Book Review: The Taste of Apple Seeds

Katharina Hagena’s The Taste of Apple Seeds embraces distortions of time and memory, reconstructing a subjective past

TVR Books | Meredith Castile | June 2013

Through an enchanted garden, up irregular staircases, into trunks of vintage gowns, a young woman explores memories of her absent family. Katharina Hagena’s The Taste of Apple Seeds (trans. 2013) is as unapologetically romantic as its title.

Yet the premise – a grandchild inherits the family house and history – makes it one, along with Arno Geiger’s German Prize-winning and richly lean We Are Doing Fine, of an unlikely pair of high-profile novels recently translated into English, one as starkly lucid as the other is hazily atmospheric. [see, "A House of Generations", TVR April 2013]

The Taste of Apple Seeds embraces distortions of time and memory. What matters to Hagena’s novel is not the past itself, but its subjective re-membering, as its narrator Iris reconstructs her family’s history. Here, as in Geiger’s novel, the house figures not only for enduring social structures, but also as the origin of personal identity. The trope works well. As philosopher Gaston Bachelard observes, each part of a familiar house assumes a mnemonic role in the imagination:

"Thanks to the house, a great many of our memories are housed, and if the house…has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated. All our lives we come back to them in our daydreams."

How potent to be confronted with not only the daydream, but the actual spaces that trigger it—the barn, the grandfather’s study, a window’s alcove. In the fixed framework of the house, memory asserts itself.

It’s not a bad gambit for a novel (think of Proust’s Combray, Woolf’s house in the Hebrides, Waugh’s Brideshead, …). Modernist writers in particular explored localised memory. So it’s hardly surprising that Hagena was an academic who specialised in British modernists, and I scrawled a "Ulysses" on an early page even before I learned that Hagena had written an academic book on said masterpiece. Lacking both the technical skill and the originality of the masters, however, Hagena offers but a weak echo.

Still, keen observations abound, and trimmed to its moments of unforced sensual observation, The Taste of Apple Seeds could have been a gorgeously spare novella. A character notes another’s desolation only when she sees her posture from behind. Children use a baby pram to "play refugees," acting out the displacement they observed at the end of WWII. "The hard, dry skin" of a demented woman’s hand scrapes against a wooden table as she obsessively sweeps invisible crumbs into her other, cupped hand.

But banality dilutes these moments, and Hagena casts a pall of fateful enchantment over description and plot alike. The Nazi grandfather is a poet. The electrically alluring aunt literally shocks anyone who touches her. An apple tree fruits overnight after two lovers join in the dark beneath it.

One wishes Hagena had committed fully to magical realism – or at least to a consistent tone. As it stands, the novel reads like a mismatched pastiche of genres, whose worst moments range from a cloying faux-"literary" mode ("A large blue-green dragonfly darted over the bushes like a memory") to a banal "chic lit" mode of neurotic confession ("I bought… a newspaper, a packet of crisps and a bar of nut chocolate for an emergency. Well, two bars, just in case"). The stylistic flaws are symptomatic of the plot’s underlying lack of momentum.

Here’s the problem with the plot: There is none. The narrative conflict is diffuse at best – whether or not Iris should keep the house, how she can mentally organise her painful family memories, what to do about a love interest. Much of the plot simply happens to Iris, in a series of accidents worthy of bad Hollywood: She’s found skinny dipping by her love interest, or having spilled a can of house paint in a bicycle accident, she’s rescued in the (nattily-clad) arms of the love interest, wet paint and all. Etc.

The book’s climax likewise leaves Iris little agency. In it, she allows herself to remember the core trauma of her experience of the house. But why, privy as we are to Iris’s mind, have we not seen flashes of this scene before? Is anyone that disciplined in repression and retrieval? What are the present-day stakes of this remembered scene in which she plays a more or less peripheral role as observer? And for god’s sake is this the final pay-off after we’ve endured paragraph-long lists of flowers, teenage talk of breast buds and periods, and sappily timid courtships?

And yet: The Taste of Apple Seeds is not so easily dismissed, for it has the sensory details of a masterwork. Here is the distorted echo of voices in a domed, stone kitchen, the singing sound of a taffeta petticoat against nylon stockings, the feel of a live eel between one’s hands. For every "no!" in my marginalia, there is a "yes."

That may be enough.

The Taste of Apple Seeds

by Katharina Hagena

Atlantic Books (2013) pp. 256  


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