Ricarda Huch: The Last Summer – Germany #EU27Project

I waited a long time before I found a book worthy enough to represent Germany for the #EU27Project. I read and discarded Marc Elsberg’s Blackout, which I reviewed for Crime Fiction Lover, because it was too much of a Europe-wide cyber thriller (although perhaps for that very reason it would be a good candidate for any EU project). Mechtild Borrmann’s To Clear the Air has a strong sense of German small town location, but was just not interesting enough to warrant inclusion on this list. I hesitated about Sascha Arango’s The Truth and Other Lies because it had more of a Patricia Highsmith feel to it and was set in an unspecified location which reminded me of the South of France.

Ricarda Huch, around 1914.
Ricarda Huch, around 1914.

However, I am nothing if not inconsistent, and finally it was Ricarda Huch’s book which won my vote, even if it is set in pre-revolutionary Russia rather than in Germany. Huch’s voice is one which deserves to be heard in troubled times when ‘intellectual’ is in danger of becoming a term of abuse. Well educated and polymath in an age when it was difficult for women to get into higher education, she was a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, plays and historical works, an expert on Italian, German and Russian history. Quite full of revolutionary ideas in her younger years (she wrote about Bakunin and anarchy, and the women’s movement among other things), she refused to cooperate with the Nazi regime and went into internal exile in 1933.

Her ability to empathise with both the status quo and the revolutionary spirit is what makes The Last Summer such a compelling read. It’s an epistolary novel and the immediacy of the different voices and points of view make this a complex multi-tonal choral work. Translated with panache by Jamie Bulloch, it feels as fresh as if it had been written only yesterday.

Following pronounced student unrest and protests at the beginning of the 20th century, the governor of St Petersburg has decided to close the state university. He receives death threats, even as he retreats with his family to his countryside residence over the summer. His worried wife hires a bodyguard, Lyu, without suspecting that he is in fact on the side of the revolutionary students and plans to assassinate the governor. Through the letters written by Lyu to his co-conspirator Konstantin, and the letters sent by other people in the house, we get to know all the members of the family: the childish only son, Velya, who tries to act cool and becomes increasingly critical of his father’s decision to close the university; the two blonde daughters – fiery Katya and gentle Jessika, who both fall under Lyu’s spell to some extent; anxious, protective mother and wife Lusinya; and the governor himself, Yegor, a rather typical benevolent yet authoritarian patriarch, who refuses to listen to any other points of view.

last_summer_web_0_220_330-1Although this short novel (easily read in a single sitting, as so many of Peirene’s books are designed to be read)  has a clear sense of time and place, it is also timeless. Neither side is spared: the  position of privilege, the rather patronising attitude towards the servants working for them, the often shallow understanding of politics by the ‘chattering’ classes are all exposed, but so is the deceitful way in which Lyu inveigles himself into the hearts and minds of the family, his stubborn insistence on the only ‘correct’ path (although, in a feverish moment, he seems to have a change of heart).

The central theme here is whether ideology should take precedence over humanity. This is indeed a dilemma which has vexed us most of the 20th century (and clearly continues to do so in the 21st). Should we stick to our principles, especially the political ones, or should we look at the human stories, make exceptions for individual cases, for getting to know people, for giving second chances? Is it necessary to take direct and violent action for one’s beliefs, especially if you have exhausted all the other peaceful options? Should we be allowed to change our minds if we begin to believe that the end does not justify the means?

The author shows us one course of action and the human cost of following one’s principles. It’s a book which provokes both an emotional and a cerebral reaction – I will certainly be thinking about it for a long time.

I really enjoyed the review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, which appeared just before I embarked upon this book.

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30 thoughts on “Ricarda Huch: The Last Summer – Germany #EU27Project”

  1. This one sounds like a really interesting exploration of what happens when ideology is followed at the cost of humanity. And Huch chose a fascinating point of view from which to tell the story, too. I can see why you chose this one, Marina Sofia.

  2. What a beautiful review. I haven’t read “The Last Summer” or any of Huch’s other works. Nor have I ever come across any of them. But your post is a welcome reminder that in the midst of all the literary noise, the mountain of bestsellers that flood the bookstores, it’s imperative that readers keep digging for golden works like this one. Fantastic choice, Marina Sofia.

  3. Lovely review, Marina. Even though this book was written many years ago, it sounds all too relevant today. As you say, those themes of ideology vs. humanity are timeless.

  4. Excellent piece, Marina, and thanks for the shout out. And I think you’ve caught the crux of the matter completely – both Yegor and Lyu are totally locked into their viewpoint so that despite their liking of each other, the destructive ideologies will get in the way. It’s one of those books that you keep thinking about and which reveals more as you do.

    1. I always believed that if you got to connect with ‘the other side’ at a personal level, understand where they are coming from, see their point of view as well, you would not necessarily agree with them, but be able to come to a joint solution. Clearly, not the case here…

  5. What a fascinating post Marina and although I tend to steer clear of overtly political books I do like those that tackle the large questions like ideology versus humanity (I too am nothing if not inconsistent in my choices) as I like books that make me think in the context of a story.

    1. Although politics permeates this book, it reads much more like a family story, or a bit of a psychological thriller (like The Secret Agent), without being too much of one or the other. Defies genre and certainly not preachy.

  6. Birgit Vanderbeke’s ‘The Mussle Feast’ is currently my top Pierene German novella. It was the book that first turned me on to these wonderful publishers… must look out for ‘The Last Summer’ now!

  7. This post and the comments are a lot to chew on. All these philosophical dilemmas. Well, as a political person, I would say that one’s political ideology and principles should be based on humanitarianism and concern for people’s lives, health and well-being.
    I would say that a writer who lived in 1930s Germany would have had to deal with questions of principle, but she made her decision not to cooperate with the Nazi regime in 1933 and went into internal exile. There, she was putting her principles first, and in the service of humanity. So, she made the right decision. Or she could have chosen to join the underground resistance. But she probably did what she thought was best for her.
    I also wonder how one could go into internal exile in Germany then. Part of my heritage is Jewish, so I have skepticism about how anyone could internally escape the Nazis, as very few Jews could do that. Maybe non-Jewish Germans could do that.
    I surely wonder what her friends did, too.

  8. Sounds like a fascinating read – I always enjoy books that look at politics through fiction. May I please add a link to this review when I do a roundup for my Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge?

    1. Of course not actually written at the time of the Russian Revolution, but you are very welcome to link to it. It’s interesting that according to Marx and Engels, it would have been much more logical for the Socialist Revolution to start in Germany rather than in Russia… but social movements rarely follow logics, right?

      1. I’m not restricting it to stuff written at or near the time – it’ll be just as interesting to see how it’s perceived in retrospect. Yes, I’ve been intrigued by how often Trotsky refers to Germany in his History – his theory is that Russia was so backwards it had to miss out several stages the more advanced countries were going through on their way to revolution…

  9. FYI: The Russian Revolution’s first stage was sparked by women workers on strike in St. Petersburg on International Women’s Day in 1917. It spread all over the city and then soldiers joined the strikers. Women talked to soldiers, asking them to put their guns down. So,100 years ago, women played a historic role, shaking up historic events.

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