In the 27 brief stories in German author Biller's collection (his first to be published in the States, and magnificently translated by Bell), characters fall in love, have affairs, spy on their neighbors, break up and do everything in between, all of which is described with a mix of chic simplicity and Hemingwayesque poignancy. In "The Mahogany Elephant," a seemingly banal exchange between two reunited lovers leads to a crystallization of their relationship. In "Baghdad at Seven-Thirty," two people making small talk at a bar come to reveal a complicated bond. In "Melody," a troubled couple's expansive romantic lives are distilled into just over two pages. Some stories disappoint, such as "In Bed with Sheikh Yassin," about a justifiably reluctant bride who fantasizes about another man on her wedding day. Biller's chief concernsfidelity and longingare examined from every conceivable angle, and the stories, short as they are, carry an unexpectedly powerful emotional wallop. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Love Today: Storiesby Maxim Biller
These twenty-seven exquisite vignettes reveal the frustration, longing, and loneliness of human intimacy and love in/i>/i>
Following the appearance of two stories in The New Yorker, German author, playwright, and journalist Maxim Biller makes his English-language debut with a collection of remarkable and beautifully wrought short stories, Love Today.
These twenty-seven exquisite vignettes reveal the frustration, longing, and loneliness of human intimacy and love in the twenty-first century. A moment of dialogue between two people seated in an empty bar in "Baghdad at Seven-Thirty" evokes fragility, helplessness, and regret. The childhood friends who meet accidentally throughout the years in "Ziggy Stardust" are alternately drawn toward and repulsed from each other; and the fleeting text messages exchanged in "The Maserati Years" change everything between two lovers in an instant. Collectively, the result is romantic, voyeuristic, and deeply moving.
Already a force in contemporary German literature, Maxim Biller has received praise from critics and readers alike throughout Europe for his perceptive, enchanting prose and the hauntingly familiar emotions his stories can provoke. Love Today introduces a new and gifted writing talent, and an accomplished international literary voice.
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The Mahogany Elephant
He waited for her for three months. He sorted out his photos, rearranged his books, moved some of the furniture around, and then he went on waiting. After that he read all the letters he had ever received and threw most of them away, and he bought a large map of India and hung it above his bed. Or rather he didn't buy a map of India, but that was what he really wanted to do while he was waiting. He waited and waited, and began to write a story about waiting for her, but he didn't know how it would end, so he dropped it. Finally he did nothing at all; he didn't even wait anymore. He was sleeping less and less, he ate nothing but bread and tomatoes and yellow supermarket cheese, and then at last she came back, they sat together on his sofa, and she said, "It's been a long time."
"Yes," he said, although he had firmly made up his mind to say as little as possible, "it's been a very long time."
She had lost weight on her travels, and he didn't think she looked better than before. She was tired, but then, she was always tired; she'd gone away to recover from feeling tired all the time, and now that she was back she was still tired. And she'd grown older. Older or more serious or harder, he wasn't sure which. There was a gray tinge to her suntanned skin, the kind you usually see only on older women, her smile was much too grave and thoughtful, and her cheekbones were even more prominent than before.
She rose to her feet and went out. When she came back she had a bright-colored bag in her hand.
"This is for you," she said.
"Thank you, my love," he said. He opened the bag. There was a small, fat, black mahogany elephant in it.
"Would you like a drink?" he asked.
"I bought wine for you."
"No, water," she said.
He slowly stood up and brushed his leg against hers. Apart from the fleeting kiss when she arrived it was their first physical contact in three months.
"Really just water?" he called from the kitchen, but she didn't reply. "Chilled or room temperature?" he asked, and she called quietly back, "Room temperature."
He took a new crate of water out of the closet, pushed it straight back in again with his foot, and opened the bottle of wine that had been standing on the kitchen table for the last six weeks. He picked up the glasses and the bottle, and before going back to the living room he took the elephant out of his trouser pocket and threw it in the garbage.
"Jordi," she said, "I didn't want wine."
"No," he agreed, "it's still too early for wine."
"I didn't drink at all while I was there," she said.
"That's a pity," he said.
"No, I don't think so."
"I think it is."
He poured wine first for himself, then for her, and they clinked glasses. She didn't look in his eyes, and she drank only a tiny sip before going into the kitchen to fetch a bottle of water. She sat down on the sofa again, as far from him as she had been just before, and began telling him about her travels -- but he was barely listening. While she was away he had kept trying to imagine where she was at any given time, and what it was like there, but now he couldn't care less about India, he just wanted to know what her decision was. Of course, he knew already, but he wanted to hear it from her own mouth. He wanted her to suffer a little, he wanted her to have to say it and feel unhappy about hurting him. No, she would say, we're not going to get married, Jordi, I know that's not what I want now, so we'll never see each other again, the way we agreed.
"Did you miss me?" he said.
"No, Jordi," she said, "I didn't."
"Of course not," he said, and nodded.
"Are you angry?"
"Are you sure you're not angry?"
He looked out the window. When she had left, you could still see right over the square to the Church of Zion. Now the trees were in leaf, and all you saw from the window were those wonderful large green leaves. The leaves swayed back and forth in the wind, reminding Jordi of seaweed drifting in the ocean.
Perhaps it was because they hadn't seen each other for so long. They hadn't seen each other for almost as long as they'd known each other! He laid his arm on the back of the sofa behind her and left it there for a few minutes, but then he took it away again. The arm didn't feel quite sure of itself.
"What about you?" she asked.
"What have you been doing?"
"Why didn't you call?" he said. "Not once in three months!"
"But you know," she said, taking alarm. "That was our agreement, wasn't it?"
She was right. She'd even said, "Suppose I stay there for good?" And he had said that would be okay, she was a free agent, and if they never said another word to each other again that would be okay too. But he had said so only out of calculation, because he knew that she was an Aries -- and just try keeping a ram captive.
"There's a story about that elephant," she said. She paused, waiting for him to ask what the story was, but all he was thinking about was how to get the elephant out of the rubbish bin again without her noticing.
"It was the fourth," she said, "honestly, it was the fourth, I swear it."
He still didn't say anything. Then he went into the kitchen without a word, and before bending over the trash he turned around, to be on the safe side.
"I lost the first three!" she called from the living room. "Can you imagine it -- all three of them? Do you think that means something?"
He was frantically searching through the garbage, but he couldn't find the elephant. He dug his hands deeper and deeper into the damp, smelly trash, and then he took everything
out and laid it on the floor.
"I know this one's ugly!" she called again. "I bought it at the airport in Bombay. You should have seen the others. They were really pretty!"
He couldn't find it. He knelt, sweating, with the trash of the last three days spread out on the floor around him, and suddenly he realized how crazy he was. He thought, If she sees this she'll think I'm totally crazy, and he began picking up the trash and stuffing it back in the garbage can.
"Actually that's not true. I didn't want to bring you anything back." There she was behind him all of a sudden. "I simply forgot about you."
He turned his head and looked up at her from below. She ran her hand through his hair and said, "And then I remembered you again in Bombay, at the airport....What's the matter? Have you thrown it away already?"
"Yes," he said.
"Then we're quits," she said. She knelt down beside him and helped to pick up the trash. It was soon done, and then they washed their hands together in the bathroom, looked at each other in the mirror, and smiled.
"Would you go out, please?" she said.
She had never felt shy about going to the bathroom in front of him before. Although he didn't really like it when she did, he would have given anything for her not to send him out now. He closed the door behind him and went into the living room. He sat down on the sofa, but got up again the next minute and put some music on. It was a CD they'd listened to together a couple of times, so he quickly turned it off. He sat down on the sofa again and looked out the window, watching the large green leaves swaying in the wind, and then he didn't feel so bad after all. It was as if he himself had just come back from a journey, a very good one, but difficult too; indeed, often simply tedious. And now he was back, glad not to be travelling, glad he could just sit here where he had sat for years, looking out the window at the large green leaves and enjoying them, and waiting for them to fall so that he could see the church behind them and be glad to think they would soon be growing again.
Before she went away, they'd tried it on the sofa once. No, he had tried it; she had gone along with him at first, but then she suddenly crossed her arms over her bare breasts. He ran his hand over her belly, and she pressed her legs firmly together. He turned away, disappointed, and she said it was horrible of him to punish her like that. After her flight had taken off, he sent her a text message apologizing, and perhaps she had seen it when the plane stopped over in Zurich, or perhaps not.
How much longer would she stay on the toilet? She usually took very little time about it -- he was always surprised how little time she needed -- but she went very often. He sometimes had to go frequently, too, but only when he was nervous, which maybe meant that she was always nervous. Today was different, this was the first time she'd gone to the bathroom since arriving, and she had been here for two hours. So today she wasn't as nervous as usual! As soon as that thought occurred to him he felt nervous and wanted to go to the bathroom himself.
He sat there for a while, waiting. Ten minutes must have passed, and then he couldn't wait any longer and went over to the bathroom. The door was closed, so he knocked, but there was no answer. He knocked again, louder, and now he heard her.
"I'm here," she said quietly.
"Here," she said even more quietly.
She was in the bedroom. She was lying in his bed fully clothed, and when he came in she said, "All right, let's get married." She lay there in his bed fully clothed, and then she turned on her side, she laid her head on the pillow and put her hands under it, and looked at him gravely and sadly.
Copyright © 2007 by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne
Translation copyright © 2008 by Anthea Bell
Meet the Author
Maxim Biller was born in Prague in 1960, and emigrated with his family to Germany in 1970. He is the author of three previous story collections and two novels, Esra and The Daughter. In 1999 he received the Theodor-Wolff-Preis, one of the highest awards for journalists in Germany. Two of his short stories have appeared in The New Yorker. Maxim Biller lives in Berlin.
Anthea Bell (translator) is the recipient of the Schlegel Tieck Prize for translation from German, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize in 2002 for the translation of W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, and the 2003 Austrian State Prize for Literary Translation. She lives in Cambridge, England.
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