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by Mela Hartwig
Translated from the German by Kerri Pierce
Reviewed by Andy Barnes

Originally written in about 1930, Am I a Redundant Human Being? is a 'lost' novel; it was not published in German until 2001. Its author, Mela Hartwig, was a Jewish actress-turned-writer who left her native Austria in 1938 and joined the Bloomsbury set in London. She might have disappeared from literary history, were it not for this novel's German publication in 2001, followed by Kerri Pierce's English translation, which have given a new generation of readers access to this fascinating short work.

The book traces the innermost thoughts of Aloisia Schmidt. Aloisia thinks of herself as mediocre in almost every regard. She is neither pretty nor ugly, clever nor stupid, and is unremarkable in both life and love. She has ambition, but neither the talent nor the drive to fulfill it. Consequently she sees herself as a failure, as 'redundant' amongst humanity. Aloisia's life changes when she meets Elizabeth, an actress. She sees Elizabeth as being as mediocre as herself, but the actress has learned to add drama to her life, something Aloisia craves. Aloisia learns from Elizabeth that failing to embrace happiness is not nearly as satisfying as deliberately embracing unhappiness, which sets her on a potentially destructive course.

Am I a Redundant Human Being? is about an unremarkable life, and the narrative is suitably unremarkable. However, it is far from being an unremarkable book. Hartwig's minute dissection of Aloisia's self-obsession makes for compelling reading. It is a deeply introspective examination of the twentieth century malaise of needing to stand out from the crowd, a novel that echoes works like Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf (but stripped of Hesse's philosophical overtones). Am I a Redundant Human Being? is humanity at its most naked, and is a raw and revealing piece of writing. Aloisia is a perfect anti-heroine; irritating yet easily recognisable, making it a compelling piece of psychological fiction.

At a little over 150 pages, Hartwig's book is a quick read, but it engages with some weighty issues. It may be stretching a point to describe it as an 'instant classic', but Am I a Redundant Human Being? seems destined to enter the canon of great German literature from the 1930s. It is as relevant now as it was then, and English speakers shouldn't overlook their first opportunity to read this disturbing and thought-provoking novel.