I picked up a copy of Hans Koningsberger’s An American Romance in a second-hand bookshop purely on the strength of its cover. I had never heard of Hans Koningsberger. I read the book, liked it and googled the author. He was born in Amsterdam in 1921and moved to the USA in 1951, later shortening his name to Hans Koning. He wrote thirteen novels, a similar number of non-fiction books and contributed articles to the New Yorker, Harper’s and other publications. In 1966 he wrote a short review of two Georges Simenon novels. The quality he most admired in Simenon was his precision: ‘There is no false note, not one word or sigh or smile which strikes me as anything but unavoidable.’
It’s a description which could equally well be applied to his own book. An American Romance tells the story of a twenty-something couple, Philip and Ann, who meet in New York, fall in love, marry, bicker and grow apart. The story is told, mostly from the point of view of Philip, in 87 short chapters (the book is only 145 pages long), each consisting of a vignette from their relationship. The writing is spare. There is a general absence of description and the author allows the action to speak for itself.
From the beginning, Philip is self-absorbed and jealous. He sees other men as a threat, other women as a temptation. But he is not repellent. He is often considerate and loving. At the beginning of their relationship, the couple shut themselves off from the world. They want nothing more than each other. There have no need for friends, parties or cultural events. When things start to go wrong this is not conveyed through any dramatic arguments or misdemeanours, but by a subtle change in the small gestures through which the couple communicate. One night, while visiting Ann’s parents, Philip does not feel like having sex. He tries to go through the motions, but is distracted by the sound of washing up in the kitchen below and the squeaking of the bedsprings. ‘He moved off her and she turned her back towards him without saying a word.’
And that’s it. That tiny gesture is the beginning of the end, the point at which the reader knows that the relationship is doomed. Ann and Philip are bright, articulate people – they are aware of what is happening. They talk about it and try to set things back on track, but they are unable or, by the end, unwilling to do so. They take a vacation in an isolated cabin in the woods in Canada. Here, once again cut off from the world, they rediscover their earlier companionship. When they leave Philip is depressed and cries. Ann, who has always been more outgoing, more in-the-world, tells him that New York isn’t so bad.
Things get worse. Ann has an abortion, Philip contemplates an affair with a woman he meets at a party, Ann stays out all night and kisses an artist friend. When Philip finally acts on his impulse to sleep with the woman from the party, it is an act of revenge and a purposeful marker of the end. He leaves the girl’s apartment at midnight, buys a newspaper and a cup of orange juice from a hotdog stall: ‘He was free.’ It is an ending of bitter, depressing irony.
The novel is a small, precise masterpiece. The writing is so artless and unadorned as to make it seem effortless and the dissection of the relationship is scalpel-sharp and affecting. There is no false note, as Koning put it, not one word or sigh or smile which strikes one as anything but unavoidable. I prefer the word inevitable, but unavoidable is just as good.
First published in 1961. Penguin edition 1964. Cover drawing by Milton Glaser
© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2013