Friday, 12 August 2016

Book Review: The Other Side by Alfred Kubin review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Not only wars and other disasters that come over us unasked for and unforeseen, can turn our lives into an all too real nightmare if not hell on earth, also unfortunate choices have the potential. Dreamers with a taste for great adventure seem to be running a particularly great risk in this respect because – as we all know – things seldom turn out as splendid as imagined. When the protagonist of The Other Side by Alfred Kubin follows an invitation to take up residence in the secret Dream Kingdom that his school mate of twenty years past built in the mountains of Central Asia, he expects to find a glamorous utopia full of interesting and inspiring people. He counts on a model society that has left behind the annoyances of modernity, notably worries concerning work and money, and he hopes for a healthy climate where his ailing wife will get well. Alas, reality is quite different.

Alfred Kubin was born in Leitmeritz (today: Litoměřice), Bohemia, Austria-Hungary (today: Czechia), in April 1877. After high school and an apprenticeship as photographer, he turned to painting. His studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, however, he gave up and earned his living as printmaker and book illustrator. In 1905 he withdrew to Zwickledt castle near Wernstein am Inn, Upper Austria, with his wealthy wife. There he wrote his only novel The Other Side (Die andere Seite: 1909) that he also illustrated. He was co-founder of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (N.K.V.M.) that preceded the famous artists’ association Der Blaue Reiter. During the Nazi regime some of his pictures were branded as “degenerate art”, but otherwise his work continued as before. Apart from his novel, Alfred Kubin’s small (untranslated) literary heritage consists of letters, essays and short stories like Der Guckkasten (1925; The Peepshow Box), Vom Schreibtisch eines Zeichners (1939; From the Desk of a Draughtsman), Abenteuer einer Zeichenfeder (1941; Adventures of a Drawing Pen), Nüchterne Balladen (1949; Sober Ballads), Abendrot (1950; Red Sunset), and Phantasien im Böhmerwald (1951; Fantasies in the Boehmerwald). He also published his autobiography Dämonen und Nachtgesichte (1959; Daemons and Night Visions). Alfred Kubin died in Wernstein am Inn, Austria, in August 1959.

In the early 1900s the unnamed first-person narrator of The Other Side, a former graphic artist in his seventies, writes down what happened forty years earlier when he lived somewhere in Central Asia for a while. His story, however, begins in Munich, Germany, on a foggy November afternoon. A mysterious stranger called Franz Gautsch asks to talk to him on behalf of Claus Patera, a high school friend from Salzburg with whom he long lost touch. The visitor’s mission is to invite him to the secret Dream Kingdom that immensely rich Patera built on 3000 square kilometres of land in the Tian Shan. As he learns, only a choice selection of people worldwide, all of them outstanding in character or physiognomy and discontent with everything progressive, is ever honoured with such an invitation. At first the narrator thinks that this must be a joke or that Gautsch is a madman, but before long he is convinced that the invitation is meant seriously, and adventurous as he is, he gets hooked on the idea. He was planning a long travel with his ailing wife, anyways. So it comes that just a few days later he leaves with his wife for Dream Kingdom via Baku and Samarkand. On two camel-drawn carts they arrive at the country’s walled borders, enter through the only existing gate and move on to the capital called Pearl. Instead of the promised utopia, they find a gloomy place where the sun never shines and where everything is old and shabby. Moreover, people follow a strange cult surrounding the clock of the clock tower and Patera. The atmosphere soon begins to weigh on the narrator and above all his wife. Things get out of Patera’s control when the American capitalist Herkules Bell arrives and Dream Kingdom turns ever more into the realm of nightmare…

The subtitle of The Other Side is A Fantastic Novel and makes at once expect a read different from the naturalistic and realistic writings that still dominated the first years of the twentieth century. In fact, the book evokes a dystopian environment that appears grotesque and terrifying like a painting of Hieronymus Bosch or Francisco de Goya… or a proto-surrealistic drawing of the author himself. In other words: its world is a nightmare, be it in the figurative or in the strict sense. Notwithstanding that Alfred Kubin wrote his only novel at the end of a depressive episode following the death of his father, it’s also a rather visionary product of the time of its creation, i.e. the fin de siècle that many – especially in the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy – experienced as a period of decadence, even dissolution and that culminated in World War I just a few years later. Moreover, Sigmund Freud’s discoveries concerning human psyche, dreams and sexuality were still quite recent when the novel first came out in 1909. They clearly show in the novel, but it would be wrong to read it only in this psychoanalytic light because it also has strong satirical, symbolic and esoteric sides. The book influenced important writers like Franz Kafka and Gustav Meyrink although its language and style are rather simple and ordinary by comparison. All things considered, it’s a quick and easy read that is a lot deeper than it seems and therefore lingers on in the mind.

As a matter of fact, I was quite at a loss when I had finished reading The Other Side by Alfred Kubin. Don’t get me wrong. I liked it, but I really didn’t and still don’t know what to think of the weird and gloomy world that the Austrian author created in his book and that reminds me quite a lot of accounts from people who took potent hallucinogen drugs like LSD. It’s a book that makes think because it offers countless starting points for interpretation and that’s something that I definitely appreciate. Nonetheless, this read was an extraordinary experience for me, entertaining to some degree though not at all cheerful. I reckon that it needs a certain kind of person and the right frame of mind while reading to truly enjoy it. At any rate, it’s an unusual novel from the early twentieth century that deserves my recommendation.

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This review is a contribution to
(image linked to my reading list):


  1. My goodness, this sounds like something I would find fascinating. Thanks for your review.

    1. My pleasure! For lovers of the dystopian genre it's certainly a great read and intersting because it's rather early.


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