Adam Thirlwell made his debut in 2003 with Politics, a novel whose combination of graphic sex and self-conscious cultural and literary allusions divided opinion. In The Escape he generally eschews the latter, but sex is something of a preoccupation for its protagonist, elderly philanderer Raphael Haffner. Indeed, when we first encounter him, he is hiding in a wardrobe, carrying out an act of voyeurism as a young woman performs for him with her uninformed lover. It’s an outlandish opening, but it sets the tone suitably as we embark on a story that is farcical yet elegiac.
Haffner is a retired Jewish banker, who has worked in London and New York. However, the events of The Escape take place in the more confined space of a spa town in an unnamed European country. Thirlwell includes asides about this location’s communist past and describes the Alps looming in the background of the town: these geographical and historical references suggest that Haffner has come to Slovenia. Recently widowed, he is there to claim ownership of a villa that belonged to his Italian wife.
The anonymity of the setting is clearly very deliberate. For Haffner, the site of the family villa is unimportant; he has no other ties to the area, and seems disinterested in the place. Haffner perceives Eastern Europe as an ill-defined ‘Bohemia’, and thus his visit to the unnamed spa town acts as the culmination of a pursuit of the bohemian that he has been engaged with for much of his life. His marriage has been replete with infidelities, but while our impression of Haffner is that he would have preferred the life of an unattached libertine, he has never been capable of leaving his wife. His journey to ‘Bohemia’ acts as his escape, then – although it is a doubly ironic escape, since his wife is now dead, and he is here to inherit her estate.
The Escape is driven by the conflict between Haffner’s competing motivations. First, there is his attempt to go through the complex and – literally – foreign process that will enable him to take ownership of the villa; and second, there is his dogged pursuit of women, which seems to be a compulsion rather than a desire. He drifts around haplessly, sometimes in search of enlightenment, more often sex. At one point he finds himself in a church, on another occasion he wanders into a strip club, only to lose interest having been led into a backroom by one of its girls.
While in his more usual priapic mode, Haffner becomes embroiled with two women who he meets at his hotel. There is one hand the doughty middle-aged Frau Tummel, and on the other the much younger Zinka, the girl on whom he spied from inside the wardrobe. Frau Tummel decides that she is love with Haffner; Haffner decides that he loves Zinka. The result is an awkward love triangle that Thirlwell cannot resolve without introducing some bizarre comic moments.
Haffner is described as a ‘squalid Don Quixote’, and The Escape is improved at around its halfway point, when he is provided with a Sancho Panza figure in the form of his grandson, Benjamin. Benji has flown in from an orthodox seminary in Israel, hoping that his grandfather can help him to mediate between his increasing religious zealotry and his burgeoning love life. He is a fitting foil to Haffner, and his seriousness earths the farce of Haffner’s antics.
In Politics, Thirlwell was an unashamedly intrusive narrator, who would frequently slip in asides about the Surrealists, Milan Kundera, or Joseph Stalin. In The Escape, we are also constantly aware that someone is telling us Haffner’s story, though the position of this narrator is less clear-cut. There are frequent asides here, but the majority of these are about incidents from Haffner’s earlier life. The implication is that these stories within the story have at some time been related by Haffner to the narrator, who is now in a position to pass them on to the reader.
This allows Thirlwell to do away with the authorial intrusions of Politics; indeed The Escape seems a more traditional, less unfashionably postmodern, novel. Nonetheless, as if in a nod towards the constant namedropping of his first novel, he appends a list of sources to this book, listing the writers who are apparently quoted in The Escape, but without revealing whereabouts in the text these citations are hidden. It’s an eclectic collection of names, ranging from Brecht and Nabokov to the French hip-hop group Saïan Supa Crew. Evidently, this is not only a bricolage of events from Haffner’s life, but also a composite of recent cultural histories.
The narrator describes himself as ‘just a friend’, who is recounting events that happened a decade ago. Now Haffner is said to be dying, and so the narrative seems to take the form of the second-hand reminiscences of a man on his deathbed. At one point we are told of the night, many years ago, when Haffner proposed to his wife. Earlier that evening he had kissed another woman, and as he drives home with his almost-fiancée, he does so ‘wishing he could not remember how the girl in the French Pub had kissed him’. The awkwardness of this novel’s comedy means that it’s not too much of a stretch to presume that the whole story may in fact be about the moments Haffner would rather not remember.