Aan Zee by Joachim Frank. Published by the University of the South Press, 2019, pp. 289. More information here.
This is a novel about a scientist Hubert Belovsky, born in Germany and brought up and educated in the U.S.A., who is invited to give a talk in The Hague at a conference in his field. Divorced for a few years he has been living alone in his house. Wondering at the beginning of the narrative about the nature of his reputation, Hubert is excited to make the trip to Europe during his long summer vacation hoping to have some romantic adventures and visit places he hasn’t seen for a long time.
The novel’s plot is remarkably simple and the events that it narrates are quite free of any complex or intriguing incidents that might result in sustained psychological, moral or intellectual explorations. In The Hague while walking through a nudist colony Hubert runs into Helga, his girlfriend from his college days, and that lends the narrative some momentum and charm. They renew their romance but, contrary to Hubert’s hopes, it turns out to be very brief. At the venue where he gives his conference talk there are only a few persons in the audience. Hubert then travels to Germany and then to his aunt’s place in Austria where he suffers from a prolonged illness. On a Friday evening when his aunt is away for several hours, he invites a stripper from Vienna to escape his boredom. Late in the evening the aunt arrives and, to her anger and distress, sees the stripper fast asleep in Hubert’s room.
Although devoid of any serious character-development or thematic complication, the narrative itself is still quite interesting. The thing that most draws one’s attention in this novel is a remarkably complex, rich and nuanced portrayal of the consciousness of the protagonist as a scientist. His observations of almost everything during this trip and the ruminations of his mind are strikingly precise and vivid. There are hardly any literary novels that give such a full-blooded portrayal of the mind of a scientist; science fiction novels have battalions of scientists as protagonists but a vast majority of them do not seem that interesting. Because it is focused on the workings of the protagonist’s mind, it didn’t bother at least this reader that the narrative is not rich with incidents of any moral or psychological complexity, filled with fully developed secondary characters. In fact, the protagonist seems to have little interest in such incidents or characters.
The protagonist does remain engrossed in his own mind, and this makes for a great deal of skillful ventriloquism in the narrative. Like the protagonists of the novels by Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, Hubert is prone to prurience and self-indulgence. Regardless of what happens to him, he remains devoted to his own desires and inquisitive attitude. While preoccupied at the beginning of the novel about the potential impermanence of his fame as a scientist, he is quite free of any tendency to torment himself over it. Although he remains quite involved with his own impressions during his journey, he doesn’t withdraw into himself. And when disappointments do occur, he does not indulge in elaborate self-recriminations or denunciations of others. Most of the time he remains detached about himself as well as the world around him. His descriptions of his journey never quite lose their light touch.
Precise attention to detail and honesty mark the protagonist’s response to the world he encounters. His preoccupation is with himself but that doesn’t mean he is introspective; and yet he is primarily his own subject. The story is told entirely from Hubert’s point of view, and his consciousness in its detachment determines the form and substance of the novel.
The meeting of our protagonist with his former New York love Helga in Holland adds some spark to his erotic longing, and the weave of history, memory and desire here makes the narrative interesting. We get only a very short flashback at the protagonist’s past with Helga and so he remains focused on his encounter with her in Holland. After this brief rekindling of their romance Hubert expects to hear from her, but when at long last he does while he is sick in Austria at his aunt’s, her one-sentence note is as good as dismissive. The incident narrating the protagonist inviting a stripper to his aunt’s house while she is away for a whole long evening is perhaps the most hilarious one that proves to be embarrassing when his aunt shows up before the stripper has left.
The language used throughout the narrative has a certain poetic elegance about it; the author has a poetic sensibility that marks the writing every step of the way. Normally, scientific precision and poetic elegance do not go hand-in-hand, except in really exceptional cases, and this novel does fuse them well. Besides this, the narrative has a light ironic undertone that the author is able to employ with great ease. I could cite many examples of this. I will mention, however, just a couple of them. In chapter 2 the protagonist’s intensely self-involved consciousness is neatly illustrated in a page-long single sentence about the Big Bang billions of years ago that produced gravity and force that eventually created temporary organic beings that created in turn many non-Huberts, finally resulting in Hubert himself. The chapter 26, with Helga’s letter, and Aunt Frieda’s anger in a later chapter are among the dramatic moments that add some sizzle to the narrative propelled by the protagonist’s sharply observant mind. The description of the hotel in The Hague is powerful in its dark, gothic strangeness.
The novel is indeed an interesting transatlantic literary work that explores/dramatizes the workings of a scientist’s consciousness in its dealings with both its innate intellectual tendencies and its interests in sometimes tawdry worldly passions and desires. Perhaps only a scientist can explore, and make available to us, the different aspects of a scientist as a fictional protagonist, his acute powers of observation, his humanity and his foibles. Dr. Frank has done exactly that. The novel’s narrator is at his best when he gives a sometimes ironic and humorous account of the protagonist’s disappointments and misadventures.
Dr. Joachim Frank, author of this novel, shared, in 2017, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with two other scientists.
Suresh Raval is a Professor of English at the University of Arizona.