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Night over the East

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

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Author: Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn
Publisher: Sheed and Ward Inc
1 review about Night over the East

If not a perfect novel, certainly a fascinating work

  • Sep 13, 2005
If you take the time to track down, purchase, and read this book, then you're probably, as I am, a fairly dedicated student of the author, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. This novel, published in German in 1935 and translated into English in 1936, when the author was 27 years old, gives some fascinating insights into the author and his thinking in the years before Hitler's war. It's also an interesting, sometimes disturbing, occasionally confusing, and ultimately rewarding work of fiction.

One thing I've found about K-L fiction is that the published and oft-recycled (on antiquarian booksellers' web sites) descriptions of those works aren't entirely on-point. "Night Over the East" is generally described as the adventures of a young Hungarian aristocrat in the Balkans, but it's actually quite a bit more than that.

Albert Kloibner is Hungarian by citizenship, but in fact is Austrian-German by nationality, nobility by social position, relatively rich, and a Catholic -- all of which put him at odds with the currents and passions of Hungary in the 15 years after the first world war. And so as the novel opens, Albert has fled to a particularly deserted part of Petsamo, an arctic region that had transferred from Soviet Russia to independent Finland after the war (and which would, as it happens, be reincorporated into the Soviet Empire after 1944). After several years in the north, Albert encounters Desider, a Hungarian student in Finland, who convinces him to end his Arctic exile and return to Budapest.

Much of the central portion of the novel describes Albert's experiences in Hungary as the nation struggles with not only the Great Depression but also the effects of political turmoil in the Balkans spilling over into Hungary itself. (Rather more familiarity with Hungarian history would have helped me here.) In the last section, the novel turns much darker as K-L describes the Serbian subjugation of Croatia, Macedonia, and other parts of what would become Yugoslavia. Albert and his friends are caught up in this, and the novel ends in a way that -- while not an unpredictable resolution for Albert himself -- is still more than a little depressing.

This certainly seems to have been K-L's intent. In a preface to my second edition, K-L writes that "Night Over the East" was written to document the horrors afflicting South Eastern Europe to which England and the West were largely, through their own complacency, ignorant. Consequently, this is a novel with Something To Say, and it is interesting to see some of the arguments K-L later developed in his nonfiction work starting to swirl around here in his early novels.

Taken as a novel, this book does have its unsatisfying points. Interestingly, and unlike his later work, this novel was written in German. It was translated "and adapted," not by the author himself, but by Edwin and Willa Muir, whom a quick Google tags as a Scottish poet and his wife (they also translated Kafka's "Metamorphosis"). I'm tempted to ascribe to their "adaptation" one of the biggest hurdles I encountered in this book, the very long descriptive sentences with which the novel begins. Here, for example, is a randomly-chosen sentence from the third page of the novel: "The son of the minister of Alaluostari, who owned the only shop in Petsamo and sold whip-stocks, school exercise-books, revolvers, and mattresses, might sit blank and taciturn over his dram of spirits, but as he sat there on the hard bench, his fists on his cheek-bones, he was devoid of all envy or resentment, all ill-will or bitterness; the priest of Parkkina with his filthy mat of hair and his reek of garlic could hardly write, and the Koltta Lapps of Kääntömukka and Moskova, the fishermen of Vaitolahti and Pummanki, were all simple, slow-witted people with no interest in Bergson or the rate of the Czechoslovakian exchange, in auction bridge or the Concours Hippique at Vienna."

Fortunately, those are out of the way pretty quickly. In the novel's midsection, K-L seems to have forgotten the old writer's rule of "show them, don't tell them." In other words, there is an awful lot of narration -- exposition of things that might better have been relayed in dialogue. And even then, there is a lot more talking than action. The final section speeds up quite a bit, but it wasn't entirely convincing to me that Albert and all his friends would have been wrapped up in things quite the way they ended up being.

So this isn't, as I say, the Great Austrian (or English, or Hungarian, or American) Novel, and it still holds more interest for me because of the author than the subject. But that said, it's not a bad story by any means, and at times I found it more than a little absorbing. I don't regret a moment of the time I spent reading it -- not only for the story itself, but for the insight it gives into the author and the evolution of his ideas.

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