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Pittsburgh author's novel takes fabulist approach to pre-war Vienna

Adam Ehrlich Sachs
Peter Gershkovich
Adam Ehrlich Sachs' new novel is "Gretel and the Great War."

Critically acclaimed Pittsburgh-based author Adam Ehrlich Sachs has a new novel out this week. But sit tight, because the book is neither a single story nor a story within a story. It’s more of a story emerging behind a bunch of other stories, like a shadow that slowly lengthens as the sun goes down.

Although “Gretel and the Great War” (FSG Originals) has two protagonists, readers don’t quite meet them — at least not in the usual way. Rather, the book is structured as a series of 26 bedtime stories, one for each letter of the alphabet. The tales were written down by one protagonist, a man in an asylum who claims to be the father of the other protagonist, a young mute woman found wandering the streets of Vienna just after the end of World War I.

The darkly ironic bedtime stories, in turn, seek to evoke a slightly earlier time — pre-war, turn-of-the-century Vienna — through a cast of characters ranging from stock bedtime figures like a princess, a duchess, a miller and a gamekeeper to more modern types, from architect, neurologist and obstetrician to a ballet master who seeks to set a new form of dance on his ballerina wife.

The short narratives arrive, one after the other, like a string of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, leaving readers to solve a puzzle whose tragic big picture comes increasingly into focus.

Gretel and the Great War

“My shtick is that I need some sort of extremely elaborate formal contrivance just to get whatever very simple emotions I’m after,” Sachs said.

Sachs' debut novel, 2019’s “The Organs of Sense,” purports to be 17th-century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s account of his youthful journey to meet an elderly, eyeless astronomer who has predicted a solar eclipse — but ends up being mostly about the astronomer.

In “Gretel,” the twist is that Sachs constructs his narrative edifice from such formally simple building blocks: bedtime stories like those he was reading his young daughters as he began writing the novel.

“The stories I read to my children, I usually feel greater affinity to them than to, you know, the latest novel,” he said. “I like how primal they are. They get directly at whatever horrifying emotion is at issue or whatever family arrangement is at issue. I like how inevitable they feel, how concise, the speed of them, the economy of them.”

The Grimm tales. The Arabian Nights. The stories of Genesis. Hassidic parables. “That's the genre of literature that I feel like I understand, or that I like most and sort of want to participate in,” Sachs said.

Still, it’s probably underselling “Gretel and the Great War” — not to mention the Brothers Grimm — to call their stories “simple.” As with their literary forebears, the characters in Sachs’ book (inventions, remember, of his anonymous writer-protagonist) endure a range of bizarre experiences, from shape-shifting and unearned delights to terrible misfortunes. Some fates feel deserved in the context of a given story; others do not, and it’s not always clear why.

Yet neither is “Gretel” a series of unconnected stories. As characters recur — and especially as you begin to notice how many of them live in the orbit of Vienna’s City Theater — a worldview takes shape, if not a master narrative.

Sachs has a growing national profile, with fiction credits in The New Yorker, n+1 and Harper’s Magazine; in May, a chapter of “Gretel” was published as a stand-alone story in The Atlantic.

Just as “Organs of Sense” was widely and positively reviewed, “Gretel” has drawn strong advance notices from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.

Sachs, who also wrote the 2016 short story collection “Inherited Disorders,” has now set both his novels in the time of the Hapsburg Empire. He joked that that’s “probably one or two too many.”

But he notes that his ancestors are from that part of the world, and he is genuinely fascinated by the convergence of world-historical figures who passed through turn-of-the-century Vienna — from Freud, Mahler, Wittgenstein and Theodore Herzl (the founder of modern Zionism) to Hitler, Stalin and Trotsky.

As reflected in “Gretel,” “Art was really, central to what was happening, and people paid attention to it,” Sachs said. “What was on stage at the, at the theater mattered. And. The success or failure of some, you know, piece of architecture mattered. It’s sort of a fantasy for a writer to think about a society where art matters. I don't know if it's healthy, but, it's nice to imagine it.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: