Geistergeschichte- Ghost Story- by Laura Freudenthaler

The Austrian writer Laura Freudenthaler has just been awarded a European Literature Prize 2019 for Geistergeschichte. This slim, subtle, novel is not a ghost story in a conventional sense, but rather a study of a middle aged woman losing her grip on reality while her marriage is breaking down. She senses her husband is having an affair, and it is the imagined presence of his lover in their flat, walking across the floorboards, sleeping in her bed, which provides the unnerving, haunting presence of the ‘other’ in her life.

The desolation of their twenty year marriage is apparent from the start: Thomas comes home, creeps silently into his room and closes the door, without looking for or calling out to his wife, Anne, framed against the living room window. This physical separateness, the closing of doors, is emblematic of a relationship in which both partners have come to lead separate lives. Thomas goes off for weekends and days at a time without saying where he’s going and Anne no longer accompanies him to social events he attends in his guise as film director/ festival organiser ( I was never quite sure what his job was). To begin with, we think this is just long term relationship drift, but Anne begins to think he’s having an affair and das Mädchen enters her life.

The narrative is told almost entirely from Anne’s point of view. She is a pianist and piano teacher and as the story starts, it’s the end of term and she’s looking forward to a sabbatical year. One or two of her private piano lessons are described in some detail and her insistence on correct hand position, posture and a crisp distinction between notes is echoed in the crisp, short, correct sentence structure, which struck me especially at the beginning of the book. At the same time, those short, factual sentences seem to work, as in her previous work, Die Königin schweigt, almost to contain emotion, to leave things unsaid. We know Anne is a feeling person: though she’s a demanding teacher, she’s thoughtful and empathetic towards her young pupils, and in her own life has a tender relationship with her mother who lives back in France- I was quite moved by her impulse to just get on a train to spend Sunday with her.

Anne has a plan for her sabbatical: she’ll spend the mornings working on her idea for a textbook and the afternoons on her own piano playing. She starts off working in cafes and there is much pleasing detail about the cafes and their clientele- though Anne here too begins to feel apart from other people as they return to work after lunch. The plan sort of disintegrates as Anne’s suspicions about the affair grow and her hands no longer work as they used to at the piano. She changes tack, buys a rucksack and sensible walking shoes and spends the days wandering through the city, into areas unknown to her. Returning to the flat and  silence- with the occasional perfunctory enquiry from Thomas about how her work is going- when he’s there.

The first glimmers of the presence of das Mädchen begin when Anne senses her sort of wafting out of her husband’s mobile phone. She senses her in the flat, hearing her in the walls and scuttling across the floor. At first, we attribute these sensations to her imagination and unhappy state. But then, Anne begins to fantasise Thomas’ meetings with das Mädchen, their dates in cafes and restaurants. She systematically goes through his pockets for receipts, seeing any purchase as evidence of their affair. Through clever writing the narrative perspective changes even within the paragraph so that das Mädchen enters the story as an independent protagonist and we begin to believe in her as real. As das Mädchen moves into the narrative space we begin to ask ourselves the usual questions: what does she see in a man old enough to be her father? And das Mädchen, like Anne, has a Freundin, who both nurtures and acts as sounding board, like the best woman friends do.

For me, the brilliance of this novel was as much about the depiction of a declining long term relationship as about the clever fudging of fantasy and reality. The writer deftly conveys the aching sadness of this 50 year old woman, whose husband has no interest in sharing her life. She visits her mother in France at Christmas alone and at Easter shoves a half eaten Osterhase into her rucksack before going off for a walk alone. She’s also separated by her language- Thomas has never bothered to learn French and she’s aware that the German she speaks is his, Thomas’, German. It’s as if her personality has been subsumed in his.

The question for me at the end was whether a relationship can ever come back from this? There is a shift towards a resolution at the end, but it’s just a suggestion, and may be as phantasmagoric as much of Anne’s imaginings. This is a clever, subtle and moving book and very deserving of its prize.


This entry was posted in Books by Austrian writers, Books in German, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Geistergeschichte- Ghost Story- by Laura Freudenthaler

  1. I hadn’t heard of this one before, so thanks for writing about it—it sounds excellent. I like the idea of blurring fantasy and reality and having the husband’s lover appear as a ‘ghost’ in the flat. I’ll add this to my “to read” list!

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