Two novellas: In the Sanatorium, and Facing the Sea by David Vogel; trans. Philip Simpson & Daniel Silverstone, book review


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In an alpine clinic for Jewish TB sufferers, a gauche young businessman thinks himself "outside the whole world and tarnishing it". Parasitic lung patients such as himself, so Ornik wails, "should be destroyed".

Over this Tyrolean sanatorium broods an "alien, superfluous" moon. In a resort village on the French Riviera, a beautiful woman on a summer vacation with her lover suddenly feels that "something strange and terrible had pierced her life". Gina's own much-desired body has become "an alien and despicable element".

Immaculately crafted, richly atmospheric and studded with gem-like observations of inter-war Europe, these two short novels throb with menace and disquiet. Given David Vogel's life and death, hindsight tempts the reader. A textbook outsider himself, Vogel was born within the Russian empire in 1891. He moved to Vienna (where he was imprisoned as an enemy alien in the First World War), then Palestine, then Berlin, and finally to Paris. In 1944, he was rounded up, deported and murdered in Auschwitz.

Vogel wrote in modern Hebrew and made a major contribution to its flowering as a medium for literature. But this exemplary nomad was not much of a territorial Zionist; he quit Tel Aviv for doomed Europe after a couple of years. The language itself – translated here with grace and nuance by Philip Simpson and Daniel Silverstone – remained his true homeland. If In the Sanatorium links it to the ironic melancholy of Joseph Roth, Thomas Mann and other German-language writers of the 1920s, then Facing the Sea (1932) irresistibly brings F Scott Fitzgerald to mind. It even shares some of the same Riviera locations.

Only a vulgar fatalism would back-project Vogel's own fate onto the ribald and gossipy TB cases, or onto the middle-class Viennese couple whose solid bond falls apart to leave an "ocean of sadness" behind. Yet premonitions of losses and partings flicker across almost every page.

For tubercular patients with "the seal of death on them", horseplay, badinage and sexual adventures – usually with jollyshiksas on the staff rather than what one playboy calls "the kosher maidens in this leper colony" – turn their minds from the fatal climax that may lie in wait. For Barth and Gina, each drawn to new lovers in a climate of languid eroticism, a holiday that promises "the unmuddied joy of life" reveals the spiritual chasm that yawns not only between, but within, them.

Suitcases will be packed; trains will depart; lives will change beyond recall or repair. That "alien, superfluous" moon shines on.