Sunday Story Society: “Two Ways of Leaving” by Alois Hotschnig

Today we have our first story in translation: “Two Ways of Leaving” by Alois Hotschnig (translated from the Austrian German by Tess Lewis). You can read the story here at Untitled Books; you’ll also find it in Hotschnig’s Peirene Press collection Maybe This Time.

First, I’ll link to some reviews of Maybe This Time (not of all of which touch on this particular story): 1streading; Chasing Bawa; Olivia Heal; Andrew Blackman; Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat; The Worm Hole; The Arts Fuse. I’ll also point out this interview with the translator, Tess Lewis, at Love German Books.

Now, something different. I’m going to post some questions as ‘conversation starters’; feel free to answer them or not (I want them to act as jumping-off points, not to strictly define the discussion), or ask questions of your own. Here we go:

Conversation Starters

There’s no small amount of ambiguity in “Two Ways of Leaving”, so I’d be interested to know how you interpret the relationship between the ‘he’ and ‘she’ of the story.

My abiding thought when I finished Maybe This Time was that Hotschnig’s protagonists were caught up in other people’s stories. Would you agree with that in relation to “Two Ways of Leaving”?

Though it relates to a different piece in Maybe This Time, I was struck by 1streading‘s comment that “Hotschnig is playing with the use of the pronoun ‘he’ as a ‘character’”. What does the author do with the pronoun ‘he’ in this story?

Next time: On 30 Sept, we’ll be talking about the story “Drifting House” by Krys Lee.

For now, though, it’s over to you. What did you make of “Two Ways of Leaving”?

6 Comments

  1. You’re right, plenty of ambiguity there! My take on the relationship between the ‘he’ and ‘she’ is based on the last few paragraphs – they were a couple, he left her without planning and for no reason. She is now using him as a way of leaving her current partner – she asks him to come when she’s not there, than stands up her new lover, leaving him to come to her flat and discover another man there. These are the two ways of leaving referred to in the title – both cowardly, avoiding direct confrontation, but one more ingenious than the other.

    The use of pronouns is interesting. For me it had a very alienating effect, which was actually a good thing. It helped to play up the ambiguity, and to increase the unsettling effect of the stories. Instead of identifying with the characters, I ended up thinking more about the themes underlying the stories, and the commonalities between the different protagonists.

    Thanks for providing the forum, David – will be interesting to come back and read other people’s thoughts!

  2. Oh yes, that was my exact thought about how ambiguous the story was. I was hoping to read other’s thoughts on the ending of the story. What was it supposed to mean? I think the ambiguity failed me there. However, I did like the way it was written with that far away feeling. I felt it had a voyeuristic tone to it, as if the man was stalking her, but we find out later that they do indeed know each other. I’m curious to read the other short stories in the collection. I thought that might help put the story in perspective somehow. Interesting choice of story. Thanks for hosting this reading group, David. This is my first time participating.

  3. Really enjoyed this one. Sadly I hadn’t managed to make the leap of understanding Andrew mentions about her use of one man to help her leave the other, I like that.

    On my first reading I thought this might be a straightforward story of obsession and that the ‘he’ of the story was going to do something unpleasant, so as soon as I read the ending and the fact that she’d asked him to come to her flat I went back to the start and re-read it. Her involvement by calling him doesn’t eliminate the unpleasant aspects of his behaviour of course (‘He often followed her right up to her house’, contrasted with the fact they have not been together for years and that he is missing from her photographs).

    I love the space left for the reader – the woman is not described and could look any way you like, really. It could also be any number of towns, and he could be a variety of ways too. This made me want to read and re-read the story, imagining different surface versions of the characters and settings.

    I also enjoyed the way Hotschnig defamiliarises the objects and ephemera of our lives – the way we tell stories and attaching meanings to inanimate objects, the man standing in her house and looking at all the objects for a life which he no longer has access to or understanding. That idea echoed in the ‘used goods’ shop he looks at. I adore prose that does this, describes and inventories the objects around us, makes sense of them or shows they’re meaningless.

    David, re: your feeling they’re caught up in others’ stories – I like this way of looking at things, and thinking along those lines I think I feel more like they were falling in the gaps between others’ stories, losing meaning like the objects around them perhaps.

    Re: use of the pronoun – interesting question and I really like these conversation starters. The insistence on pronouns rather than names feeds into the ambiguous parts of the story and your feeling about them being caught up in others’ stories (an infinite number of hes and shes). It also manages to defamiliarise the man so that he’s another object among the photographs and figurines, one that the woman has even called by the wrong name when they were together.

    Andrew, interesting that you use the word ‘alienating’ to describe the effect – for me, it was that I was brought closer to the story because these people could be anyone anywhere, if that makes sense. I think it’s another ambiguity of the story, however: that the pronouns could work both ways. I agree that it helps a focus on the commonalities and underlying themes, liked what you said about that.

    Well, these are my first thoughts on the story… really liked it!

  4. I recently read Maybe This Time and I struggled with the ambiguity of some of the stories. Some felt a little too unresolved or ope-ended to me. But this one was one of a number that I really liked. I agree with Andrew Blackman’s interpretation of the he and she. I think, generally speaking, Hotschnig excels at starting and ending a story with ambiguity, but allowing the reader to change his opinion on what makes him feel so uncomfortable. For example, I thought we were talking about a stalker, than an obsessive ex-boyfriend, only to find out that we may be dealing with a somewhat duplicitous exgirlfriend instead. Really interesting.

  5. This is definitely an interesting one. Not sure that I could say that I *enjoyed* it – I do enjoy a bit of ambiguity, but at this level for me it fringed on becoming a technical exercise. Like others, I did admire the way that the reader’s interpretation of the relationship between she and he changes as the story progresses and I can definitely see merit in the final interpretation – of her arranging all this so that she can find a reason to dump a current boyfriend.

    But. There’s something about it all that doesn’t ring quite true, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the “he” was actually a fantasy figure in her head, a wish for a way to break with her current man that didn’t involve her personal involvement. For me the clues to this are in the lack of names, the lack of detail about him (she’s just invented him so why give him a description or back story?), the lack of pictures of him in her flat, the ease with which he’s able to follow her and enter her flat. It’s also in the long, involved journey she takes to get home. If she’d planned ahead of time to invite a stalkery ex to be at the flat at a certain at the time when her current fella was due for dinner, why trail him round all the shops and cafes on the way home?

    It feels to me more like that she’s been delaying going home, distracting herself from the dreaded confrontation, putting it off as long as possible. And then there’s the letter – the letter which she has written, attempts to change something in and then eventually tears up. She was going to leave her fella a Dear John letter, and then decided she couldn’t do it that way either? So she eventually returns to the flat and reluctantly gets ready to go out and meet her man, all the time wishing she didn’t have to, that she could just break it off, that had someone to do the dirty work for her. She fantasises a cowardly confrontation that doesn’t involve her, and then at the last minute concocts a half assed version of it. She lays the table for dinner as “evidence” that there’s a dinner planned so that when she fails to show for her actual planned assignation and the bloke comes round to her place he’ll discover it. But she won’t be there; no-one will be there, because the confrontation is after all a fantasy.

    That’s *my* interpretation of it anyway. I’ve only read it once, and as everyone says, it’s a very ambiguous story, so I may have misread something, but it definitely *feels* that way to me.

  6. It’s great reading everyone else’s interpretations, Neil’s is interesting, I like this way of looking at it too. The story allows such a lot of room for readers to play with which this comment thread is really highlighting I think.

    I think this is one of those stories that I’m thinking of when I describe reading short stories as being more like reading poetry. They’re often so dense and require several re-readings to fully reward the reader, and therefore I can rarely read more than one or two a day.

    I know I’d especially have to take my time working through a book of stories as ambiguous and off beat as Two Ways Of Leaving (although I don’t doubt it’d be worth it). From what you say, Iris, it sounds like this story is typical of his Maybe This Time collection.

    Also, hello Erika – it’s always nice to see a new participant!

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