THE ARCHIVIST OF AFFRONTS

“A man who has not been in Italy,” wrote Dr Johnson, “is always conscious of an inferiority.” Perhaps, but he might as well have said, for his time and his circle, a man who has not been to Oxford or Cambridge, or a man who has not written a book. Indeed there is possibly still something at the least a little unsatisfactory about moving in a world of books and judgments about books without oneself having hazarded, or achieved, one. Hence the appeal of what used to be called vanity publishing, which I understand is doing rather well, even in what our paper of record likes to call “these recessionary times”.

Yes, there is undoubtedly something deeply satisfying about seeing one’s name on the cover of a new book, which makes the case of Ferdinand Thrän, the nineteenth century restorer of the massive cathedral in the city of Ulm on the Danube, particularly poignant and shocking, though not perhaps to Thrän himself, as Claudio Magris writes (in his book Danube):

On the cover of his learned work (The Cathedral of Ulm, an Exact Description of the Same, 1857), the printer, in a moment of distraction which seems to obey the remorseless destiny of Ferdinand Thrän, has forgotten to print the author’s name, which the librarian of the National Library in Vienna has added in pencil ...

Thrän, whom Magris describes as “a hypochondriac specialising in discourtesies”, kept for many years a kind of specialised diary called the File of Rudenesses Received, which, though unpublished, may be his finest work. Thrän’s experience has taught him that what life boils down to is a series of dirty tricks, and so he has set out to keep a rigorous inventory of its outrages.

If genuine writing is born from the desire to account for the copious inconvenience of living, then Thrän is a real writer. Literature here is accountancy, the ledger of profit and loss, the balance sheet of an inevitable deficit ...Thrän impartially records the knavish pettiness of men and things, the intrigues of building-inspector Rupp-Reutlingen and the malevolence of the storm that ruined the central nave for him, filling the cathedral with flakes of plaster, the decision which assigned him a salary with no pension attached and the nervous fevers with which he is afflicted, his eleven falls from horseback – imputed to the poor quality of his old nag, which was, however, the only sort of horse he could afford on his income – and the deaths of four of his children, the frequent accidents which cause him to fall of the scaffolding or end up in the Danube, the inconvenience and risk of being impaled while being fished out with a boat-hook. Tragedies and mere vexations are all put on the same level, because the real tragedy of life is that it is, solely and entirely, a nuisance.

As a cartographer of calamities, Magris writes, Thrän is an infant brother of Kafka and a familiar figure in Central European literature. And perhaps this negative figure is not all negativity, or is it just that we will not allow him to be such?

... every book written against life, wrote Thomas Mann, seduces us into living it; behind Thrän’s obstinate rejection with which he counters the malevolence of things there is also a reticent love of reality, of those rivers and those roads which he measured with persevering exactitude. Perhaps the true friend of life is not the wooer who courts her with sentimental flatteries, but rather the clumsy, rejected lover who feels that she has cast him out from her good graces, as Thrän put it, like a piece of old furniture.