Summary of November Reading

It’s a dark, dank month and we’ve been plagued by fog and migraines. Thank goodness the reading has made up for it! I’ve read a total of 14 books this month, of which 5 crime fiction, 6 foreign books, 6 by women authors (plus a collection of short stories which contains both men and women authors, of course). Three short story collections this month, which is quite out of character – I’m developing a love for the form. Quite a lot of memorable reads and only one turkey – rather appropriately, in a month in which American Thanksgiving is celebrated.

GermanLitThe best idea was participating in the German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. I’ve discovered so many new authors by reading the reviews of the other participants, remembered old favourites that I hadn’t touched since childhood and had the opportunity to explore some books of my own. I didn’t quite get to read everything I intended (DĂŒrrenmatt will have to wait until another month), but I did reasonably well:

Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time – collection of surreal short stories

Bernhard Schlink: Liebesfluchten – another short story collection, but more rooted in reality

Vienna Tales – the third short story collection, all with Vienna as a setting, although I only discuss the Joseph Roth stories in this review

Hester Vaizey: Born in the GDR – fantastic set of interviews with the Unification Generation in Germany

I also read some French authors to balance this out:

A young Modiano, in the 1970s.
A young Modiano, in the 1970s.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir – jetlagged escapade in China

Patrick Modiano: Un Pedigree – memoirs of the Nobel prize-winner’s childhood: born into a highly unconventional family, his parents separated quite early on and he was sent away to boarding-school and generally ignored/forgotten about until he published his first novel at the age of 22. Not a masterpiece of style, but a sad story which explains perhaps his literary search for identity and meaning.

TrucOlivier Truc: Forty Days without Shadow – intriguing debut crime novel about the Reindeer Police in Lapland

There were some memorable reads about women feeling out of place, trapped in their marriage… and about so much more:

Jill Alexander Essbaum: Hausfrau

Celeste Ng: Everything I Never Told You

There were quite a few fun, quick reads, which I heartily recommend in the run-up to Christmas:

SilkwormMarian Keyes: Angels – another woman running away from her marriage,but with Keyes’ humorous take on the subject and sly observations about Hollywood

Robert Galbraith: The Silkworm – she knows how to spin a good yarn, even if it’s somewhat wordy, and I love her sharp digs at writers’ egos and the publishing industry

Philip Kerr: Research – a break from the Bernie Gunther series, this is a helter-skelter of a funny thriller, again needling writers and publishers – are we discovering a new trend here?

Janet O’Kane: No Stranger to Death – shall we call this ‘tartan cosy’ – a new genre which mixes amateur detection and village gossip with some dark subject matter

Finally, the promised turkey, which I dutifully read to the end because it was a Book Club choice for November (although I felt like abandoning it many, many times):

C. J. Sansom: Dominion – it felt too bulky, repetitive, unedited, although I enjoyed the premise of an alternative past in which England was occupied by the Nazis. However, it’s been done so much more successfully and thrillingly in Robert Harris’ ‘Fatherland’, without the rather intrusive explanations and political discussions. And this one’s about 700 pages long to Harris’ 400. Shame, as I enjoy Sansom’s other books.

 

 

 

 

 

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 WĂŒnsche 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 EnttĂ€uschungen. 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 FrĂŒhling ost-west-deutscher Liebesneugier zu machen. Aber dann war, was fremd und anders und weit weg war, auf einmal nah, gewöhnlich und lĂ€stig…

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.

Bernhard_Schlink
From http://www.daad.de

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.