A Long Blue Monday by Erhard von Büren – Swiss Week Readalong

Published in 2013, A Long Blue Monday, is Erhard von Büren’s third novel. His earlier novels Wasp Days and Epitaph for a Working Man were published in 1989 and 2000 respectively. He lives in Solothurn, Switzerland.

A Long Blue Monday tells the story of Paul Ganter, a retired school teacher who has temporarily left his wife and taken an apartment in the city to write a book about Sherwood Anderson. Very possibly he could have done that at home, but we soon learn that this time out is about much more than just writing a book. He uses the time alone to delve into his feelings and memories and relives vividly an unhappy love story that happened over forty years ago, in the summer of 1959. That year he fell in love with Claudia, a girl from a very rich family and, in a desperate attempt to impress her, takes weeks off from school to write a trilogy of plays in the vein of the great American playwrights of the time. Every day he slaves over his work that seems to be a series of soliloquies put on paper. Once it is finished, he gives the play to his crush, hoping it will impress her. Sadly, just like all his other attempts at wooing her, this barely gets a reaction. Clearly, she’s not into him. Looking back, Ganter can’t help but admire the stamina of his younger self. And he realizes that while the result of his writing wasn’t successful, locking himself away, writing daily, going for long walks and experience the changes in the weather and nature surrounding him, was one of the most intense experiences of his life.

The story is told going back and forth in time. In the present, Paul spends a lot of time writing and reminiscing, but he also has long conversations with his daughter who discovers sides of her father she never knew existed. While the love story is central, it isn’t the most important aspect of Paul’s delving into his past. He also remembers vividly what it was like to come from a poor family, in which the men were battling alcoholism. He remembers how difficult it was to know what he wanted to do with his life and to achieve it. Trying to overcome the shortcomings of his upbringing, he became a master student. Unfortunately, for the longest time, he thought that he could master life and love just like he mastered school. This set him up to failure. Being shy didn’t help him either. Love and life choices are explored, but there’s one other important thing—the narrator’s intense love of American culture that finally leads him to become an English teacher and is now one of the reasons for his time out.

I hope my review will have told you several things—this is a very complex, rich book, but it’s neither straightforward, nor plot-driven. Funnily, for a novel that talks so much about American culture, it’s very unlike most American literature I know. It’s introspective and very quiet. Far more analysis of thoughts and feelings, than scenes and action. One could say, more telling than showing. The story meanders, goes back and forth in time, returns to certain events, adds additional information. Just like it happens to all of us in real life. We rarely remember events in a straightforward way.

I liked A Long Blue Monday very much. It’s a quiet book about a quiet, shy man, who feels strongly, struggles and fails, struggles some more, and then succeeds and finds meaning in all sorts of things. My favourite parts were the nature descriptions and if I had read this in English, you’d find dozens of quotes. The descriptions are lyrical and beautifully crafted. They are the most eloquent sign of the narrator’s rich interior life.

While reading A Long Blue Monday, I couldn’t help but think of another Swiss author, who writes similar descriptions— Robert Walser. If you know me, you know this is high praise.

I hope some of you have read this as well. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

23 thoughts on “A Long Blue Monday by Erhard von Büren – Swiss Week Readalong

  1. This novel does tick an awful lot of boxes, doesn’t it? To pick a couple from your review: quiet, not plot-driven. Unfortunately these are the wrong boxes for me.

    Such a shame really, because it started really well. The awkwardness of adolescence, the infatuation, the class disadvantage. The propping himself up through American film and literary culture to give himself a feeling of self-worth. Problem is I felt the author overdid it. On one of my post-it notes I scrawled “really throwing the kitchen sink at this”. Sometimes less is more. And when Paul fails to grow out of it – because that’s how I interpret the contemporary sections – I also admit to some eye-rolling.

    I’m interested in your thinking he succeeds eventually. In what, may I ask?

    • I meant he was successful in leaving his upbringing and his way to try to master everything behind him.
      I agree with some of your reservations. The beginning is stronger than the last parts and I would have preferred if it had been more about now than about then. Or at least even. I just absolutely loved the descriptions, and felt that in reliving his past, the narrator could move on from seeing that time as a failure and accept it fir what it was – an intense experience.

  2. I tend to like stories where folks look back upon thier pasts and relate it to thier present. There was a time when looking back forty years was inconceivable to me. This is not the case anymore. Thus as I get older, this kind of story becomes more meaningful to me.

  3. Lovely review, Caroline. This sounds like a richly textured character study, both nuanced and contemplative. Like Brian, I find myself increasingly drawn to this type of fiction as the years slip by. A natural consequence of growing older (and hopefully wiser) I guess.

    • Thanks, Jacqui. I suppose the older we get, the more we like these contemplative story. That said, the narrator is very much in the present too. Interested in politics and what happens in the world. I loved the idea of the time out. I think many a marriage could be saved. I suppose it can be tricky when both are retired and suddenly home all the time.

      • 😂😂😂 Have you been spying in our house recently?

        Seriously though – his marriage to Erica, and the problems therein. Did you get a handle on that? Or, for that matter, on his convoluted liaisons post-Claudia? (That chapter where he’s listing his ladies one after the other, never really liking any of them from what I could make out, did my head in! Ticked another wrong box so to speak.) I suppose he was drifting trying to find a Claudia substitute. Irony was when he finally “got” Claudia, she didn’t match up to the idealised Claudia in his head. I found that whole seam extraordinary really. Too long and too repetitive admittedly, but still extraordinary.

        But back to Erica – I got the impression he just settled for her. I’d have loved to know more about her – or even any of the other women, but we only get Paul’s POV. The women – even Claudia – are never fleshed out. Probably unfair of me to expect that in a novel as unequivocally Paul-Ganter-centred as this one, but nevertheless.

        • Haha, yes, I have. 🙂
          I’m a bit of an overreader. Admitedly, it’s not explicit but I had a feeling he cared very much for Erica and there was just a post-retirement fatigue. Possibly some regrets, but in the end he made peace. As I said, I’m an overreader. Small hints can be enough for me.

    • You’re welcome. Of course, Walser is another kind of writer but the descriptions have a similarity. The same accuracy and intensity. From a storytelling perspective, it’s very different.

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  5. Beautiful, brilliant review, Caroline! I didn’t want to read your review till I finished reading the book. I loved Erhard von Büren’s nature descriptions. Two of my favourite passages from the book were the one in which the narrator describes how he got out of writer’s block and the one in which he describes that winning the love of someone is unpredictable. Thanks so much for hosting this readalong and for choosing this book. I discussed a new Swiss author now. I will look forward to reading his other two books. I haven’t read Robert Walser yet. Thanks for writing about him. Can’t wait to explore his work.

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