An aging botanist withdraws to the seclusion of his family's vacation home in the German countryside. In his final days, he realizes that his life's work of scientific classification has led him astray from the hidden secrets of the natural world. As his body slows and his mind expands, he recalls his family's escape from budding fascism in Germany, his father's need to prune and control, and his tender moments with first loves. But as his disintegration into moss begins, his fascination with botany culminates in a profound understanding of life's meaning and his own mortality.
Visionary and poetic, Moss explores our fundamental human desires for both transcendence and connection and serves as a testament to our tenuous and intimate relationship with nature.
Klaus Modick is an award-winning author and translator who has published over a dozen novels as well as short stories, essays, and poetry. His translations into German include work by William Goldman, William Gaddis, and Victor LaValle, and he has taught at Dartmouth College, Middlebury College, and several other universities in the United States, Japan, and Germany. Moss, Modick's debut novel, is his first book to be published in English. He lives in Oldenburg, Germany.
Bellevue Literary Press, 9781942658726, 192pp.
Publication Date: August 25, 2020
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. The opening introduction to the novel reveals the ending of the story, the death of renowned botanist Lukas Ohlburg and the existence of his unusual final manuscript. How did knowing where the story was leading affect your reading experience?
2. Ohlburg’s memories of Germany’s fascist past haunt his recollections, though World War II is never mentioned explicitly. How did his university studies during the rise of fascism and his family’s perilous emigration to England to escape the Nazis affect his relationship with the natural world? Why does the author use such a light touch in exploring his country’s violent past?
3. Nearly all of the novel takes place among the flora and fauna of a particular area of German countryside. Did you enjoy exploring this small corner of the world? What lessons from Ohlburg’s environment transcend the setting to become universal?
4. Nearly as much of the novel takes place in the narrator’s memories as in the present day. What ties these scenes in the past and present together?
5. Ohlburg’s brother speculates that Lukas did not write his final manuscript “in full possession of his mental faculties.” Do you believe Ohlburg’s state of mind toward the end of his life led him closer to or further from the truth?
6. Were you convinced by Ohlburg’s critique of botanical terminology? What should be the role of nomenclature in nature? When is it valuable for furthering scientific understanding, and when does it disguise certain ineffable truths?
7. Ohlburg declares that “analytic and dialectical thinking has probably never led to understanding, to real knowledge, to truth in a comprehensive, almost metaphysical sense.” How does he go about seeking truth, then? Does he find it?
8. Toward the end of the novel, Ohlburg recounts his professor’s reflections on mortality in his speech, “Death is a part of love.” How does this condense several themes in the novel? Did the professor’s view of death make you reconsider humanity’s legacy or think differently about love and family?
9. Political movements are mentioned several times in the novel. How does the novel characterize these movements through their relationships to the natural world? With the climate crisis upon us, are we reaching the point where “[people finally grasp] that not politics but, rather, nature constitutes the true concern of humankind?”
10. When Moss was originally published in Germany— in the years between the partial meltdown of one of the reactors at Three Mile Island and the catastrophic accident at Chernobyl—it coincided with the emergence of the Green Party and was one of the foundational novels in the emerging ecolit genre. Which other novels would you classify as ecofiction? Does the perspective presented in Moss differ from them?
11. Ultimately this is a novel that reimagines how science might be reconnected with lived experience, names with places, adulthood with childhood, and humanity with nature. Did reading it change the way you see moss or view our connection to other elements of the natural world?