#GermanLitMonth and Books Set ‘Abroad’

While my little household was visited by bronchitis, tonsillitis, RSV, coughing till your rib cage hurts and other such delightful guests, I needed something less demanding to read for German Literature Month. So I turned to the comedic delights of The Peacock by Isabel Bogdan, translated by Annie Rutherford and published by the wonderful V&Q Books.

Lord and Lady McIntosh are renting out parts of their dilapidated estate in the Scottish Highlands, but it all reaches crisis point when a group of investment bankers descend upon them for their off-site teambuilding exercise in the depths of winter, while their housekeeper has broken her arm, a peacock is running riot, and a snowstorm is on its way. Rather than descending into a Golden Age murder mystery (although at times the participants might be tempted to wring each other’s necks), it becomes a comedy of manners with moments of high drama and farce.

It was indeed a fun read, showing that Germans do have a healthy sense of humour: a satire about corporate teambuilding, British plumbing and draughty homes, as well as the renowned British love for animals which lives alongside their love for hunting. It is not at all vicious satire though: every one of the characters is redeemable, despite their obvious flaws. There is depth behind each stereotype: the iron lady boss, the suck-up, the older nerd and so on.

As the translator says in her note at the back of the book, ‘the idea of a German book set in Scotland and translated “back” into English was clearly a novel one’. But why would that be the case? We read books by American and British authors set in foreign countries ALL the time and many of them do not even depict expats: Donna Leon, Victoria Hislop, Alexander McCall Smith, take a bow!

The latest example of this is Berlin by Bea Setton, yet another book in the growing list of ‘expats moving to Berlin in the hope of starting with a blank slate and finding you can’t outrun your own bad habits and impulses’. [Rest assured that when I move to Berlin, I intend to continue the very boring middle-aged life that I have here in the UK – just with more freedom of movement and time to dedicate to literary pursuits.] It forms a perfect counterpoint to The Peacock, as it is almost entirely self-centred rather than focusing on a larger cast of characters. Written in the first person, with an unreliable narrator named Daphne – or, if we’re feeling generous, a narrator who is deceiving herself as much as she is attempting (and often succeeding) at deceiving others – we explore nearly a year in the life she is attempting to create for herself, albeit half-heartedly, in Berlin. The only thing she seems to be serious about is German grammar and vocabulary: she fails to establish any meaningful relationships, she sponges off her wealthy and far too unconcerned parents and therefore doesn’t have to work for a living, and she drifts along, a voyeur to her own life, not even decadent enough to come apart at the seams via clubbing, drugs and wild sex life (like the other Berlin-set expat novels I have read over the past year). The only thing she seems obsessive about is her running and controlling her eating, and inventing various subterfuges to disguise her eating disorder from her acquaintances.

The kind of book that made me feel old and grumpy, as I lost patience with the ‘first world problems of young people from privileged Western backgrounds today’.

This very bare-bones review is my third for #GermanLitMonth, and I hope to write one more on the biography of Marlen Haushofer. Meanwhile, I would recommend The Peacock as a delightfully escapist but not saccharine read – although the author underestimates how much the English investment bankers might drink!

14 thoughts on “#GermanLitMonth and Books Set ‘Abroad’”

  1. I didn’t manage to wade through Berlin. As you say, it brought my Grumpy Old Woman entirely to the fore. The Isabel Bogdan howvever sounds right up y street. I’ll look out for it.

  2. Wonderful review, Marina! Loved this sentence from your review – “As the translator says in her note at the back of the book, ‘the idea of a German book set in Scotland and translated “back” into English was clearly a novel one’.” ‘The Peacock’ looks very fascinating! Want to read that. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I’d like to offer a tweaked version of the translator’s note, and thereby suggest another fun book: “the idea of a [Hungarian] book set in [Wales] and translated “back” into English was clearly a novel one” and I’m referring to Antal Szerb’s Pendragon Legend (1934, available at Pushkin Press). I’m not wishing you another bout of family illness but, if that does happen (or even if it doesn’t) I would suggest you try some Antal Szerb.

  4. The Peacock sounds great, Marina. I’m quite partial to a good comedy of manners every now and again, so I’ll keep it in mind. We all need a little escapism now and again, especially at this time of year!

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