Seth Rogoff’s first novel, “First, the Raven,” maintained a heavy Central European aura, even though most of it took place over the course of a long evening in a Portland dive. (Rogoff was born in Portland and lives in Prague, where he teaches at the Anglo-American University). In his second, “Thin Rising Vapors,” the main character is dead, while his old friend finds himself in a snowed-up cabin on a pond in Maine piecing together the threads of their complicated relationship. Fair to say that the author feels most at home in foggy landscapes in, as well as outside, the mind.

His new book takes up where “First, the Raven” left off, or maybe started; exactness where anything so quotidian as past, present or future is concerned is about as abhorrent to Rogoff as a vacuum is to nature. The same is true of those other plot essentials: motivation, personality and relationships. Rogoff has stated that his writing should reflect all the “failures, mistakes, unanswered questions, impulses, and speculations” that arise in the process; to treat them “honestly, they can’t be sanitized and contained in conventional narrative forms.”

Sy Kirschbaum, whom we met in the Portland bar in “First, The Raven,” is in bad mental shape. He has been invited to give a dozen lectures as an Introduction to Literature, a required course, at an anonymous American university. Between the contents of Sy’s lectures and the course’s title, the only obvious point of contact is that he is the translator of an alcoholic Czech’s magnum opus. It took Kirschbaum 17 years and has left him a paranoid wreck.

Starting from the time he was a “guest” in a mental clinic outside of Prague, the subject matter of his lectures gives his increasingly baffled students a series of glimpses into the trials and tribulations of his life in 1990s Berlin. The details, haphazardly strewn around, hang on the variously compromised impressions of a coterie of avant-garde artists with whom he has either had an affair or is in literary competition.

As The Kirschbaum Lectures proceeds – each chapter is a lecture – Sy’s mental struggles become focused on the dean and the Kafkaesque “dean’s assistant.” At the end of one, he flees the lecture room by a back door while urging his students to run interference for him. Rogoff can be very amusing when he wants to be.

Which is not often in The Kirschbaum Lectures, swathed as it is in mists of abstraction that make “Last Year in Marienbad” look like “High Noon.” Thus, one central pillar supporting this narrative is a book written by a fellow writer and clinic “guest,” evidently based on a past relationship with a woman with whom Sy was also involved. She steals the manuscript and makes off across Europe, finally coming to rest in Venice. By the time Sy catches up with her, she has written an extended personal commentary on each page. These “marginalia,” as Kirschbaum/Rogoff calls them, make up four of the lectures. The woman’s intention is to correct, and clarify, her former lover’s story, except that on any given page the reader doesn’t know just what the notes are referring to. In other words, the central pillar is invisible; all we have is the surrounding mist.


Have no fear. Rogoff’s apparent disdain for straightforward narrative is more than compensated for by a fluid writing style that easily charms the reader into following him down any and all rabbit holes.

And there are many such holes in and about Berlin’s Kreuzberg district with its heady mix of alternative sub-cultures. Down one actual tunnel, Kirschbaum drinks a vial of cloudy yellow liquid that produces “a vision of the real within the unreal,” and he experiences “a kind of counter-story of my life, a parallel current of existence.”

Not the least of these is “The Book of Moonlight, a compilation of mystical texts of which apparently only one copy remains. Rippling through the novel, these texts allow the author to spin off into various directions, from a Nazi sterilization program to dramatic variants on the story of Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis. To what extent these are the author’s inventions or derive from ancient sources, I am in no position to say; Rogoff has written elsewhere about Jacob and Joseph in a scholarly book about dreams.

However, even Sy Kirschbaum seems to recognize that all these overlapping, intersecting, self-erasing snippets require some grounding. For his penultimate lecture, he reads from the report of his analysis by a psychiatrist, not in the land of Kafka but in Vermont, which we can presume sets at least some of the story straight. And to his final lecture, another rambling experience in a hotel on the Lido in Venice, Kirschbaum appends a postscript.

It is as clear and straightforward as the rest of the book is not, simply recording how a few of the details in the preceding stories were collected from a chance and meaningless encounter in a children’s park in Berlin. Was the professor’s craziness all a put-on? The question is almost as unsettling as the mirages that went before. The Kirschbaum Lectures may be weird, but they are certainly wonderful.

Thomas Urquhart is the author of “For the Beauty of the Earth: Birding, Opera and Other Journeys” and “Up for Grabs.” He lives in Portland.

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