I’d never heard of The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt until it showed up in Reading Matters Triple Choice Tuesday feature as a book “that deserves a wider audience” recommendation from Tom Cunliffe at A Common Reader. Kimbofo’s Triple Choice Tuesday feature asks bloggers for three of their favorites — both she and Tom are regular commentors here and I decided I would expand Genazino’s audience by one, at least. I am glad I did.
While the author was unfamiliar to me, he certainly is not to the German reading world — eight novels, a trilogy and numerous literary prizes. Published in German in 2001, with this translation appearing in 2006, this short novel (132 pages) is probably labelled most easily as “existential”. I am not keen on labels so I’ll quote an accurate description from the jacket: “brief and poignant”, a reflection “on broken relationships and other failures” portraying “struggles to come to terms with life”.
Told in the first person by an unnamed character, the over-arching challenge he faces is defined in the opening pages:
But one day certain buildings have suddenly disappeared or else they’ve been remodeled to such an extent that I no longer recognize many of them and then I’m so annoyed that I no longer look at them. I don’t know if today is one of those days — probably not. If it were, then I’d once again have this sensation that people like me should be told to either disappear or else get remodeled like the old buildings. This sensation is connected with another feeling I often have, namely that I’m here in this world without my inner authorization. Strictly speaking I’m still waiting for someone to ask me whether I really want to be here. I imagine how nice it would be if I could grant myself this permission, let’s say this afternoon. As for the question of who should ask me to grant this permission, I have no idea — but that doesn’t matter.
That paragraph is typical of the narrative structure of the book. As he wanders the streets of Frankfurt, the shoe tester (his “job” is to try out samples of luxury male shoes by walking about and then compile reports on their comfort) continually runs into scenes, incidents and people that (a) rouse memories of his past, (b) open reflections on his present, (c) set off tangential thoughts and (d) raise perplexing questions about his future. The beauty of the book lies not so much in those observations, but in the gaps that lie between a, b, c and d. The narrator can put each of the pieces into his mind, but because he lacks that “inner authorization”, he cannot coherently connect them — that would represent an authorization of his life. They are obviously connected; the challenge to the reader is to contemplate what the missing parts are.
By way of example, one of the narrator’s desires is to deny being reminded of his past (he considers wearing a label that says “PLEASE NO CONVERSATIONS ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD OR MINE”), yet every person whom he comes across takes him back into his own history — he just cannot make the jump between the “then” and “now”. Here’s how it plays out when he comes across Susanne Bleuler, now an unhappy receptionist in a large law firm but also a childhood friend:
In me Susanne Bleuler has someone who can vouch for the authenticity of her desires, because when she was only twelve she confessed to me during a sled ride — I was sitting behind her on a two-seat toboggan — that she was going to be an actress and nothing else. That was the first time I’d ever touched a girl’s breasts. For I long time I didn’t realize I was dealing with a bosom. I always simply sat in back of Susanne and held onto her from behind. Nor did she notice that both of my hands were on top of her breasts every time. It wasn’t until she turned thirteen that she suddenly shoved my hands aside and laughed. I laughed too, and that shared laughter was the first time we realized that there were breasts and hands and something new and scary between us that quickly drove us apart, at least for a while.
Susanne is only one of a host of characters that the narrator runs into who remind him of aspects of his past (not all from childhood) — a failed photographer, a hairdresser, his “boss” at the shoe firm all spark journeys into memory and reminders of the gaps that exist between past and present, and inevitably provoke thoughts of gaps that will exist in the future. And it is not just people who start these mental journeys but random scenes and incidents — fallen leaves, a boy building a hideout of blankets on a balcony. While all of these people or incidents are real — and the history certainly did take place — the narrator sees it all with a sense of detachment as he is more aware of the holes in his experience and memory, than what is already there.
For this reader, the overall experience was like contemplating a three-dimensional (past, present, future) jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing. The pieces that Genazino does give you are concrete, but he offers no hint of what the missing ones might be. The author invites the reader to join with the narrator in considering that absence. The narrator’s fear that his future may offer only two choices — insanity or death — becomes very real in the process. It is to Genazino’s credit that as the book comes to a close he does open a third possibility.
The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt is one of those short novels that invites an immediate second read, an invitation that I was happy to accept. There is enough going on in this book that the first time through a lot of attention is required just to figure out what is going on in the present. With that in place for the second read, both the past and the future are much more easily considered. And it is that consideration which represents the real value of the work.
We all have these kinds of memories and gaps. The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt is a book that does deserve a wide audience because it succeeds (at least for me) in bringing them forcefully into focus, a very worthwhile result from a very readable book.