After the physical and emotional turmoil of August, September has continued somewhat in the same vein, the only highlight being the couple of days I got to spend at Bloody Scotland. My reading, therefore, continued to be a mix of translations (four out of eleven books), escapism (two uplifting books) and grit (six crime stories).
Paul Gallico’s Jennie was just what I wanted to cope with Zoe’s loss, while Lolly Willowes was witty and liberating, although I perhaps stretched things too much in comparing it with Tomb of Sand. I was sympathetic to but more ambivalent about the female rage displayed by Mareike Fallwickl and Anke Stelling – I could see what both books were trying to achieve (I think), but feel they might have fallen a little short of their ambitions. HIgashino’s Malice was a clever manipulation of the reader and a psychological study of envy and bullying. You can see what our Crime Book Club thought about it here, thanks to Rebecca Bradley’s recording.
Five more crime books in quick succession on my journey to Scotland and then after I fell ill with Covid: Danuta Kot for the realistic depictions of gangland warfare and poverty in the north-east of England, Lisa Unger for sheer page-turnability about the horrors of online dating, Jane Casey for posing questions about the justice system vs. personal morality, Elizabeth George perorating at some length about FGM, and Emma Styles for a refreshingly accurate rendition of Australian teenage girls’ voices, from very different strata of society.
But the best read of the month was made up of Javier Marias’ loopy sentences and tangential observations about everything under the sun in the first volume of his trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. I have underlined the book liberally (yes, shock, horror!) but will review it when I complete the entire trilogy.
For October, I am keeping any reading plans very flexible, as my mind is flitting about too much at the moment (plus, I will be translating extensively, which always makes me want to seek out different things than I might normally choose). I have read a lot of books that are suitable for the 1929 Book Club, but am not sure if I will read a new one for the occasion. I might reread the quintessential example of Balkanic decadence and nostalgia by Mateiu Caragiale Craii de Curtea-Veche (Rakes of the Old Court).
Mareike Fallwickl: Die Wut, die bleibt(The Lasting Rage)
Anke Stelling: Schäfchen im Trockenen (Keeping Your Sheep Safe – translated as ‘Higher Ground’ by Lucy Jones, Scribe)
Back in 2014, I read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and encountered a woman’s raw, unfiltered anger for the first time. I loved it, although it divided readers and led to an upsurge in debate about ‘unlikeable’ characters (which seems to be even more of a no-no when it comes to female characters). There have been other books since which explore what might happen when women refuse to go along with the script handed to them, live up to people’s expectations, be meek, silent people-pleasers: Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. Generally, these women are condemned, viewed as unnatural, earn a bad reputation that lingers on for centuries (Medea, anyone?). No one likes a loud shriek of rage, too shrill, too hysterical, right?
Yet I can’t help but be fascinated by these books, where women are suddenly allowed to enact those fantasies of verbal (and in some cases physical) revenge that we daren’t let ourselves think about. I think I have a natural predisposition to be very gentle and kind, but I occasionally wonder if my tendency to be so forgiving is merely cowardice and conflict avoidance.
The two German-language novels I recently read both start with women being perceived as victims and then transform into women as avenging creatures (angels or demons? up to you to decide). Both Germany and Austria are more conservative when it comes to women’s place in society, so it is refreshing to see that this literary trend is making its way there too.
Austrian writer Fallwickl’s novel is set in Salzburg and at the very start, Helene, a mother overwhelmed by family demands during Covid lockdown, commits suicide by jumping from the balcony while the family is having dinner. Her best friend Sarah, a childless writer, used to slightly envy but mostly pity Helene, but she steps in to help out with the children, thereby making the widower’s life far too easy, as Helene’s teenage feminist daughter Lola keeps scolding her. Lola and her friend are assaulted by some boys at the skatepark and the two girls resolve to learn how to fight to protect themselves… and soon become part of a group who call themselves #WeAreKarma, taking revenge on the men who have wronged women. It’s an interesting glance at generational differences in interpretation of feminism, and how the desire for stability or family makes us compromise our most treasured principles and values as we grow older.
Unlike Lola, who seems more concerned with the wider social oppression of women, from domestic violence issues to abuse of minors, from body shaming to gender fluidity, Sarah is discovering how motherhood in a society where the political and domestic issues mirror each other, and that doesn’t offer much support for mothers, often spells the end of self-realisation:
‘You can’t imagine how bitter you can become about the father of your children… motherhood is a ship and at some point you realise that you are sitting in it all on your own. You are surrounded by dark currents, you have no oars, no compass.’
‘But who is steering the ship?’ asks Sarah.
‘You realise that only later,’ replies Helene, ‘It’s the men. The politicians, society. We mothers have no power. We have the entire burden, but no power.’
The moment of awakening, when Sarah chooses to replace the rhetoric of self-pity and doubts with a fighting spirit, comes when she is called into school because Lola pushed her PE teacher, who was insulting her and another classmate about their body weight. Sarah’s initial reaction is to apologise, to smooth things over, but suddenly the resentment that has been building up over the years spills out of her and she stands up for Lola, even threatens to create a scandal for the school.
When they were told back then that it wouldn’t hurt to give in, to apologise, to not kick up a fuss, to keep your head down, how did they know that it wouldn’t hurt? Maybe it did hurt them. Maybe it hurt them greatly.
German writer Stelling’s novel is set in Berlin, against the backdrop of the city’s increasingly problematic housing situation but has some similarities with Fallwickl’s story: an angry woman in her forties trying to explain things to a teenage daughter – except in Stelling’s case we don’t get to hear much of the daughter talking back and educating the mother.
Resi is an author, married to an artist; they have four children but not all that much disposable income, and are subletting from one of Resi’s old schoolfriends. However, Resi’s latest book took a swipe at her friends, for their bourgeois attitudes and love of material comforts, upon which she is served an eviction notice and, unsurprisingly, her friendships unravel. The novel is in fact the narrative she writes for her teenage daughter, reminiscing about the past, how she always felt less accepted by the group because of her social background. It is a howl of disappointment, self-justification and social critique, entertaining, relatable, but also quite revealing of a stubborn character with a chip on her shoulder, keen to emphasise her ‘higher moral ground’.
Just like in Fallwickl’s novel, we can understand the frustrations of the character up to a certain point, but we might question some of her choices or her interpretation of events. Resi recognises that she has fallen victim to society’s expectations of what a happy family should look like and what they should do, but she cannot help building up her expectations every weekend, and then being bitterly disappointed. The description of the Saturday breakfast is funny – but the laughter is painful, because so recognisable. Nobody wants to come to the table, nobody cares about the fresh pastries from the bakery, they sit silently and glumly, or complain about the food, or they make noises while eating.
I’ve fallen for the Weekend Lie again: the one that says it’s nice to have breakfast together on Saturday, when no one has to rush off anywhere, with fresh pastries and smiling faces, with Nutella and love and fruit…
The Weekend Lie is powerful indeed.
It operates on the basis of a ruthless causality: If I’m not sitting with you, it means I don’t like you.
It operates on the basis of simple contrasts: If it’s stressful during the week, the weekend will be blissful at last.
It operates with dogged obstinancy: reappears every five days, all year round, come sun, come rain.
Two interesting though problematic books, with flawed characters but relatable rants. I’ve seen some readers say that these women are speaking from a position of privilege and entitlement that they don’t even recognise – and it is true that compared to women in other parts of the world (or in other generations), their lives are not that hard. But they are, quite rightly, comparing themselves to others closer to them in their own society: rich or childless women, or simply men. Perhaps they also feel a sense of betrayal that earlier feminists told them that once they were working, earning their own money, once employment legislation stopped discriminating against them, they would have it all and be able to do it all. If only they would lean in more… Meanwhile, they’ve leaned in so far that they are toppling off balconies, yet structural problems in society and other people’s attitudes are still not changing enough.
Coincidentally, some of the themes also resonated with a film I’ve recently watched Everything Everywhere All at Once: what happens once women stop being overwhelmed victims or hankering after lost, often illusory possibilities? Can anger be used in constructive as well as destructive ways? I enjoyed the chaotic energy and genre mash-up of the film, as described by the title. This sense of overwhelm and general assault on the senses, thoughts, feelings, memories is what we are all perhaps feeling at the moment, although the film’s resolution was understandably (for we all desire some clarity and simplification) a little too pat. In real life, there are far too many people, including mothers, who never achieve any insight into themselves, and never have a fully-developed character arc. As for using rage constructively, well… we’ve seen how bad we humans tend to be at that.
Marlen Haushofer: Wir töten Stella (WeKill Stella). [And a special review bonus: Sara Gran’s Come Closer]
Marlen Haushofer is the high priestess of succinct, almost detached narration that conceals something profoundly moving and horrific. This 54 page novella will pierce your heart and mess with your mind – if you can read it in German, because, alas, it has not been translated into English. You can, however, try and catch a filmed version of it (translated as Killing Stella) directed by Julian Roman Pölsler, who also directed The Wall based on Marlen Haushofer’s far more famous novel. You can catch a short trailer for the film below (in German, also).
The plot is simple: the narrator Anna remembers the past year or so, and how the death of young Stella came about. We know from the outset that Stella died and that our narrator feels somehow responsible for this, so I’m not divulging any spoilers.
Stella is the daughter of an old friend of the narrator Luise (‘frenemy’ would be the more correct term, as Anna despises her desperate attempts to remain young and sexually desirable) and comes to live with the narrator and her family for a year, so that she can attend a commercial school in the city. Initially, the family (Anna, her husband Richard, their fifteen year old son Wolfgang and their younger daughter Annette) are slightly annoyed and amused by the ‘country bumpkin’. Stella is bored with her studies, but seems to have no other passions or interests, dresses badly, and appears incurably naive, shy and polite. Despite Richard’s derision of her, they end up having an affair – a situation that Anna was almost expecting, but that she feels unable to stop. When Richard, an inveterate womaniser, moves on, Stella struggles to accept the situation, especially since she has been forced into an abortion too, and commits suicide – or it could have been an accident, as the family reassures itself hastily. The ‘we’ in the title is significant – every member of the family has had a part to play in driving Stella to her death.
It’s a simple story, but what is fascinating is the ambiguity of Anna as a narrator, and the strange, detached, almost other-worldly voice that Haushofer gives her. Anna is telling this story in first person, while she looks out of the window into the garden – something she does for hours on end, She prefers that to actually going into the garden itself, which has always proved disappointing – she prefers to have that distance and the glass wall between her and reality. She notices a baby bird that seems to have fallen out of its nest, and is struggling to move and calling for its mother. Anna keeps telling herself that the mother cannot be that far away, that she will show up and help, but as the day goes on, the cries of the bird get more desperate, and then weaker. The baby bird dies on Anna’s watch, yet not for a moment does Anna step outside into the garden to attempt to rescue it in any way, in a horrible but telling parallel to the story about Stella. ‘I cannot help him [the bird] and therefore I must try to forget him.’
It’s all too easy to write Anna off as an unreliable narrator, but if she is one, it is because she herself is conflicted and nowhere near as in control as she would like to be. From the very outset, we hear that Anna’s nerves are shot to pieces, that she has become fearful, agoraphobic, almost paranoid – all clear manifestations of guilt. At the same time, she refuses to delve too deeply into her complicity, all she wants is for life to return to ‘normal’. Yet what is normal in this ‘good’ bourgeois household of the 1950s, in conservative, Catholic Austria?
Haushofer is too clever to give us a definitive explanation for Anna’s passive nature, but there are many hints. Anna is treated like property by her husband, whom she seems to fear and tolerate rather than love. She has often thought of escaping her marriage, but is either too afraid, feels too useless, or else has become too cynical about the outside world. She is unhealthily obsessed with her son and fears losing his love and respect more than anything else. Her daughter reminds her too much of her husband, she is one of nature’s sunny, thoughtless people. ‘Annette is too healthy and happy for me to truly love her’, Anna observes, while she herself overanalyses everything, and is therefore stuck in analysis paralysis. She also seems to harbour some suicidal thoughts, almost envying Stella for her ability to break free of this burden called life… and resigning oneself to an unfulfilled life.
I read somewhere that you can get used to anything and that the force of habit is the strongest force in our lives. I don’t believe that. I think that is just an excuse that we use, so that we don’t have to think about other peoples’ suffering, or indeed about our own suffering. It is true that humans can bear a lot of things, but it’s not because they get used to it, but because within them there is a faint spark of hope that some day they might break free of the habit… If the first attempt to break free is unsuccessful – and it usually is – then we try again, but the second impulse is weaker, and leaves us even more bitter and beaten up.
And so Richard continues to down his red wine, and chases after women and money, my friend Luise continues to chat up men young enough that she could be their mother, while I continue to stand in front of the window and stare out into the garden. Stella, this stupid young person, was successful at her very first attempt at escape.
My own translation.
You could argue that female emancipation has come a long way since the 1950s, but I still know so many women (not just of the older generation, but of my age and younger) who are clinging onto unsatisfactory relationships for the sake of the children or for financial reasons, and tell themselves stories that enable them to continue to lead their lives without rocking the boat too much.
It is incredible how much the author manages to fit into very few pages, how complex the thought processes are, and how much there is to read between the lines. Every word counts with Marlen Haushofer. This is tightrope walking on the very edge of the precipice (or the verge of a mental breakdown) and you keep reading to see just how the narrator can pull it off.
Sara Gran: Come Closer
The ambiguous narrator in Gran’s short novel (almost a novella, 165 pages with lots of blank spaces) is not just on the verge of a mental breakdown, but actually plunges into it before our (horrified) eyes – or rather, into demonic possession. Amanda is a successful architect who has just moved into a rather lovely loft apartment with her husband. It starts off with unexplained tapping noises, escalates with unprofessional conduct at work, uncontrollable urges to shoplift or hurt others, start smoking again or hooking up with strangers in bars. And it just gets more and more self-destructive and dangerous to others from there onwards. Amanda thinks she knows her demon, a beautiful wild woman called Naamah, and she makes sporadic efforts to exorcise her, but at other times she is exhilarated by the things the demon makes her do… and we start to wonder if it isn’t a split personality or some form of schizophrenia. Or perhaps another attempt at escape – a far more active one than Marlen Haushofer’s Anna.
Of course she fought at first. They all do. And then they see the possibilities and they’re happy to go along. She could have gone on forever, in her small lonely life. But sometimes the door to a bigger life opens, and it isn’t so easy to say No. You can’t spend your whole life saying No. Sometimes you have to say Yes, and see where it takes you.
I love the ambiguity of it, that there are hints at Amanda’s past or the small dissatisfactions in her present-day life which might make her susceptible to ‘demon attacks’. This book too has a real sense of malevolence and menace, although the horror is more graphic than in Marlen Haushofer’s work. Both authors, however, have a slightly detached, almost deadpan style at times, the kind of voice I can hear echoing for days afterwards in my head. Ultimately, just like with We Kill Stella, this book refuses to give us any clear-cut answers. Both these stories fit into a long line of prestigious ‘uncanny’ portrayals of the female psyche by such writers as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shirley Jackson or, more recently, Carmen Maria Machado.
Arthur Schnitzler: Casanovas Heimfahrt. This novella has been translated into English but is not easily available (you can get it via CreateSpace or second-hand). And yes, virtually all of my German Lit Month books are novellas, so that I can complete two challenges at once.
I read this a long, long time ago, in my teens, but when I reread it last week for #GermanLiteratureMonth, I realised that I had actually mistaken it for Mozart on the Road to Prague by Eduard Mörike (which I had also read before). So naturally, I was expecting a wistful meditation on art and mortality and instead got a much more insalubrious piece of work.
Yet I think there is far more about mortality and hubris in this novella than one might initially think, and it’s not coincidental that it was written at the end of the First World War, a war which reduced Austria from an empire to an insignificant landlocked country with an oversized capital city.
It’s 1778, Casanova is 53 and hanging about in Mantua, waiting for his home town of Venice to pardon him and allow him to return after a 25 year exile. He comes across an old friend, Olivo, whom he helped to get married 15-20 years ago, who is eager to invite him to his house. Olivo has done well for himself, he has three daughters, a thriving farm, and he seems happy and content. Everything that Casanova, for all of his past glory and adventures, is clearly not. He is aging, he has to rely more and more on his reputation or on the favours of older women, rather than being able to seduce whomsoever he chooses.
He is finally persuaded to visit Olivo’s estate, with the hidden thought that he might seduce his young niece Marcolina. However, the niece is a bluestocking, far more interested in her studies of mathematics than in this lecherous old man. Casanova suspects she is not quite as virginal as her aunt (somewhat infatuated with Casanova herself) makes her out to be, and she seems indeed to be in love with the dashing young soldier Lorenzi. Casanova recognises something of his own younger self in the charisma and insouciance of Lorenzi – so of course he hates him on sight and plans a diabolical trick to blackmail the soldier and seduce Marcolina.
So far, so typically Casanova, the man who cannot curb his sexual appetites (but of course imagines that he is in love with almost every woman he seduces). But there is more nuance here: for the profligate rake has started to worry about his legacy – in particular, he wants to write a polemical paper against Voltaire and wants to consult Marcolina about it – a first for him, to recognise a woman’s intelligence and ask for her opinion. Secondly, he is being invited back to Venice, but with a mission to spy on potential rebels and freethinkers, which angers and disgusts him.
Casanova is clearly at a turning point in his life, suffering a bit of an identity crisis. No longer rich, no longer sought after, the younger generation no longer know about his legendary deeds. There is one passage in which he almost regrets that he didn’t pursue anything in life seriously enough: he should have spent more time with writing and philosophy, he should not have wasted his talents as a financier or diplomat, but he threw it all away whenever a woman showed up. But he then realises that he doesn’t regret frittering away his time and energies on women – that he has lived his life like no one else. However, he only really seems to come alive when he starts talking about the past with his hosts (and often embellishing things – which may have given him the impulse to write his memoirs).
Just when you think that Casanova might be learning something in his old age, that he might be redeeming himself, he veers back onto the well-trodden path of vice, greed and selfishness. There is a particularly nasty thread there where he seduces the thirteen-year-old daughter of his host, simply because she happens to be there. Of course, he ends up accepting the job as an informer too.
Casanova’s memoirs were translated into German for the first time in 1913 and Schnitzler was fascinated by them. With a little help from Freud and other psychologists popular at the time, he saw Casanova as a narcissist who cannot really relate with the world, because the world itself does not interest him other than as an extension of himself, a place filled with people that he wants to dominate. Schnitzler also wrote a comedy about Casanova, entitled The Sisters or Casanova in Spa, which was not at all well received. I am unable to find any information about how this novella was received at the time – although I suspect that after Reigen, he was considered a controversial writer anyway.
I am really enjoying my aimless September wanderings of reading without a purpose and often with no intention to review. It provides a much-needed break and gives me the time and leisure to immerse myself in the rapidly-changing world of 1930s and 40s Britain, the world of the Cazalets. Although I will be wary of overburdening myself with obligations in the future, I do like to have a bit of a plan for my autumn and winter reading. So here are my current plans (as always, they are subject to change, depending on internal whims and external events).
October: Romanian Fun Reads
Family sagas have not been my cup of tea, generally, but now that I’ve succumbed to the charm of the Cazalets, I was thinking of rereading one of my favourite series of books when I was growing up – the three volume (sometimes published as four volumes) saga At Medeleni (that being the name of a country home in the Moldova region of Romania). I might not have time to sink completely into it, but I could try the first volume, when the main protagonists are children, and compare it with the Cazalets or with the Palace Walk trilogy by Mahfouz, which I also need to finish at some point.
Then I thought I might as well make it a fun month of reading Romanian literature – as in, reading without a professional editorial eye, wondering whether it would be worth translating or not, whether for Corylus or someone else. Here are the books I’ll be contemplating:
Ionel Teodoreanu: La Medeleni, Vol. 1 – The Unsteady Border.
Doina Ruști: Mâța Vinerii (The Book of Perilous Dishes) – YA novel set in 1798 Bucharest, a fantastical tale about a magic recipe book. The blurb says: ‘Merchants, sorcerers, spiritists, cooks of the Princely Court, lovers, haughty young ladies, ambassadors from diverse lands, mercenaries, officials of the Sublime Porte, princes in exile and princes newly enthroned, schemers of all sorts, revolutionaries, Bonapartists, tricksters, and envoys of Sator populate the carnivalesque space of this novel of fantasy, whose deeper levels lead far into the distance, towards worlds we could scarcely imagine.’ The book has received a translation grant and will be published by Book Island in the near future.
Ioana Pârvulescu: Life Begins on Friday – this historical time-travelling crime but literary novel won the European Union Literature Prize in 2013 and has been translated into English.
Bogdan Suceavă: Grandpa Returns to French (my own translation of the title – untranslated collection of short stories). I know the author slightly, worked with him briefly on the same literary journal, plus he was born in the town where my parents live now in Romania. He is a Mathematics Professor at a university in California, but is a highly skilled prose writer.
Radu Pavel Gheo: Good Night, Children! The story of four childhood friends, growing up in Communist Romania, who all dreamt of emigrating to the ‘promised land’ and return to their home country and their friendship in their thirties; older but are they any the wiser? The story of my generation, I suppose.
November: German Literature Month and Novella in November
I’ve always taken part in the German Lit Month and want to take part in the Novellas in November one too this year, since both of these initiatives are hosted by some of my favourite bookish bloggers. (Novellas in November is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck and I believe their definition of novella is any work under 200 pages). So I’ve found a way to combine these two themes by choosing to read German-language novellas. Or, very short novels in some but not all cases. If you’ve read the original announcements for German Lit Month on Lizzy’s and Caroline’s blogs, you’ll have seen that the plan is to read:
Books from Austria 1-7 Nov: I have a collection of short stories by Marlen Haushofer, which includes the novella-length We Kill Stella.
Books from Germany 9-14 Nov: Irmgard Keun: Child of All Nations, transl. Michael Hoffmann (almost a novella, only 180 pages long)
Books from Switzerland 15-21 Nov: Friedrich Glauser: The Spoke (again, novella-length – only 130 pages)
Books from Elsewhere 22-28 Nov: Mrs Mohr Goes Missing, a crime novel set in Krakow in 1893, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, written by a dynamic Polish writing duo publishing under the pen-name Maryla Szymiczkowa, transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Here, There and Everywhere 29-30: Dana Grigorcea: The Undying. This sounds like an utter wild card, a vampire crime novel that isn’t really about vampires by a Romanian author writing in German and living in Switzerland.
December: Russians in the Snow
Under Karen’s (aka Kaggsy59) nefarious influence, I have been steadily adding to my pile of Russian books, and it always feels most suitable to read them when curled up inside with the wind blowing a blizzard outdoors. Even if they are set during the hot summer months spent in the countryside. Last year I managed to read The Karamazovs and was planning to reread The Idiot this year, but the book (in the translation I really like from the Raduga Publishing House in Moscow) is at my parents’ house in Romania, and I am not sure I will get a chance to pick it up before then. Therefore, I am wisely selecting quite short works this time, allowing myself room for sudden lurches in mood.
Bulgakov: Diaboliad, transl. Hugh Aplin – satire about Soviet bureaucracy
Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra, transl. Andrew Bromfield – a satire about Soviet space race
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, transl. Anna Summers – There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In – well, it will be the month when my older son comes back from his first term at university!
Marina Tsvetaeva: Poems (maybe comparing different translations, although of course I can’t read the original Russian)
There was a TV series that I enjoyed watching while living in France called Un village français (A French Village). It followed the years of the German occupation of France during WW2 in a small village near the Franco-Swiss border. The logline of the first season was ‘1940 – living means having to choose’, and it presents a far more nuanced picture of the different degrees of resistance or collaboration, accommodation or destruction in those murky times. Every village and every community has a wealth of different characters and points of view, and the threads that link all of the people over time are fascinating.
I was reminded of this TV series while reading Robert Seethaler’s latest novel The Field, which attempts to capture the history of the fictional village – or tiny town – of Paulstadt, through the conceit of hearing the voices of those buried in its cemetery, called ‘the field’ by the locals. There are certain elements which make us think this is an Austrian village (not least because the Austrian author has always set his novels in his native country, even though he is now living in Berlin), but in fact it could be anywhere in Central Europe, with its fluid borders, Catholicism and recent prosperity that hasn’t always translated well into the rural environment.
What is of course incontestable is that, in death, all of the people are equal, even though in life they may have been rich or poor, corrupt or fair, winner or loser, kind or horrible, immigrant or refugee or native. The village has had its share of tragedies and small triumphs, its corrupt councillors and odd priests, its failed development initiatives. It is very ordinary and yet, in this patient enumeration of its inhabitants, their hopes and fears and dreams and disappointments, it reminds us that no place is ordinary.
Some of the voices call out and respond to each other, some replay family dramas or contradict each other or regret things. It helps perhaps to think of each voice as a piece of prose poetry or flash fiction. Some are funny, others are lyrical, some are quite dramatic and they all gradually build up to give you a picture of an entire community. Because they are presented in the higgledy-piggedly order you might come across names in a graveyard, it’s hard at first to make sense of the cacophony of voices. I would certainly recommend dipping in and out of the book for a first reading, and then rereading it to observe all of the connections. Although very well-written, I did wonder if the same cumulative effect could have been achieved with slightly fewer voices – but then I seem to keep on saying about each book that it could have been shorter! Which seems rather ungenerous, given that this book is only 240 pages long, so not a massive tome.
This is the kind of novel that will inevitably get readers to wonder what makes for a life well lived. It’s difficult to pick just one quote, because the book is full of beautiful passages, but here is one example that amused me, taken from one of the less sympathetic characters (funny, but also very moving, particularly reading it in 2021):
Some young people have been picknicking on our grave lately on mild summer evenings… They picked this grave because it’s got a huge slab of black Labrador marble that retains the heat of sun until well after nightfall. There they sit, yattering non-stop, the most egregious nonsense, spilling their beer, which trickles over our family name… Sometimes young Schwitters pees against the back of the gravestone, and the girls all giggle and shriek. I resent them for it. I hate them for their stupidity and their beauty. I hate them for the miracle inside them, on which they waste not a single thought behind their hot, unwrinkled foreheads.
Can someone go and ask them to stay forever?
I have previously really enjoyed and reviewed Seethaler’s The Tobacconist; while The Field has also been reviewed by John, Rachel and (in fascinating detail) by Susan.
This is a good year to be reading Marlen Haushofer: 100 years since her birth and 50 years since her death. I wasn’t aware of these anniversaries but finally got to read her best-known work The Wall a few months ago and was blown away by its mix of vivid description, eerie atmosphere and philosophical/ecological musings. I’ve been keen to read anything and everything by Haushofer since, but was disappointed to find that, although her output for adults is reasonably small, it is not exactly easy to find even in German. I think her biographer Daniela Strigl is quite right to criticise the publishers for falling asleep on the job and missing this opportunity.
The truth is that, beyond her tales for children, which were frequently read in Austrian schools when I was a child, her work has always been a minority taste. She was very much admired but not widely read, although she enjoyed a brief renaissance as a feminist icon in the 1970s/80s. Her current book covers don’t do her any favours either, as they make it look like romantic (which many people misread as sentimental) fiction for and about women. Not that there is anything wrong with that kind of fiction, but it puts off a wider audience.
So I should say that Haushofer is in fact the anti-romantic writer. She depicts human loneliness (yes, particularly for women, but more generally as well) like no other writer I know. The loneliness can be physical (as it is in The Wall), but, equally, it can be the devastating loneliness of being in a relationship, or living in a crowded city, or being in a group of friends and still feeling misunderstood.
Die Tapetentür (translated as The Jib Door, but I have no idea what that means so I translated it as The Wallpaper Door – a concealed door in the wallpaper) is the story of Annette, a quiet, introverted, solitary librarian. She has had some relationships with men, but is quite relieved when things go nowhere or the men move away. She enjoys her life and routine, has one good friend and a few acquaintances whom she either respects or secretly mocks.
She is shaken out of her contentment when she meets the lawyer Gregor, who is temperamentally almost her exact opposite – extroverted, a womaniser, a bit of a macho man, who doesn’t enjoy reading or being quiet. In spite of her misgivings, she marries Gregor and expects a child. She is not entirely convinced she will be a good mother, but she is both fascinated and repulsed by the animal response and change in her body. She seems resigned to the traditional division of labour and gender roles in the household, even though she resents Gregor for cheating on her and not being more tender and understanding.
The narrative switches between close third person POV and Annette’s diary entries, so we get to see both her behaviour in social situations, but also see her anxieties and doubts reflected in her journal. She also muses about life more generally and makes some witty observations about society, single and married people, even wealth and poverty. The concealed door that Annette suddenly sees in the wallpaper (she is the only one that notices the door, so it probably is a metaphorical rather than a literal one) represents perhaps the wall that Annette has put up between herself and others, and a door that she is unable or unwilling to walk through in the battle of the sexes.
It’s not often that you have the privilege and delight to start off the Women in Translations with two books of such high calibre, books that will stay with you forever. After Tokarczuk’s modern fable about humans vs. animals, I moved on to The Wall by Austrian Marlen Haushofer. Once again, it was a book that so many people had been recommending, including my childhood friend who now lives in Berlin, so that’s where I finally bought it a couple of years ago.
This time my reluctance to read it was not because I thought I’d enjoy it, but because I feared I might not (and I’d have to admit that to all my friends who loved it). I thought the premise sounded deadly dull: a woman wakes up to find she is the only survivor in a small portion of the Austrian Alps, sealed off from the rest of the world by a transparent wall. The rest of the book describes her daily life over the course of the seasons, her struggle to survive, a sort of female Robinson Crusoe, with only a dog, a cat and a cow as her companions, and a lot of hard work that she has to learn to do: chopping wood, growing potatoes, scything the long grass to produce hay and so on.
And yet this relatively short and simple story is anything but dull. She keeps a sort of notebook of her experiences, not a diary but a story written a couple of years after she started her hermit lifestyle, so there is a sense of foreshadowing throughout. Both the unnamed narrator and the reader are forced to slow down, to think about time in a very different way, to become one with nature and the seasons. The descriptions of the natural world and the loving observations of animal behaviour are very moving, almost magical. The empathy that the woman develops with her animals, choosing her duty towards them over any attempt to ‘escape’ from the enclosure, is one of the things which reminded me of Tokarczuk’s work (and I wonder if the Polish writer was inspired by the Austrian one). Haushofer’s father was a forest ranger and she spent her summers in early childhood roaming on the Alps a bit like Heidi, which would explain her profound love of nature (although she admitted she relied on her brother’s expertise in botany and animal husbandry while writing the book).
The narrator shares this quiet sense of acceptance and even contentment with the author. I gather Haushofer’s life was not all that happy. Growing up and studying during the Second World War in an Austria that rather conveniently forgot its Nazi proclivities after the war, she divorced and later remarried her dentist husband, helped him out in his work and raised two children. She was hugely respected by her contemporaries, won several literary prizes, but (whether out of a sense of bourgeois guilt or whatever), always put her family first. She was frustrated that she did not have enough time to write but, modestly, never made a big fuss about it. She was a contemporary of Ingeborg Bachmann, but was forgotten for a while, although Elfriede Jelinek considered her a source of inspiration.
The book has been interpreted as a description of some sort of psychological breakdown or depression. It has also been interpreted as a feminist or ecological tract or anti-nuclear manifesto. It can be all of those things, but to me it’s about a journey of self-discovery: just what are you capable of in extremis, what inner reserves can you have and how do you find peace despite suffering pain and loss, despite being confronted daily with your mortality.
Time is the main character really in this book: it seems to stand still, and yet we can feel its passing, in the seasons, in the animals and the body growing old.
I sit at the table and time stands still. I cannot see it, smell it or hear it, but it surrounds me on all sides. The stillness, the lack of movement, is frightening. I jump up, run out of the house and try to escape it. I do something, things move on and I forget about time. But then, all of a sudden, it surrounds me once more. I might be standing in front of the house and looking at the crows, and there it is again, invisible and silent, holding us firmly – the field, the crows and myself. I’ll have to get used to it, to its indifference and constant presence. It spins out into infinity like a spider web…
It was particularly moving to read this book in a state of almost lockdown, alone in the house without the children, merely the cats for company, but overall I did not find it depressing, although I may have cried once or twice when I heard about the fate of one or the other of the animals. I read the book in German, but it has been translated into English by Shaun Whiteside and published by Cleis Books and then reissued in 2013 by Quartet Books after the success of the film adaptation.
I enjoyed this book so much that I instantly ordered a couple more books by Marlen Haushofer (unfortunately, only available in German). What is it about these Austrians, that they seem to see into my very soul (or has my soul been corrupted by growing up in Austria)? It’s a book that will certainly stay with me all my life.
If you’ve ever come across Thomas Bernhard, you’ll know that he’s often called ‘the grumpy old man of Austrian literature’. He seemed to revile so much of Austrian society, history, smugness and hypocrisy, especially that of Vienna (which seemed to him the culmination of all things Austrian), that he even asked in his will that none of his works should be published (or his plays performed) there after his death. But he was far from the only Austrian writer who had a love-hate relationship with Austria – and with Vienna in particular. Nobel Prize winners Elfriede Jelinek and Peter Handke often launched into bitter invectives against the city, as did Karl Kraus. Even those who mourn the faded splendours of the city (and the death of a particular way of life) have very ambivalent feelings towards it: Elias Canetti, Joseph Roth, Schnitzler, Zweig. In fact, you can read a whole article about it in the Paris Review.
At a recent reunion with my international friends who all grew up in Vienna together, we realised that we all love the city, its beautiful architecture, the hills surrounding it, its rich cultural heritage, and above all its food (‘Mehlspeisen’ is the Austrian name for desserts, literally ‘floury meals’ and I’ve yet to meet someone who does not yearn for those extremely filling childhood joys). What do we remember less fondly? The rules and regulations, the ‘alles verboten’ draconian mentality, and the Viennese themselves. While I hesitate to put all Viennese in the same pot (some of my very good friends are Viennese), it’s undeniable that there is a schizophrenic element to the Viennese personality. Their renowned Gemütlichkeit (warmth, friendliness, geniality) and politeness makes you feel initially much more welcome than you might do in the northern reaches of Germany, but then you realise that hypocrisy, pretentiousness and a deep-rooted suspicion of strangers (which seems bizarre in a diverse former empire) are equally engrained. Give me a rude, straight-talking but honest Berliner or Hamburger any time, you might be tempted to say.
And yet, reading Thomas Bernhard‘s hilarious send-up of the Viennese artistic circles in Woodcutters (in the translation of David McLintock), I couldn’t help but fall in love again with that particular Wiener Schmäh – the black humour, often charming, frequently vicious – that is so characteristic of the city. The novel has the subtitle ‘eine Erregung’, which is usually used to describe sexual arousal, but could be translated in this context as an irritation or agitated rant. And this is exactly what it is. Our narrator is back in Vienna after a long period away. He runs into the Auersbergers, an artistic couple he used to be friends with three decades ago, and allows himself to be invited to a dinner party, which keeps getting postponed because the guest of honour, an actor at the Burgtheater, is late. While everyone is waiting and getting increasingly hungry, the narrator spends most of the rest of the book and the party seated in a wing-backed chair (the repetition of this phrase alone makes for a great comic effect), moaning and complaining about the people there and wondering why he ever accepted the invitation into a house and milieu that he thoroughly despises. He has been unnerved by the funeral of a formerly close friend who committed suicide (another staple in Bernhard’s fiction) and he really lets rip about his hosts and their guests.
… to think what these people have made of themselves in these thirty years!… All these people have contrived to turn conditions and circumstances that were once happy into something utterly depressing, I thought, sitting in the wing chair; they’ve managed to make everyting depressing, to transform all the happiness they once had into utter depression, just as I have…. All these people had come to Vienna in the fifties… hoping they would go far, as they say, but the farthest they actually went in Vienna was to become tolerably successful provincial artists, and the question is whether they would have gone any farther in any other so-called big city…
Of course, there is plenty to satirise in the vacuity and pretentiousness of the Viennese literary, musical and theatrical circles. Vienna is in many ways not a big city, not one of the world capitals. It is a city that was once the capital of an empire, but has now become a pretty piece of scenery and a backwater. None of its inhabitants accept that, of course. Culturally, at least (they tell themselves), they are still the belly-button of Europe. A new theatre director or conductor is headline news in Vienna, and everyone has an opinion about it. Apparently, the characters Bernhard mocks are so thinly veiled that they would have been perfectly recognisable at the time to any Austrian reader. The publishers feared libel suits and it was indeed soon banned.
Vienna is an art mill, the biggest art mill in the world, in which the arts and artists are ground down and pulverized year in, year out; whatever the art or whatever the artists, the Viennese art mill grinds them all to powder… and the curious thing is that all these people jump into this art mill entirely of their own volition…
But Bernhard does not just mock the guests. The narrator himself is also on the carving block. The way he paces up the Graben and down the Kärntner Strasse, then up the Kärntner Strasse and down the Graben again (two famous pedestrian streets right in the centre of Vienna), only to be accosted by old friends he supposedly wants to avoid, is very typical of the small-town mentality of promenading up and down the main road (what the Italians call the passeggiata). This habit is still alive and well in Vienna and you are likely to meet anyone who is anyone there in the centre sooner or later (plus a whole load of tourists nowadays). The grumpy passive-aggressive muttering in the corner is also typical of the Viennese personality. The actor, who at first seems to be a self-satisfied twit, then expresses a flight of fancy which captures the narrator’s imagination and pity. He says how much happier he would have been with the simple, lonely lifestyle of a woodcutter, and this yearning, although still dripping in Bernhardian irony, tugs a little at our heartstrings.
The final pages of the novel remind me so much of Cavafy’s poem about The City, the one you are doomed to always carry around with you, a burden and an ideal.
I ran away from the Auersberger nightmare and toward the Inner City, and as I ran I reflected that the city through which I was running, dreadful though I had always felt it to be and still felt it to be, was still the best city there was, that Vienna, which I found detestable and had always found detestable, was suddenly once again the best city in the world, my own city, my beloved Vienna, and that these people, whom I had always hated and still hated and would go on hating, were still the best people in the world: I hated them, yet found them somehow touching – I hated Vienna, yet found it somehow touching – I cursed these people, yet could not help loving them – I hated Vienna yet could not help loving it… This is my city and always will be my city…
It’s a very tongue-in-cheek novel, in which you must question nearly everything that the narrator tells you, yet there is also a lot of truth in what he says. While you may not find it quite as hilarious as someone who loves/hates the Viennese, it is a bright and short introduction to Bernhard’s work, far more accessible than some of his other works.
By pure chance, a few evenings ago I attended a seminar organised by the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies which confirmed the almost schizophrenic nature of Viennese society, especially in the 1930s. Entitled ‘A School turns Brown: A Micro-Historical Analysis of the Grammar School G3 in Vienna and the Expulsion of its Jewish Pupils in April 1938’, the historian Dorothea McEwan (who herself had been a pupil of that school in the 1950s and absolutely loved its humanist tradition and ethic) showed how it took only 6 weeks after the Anschluss for the ‘purification’ of the school. The curriculum was ‘cleansed’, Jewish pupils were expelled and teachers who were not loyal to the Nazis were suddenly moved elsewhere. Six weeks. It is frightening how easy it is to descend into blind obedience to the siren call of law and order and authoritarianism. And Austria has never been immune to that siren call…
This book by Austrian writer Robert Menasse (step-brother of Eva Menasse, whom I’ve mentioned previously on this blog), translated by Jamie Bulloch, is the quintessential novel for the #EU27Project – in fact, for the EU 28, because the capital city of the title is Brussels and the United Kingdom is still within the EU, albeit reluctantly.
I won’t say too much about the plot, such as it is: the European Commission is getting ready to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary and wants to boost its image in the public eye. Sadly, the preparations are in chaos, not only because of the usual infighting and stubbornness of competing egos, but because into the mix come runaway pigs, dead bodies and Auschwitz survivors who refuse to conform to the plan. Jamie Bulloch, as always, does an excellent job of making the vicious sound funny, yet injecting a tragic note into the proceedings as well.
The plot is essentially an excuse to send up the complicated hierarchical structures and nationalist impulses of the various countries and their officials within the European Commission. I particularly relished the description of the British delegate.
Like most of the British officials, George Morland wasn’t especially liked in the Commission. The British… only accepted one binding rule: that fundamentally they were an exception. In truth the British were always suspected of neglecting the interests of the Community for the benefit of London’s interests. In many instances the suspicion was justified.
Beneath the farcical situations and humour, there are sharp, swift arrows that pierce the pretentiousness of many bureaucratic ‘types’ as well as nations, not just the Brits.
Strozzi was just plump enough to demonstrate that he was no ascetic, a fact reinforced by the signal red of his waistcoat. Strozzi was an anomaly at this level of power, which was dominated by the ‘Enarques’, graduates of those elite schools such as the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, slim men in discreet, not-too-expensive suits (ascetic in every respect) capable of negotiating for hours on end and all night long too. They appeared to need barely any food and as good as no sleep, they got by with few words few gestures, they avoided sugaring their souls with the sweetness of empthy, they didn’t need a public arena… they eschewed the outside gloss.
Yet, despite the conformity of these faceless bureaucrats, there is a similar cloning effect within the British contingent, with all of the advantages that senior official Grace Atkinson believes it brings:
If the foreign secretary’s private office in London had to reach a decision, the discussion lasted half an hour at most, including all the rituals and small talk at the beginning and end. People there had the same background, they were of comparable stock, which meant they had also been to the same schools, spoke the same language with the same accent by which they recognised each other, they all had spouses from the same social class, between 80 and 90 per cent of their biographical details were identical… But here in Brussels? Around the table there were alwas people with different languages and of different cultural backgrounds, many from working-class and artisan families too, especially from the eastern countries, with very different experiences, and everything that Grace Atkinson was used to resolving in twenty minutes here took hours, days, weeks.
Tongue-in-cheek endorsement of ‘simplicity’ and ‘decisiveness’ over consultation and compromise, clearly!
There are also some idealists, who are about to become disillusioned. There are some outbursts which sound heartfelt, almost as if the author has gone on his own political rant through the mouth of one of his characters. There are opportunities to pause and reflect on the future of the EU – although any luminous vision is punctured instantly by ridiculous suggestions.
All in all, this is a wicked little satire, very similar in vein although less compassionate than the depiction of the UN in Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses.