Childers: The Riddle of the Sands (1903)

Espionage novels have a peculiar capacity to capture the warp and weave of information flow, the textures of data transmission. In our own day and age, that makes for a very natural counterpart with the manifold fluidities of digital media, to the point where the espionage novelist’s profession has almost become redundant, so ceaselessly are we surrounded with inchoate informational possibilities. It’s quite breathtaking, then, to return to what many critics describe as the first modern espionage novel – Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands – and to experience this worldview mapped onto a landscape that’s so confined to natural locations that it’s effectively pre-analog. It’s even more breathtaking in that this was Childers’ only novel, written some twelve years before World War I, to warn the British Navy about the likelihood of a German invasion from the North Sea, as well as to alert them to the military possibility of the remote Frisian Islands, where most of the story takes place. That might make it sound more like propaganda than literature, but Childers’ complex, romantic life – he was a liberal anticolonist, and executed for his involvement with the Irish Republican Army – means that it tends to shy away from imperial dogma, and instead confines itself to the topography and topology of the German coast. In fact, it more or less plays as a nautical log, a series of efforts to map terrain that seems largely unmappable, to which end Childers draws quite heavily on his own specialist knowledge as a sailor and officer. As a result, there’s a great deal of specialist terminology, but what makes the novel so unique is the way Childers fuses that terminology with his extraordinary, mercurial descriptions of the Frisian Isles, landscapes that seem to defy all distinction between land and sea, sand and water, stability and flux. Although there may be terminology everywhere, the novel is really only about sand, wind and water, and Childers brings an extraordinary textural ingenuity to bear upon continually reinventing that combination, which of course also means reinventing the terminology he uses as well, opening it up to a more liquid, fluid flow of information that gives the story quite a momentous pulse and ebb. Like a poetic counterpart to the Beaufort Wind Scale, or the International Tide Chart, it’s informative and sublime at once – sublime precisely because of how much it informs, how much it wants to evoke information itself – and that makes it even more astonishing, prophetic and singular some hundred years later.


Mann: Buddenbrooks (1901)

Buddenbrooks is often described as one of the last great realist novels, as well as one of the first great novels of the twentieth century. In its scope and ambition, it’s worthy of both plaudits, and is even more extraordinary in that it was written when Thomas Mann was a mere twenty-six. Like so many realist novels, it’s a family saga, revolving around the decline of a Hanseatic merchant family based on Mann’s own, although if anything that seems to caution him from descending into sentimentality, or compensating with excessive, objective detachment. Instead, the whole novel is punctuated by an awry, abrupt, slightly staccato movement from one episode to another, as if to capture the gradual dissolution and fragmentation of the family in the very midst of their struggles to constitute themselves as a single, continuous narrative. That might seem to preclude the seriality of the classic realist novel, except that Mann perfects something close to the ‘cold opens’ of contemporary televisual and serial attachment. Nearly always, his chapters start by plunging us into an event or episode that only becomes clear as it progresses, and often feels quite dissonant with the previous chapter, even or especially when it leads directly on from it. That prevents the novel ever feeling too grandiose, allowing it to expand and contract between the broad sweep of the family and Mann’s Wagnerian leitmotifs with a syncopated rhythm that lends a slight touch of bemused paradox to every moment of epic decline – the decline that Tonie Buddenbrooks, one of the most enduring characters, clings to as the last emblem and symbol of her family pride. Often, too, Mann will follow a extensive, intricate description with a minute event or incident that doesn’t undermine it so much as open up a slightly different sense of duration, a rupture in the family’s (and the novel’s) exquisitely bourgeois demarcation of time and space. For that reason, it often feels like a realist novel with a modernist sense of time, or at least a realist novel that is experimenting with a modernist sense of time. And it takes the most chiselled, assured prose style to keep some six hundred pages poised at that precarious cusp, as well as the most startling audacity to gradually centripete such comfortable, homely tableaux out into the minutely modulated entropy and discontinuity with which they conclude. In many other realist novels, you can be sure that everyone you meet will return again in some way, if only as a presence, or a brooding significance, but that’s not the case here. Everything spirals outwards, refusing to allow its import to remain for any length of time, until you feel as if the entire novel has somehow escaped you, just as the Buddenbrooks’ decline escapes the full consciousness of any one family member, let alone any family member who might want to think of themselves as its main character.