In a recent address in New York, Martin Mosebach, winner of the Georg Büchner Prize, Germany's most prestigious literary award, described the metaphysical outlook of his countrymen: “In Germany we like to distinguish between the glistening surface and the deeper values. Preferably, deeper values are not externally perceptible.” This mistake springs from “that German vice, philosophy,” which “revels in the separation—impossible in reality—of content and form.”
If philosophy thus described is a German vice, still it is a vice that this German does not share. In What Was Before, Mosebach's first novel to be translated into English, there are no ghosts, no pure spiritual forms floating by. Nor are there any brute facts. Each gesture or ritual, each curve of a shoulder or fluctuation in fashion, is ready to proclaim its truth. It is not a novel of ideas, but behind it lies an idea, perhaps a religious one, of how spirit and flesh cleave together.
The book begins with a question. A woman asks a man what his life had been like before they met, and he tells her of a glittering world now gone: A group of well-to-do Germans gathers for poolside parties in the countryside near Frankfurt, for vacations in the Mediterranean, and for cozy sledding trips. None of them notice that a chain of small events is underway that will threaten their finances, their social positions, and their marriages—even as it brings two lovers together. Since the man's story dwells on seemingly irrelevant details and takes in every tangent, the woman occasionally interrupts her lover to get him back on topic. Only at the end will she realize, along with the reader, that this is a story in which accident is of the essence.
I'm reading The Ball and the Cross—surprisingly for the first time. Given that I am a Chesterton fan, an aspiring sword-cane owner, and a student of dueling thanks to Moliere and Shakespeare, someone insightful pointed out that I really should read this novel. And since this lovely person bought me the book to rectify this situation, I am happy to report that The Ball and the Cross is a bizarre delight.
With his characteristic narrative gusto, Chesterton drops us into a story about a quixotic Catholic and a quixotic atheist racing to find a place to duel to death. The naive Catholic issues the challenge because the atheist has insulted his mother (the Blessed Virgin Mary) and the disillusioned atheist gleefully accepts, glad someone has finally taken his writing seriously enough to be offended by it. They are pursued by the police, sinister madhouse doctors, and a prosaic public that does not understand the metaphysical importance of their quarrel. Events conspire to interrupt their duel time and again, forcing them to resort to disguises, sea voyages, and more-and-more precarious settings for their swordfight—until the novel takes a hard left turn into dystopian fiction for its final chapters.
Chesterton gives his two protagonists a roughly even share of zingers and witticisms. It is obvious he has great sympathy for both of them, having been (at different points in his life) a romantic atheist and a romantic Catholic. So it's clearly with a twinkle in his eye that he writes of the two men's greatest challenge: they see their duel as more and more urgent as they feel themselves beginning to like each other. But it is only natural for this inconvenient fellow feeling to develop: they are, after all, brothers in arms.