Planning Ahead for German Literature Month

Still too busy with our house-guests to be able to do my customary end-of-month reading round-up, but on this last sun-dappled day of October, I’m looking ahead to November reading, but not forward to November weather.

November is German Literature Month – now in its fourth edition, jointly hosted by lovely bloggers Lizzy Siddal and Caroline from Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat. This time, instead of merely admiring from the sidelines, I will take part, although perhaps in a somewhat more relaxed and unconventional form.

I have a number of books in German or in translation on my shelves which I really must get around to reading, so that’s my top priority. However, I will also try to fit in with some of the challenges.

1) A work that is not a novel:

Edda Ziegler : Verboten Verfemt Vertrieben – a book about women writers who resisted the rise of National-Socialism in Germany. Some of them I’ve heard of (Anna Seghers, Veza Canetti, Else Lasker-Schüler), others are completely new to me.

2) Work by an award winner:

Bernhard Schlink: Liebesfluchten (translated as Flights of Love)

Winner of multiple awards and of course famous for his novel ‘The Reader’. What makes him even more interesting in my eyes is that he started out as a crime fiction writer.

Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time (translated by Tess Lewis)

Short story collection by this Austrian writer, winner of the Erich Fried Prize (small but prestigious Austrian literary prize).

3)  A work relating to GDR or the Fall of the Wall:

Hester Vaizey: Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall

This one doesn’t quite fulfill the criteria (i.e. it was not written in German, although the interviews were conducted in German), but it is so compelling.  The real life stories of eight East German citizens of the Unification Generation, caught up in the transition between Communism and Capitalism. How do they remember the GDR 25 years later?

4)  A work written by or about Joseph Roth:

Another bit of judicious cheating here, as it’s just two very short stories by Joseph Roth in the beautiful collection of ‘Vienna Tales’, translated by Deborah Holmes, edited by Helen Constantine. 

5) Read a recommendation from German Literature Month Editions 1-3

Friedrich Dürenmatt: Der Verdacht

Having reread The Judge and His Hangman recently, I want to reacquaint myself with this second post-modernist or existentialist crime novel featuring Inspector Bärlach.

I hope I’m not stretching myself too far, especially since I also have some other commitments. I have a few French books which I borrowed from the library and which I need to finish (around the theme of ‘male midlife crisis’). I’ll be reviewing and interviewing new authors for Crime Fiction Lover’s New Talent in November feature. Oh, and I may also have to do some ‘real’ work occasionally. (Or should that be ‘paid’ work, as this book malarkey feels much more real to me?)

 

 

This Is Called: Planning Ahead

TokyoLightsOr maybe it should be called Trying to Bring Some Order to the Madness. With all of these inspiring end of year book lists, I just keep adding and adding to my TBR pile. More frighteningly, I keep adding to my purchases for both the physical and the virtual bookshelves, which will make next year’s challenge of reading them all soooo much harder.

Still, I am trying to combine the 3 main challenges I have set myself: I am buying or have already bought lots of German and Japanese books. So here are some of the delights currently waiting patiently for me or flying on wings of Christmas joy towards me:

Japanese Fiction

Keigo Higashino: The Devotion of Suspect X

Ryu Murakami: Audition

Natsuo Kirino: Grotesque

Haruki Murakami: Kafka on the Shore

Fuminori Nakamura: The Thief

Fumiko Enchi: The Waiting Years

Minae Mizumura: A True Novel

TokyoLights4I miss those days when I would be able to read Japanese novels in the original. [Although always with a Kanji dictionary to hand. I remember our colleagues studying English, French, Italian or Spanish at university would laugh at us for having to use a dictionary to read even the shortest novel.] I now have to rely on translations and there are very few available, even of the classics. I miss my collection of Kawabata, Mishima, Dazai Osamu etc.  They are all safely boxed up in an attic in the Thames Valley. Maybe rereading them could be my challenge for 2016 or whenever we move back to the UK?

German Challenge

Stefan Zweig: Meisternovellen

Bernhard Schlink: Liebesfluchten

Irena Brezna: Die undankbare Fremde

Edda Ziegler: Verboten Verfemt Vertrieben

Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink

Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time

TokyoLights3I also have a few crime novels in the mix. I’ll be rereading Jakob Arjouni and hope to read his last novel ‘Brother Kemal’, published posthumously this year.  I also want to explore the writer Sebastian Fitzek, who writes breathtaking psychological thrillers, and is beginning to make a name for himself beyond the German-speaking world.

I would love to ask for more suggestions, but am afraid that I might succumb to temptation… The Calvinist spirit of self-denial does not enter my soul when it comes to books (or desserts).

Instead, I will ask if you have read any of the Japanese or German writers on my list and what you think of them. And, if you haven’t, maybe you want to join me in the challenge and we can discuss them together?

TokyoLights2Just to put you in the mood for Japan and its literature, I have included some pictures of the Christmas/New Year lights in Tokyo.

 

Modern German Classic: The Mussel Feast

MusselFeastWritten just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this book by Birgit Vanderbeke is both domestic and allegorical, examining how all revolutions start with one small act of insubordination.

The story is deceptively simple. A brother and sister and their mother are waiting for the head of the family to show up for supper.  They are having mussels, a food none of them like very much, but which is their father’s favourite meal.  It is a special occasion, they tell each other, father is having a business meeting which may well end in a promotion. As they sit and wait, we find out more and more about this apparently ordinary German family, about the parents’ escape from East Germany and the back-breaking menial jobs their mother had to endure in order to support their father’s studying.  The author does an excellent job of describing the public charm and private horror of an inflexible, tyrannical man, but she doesn’t spare the mother either.  From the daughter-narrator’s point of view, her mother has colluded with her oppressor, switching to ‘wifey mode’ to appease and soothe him.  Yet only a few pages further, we discover that the daughter herself likes to be thought of as ‘Daddy’s girl’ and takes sides with her father to mock the other two members of the family.  The dictator’s policy of divide and conquer seeps in gradually, poisoning everything in sight. The more we find out, the more we discover this is a family reigned by fear and despair.

Presented as an ongoing interior monologue (much of it in just one paragraph), the book is an easy read, partly because of its brevity, but also because of its subtle humour and contradictory statements.  Yet for anyone who has lived in a non-democratic society or in an abusive family, it is a painful read.  It works perfectly well on both levels, describing the gradual descent from praiseworthy public ideals  to subverted, selfish interpretations. Thus, the father’s vision of  ‘a proper family’ ends in constant criticism and disappointment that his flesh-and-blood children do not live up to his ideal. His desire to be ‘doing things together’ ends in him spoiling the atmosphere and blaming everyone else when things are not quite perfect.  And ‘investing in the children’s future’ becomes a pointless exercise involving an expensive stamp collection that no one is interested in.

Communism failed not because it didn’t have inspirational ideas, but because it refused to take into account human nature when putting them into practice.  Marriages and families fail because we cannot allow the others to be themselves.  A valuable lesson, presented in an intriguing way, with an ending that is stunning in its shocking simplicity.

I read this as part of my 2013 Translation Challenge and on that note, let me make one small aside. I was sharing this book and my delight that Peirene Press is making such work more available to an English-speaking audience with a group of aspiring or even published writers based here in the Geneva area. I bemoaned the fact that there have been few translations into English of world literature so far, and commented how pleased I was to see some new initiatives.

Their reaction surprised me a little.  OK, a lot!

They said that no wonder that German and French publishers translate so much literature from the UK and the US, because that’s where the best work is produced. (Never mind that they also translate from many other languages.) And that they themselves cannot be bothered to read literature from other countries, because the style is too different ‘from our own’.  Bear in mind that this is not a random group of expats, but keen readers and aspiring writers, who have been living in the local area for many years and usually speak the language very well.  The lack of curiosity and insularity perhaps explains why so little contemporary fiction is being translated into English.  It saddens me, because it feels like people are deliberately limiting their horizons, but what do you think?

English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. Th...
English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. The photo shows a part of a public photo documentation wall at Former Check Point Charlie, Berlin. The photo documentation is permanently placed in the public. Türkçe: Berlin Duvarı, 1989 sonbaharı (Photo credit: Wikipedia)