‘Ladies and gentlemen, meet Raphael Haffner’ – The Escape by Adam Thirlwell

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Raphael Haffner: a seventy-eight year-old ex-banker and philanderer, a British Jew and a former soldier who’s temporarily ensconced in an unnamed Central European town in a half-hearted attempt to reclaim his dead wife’s family villa, confiscated long ago by the Nazis. But Haffner’s mind isn’t on real-estate – Haffner’s mind is on sex. He’s spent most of his life cheating on his spouse, Livia, and now he’s caught between two final ladies – the beautiful twenty-something Zinka, a yoga instructor who wants to use a very willing Haffner as her sexual plaything, and the not-so-appealing middle-aged Frau Tummel, who’s decided that herself and Haffner are in love and who wants Zinka’s head on a platter. Meanwhile, Haffner’s grandson, Benjamin, is lovelorn and in need of advice, and the town officials are refusing to cooperate with his property title-transfer requests. And Haffner’s clothes have been misplaced by the airline.  He’s in a mess.

So, what happens? Eh – not much, as a matter of fact. The real estate reclamation is a damp squib – Haffner toddles along to a couple of uneventful meetings and resorts to employing some local gangsters and eventually, in a very undramatic climax, breaks into the villa to have a look at it, but nothing gets resolved. The only real purpose of the villa is firstly to provide fodder for our hero’s reminiscences of Livia and their life together, and his various extra-marital conquests, and secondly, to give Thirlwell an excuse to situate events in a picturesque, suitably ‘foreign’ setting where we might be expected to believe that a brace of lascivious women would willingly compete to hook up with an octogenarian (and ill-attired) Don Juan.

The novel lurches from one sex-scene to the next, ticking off the boxes: we get voyeurism (Haffner hiding in a wardrobe and spying on Zinka and her boyfriend), sadomasochism (Zinka making Haffner drink her urine and then tying him up) and a bunch of half-hearted and ludicrous tableaux in which Frau Tummel attempts to seduce our man. And when Haffner’s not actively engaged in sexual exploits in his Alpine paradise, he’s remembering his past conquests and ultimate fantasies. (One particularly worrying image involving Gulliver’s Travels unfortunately refuses to be erased from my memory.) Haffner isn’t just the guy who gets the girl – he’s the guy who gets all the girls. And his personal tragedy isn’t the waning of his powers as he ages, it’s simply that his wife also did some dabbling on the side. And now, a widower in a tracksuit, the girls are still flocking to him.  I can buy Frau Tummel, fine – but Zinka? That strains credulity a little too far in the direction of male wish-fulfilment for my liking. 

The moral, of course, is that old age doesn’t necessarily exclude one from the dating/screwing/lusting scene – fine. But that’s established early on; I expected the book to branch out, to give me a plot to hang onto. Okay, there’s the legal wheeling and dealing regarding the villa and the shady gangsters (a dodgy masseur and Zinka’s cuckolded boyfriend) Haffner hires to get rid of the problem. Popping up near the end, there’s Frau Tummel’s plot to get Zinka out of the picture, and there’s the precarious grandfather-grandson relationship between Haffner and Benjamin that needs to be resolved. But there’s no real tension in any of this. The villa’s not interesting, the gangsters aren’t especially threatening, and Zinka’s removal wouldn’t make any difference as Haffner’s already had his fun and there’s never any suggestion that they would have rode off into the sunset together anyway. And grandfather and grandson find common ground over, you guessed it, sex.

I get it, I wanted to cry, life doesn’t end when you hit fifty or sixty or seventy; desire doesn’t fade, it takes many forms, and all hope is not lost. But should it really take 321 pages of digressions and elaborations and a very tenuous plot to hammer that point home? The Escape reminded me of Woody Allen’s later films – a succession of lovely young woman falling madly in love/lust with an unattractive elderly man who really doesn’t seem to warrant the attention. Of course, Thirlwell’s in his early thirties; perhaps he’s being optimistic.  The Escape is supposed to be a comedy, but the joke goes on too long and ceases to be funny far before the end. It’s also narrated by a young friend of Haffner’s – purportedly Thirlwell himself – who more or less admits that he’s inventing Haffner as he goes along, and that’s fine – that’s the business of writers, and most narrators are unreliable – but I don’t know what it added to the story. 

So, okay, I wasn’t a fan. But I’ll admit it’s got its good points. Thirlwell can certainly write – he’s got a prodigious command of language and his scenes really come to life. The characters (with the exception of Zinka, who’s straight out of a male-fantasy comic-book) are well rendered and believable; Frau Tummel had me laughing out loud. The prose style was impressive, if a little exhausting; it’s verbose and idiosyncratic, with Haffner name-checked in almost every sentence, but you have to be wowed by Thirwell’s verbal acrobatics. Plus he’s massively erudite, though he rubs the reader’s nose in it somewhat by including an appendix that lists the authors he’s quoted throughout. It’s a book to wallow in, rather than race through; the very stylised writing and the not very compelling plot make it a slow read, but you’ll appreciate the author’s craft if you take your time about it.

Any Cop?: I really enjoyed it initially, but liked it less as it went along. If you’re a fan of aging lotharios and their continuing exploits, you’ll like it, and ditto, maybe, for Woody Allen’s long-term cheerleaders, but I think it might tax the patience of the rest of you.

Valerie O’Riordan

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