only 36. Despite his youth, he’d published 21 plays and three novels (of which “Philistine” is the first), so his death was a tragic loss.

“Philistine” is set in Europe between the two World Wars and the main focus is on one Alfons Kobler, a failed car salesman who dominates the first of the three parts of the novel. The world is in a strange, unstable state thanks to the aftermath of the first conflict and the forthcoming war which is regularly signalled throughout the book. Therefore Kobler, who wishes for a comfortable life, attempts to make his living in all manner of ways, including sponging off women. After conning a poor sap into paying over the odds for a clapped out car, he has a moment of inspiration and decides to travel to the World’s Fair in Barcelona. Here, he hopes, he will meet a beautiful, rich woman (preferably Egyptian…) who will keep him in the style he deserves. As you might guess, things won’t be quite as easy as that…

For a starts, there’s the journey itself; the train takes a bizarre route from Germany to Spain, which has endless changes and for some reason travels via Italy – even someone as geographically challenged as I am can see that that’s a bit silly. En route, Kobler meets a strange and often disturbing array of characters who are xenophobic, dishonest and frankly a bit mad. Eventually Kobler and one of his fellow travellers encounter a beautiful and rich woman who’s also on her way to Spain; will Kobler’s plan work out or will wealth and luxury elude him?

The second section of the book follows the adventures of Anna Pollinger (who appeared briefly in the first part), one of many who found themselves out of work in the unstable financial situation in Europe of the time. Anna’s search for a job leads her to a try at modelling for an artist, which does not go so well. She soon comes to realise that she has one asset to sell, and thereby takes control of her own destiny… As for part three, in this section Anna meets an unemployed Austrian man who fails to recognise her profession. But one good turn deserves another, and he may be able to offer her some help, allowing the book to end on a note of hope.

It has to be said that von Horváth was a very funny writer, and this is a wonderfully dark and satirical book. It gleefully punctures the conventions of the time, and reveals how most of the characters really are philistines, with no love or understanding of art or culture, ready to switch political allegience at the drop of a hat, and desperately bigoted. The drily witty narrative allows the protagonists to reveal themselves in all their awfulness, but it’s never done in a slapstick fashion – von Horváth is too subtle an author for that. In contrast to Kobler and his cronies, however, the author hints at more sympathy for Anna who may be a philistine because she’s forced to sell herself, but as an impoverished women of that time and place really has no choice.

The novel is cleverly constructed so that the three section are linked by characters, and it’s a wonderfully entertaining read. However, there’s inevitably that underlying darkness; this is a world where anti-semitism is taking over, where fascism is rampant in both Germany and Italy, and there are many references to the ‘next war’; bearing in mind the book was published in 1930, this is worryingly prescient. The world portrayed here reminded me a little of that reflected in the books of Irmgard Keun (who’s also published by MHP), and it does seem that Germany in the 1930s was a very uncomfortable place to be. One particularly interesting matter which comes up regularly in the discussions of the characters is whether any kind of ‘Pan-Europe’ is possible (presaging, I suppose, the eventual formation of the Common Market and the EU). Of course, it wasn’t going to happen in the 1930s though as we know Europe eventually pulled itself together for a while; alas, some rather foolish country decided to pull out, but that’s another topic…

As you might have gathered, I thought “Philistine” was a marvellous read; funny, satirical, dark, and very entertaining, I would highly recommend it. It surprises me that von Horváth is not better known (or maybe he is, and I just hadn’t stumbled across him yet). His short life was highly prolific, and as well as the three novels published in his lifetime, there is apparently an earlier (untranslated) one issued posthumously. “Philistine” is wonderfully translated by Benjamin Dorvel (kudos to MHP for naming him on the cover of my copy!) and comes with a hugely entertaining introduction by Shalom Auslander who berates all of our friends for not reading this book when we encourage them to! I can see his point – Ödön von Horváth’s wonderful book “The Eternal Philistine” was a treat from start to finish, and MHP are to be applauded for issuing its first translation into English. It’s a perfect illustration of why they’re such a successful indie publisher and I can only hope my post will encourage you to check it out!

The 20th anniversary celebrations for Melville House Press will be continuing until 2nd June and as you can see from the graphic, there are some great books and bloggers involved; do check them out and explore MHP’s catalogue – there are some excellent books and authors to be discovered!