findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Friday Fun: Artists’ Studios

As writers, we may be able to write in a bustling café, on a crowded kitchen table, in a cave with poor lighting, even in the shower with the right tools . But if we did have an artists’ studio, with perfect lighting, wouldn’t we be able to write even better?

Simon Starling, from the Independent.

Simon Starling, from the Independent.

 

ChanderConstruction

Studio for wildlife illustrator, Chander Construction.

Georgie Wolton's studio, planetpropertyblog.co.uk

Georgie Wolton’s studio, planetpropertyblog.co.uk

Josh Keyes studio, Bookish-ambition.blogspot.com

Josh Keyes studio, Bookish-ambition.blogspot.com

Bonus point: all those paintings/illustrations/pictures are really inspiring! But perhaps, after a while, you just get so used to them hanging around on your walls that you no longer see them. Over at dVerse Poets, Björn has us re-examining the familiar, disassociating ourselves from it, so that we can see it with fresh eyes once more. I’ve chosen the third of Tolstoy’s techniques  - use of dialect or a foreign language – to create this sense of ‘strangeness’.

Tablouri, desene, întinse pe jos,

pe pereţi, o dezordine în care nu găseşti

şi nu gândeşti

nimic

decit inspiraţie.

Nani? Hontoo?

Bitte schwätz langsamer…

(Just playing around in Romanian, Japanese and Swiss German. Translation is roughly: Paintings, sketches, scattered on floors, on the walls, a mess in which you can find and think nothing but inspiration. What? Really? Please talk more slowly…)

Literature of the Borders

I live practically on the border between Switzerland and France – an area characterised by Lake Geneva, two mountain chains (Jura and the Alps) and a common language: French. Not surprisingly, there are a number of joint cultural initiatives in the area, not least of which the annual Lettres frontière prizes. Lettres frontière is an association seeking to promote links and exchange of ideas between authors and publishers from the Rhône-Alpes area of France and French-speaking Switzerland (Suisse romande). Of course, the mission is implicitly to make them better-known throughout the area, but also beyond. Every year, ten authors (five from France, five from Switzerland) are shortlisted out of an initial list of around 200 entries (for more details about their selection criteria – in French- see the website).

Bettina Steczynski, from www.rts.ch

Bettina Steczynski, from http://www.rts.ch

It’s tempting to write this off as a quaint little local pat on the back. However, past winners have included Hubert Mingarelli in 2002, Pascal Garnier in 2007 and Metin Arditi in 2012.

This year’s two winners are both women, I’m delighted to say. There is one winner for each country, to avoid political argy-bargy: ‘Sybille, une enfant de Silésie’ (Sybille, A Child from Silesia) by Bettina Stepczynski (Switzerland) and ‘N’entre pas dans mon âme avec tes chaussures’ (Don’t step on my soul with your shoes) by Paola Pigani (France).

Paola Pigani, from her publisher's website lianalevi.fr

Paola Pigani, from her publisher’s website lianalevi.fr

Both are about the Second World War or its immediate aftermath. Both are giving voice to populations that have been more or less forgotten or ignored. The first is about the forced displacement of Germans in the Polish region of Silesia after the war; the second is about the internment of gypsies in labour camps during the war.

 

Other shortlisted authors:

On the French side, a delightful variety of subjects and styles:

Chantal Thomas with a historical novel about an exchange of princesses between France and Spain in the 18th century; Florence Seyvos with a novel about family, friendship and Buster Keaton; Lorette Nobécourt’s biography of medieval mystic Hildegarde de Bingen; Jean-Daniel Baltassat about Stalin’s chaise-longue (or divan).

On the Swiss side, a combination of the predictable and the truly experimental.

Françoise Matthey poetical book inspired by 15th century mystic Nicolas de Flue; Nicolas Couchepin’s novel about an unusual family called Mensch; Roland Buti with a coming-of-age novel about the end of the agricultural era in the 1970s in Switzerland; Antonio Albanese’s playful exploration of 50 words and the concept of free will.

From lettresfrontiere.net

From lettresfrontiere.net

To note: 4 of the 5 shortlisted on the French side were women authors, as were two of the Swiss writers. Not a bad proportion!

The Poetry of Inanimate Objects

DSCN6527Over at dVerse Poets Pub I’m urging fellow poets to let go of abstract concepts and describe things as concretely as possible in a poem combining household objects and adjectives describing emotions or feelings.

The Brave Garden Furniture 

Grime-filled white plastic piled in rotting corpses

turning hepatic yellow -

no money for wicker with its creaks close to breaking -

squish of inherited flowery cushions with plump squeezed out

alongside faded stripes and polka-dots.

We remove the slugs with squeamish squealing

we pile up the chairs.

Stronger winds will still scatter them across the lawn,

no matter how they hunker down together.

Into the garage they go: that black hole from which few return…

I wish I could hear their gossip.

 

All winter the long table will groan under layers of snow

without its playmates.

 

Another summer over.

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Anahita Mody?

I have the pleasure of welcoming Anahita Mody today to talk us through her gradual descent into crime fiction addiction. Anahita is a librarian based in West London, a published poet and an avid reader and reviewer on Goodreads and We Love This Book. She studied English and Creative Writing and freely admits to a bit of an obsession with cossack hats, slipper socks and Keanu Reaves – though not necessarily in that order! Anahita is also very active on Twitter, which is how I had the pleasure of making her acquaintance.

AnahitaHow did you get hooked on crime fiction?

When I was younger I started out reading the Point Crime series and the one that really stood out for me was ‘The Smoking Gun’ by Malcolm Rose. However, I got completely hooked on crime fiction when I was nineteen and at university. I read all of Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series, which I loved. Although I’m not a big fan of her last few novels, I think the rest are spectacular and I love her portrayal of Kay Scarpetta as a strong, independent woman but with quite obvious flaws. Since then I’ve read more and more crime fiction and related sub genres. In fact, I try and focus the majority of my reading on it as it’s become my favourite genre.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I’m a big fan of ‘Domestic Noir’ and find it fascinating to read. The idea that a relationship can seem so perfect yet behind closed doors it is the very opposite intrigues. Also, a lot of the time with those novels, the reader isn’t sure whose narrative/side of the story they can believe and trust. 

I also love captivity crime. ‘The Never List’ by Koethi Zan and ‘Still Missing’ by Chevy Stevens are two of the best books I have read this year. I like the writing technique of using flashbacks as I think it really highlights the change in the character to read them in their original voice and then to read them in their post-captivity voice and the way in which the events in the book have changed them.

Finally, I also love psychological thrillers, particularly Gillian Flynn and Samantha Hayes.

AnahitaShelvesWhat is the most memorable book you have read recently?

It would have to be ‘The Girl On The Train’ by Paula Hawkins, a book that is being published in January 2015. The characters are intriguing and I  had no clue as to what the ending could turn out to be. I also loved ‘Daughter’ by Jane Shemilt. The story is such a simple premise but so many twists and turns, plus an ending that stayed with me for a very long time.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

That’s a tough one! I think it would be Claire McGowan’s Paula Maguire series that is set in Ireland. I love Paula Maguire. She’s my favourite female character: again, because she is a strong woman and the books have so many plot points that the endings really are a shocker. I think Irish fiction is very underrated. There are so many amazing Irish crime writers: Jane Casey, Sinead Crowley and Tana French.

What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?
liarschairI’m looking forward to reading more ‘Domestic Noir’: ‘The Liar’s Chair’ by Rebecca Whitney and also the new ‘Stride’ novel by Brian Freeman. Not forgetting the new novels from Sarah Hilary and Clare Donoghue, which sound fantastic. My TBR pile is about to topple over but I keep adding to it! I love reading British crime and Peter James’ Roy Grace series is one of my favourites. The ongoing story of what happened to Grace’s wife, Sandy, is so intriguing and shows us what Grace was like in the years he was married.
Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
I’m a huge shopaholic and I completely relate to the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella. I love her main character, Becky Bloomwood, as she’s a complete contrast to what I normally read. Working in a library, I try to recommend a good variety of books to people and often find myself recommending books that have been turned into films.
 

I too have a passion for Irish women writers, so it’s good to hear them mentioned here. As always, my TBR list is the biggest victim of this interview series. What do you think of Mel’s choices – have you read any or all of them? She is very up-to-date with the latest releases, isn’t she?

For previous participants in this series, please look here. And please, please, please do not hesitate to let me know if you are passionate about crime fiction of any description and would like to take part. 

A few favourite quotes

No world is too hard,

If you summon up enough heat.

You can do it.

The fire is there in your fingertips…

(Jerome Rothenberg)

20140618_104358

Poetry is what we make of disparity—an effort to bridge the gap between the raggedness of daily life and our deeper intuition of (or yearning for) coherence, if only with a flying leap. Life is accidental. A poem is a foothold, a stepping stone, a space probe. A whole is what we leave in our wake.  (Kevin Craft)

 

20140824_112911

Das Gedicht ist einsam. Es ist einsam und unterwegs… das Gedicht zeigt eine starke Neigung zum Verstummen.

The poem is lonely. It is lonely and on its way… the poem shows a strong tendency to fall silent.

(Paul Celan)

jardin9

Friday Fun: Never Enough Reading Nooks

Because no bedroom is complete without a comfortable reading nook (even though I do like reading in bed too)… especially when it comes with a view.

From homedit.com

From homedit.com

Because even a jungle lodge in Belize needs a place where you can tuck into a book, away from mosquitoes…

JAM Design

JAM Design

Because, according to Domaine Home, even film stars like Jessica Alba need some downtime in their own library… (and if I had a library like that, I wouldn’t even bother to go out to be a film star).

 

jessicaalba_kariwhitmanDomaine

DomaineHome.com

For the more modest, a little home office in the corner can become a reading nook…

From Coastal Living.

From Coastal Living.

But sometimes only a garden pavilion will do, when you want to get away from it all, and finish your book…

From homedit.com

From homedit.com

Finally, to put you in a Christmassy mood, here is the ultimate chalet reading nook… Warning: if you have a house like that, I may never want to leave!

www.hometweaks.com

From Hometweaks.

German Women Writers Fighting Against National Socialism

GermanLitMy third review for German Literature Month, organised and hosted for the fourth year in a row by Caroline and Lizzy, is a non-fiction book.  In fact, it’s one that I first read about on Caroline’s blog – so many thanks, Caroline, for bringing it to my attention!

verboten_-_verfemt_-_vertrieben-9783423346115Edda Ziegler’s ‘Verboten Verfemt Vertrieben’ (‘Forbidden/Ostracised/Banned’, sadly, only available in German) is a fascinating study of German-speaking women writers (many of them of Jewish origin, as one might expect) of the 1920/30s who were banned in Germany following the rise of the Nazis. I cannot quite do the book justice, as there are so many authors featured in it, as well as a discussion of the German literary scene during the Weimar Republic, WW2 and afterwards. Suffice it to say that it is encyclopedic, very well documented but also written in a lively, accessible manner.

Some of the women were well-known both then and now (Nelly Sachs, Else Lasker-Schüler, Anna Seghers), while others have drifted into obscurity (Mascha Kaléko, Hermynia Zur Mühlen, Rose Ausländer). The author follows their personal and literary journey across borders and oceans, overcoming language barriers, discrimination, prejudice and, in some cases, far too much self-sacrifice for the sake of their male partners.

‘They’ve  burnt my soul, destroyed my life, my youth, my sense of joy, they’ve extinguished my whole identity like a storm extinguishes a flame’ is how Hertha Nathorff, doctor and writer, describes the actions of the Nazis. There were three possible reactions to the persecutions they suffered: direct resistance, going into exile or committing to ‘inner exile’ (silence). Most of the women opted for the flight to another country, but there were few countries willing to accept them, so their life became one of endless waiting, false hopes and transient places.

‘Well, there were the wives…’ is the answer a German writer gave when he was asked how he managed to survive in exile. And the original phrase in German doesn’t sound like a loving testimony of eternal gratitude (‘Nun, man hatte ja eine Frau…’) but a cynical, throwaway statement of entitlement. The wives (or mistresses) were the ones who made the effort to learn the new language, gather together all the necessary paperwork, handle all the day-to-day administrative hassles, find a place to stay, make sure the family were clothed, shod, fed and sent to school, worry about the family members left behind and investigate in which country they could find refuge next, work in low-paid jobs for which they were blatantly overqualified so as to support the husband’s attempts to continue their careers. Under these circumstances, it is surprising that the women kept on writing: a true testament to their resilience, creativity and desire to ‘bear witness’.

This book might be worth a read next...

This book might be worth a read next…

However, many of the individual stories – almost all of them, in fact – are sad. Some women died in concentration camps (Gertrud Kolmar) or barely survived in Gurs, a camp for ‘aliens’ in the French Pyrenees (Adrienne Thomas, Käthe Hirsch). Most of the women were disillusioned, disappointed, felt an acute sense of loss. A few of the women suffered mental breakdowns: Nelly Sachs (paranoia), Irmgard Keun (alcoholism). Bertolt Brecht’s ‘harem’ of seduced, exploited and abandoned women – who collaborated with the playwright but were never acknowledged as co-authors – came as a complete surprise and shock to me.

Even before 1933, women’s literature had been disparaged in Germany, was certainly not quite on equal footing with that of the men. Many of these women had nevertheless enjoyed quite a bit of success with their writing. Yet even the strong, independent women who were committed to making a new creative life for themselves abroad were punished for their audacity. They lost their mother tongue, their most critical artistic tool, as well as the support of the publishing houses. Their ‘European’ writing style was not appreciated in Hollywood, although at least one of them, Vicki Baum, was reasonably successful there. However, she always considered her second career as a scriptwriter to be a ‘temporary breadwinning solution’, of questionable literary merit. Gina Kaus was also able to support her family with her earnings as a scriptwriter, but thought of herself as a ‘sell-out, a failure’, having lost the spark and motivation which led her to become the darling of the Viennese café culture. Even Hilde Spiel, the Austrian writer who became a journalist in Britain and published a number of books in English before returning to Vienna via Germany and becoming a ‘grande dame of German-speaking culture’, felt  that her career had taken a hit in exile and that she was never quite able to build on her earlier successes.

From Uni Potsdam archive.

From Uni Potsdam archive.

Outwardly, at least, Anna Seghers seems to come off lightly. She was active both politically and culturally while in exile in Mexico, producing some of her most poignant work during her years abroad. Moreover, as a committed Communist, she was welcomed with open arms in the GDR after the war (although it transpires that she would have preferred to settle in France, but was refused a visa). She won numerous prizes and honours in the 1960s/70s.  Dig a little deeper and her victories look a little more tarnished. She was the main breadwinner (as well as organiser, administrator, cook, cleaner) for her family throughout those difficult years, her husband having been described by some contemporaries as ‘Anna’s eighth cross’, an allusion to her novel ‘The Seventh Cross’. Although he also worked as a political agitator and teacher at the Workers’ University in Mexico, most of his work was unpaid, and he proved to be completely useless with any practical, everyday matters. He also had countless affairs and left Anna as soon as he established a foothold for himself in Mexico. When Anna returned to Europe after the war, she assumed that her husband would follow. He only came five years later, in 1952, accompanied by an American lover.  They never divorced and she supported his lover after his death, despite the fact that from the mid-60s onwards she herself was fragile and frequently hospitalised.

Aside from the very moving personal stories, Ziegler also discusses the rise of women writers in the rather patriarchal German literary world and makes many interesting observations about publishing then and now. For instance, even back in the 1920s there was much lamenting about a ‘book crisis’: inflation and depression, the fall of the ‘cultured’ bourgeoisie, the lure of the new media meant, according to famous German publisher Fischer, ‘that books have become the most dispensable objects of daily life… People do sports, go dancing, spend their evening hours in front of the radio or at the cinema, are busy with their working life, and never find time to read a book.’

Ziegler also discusses hitherto taboo subjects such as why most of the exiled writers chose to return to the GDR rather than West Germany after the war (if they returned at all). She contrasts the more openly welcoming attitude of East Germany with the suspicions and reservations shown by the Austrians and West Germans for their exiled writers. This only changed after the 1968 generation confronted their parents’ generation about their individual and collective guilt during the war, while the rise of feminism gave a new impetus to read voices which had previously been silenced.

All in all, a fantastic book which really shook me beyond all my expectations, and which provided me with many fresh insights. Plus a lot of new additions to my reading list, although it is doubtful that many of them are easily available, certainly not outside Germany.

 

Food for Thought: You’ve Never Had Anything Like This

Over at dVerse Poets, Abhra is urging us to write about our own cultural heritage via the uniqueness of our food and recipes. I thought I’d attempt something different: a prose-poem of sorts about experiencing Romanian food as an outsider, a child who had spent most of her life abroad.

You’ve Never Had Anything Like This

‘You’ve never had anything like this before.’

Uh-oh, here it comes, with warning lights!

As if I’d fall for tricks like that again. They’ve said it before, they can say it again. Too many times.

Usually, it involves something that looks like dog’s vomit covered in mayo.

Or meat wrapped up – for no good reason – in cabbage that’s gone off. They fill my mouth with sour revenge. For living abroad, for escaping them for ten months a year.

But this time, it’s a dessert. I have a sweet tooth, which I’m not allowed to acknowledge. However, this time… my carrot-munching, sugar-banning mother isn’t around. And even she cannot control what my aunt gives me in her own home.

I move in closer.

It’s foamy-white and quivers at the bottom of a bowl. I sink a spoon into its springiness and scoop it into my mouth. It melts on my tongue with creamy-egged smoothness and lingering longings of vanilla.

I gobble it up and ask for more.

‘What is it?’

‘Birds’ milk.’

retetelebunicii

From the recipe website http://www.retetelebunicii.ro

Reading Bingo for 2014 (Mostly)

Thank you to the wonderful Cleo for making me aware of the reading bingo meme below. She has some wonderful selections on her own blog, do go and check them out, and I doubt I’ll be able to do quite as well, but here goes. I’ve stuck mainly to books read in 2014 and linked to my reviews of them (where available).

reading-bingo-small1) 500+ pages: Pierre Lemaitre’s wonderful recount of the end of the First World War: Au-revoir la-haut

2) Forgotten Classic: Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes – I hadn’t read it since my schooldays and it was much better this time round

3) Book that became a movie:  Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Judge and His Hangman – adapted several times for TV and cinema, but its most famous and stylish adaptation is directed by Maximilian Schell

4) Book Published This Year: probably far too many, but one that comes to mind instantly is ‘On ne voyait que le bonheur‘ by Gregoire Delacourt

5) Book with a number in the title: 220 Volts by Joseph Incardona (review still to come) – an ‘electrifying’ account of a marriage in its death throes and a writer searching for inspiration

6) Book written by someone under 30: No idea, as the younger authors don’t usually have a Wikipedia entry with their date of birth, but I suspect that Kerry Hudson might fit into this category. I really enjoyed her novel ‘Thirst’.

7) A book with non-human characters: not really my type of reading, but Lauren Owen’s ‘The Quick’ featured vampires. Does that count? They are humanoid…

8) Funny: Light, witty and making me love my cat even more: Lena Divani’s ‘Seven Lives and One Great Love

9) Book by a female author: LOTS of them, hopefully, but a special shout-out for the delightful Wuthering Heights-like epic by Minae Mizumura ‘A True Novel’

10) Mystery: Well, most of my reading revolves around crime fiction, but I will mention David Jackson’s thrilling, heartbreaking read ‘Cry Baby

11) Novel with a one-word title: Surprisingly, there were a number of contenders for this, but I chose Shuichi Yoshida’s ‘Villain‘ – which is also a single word in Japanese ‘Akunin’.

12) Short stories: I realised this year that I haven’t read many short story collections recently, so I tried to make up for this and read about 4-5. My favourite was Alma Lazarevska’s  ‘Death in the Museum of Modern Art‘, stories set during the siege of Sarajevo.

13) A book set on a different continent: You know how I like to travel, so I have quite a choice here and went for the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean, as portrayed in ‘Devil-Devil’ by Graeme Kent.

14) Non-fiction: Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking‘ – the most honest and poignant depiction of grief I’ve come across in a long, long time

15) First Book by a favourite author: I’m cheating a little bit here, as I did not read it this year, but ‘The Voyage Out’ by Virginia Woolf surely counts? A much more conventional novel than her later work, it nevertheless contains many of her perennial themes (of trying to fit in, of the difficulties of communication, of allowing your emotions to be your guide and, finally, of becoming your own person with your own thoughts and stimulating intellect).

16) A book I heard about online: I discover many, far too many books and add them to my TBR list as a result of reading so many good blogs. Tony Malone has been the one to blame for many an impulsive purchase (usually well worth the effort!), and now he is also responsible for my obsession with Karl Ove Knausgård and his ‘A Man in Love‘.

17) Bestseller: I’m never quite sure if what I’m reading is a bestseller or not, as this is not one of the criteria I bear in mind when selecting a book. However, I’m pretty sure that ‘Norwegian by Night‘ by Derek B. Miller qualifies for that title – and it won the John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award.

18) Book based on a true story: The partly autobiographical account (supplemented by a lot of imagination and memories from other participants) of the life of her mother by Delphine de Vigan 

19) Book at the bottom of the TBR pile: Well, it depends if it’s electronic book or physical book. I have a massive chunk of double-shelving to get through and the one that happened to be behind all the others was a book I picked up at a library sale ‘Un sentiment plus fort que la peur’ by Marc Levy. Levy is the most-read French author, has been translated into 49 languages and currently lives in the US. I suspect his thrillerish bestsellers might not quite be my style, but at 50 centimes for 400+ pages, I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

20) A book that a friend loves: Several friends (both online and real-life) have recommended Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs‘. I can completely understand their passion for it.

21) A book that scares me: I don’t read horror fiction very much and am not easily scared. However, horrible situations or characters, such as the mother in Koren Zailckas’ ‘Mother, Mother‘, do give me the creeps.

22) A book that is more than 10 years old: So many of my favourite books are… However, one I recently (re)read was Fumiko Enchi’s ‘The Waiting Years‘, written in 1957, and depicting an even older Japan.

23) The second book in a series: Frédérique Molay’s Paris-based detective Nico Sirsky reappears in the intriguing investigation concerning a dead man’s hidden message in ‘Crossing the Line

LongWayHome24) A book with a blue cover: I am susceptible both to blue covers and to this Canadian writer’s series about Armand Gamache: Louise Penny’s latest novel ‘The Long Way Home

 

Bernhard Schlink: Liebesfluchten (Flights of Love)

My second review for German Literature Month, expertly organised and hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. Another prize winning author, best known for his novel ‘The Reader’, this former law professor and judge is constantly preoccupied with the ‘burden of being German’.

In this short story collection, the more obvious immediate subject is love – in all its forms and nuances. It’s about taking flight and finding refuge in love (or in our idealised view of it) or about love that has flown away after many years of marriage. It’s about suppressed yearning and regrets for things not done, about the comfort of habits and rituals, and about the consequences of attempting to make the grand gesture. The protagonists are all men, of different ages, but virtually all slightly confused loners, no matter what outward trappings of success they might have. The author seems to build up towards a surprise ending in each story – yet the surprise is often not quite as dramatic as we might expect. Perhaps the surprise is that life goes on even after we try to change it.

I found ‘Girl and Lizard’ a bit creepy, about a man’s obsession with a family painting, which inhibits his ability to have normal relationships with other women. ‘Sugar Peas’ and ‘The Other’ are about affairs and keeping secrets, with twists which show us that nothing is simply black-and-white when it comes to marriages or extramarital relationships. ‘The Son’ is about a German professor sent to a country in the grips of a civil war as an international observer – and how he rediscovers his human empathy and his love for his son. ‘The Woman at the Gas Station’ is the most successful story in terms of capturing that universal human longing for the unattainable, the wondering ‘what if…’, the anxiety about missed opportunities in life, the attempt to rekindle a love grown cold.

Kann man sich in den anderen ein zweites Mal verlieben? Kennt man den anderen beim zweiten Mal nicht viel zu gut? Setzt Verlieben nicht voraus, daß man den anderen noch nicht kennt, daß er noch weiße Flecken hat, auf die man eigene Wünsche projizieiren kann?… Oder gibt es Liebe ohne Projektion?

Can you fall in love with the same person twice? Don’t you know the other person far too well the second time round? Doesn’t falling in love assume that you don’t quite know the other, that there are blank spots in which you can project your own dreams?… Or is there such a thing as love without projection? (my translation)

LiebesfluchtenYet my favourite two stories are more overtly political: they are about the clash of two cultures, two ideologies, as well as two people in love (or friendship). In ‘A Little Fling’ (ironic title – ‘Der Seitensprung’ in the original is slightly more neutral), it’s about the friendship between a West German man and an East German family, the betrayals on both sides – personal, political – and the question whether we can maintain a relationship even after we become aware of the betrayals. Can we still live with someone when we know them all too well, know even the worst that they are capable of?

Alle Ost-West-Geschichten waren Liebesgeschichten, mit den entsprechenden Erwartungen und Enttäuschungen. Sie lebten von der Neugier darauf, was am anderen fremd war, von dem, was er hatte und man selbst nicht… Wieviel gab es davon! Genug, um aus dem Winter, als die Mauer fiel, einen Frühling ost-west-deutscher Liebesneugier zu machen. Aber dann war, was fremd und anders und weit weg war, auf einmal nah, gewöhnlich und lästig…

All East-West stories were love stories, with the same expectations and disappointments. They thrived on the curiosity about what made the other different, what they had that we did not have… So many such stories! Enough, to make a spring of east-west German love-hunger out of wintry landscape of the Fall of the Wall. But then everything that was foreign, different and distant became, all of a sudden, close, common and annoying… (my translation)

‘The Circumcision’ shows a young German man trying to come to grips with his cultural heritage when he falls in love with an American Jew. In several interesting dialogues between the couple and their friends and relative, we discover how deep-rooted prejudices can be. The man, Andi, riles against his girlfriend’s declaration that she loves him ‘in spite of him being German’. He reproaches her family for not being at all genuinely curious about him: ‘You meet me above all with prejudice. You know everything about the Germans, ergo, you know everything there is to know about me.’ And ultimately, self-censorship creeps into their relationship – so many subjects they dare not discuss openly, so many trigger points they have to be careful to avoid, so many opinions they dare not voice.

Schlink is a very different writer from Alois Hotschnig, and not just in subject matter. His stories very much anchored in reality, there are only flights of fancy in his stories, not flights into surrealistic landscapes. He is also much less ‘slant’ in style: he tackles subjects head-on, he introduces quite explicit (sometimes unrealistically so) dialogue and does not shy away from underlining a point, to make sure the reader gets the message. He is a writer of ideas, one to provoke discussions at book clubs or to cause one to ruminate about one’s own life, rather than one to admire stylistically or to seek to emulate. I can’t say I was uniformly delighted by all of these stories, but I rather admire the fact that there is no neat ending to most of the stories. For such an emphatic writer, it must have been hard to abstain from tying up all the loose ends.

 

 

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