October 24, 2021

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"Men of the Middle Ages" by Richard Russo

“Men of the Middle Ages” by Richard Russo

If an American writer wrote a novel on campus today, he probably wouldn’t be able to do without a scandal, at the heart of which was a university professor punished for linguistic “misconduct” with a filthy storm and probably detached. Richard Russo’s “Men of the Middle Ages” is a college novel without the aforementioned scandalous components—the original English version finally dates back to 1997, and was relatively quiet in college in the fictional small town of Rylston, Pennsylvania. There is already a “Sexual Harassment Committee” and even a lecturer insists on the correct use of language: whenever the masculine pronoun is used in a session, he adds “or she”. That is why it was called “Odyssey”.

Those were innocuous times, 24 years before our days, when gender equality became the norm in local universities too, separating good and evil, friend and foe; What was meant to be inclusive causes exclusion. The “Odyssey” mentioned in the novel specializes in analyzing television series because he considers books to be “anomalous.” His students are not allowed to submit their essays in writing, but only in the form of videos. promising personality.

The world of Rousseau’s campus also allows us to look far ahead at another point: Scientists have holed up in the shelters of their methods – today we call them “filter bubbles” – and are no longer interested in exchange and debate. Then students are no longer learning to argue: “When their professors—whether they be feminists, Marxists, representatives of history, or other groups of theorists—belong to shady, closed intellectual circles less interested in talking to each other than in their own faltering lands pursuing their own agenda, why then do they learn to debate? ?”

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William Henry Devereux Jr., better known as Hank, chair of English at “West Central Pennsylvania University” and first-person narrator, sighs with sighs: The college is (at most) second-rate, the college hopelessly divided. The mid-level lecturers recruit the average: “Hiring someone of high caliber means opening the door to comparisons with us who were not very qualified.” Students are untalented, lazy, or both, demanding and controversial. All of these results made Hank not a cynical, but a happy anarchist. Nothing pleases him more than throwing sand into management gears, spreading chaos and provoking his teammates with surprising replicas, in a contemporary way: hurting their feelings.

Not being able to pee isn’t fun, but reading about it is fun

Hank knows all her pain points and loves to squeeze them. In the case of Gracie Dubois, for example, it’s the (unsuccessful) book of poetry you’re most proud of. In anger, she hits Hank with a notepad, the top end of the coil digging into his nose, which then swells excessively: a point of physical pain. Hank makes a joke about it, and thus stuns the randomly attended local TV team: he grabs a bobbing geese by the neck in a campus pond and threatens to kill a bird every day until he finally gets his budget.

Appearing of course not only on local television, but also across the country on Good Morning America makes Hank a hated figure for animal rights activists, but also the hero of the department threatened by cuts. Only temporarily, of course, because his colleagues already suspected that he had long ago drawn up a list of dispensable lecturers for the dean.

Richard Russo: Middle-aged men. a novel. Translated from the English by Monica Kupffer. Dumont, Cologne 2021. 604 pages, €26.

(Photo: DuMont Verlag)

Hank already considers it irreplaceable for many, but he does not make up such a list. However, since he deliberately does not dispel his suspicions, his colleagues dismiss him from the position of head of the department – at a meeting he secretly attends from a hollow in the ceiling. He’s escaped there after urinating in his sleep – Hank’s pee congestion is one of the running gags in the plot.

Not being able to pee isn’t fun, but reading about it is fun. Hank talks about the blows he encounters with those around him, as well as his mishaps, as if he were showing a Laurel and Hardy silent movie where someone constantly slips or puts cakes in their faces. It’s his way of escaping the boredom of the academic boycott, but also what a deeper self-inquiry will reveal. Isn’t it, after all, that “the purpose of spiritual development is to create a distance between us and our most disturbing realizations and our fatal fears”?

Deep melancholy hidden behind slapstick

As in classic silent films, there is a deep sadness behind slapstick. And behind that, in turn, they are no less profound than life as great absurdity, where, if nothing happens, you have to offer a little entertainment yourself – even if it is through targeted chaos.

Richard Russo taught at several regional colleges himself; His Railston model is modeled after the small town of Altoona in Pennsylvania, which also once thrived as a railroad crossing and then sank into a depression. Rousseau’s readers know such exhausted small towns and their inhabitants, taking advantage of opportunities they no longer have, from his great novels such as “No Fool” or “Empire Falls”. Authoring the first film earned Rousseau financial independence, while the latter won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002.

It was only after a long delay that his work gradually found its way to German readers thanks to the careful support of Dumont Verlag. Monika Köpfer’s translation reads fluently, even if some lines are punchy and some “esprit de repartie” is a bit clumsy. The interval between the original text and the translation can be seen through the amusement of the convolutions that occur between the politically correct “student” and the politically correct “student,” sometimes said this way, sometimes this way. We also meet “pretenders”, “pretenders” and “pretenders” – what Hank would surely have, if he understood German, would have been an inspiration to him. But such embarrassing concessions to the zeitgeist do not diminish the fun of this perhaps very long novel, but it is always funny, wise, and benevolent.