Miles Allinson’s Fever of Animals had been getting a lot of attention amongst my friends back in Melbourne. My friend Veronica Sullivan gave it a glowing review. Emily Bitto, author of The Strays, gives the tag-line for the cover calling it ‘exquisite’. I had a copy brought over to Berlin by some friends coming from Melbourne — that would prove symbolic to the reading of this book, one that bridges past and present with uncertainly and displacement.
Fever of Animals begins at several points: the death of a father, the hope of reconnecting with an ex-girlfriend, the discovery of a surrealist artist that disappeared in the sixties and a quest to find the truth of his life. Throughout the novel these elements are weaved together as a young artist travels from Melbourne at a time where he is trying to work out who he is as an artist, who he wants to be as a son, friend and partner, and where he will find his place in the world. As a reader you have little idea what is fiction and what is non-fiction, whether Miles as an anti-hero is seeing the worst in himself or if he really is the arsehole that shows itself on the page, whether the artist Miles is trying to understand, Emil Bafdescu, really exists or not. It’s fitting that the title — Fever of Animals — speaks to feverish dreams, discombobulation, animal instincts and rawness, as these are all descriptors to how we experience Allinson’s narrative:
My own book I’m less sure about. Notes on a Disappearance, I’d like to call it. Or perhaps Emil Bafdescu: a secret surrealism. Or maybe even Waiting in Another Language, because, to be honest, it’s probably not going to be the book I imagined. Nothing has worked out the way I planned. Perhaps instead it will be the story of what I’m doing here, in this little German town, a long way from Romania, a very long way from Melbourne. I’d be interested to know, exactly.
Yet there’s humour and light amongst the madness. From time to time we’re drawn back out from Miles’ confessional-style narrative and reminded of the world away from his desk, out of his internal monologue, looking up from his shuffling feet:
There is nothing sadder than people who run for trains, Adam said. I’m ashamed for them. It’s completely embarrassing. People only run for trains because they’ve given up. And they dive through the train doors and go home to their families and suck up the shit, year after year. That’s why people run for trains. It’s a sign of a broken species. Really. Jogging, on the other hand, is how the middle class pretends to suffer. They need to suffer a little bit to feel like they’re achieving something meaningful. It helps them to forget how capitalism has completely drained their lives of significance.
There are problems with this book, but honestly it is so difficult to understand whether it’s the writing or the central character that is unlikeable. I think it’s the nature of anti-hero first person narrative that makes the reader question, but the success of the technique that sends you into an existential spin. Is it pure narcissism or is it a highly developed character that shows us our own weaknesses, our darkest thoughts, our own unlikeability?
Where Fever of Animals succeeds most is in the portrait of an artist. Though it may begin as an attempt to portray another, Bafdescu, it ends in the understanding of what it is to be an early career artist.
For a long time I thought of myself as a painter. This thought, the knowledge that I was, at heart, an artist, protected me. It insulated me against every other failure. I always felt as if I was carrying around inside myself an invulnerable seed that would burst into the world sooner or later. But it didn’t burst. It withered and wrinkled and finally it died away. The thing that I had thought unimaginable had happened. It was almost a relief to abandon that presumptuous struggle, those ideas I had about myself. Now, having given up on that, I wonder whether I am good enough to write a book about painting, instead. A book about this surrealist painter who conceived of surrealism as a way to enter the abyss, whatever that means, and who then abandoned surrealism, who abandoned everything, and finally disappeared.
My fear is, if I fail at this, I will have run out of things to fail at.
It’s a feeling I have often towards writing, coming to it from a failed attempt to be a musician in my teenage years. The undeniable draw to create and get out of my own head, yet the constant fear that if I’ve failed once I’m destined to fail again. And of course, there’s the sense of place in this book that run parallels to my own life too: Melbourne to Berlin via London. ‘Berlin, they tell me, is full of Melbournians pretending to be artists but not really doing anything’ says Allinson. It’s a deep-seated fear of mine that I belong to this group, those who come to this city to be Artists, yet spend their time drinking or being hungover, much like Miles. They are undeniably out in force in Berlin, especially for this generation who listened to Nick Cave in their awkward teens and saw this often dark and gloomy city as a place to focus that energy into words and music. Yet this place is also so alluring and, as Alice says, ‘overflowing with life’ that it’s hard not to be inspired to create, as horribly cliched as that sounds. As Adam Ouston says in his brilliant reflection on Fever of Animals for The Lifted Brow:
There are loads of Australian artists whose narratives prefigure Miles’ … All lost. All schlepping through Europe with their textbooks open matching the sights with the black-and-white images. None of them satisfied with their finds. Each standing beside their bags at the train station, waiting for trains that may or may not come.
I’m now at a point of my time here where things are getting serious. I’m feeling a pressure to have something to show for why I’m here. We moved here five months ago now, yet there’s still so much of Berlin I haven’t seen, still so many good intentions to get out of the city and explore the rest of the country and the rest of the continent, yet so few trips taken. There’s still so much of the language that remains baffling, but while I sit at home writing in English so few opportunities to form these newly structured sentences. I recently took a few weeks away from the pressures I was feeling from social media and made use of my partner being away to finally get some words on the page for a ‘big thing’ I’m working on here. Now I have something to talk about when people ask ‘what are you working on?’ Now I have something to show when people say ‘what do you do here?’ But now I also have an ever-present shadow over my shoulder, an idea that continues to bubble and fester, swinging my focus like a pendulum from all-encompassing sprints to the same feelings of self-doubt and lack of understanding that Miles shares for his work.
Perhaps Allinson’s most powerful statement about the life of the artist is not that of the highs and lows, but of the greatest fear of all — the gradual decline. On Bafdescu retreating from public life and surrealism:
He also continued to paint intermittently, with waning enthusiasm, it seems — simple landscapes in oil or watercolour and unexceptional commercial portraits, from which almost all traces of his distinctive surrealism had been drained. These were sold cheaply at local markets, or remain in the possession of his son. He appears to have retreated almost completely into the domestic, to have been a dedicated father and husband, and a benign commercial painter in his spare time, and then on 15th January 1967, in light snow, he disappeared completely while walking his dog in the vicinity of the Hoia forest. Neither he nor the dog were ever seen again.
In Fever of Animals Allinson shows an incredible ability to weave together the common elements of our lives — love, work, family, place — and show the passion and the grief that link them all. Allinson plays some heady tricks with the reader to a point where I still don’t quite know if it’s entirely successful or if it’s genius. Perhaps the greatest trick of all is that as I finished the novel, I no longer cared, I just wanted to read the book over and over again.
You have to grow up eventually, I guess. Death is real. Ordinary life is too powerful.
But sometimes you don’t want to grow up. Sometimes you’re on the other side of the world, engulfed by dark grey skies and greatly feeling the loss of your boyfriend who is back in the city you left behind. Sometimes you need comfort. Sometimes, as an Australian abroad, you just need Vegemite. Facing financial ruin due to a decision to write, my comforts are small. For Miles in Fever of Animals it was drinking cheap German beer. For me, it’s grilled cheese and Vegemite on toast, with a cup of Melbourne Breakfast tea. Toast spread with butter and what my partner describes as ‘native levels of Vegemite’, topped with sliced cheese, then grilled until the cheese bubbles and the Vegemite melts into the gooey mess. Ideally the toast will be difficult to scrape off the oven tray, meaning there are crispy bits of cheese coagulating on to the sides of the bread. It’s what I ate for lunch as a kid, and though I would rarely eat it in Melbourne, here in Berlin it is perfect, just like those increasingly rare days where the sun beams through the window and hits the edge of my desk as I work to get those words on the page, desperately trying to quieten the doubts inside.
Earlier this month, Svetlana Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. It was an important decision in two key regards. Firstly, she becomes only the fourteenth woman and sixth Russian speaker to win the Literature Prize. But secondly, and perhaps most interestingly in the context of discussing Fever of Animals, she is the first journalist to win the prize. Alexievich’s technique blends fiction and non-fiction in a way that produces work which ‘meticulously records and arranges the voices of otherwise voiceless people’. The New York Times explains that Alexievich’s win ‘was lauded as a long overdue corrective, and as a high point for journalism as a literary art’. This article in the New York Times gives a great background to Alexievich’s work, and together with the Prize, will hopefully introduce uninitiated readers like myself to her work.