Valley of Unknowing

Philip Sington’s new novel, The Valley of Unknowing, is about a washed out novelist in East Germany, a young woman from the West and a brilliant manuscript without a title page.

Bruno Krug is a washed out novelist who had made the decision of staying in East Germany because he couldn’t really be bothered to defect. Now decorated the People’s Champion for his contributions to the arts in the Actually Exiting Socialist state, he is living off his fame from his debut novel, The Orphans of Neustadt which was published over thirty years ago. His follow up novels weren’t as lauded although they conformed to governmental guidelines and he is getting increasingly jaded. And there is also the matter of one Wolfgang Richter, a young writer who constantly makes fun of Krug for what he perceives as him selling out. On the day Krug receives his award, he falls in love at first sight with a young viola player named Theresa Aden.

It turned out they were all from the Carl Maria von Weber College of Music, which used to be the Royal Conservatory before Saxon royalty was collectively vacuumed by the wind of revolutionary consciousness into the dust bag of history.

Unfortunately, he soon sees Theresa with with Richter and is gripped with jealousy. To make matters worse, his friend and editor, Michael Schilling has just handed him a manuscript of what looks likes a brilliant sequel to The Orphans of Neustadt and written by none other than his rival, Richter. As Krug is torn by jealousy, he sets in motion events that will put Theresa within his grasp but will totally change the course of their lives.

Philip Sington’s new novel, The Valley of Unknowing, is darkly comic tale of a successful, yet struggling, writer in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall who is under no illusions as to his abilities and who is given one last chance of changing his life. I really enjoyed Sington’s previous book, The Einstein Girl, and was looking forward to reading his new novel which is even better than his first. Sington manages to inhabit Krug’s wry and yet rather naïve novelist, a man who has finally fallen in love with a much younger woman from the West, whose affections he is very unsure of and for whom he would go to any lengths to impress and possess.

The desk and the trypewriter, the only permanent accoutrements of my official occupation, were strategically situated in the bedroom. I had some days earlier dressed the surroundings so as to lend them an unmistakable air of ongoing artistic endeavour, the leading props being a copy of The Magic Mountain lying open and face down, a small stack of leather-bound notebooks, carefully disordered, a pewter mug full of freshly sharpened pencils, a photograph of Ernest Hemingway in a cable-knit sweater, two items of fan mail, dates necessarily obscured, a map of Budapest and an edition of The Orphans of Neustadt in Portuguese (which I had stopped short of annotating, for fear of tactical overreach).

As much as you pity Krug, you can’t help but feel for him because Sington imbues him with such narcissism and childish wonder that you start identifying with him. Yes, he makes some questionable choices. Yes, you don’t quite understand why he loves Theresa so much but still you want him to be happy because he is beginning to realise just how alone he is with nothing much to look forward to and with his talent drying up.

It struck me as a waste, an emotional inefficiency, that I had squandered so much of my life among people who were destined to become strangers: people to whom I had no ultimate significance, and who were ultimately insignificant to me.

Sington brilliantly captures what life in East Germany must have been like. The mundane, the petty problems, the ever present paranoia that doesn’t quite drive you insane. The bureaucracy, the irony of living in a totalitarian socialist state where everything is for the people except that you aren’t quite sure who those people are. It’s comic and yet frightening at the same time.

There are some brilliant touches in the novel including one where Krug talks to Theresa about the dangers of suspicion and Isaac Babel (whom I first encountered in Elif Batuman’s The Possessed). Sington casts little, ironic asides which shows Krug’s satiric understanding of the situation he and his country is in, rather depressing and fooling no one.

This is just such a complete novel, nothing needs to be changed, it’s almost perfect. Almost, because I didn’t think the revelation at the end came as such a big shock although maybe that is in-keeping with Bruno Krug’s personality. I really enjoyed and loved this book. It made me smile and it also posed many questions on the nature of politics, free will and the idea of choice. It still surprises me to think that it was within my lifetime that the Berlin Wall had come down.

I would like to thank Vintage Books for kindly sending me a copy of The Valley of Unknowing to review.

was rather different from what I expected. Well, not that different as I was expecting a mystery set in the 1930s in Germany with a psychiatrist, an amnesiac lady, maybe a bit of history and science and possibly a murder. But Philip Sington delivers much, much more. The Einstein Girl brings history, science, war and the workings of the human heart together in a quiet, unassuming way which slowly unfolds and becomes a deep, sorrowful study of hope vs. reality. It’s beautifully written and slots you right into Weimar Germany and the shoes of lone psychiatrist Dr. Martin Kirsch.

The story opens with the discovery of the naked body of a young woman by a lake. Miraculously she is alive, but cannot recall anything of her past. Dr. Martin Kirsch, an eminent psychiatrist about to get married to a beautiful socialite, finds himself drawn to this unnamed woman given the sobriquet The Einstein Girl by the press, for a flyer announcing Einstein’s lecture was found near her. As Kirsch begins to unravel her past, travelling to Zurich where she studied maths and physics and Slovakia where she grew up, he slowly finds his own past closing in on him as he slowly succumbs to his own demons. But the woman’s past is bigger and more complex than he thought. Is she an imposter involved in blackmail? What is her connection with Einstein? And can Einstein’s troubled son Eduard shed light upon the mystery? As Germany finds itself tumbling into an era of tight control and hidden agendas, Kirsch finds his control of his own life slipping away. It’s a little difficult to give a summary of this novel without giving anything away, so I’ll stop here.

I confess I was a little startled that Einstein played such a big part in Sington’s novel. I was expecting just a cameo, but Sington doesn’t shy away from discussing the scientific problems which plagued Einstein’s later years prior to his move to Princeton, especially his work on the Grand Unified Theory in which he unsuccessfully tries to tie relativity and quantum mechanics together. Nor his muddy personal life with his first wife Mileva Marić.

With the appearance of Mileva and their younger son Eduard in the story, Sington has obviously researched extensively into Einstein’s private life which surfaced in 1989 with the release of letters between the couple from before their marriage. I remember the uproar that followed with several prominent academics publishing books about Einstein’s personal life, his passionate love affair with Mileva and the fate of his daughter born out of wedlock. Up until then, he was untouched, the god of modern physics, and many of his colleagues and family tried hard to keep it that way.

Although sometimes the scientific explanations reminded me of the history of science lectures I attended at college, Sington really knows his stuff but in no way does his writing try and show off that knowledge. In the end, I felt that Einstein’s scientific theories and his theories of life coalesced beautifully painting a picture of a real man. You may not admire Einstein as a husband or a father, but you cannot escape from the fact that he was a singularly gifted scientist. What Sington does beautifully is to weave a tale of the people he left behind.

After finishing this book I started The Sun and Moon Corrupted by Philip Ball, another mystery with a hint of science and history which I was looking forward to reading, but I stopped after a chapter because compared to Sington, it just didn’t cut the mustard (shame because the title is beautiful). In The Einstein Girl, Sington really immerses the reader in the culture and events of the period; you can almost smell the restrained lives of the people living in a time of uncertainty. As you can probably tell, I was seriously impressed with this book.

I read this for Nymeth’s 1930s Mini-Challenge and the Thriller and Suspense Challenge 2010!