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‘Everything is collapsing’. So begins the new book by accomplished Wellington author Tim Corballis. The curious power of the first line lies in its multilayered connotations, chief amongst them being the brutal finality and aftermath of total war, and the mammoth tasks of examining and writing memory.
Corballis’s book consists of two novellas, both melding history and biography. The inventive title R.H.I stands for Joan Riviere, Hermann Henselmann and “I” (the reader). In the first novella, a researcher looks up the life and work of the English psychoanalyst, Joan Riviere, who in 1922 was analysed by the renowned father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud in Vienna. The second novella deals with a writer in Berlin, who is fascinated by the buildings of the Stalinallee, designed by German architect Hermann Henselmann in the early years of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). Each novella interweaves the present and the imagined past, the stories of the researcher and the historical figure.
Both Riviere’s and Henselmann’s stories are explored and related in a blurry manner. The more the researchers learn of these individuals’ lives, the more questions they are left with – a familiar situation for those engaged in historical investigation. The narrative is non-linear, broken up the way modernist novels generally are, evocative of the shakiness of the 20th century caused by war and ideological difference. It also reflects the jagged lines of memory, perpetually connecting and disconnecting in the hands of subjectivity. Riviere’s researcher neatly sums this up: ‘It was tempting, sitting in the archive, to wonder what was wrong with [Riviere]. Could I diagnose the bits and pieces? Not with some medical name but with some explanation of her inner workings’ (p.48).
The entire corpus resembles a pastiche of various elements from different genres: novella; fictional biography; journal; draft manuscript; and history text. Moreover, the heavy use of parenthesis represents the methodology of historical research and the relationship between objectivity and bias. Interestingly, the dialogue does not identify the speaker, which could reflect the echoes of memory and the sifting of facts to create meaning.
Numbered sections make up the first novella on Riviere while the second novella consists of passages that begin with a quote or word in German. This fine blend of language and culture affords the novella a degree of verisimilitude. A delight for any student of German (I was rather fortunate). Have a German dictionary nearby when you’re reading this second part; Corballis’s word choice is thought-provoking and original.
If you enjoy being led down the wide sweeping paths of history, politics, biography, and historical fiction, this novel would be perfect for your springtime reading. It bears the crispness of novels such as W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, and does what historical fiction is meant to do: to offer the hidden figures of the past a space to breath and a voice in the chasm of speculation.
Reviewed by Azariah Alfante
by Tim Corballis
Published by Victoria University Press