#GermanLitMonth: A Biography of Marlen Haushofer

Daniela Strigl: Wahrscheinlich bin ich verrückt… Marlen Haushofer – die Biographie. (I’m Probably Mad: the Biography of MH) List, 2007.

I was planning to read several novellas for German Literature Month (and thus fulfil a double function, to fit Novella in November Month too), but I got sidetracked once I finished Marlen Haushofer’s The Loft. I had acquired this biography of Marlen a year or two ago, after being so impressed with the few books of hers I’d managed to find and read in German. I knew the broad outlines of her life, but this time I could not resist delving a little deeper.

Marlen was born Maria Helene Frauendorfer in 1920 in Upper Austria. Her father was a qualified forester, while her mother was also descended from a forester family but had tried to escape her family fate by working as a maid for a noblewoman in her youth, travelling all over the world and staying in luxurious hotels. Marlen was a lively little girl who enjoyed the great outdoors and the freedom of wandering in the forests, playing with animals, listening to stories told by her favourite uncle – she later described those early years as quite idyllic, although she did suffer when her brother Rudi, the apple of her mother’s eye, was born.

All this was well-known to me. What I did not realise was just what a fall from paradise it was for Marlen to be sent to a convent school in Linz at the age of ten. She was one of the brightest girls in her class, but she was homesick, became depressed and succumbed to TB. She interrupted her studies to go to a sanatorium, and then fell promptly ill again. She finished school just after the Anschluss and was forced to do a year of civil service on the eastern borders of the German empire. In 1940 she started studying philosophy, German and art history in Vienna, which is where she met Manfred Haushofer, who was studying medicine. I knew that they got married in 1941 but what I did not know was that before the wedding Marlen had given birth to a little boy whose father was not Manfred, but a German student whom she had met a year earlier. Manfred accepted her illegitimate child, but he lived apart from them for a long time, even after they had a son of their own in 1942.

Manfred and Marlen settled in the little town of Steyr (a truly provincial town not far from her parents in Upper Austria) and opened a dental clinic together (Marlen helping out with the admin). Although this should have been a lucrative business, Marlen’s husband proved hopeless with money, always dashing after shiny gadgets and cars and other women, so they were never very well off. Marlen started writing, and had her champions in Vienna, but overall was not taken very seriously by the Viennese literary circles and experienced multiple rejections. Although she moved in the same circles as Ingeborg Bachmann, Ilse Aichinger, Thomas Bernhard, she was often mocked as the ‘provincial egg, the dentist’s wife, the forester’s daughter’.

I had always wondered why Marlen divorced her husband in 1950, only to then get remarried to him in 1958. I suspected he was a serial womaniser, which was true, and the last straw was when he had a serious relationship with one of Marlen’s best friends. However, I was stunned to discover that they continued to live in the same house and work together in the dental practice, that very few people (not even their children) knew that they were actually divorced, and that they both pursued other relationships during their years of estrangement. Marlen did not seem at all blind to her husband’s faults, nor was she deeply in love with him any longer, so why did she remarry him? She once told a friend that ‘you cannot be divorced in Steyr’. Perhaps, like the narrator in The Loft, she craved the comfort of routine. Perhaps she was disappointed by her occasional forays into Viennese cultural life and the other men in her life proved disappointing as well. She complained about not having enough time to write, of being a victim of her domestic arrangements, and yet she seemed reluctant to rid herself of her chains. As one of her writer friends said: ‘You know where you are going wrong, Marlen? If your husband asks you for a slice of bread and butter, you immediately make three for him.’

Her health had never been brilliant, so she mostly ignored the hip pain that started plaguing her in the mid-1960s. In 1968 she was diagnosed with bone cancer, which she kept hidden from friends and even her immediate family for as long as she could. This was a family where hardly anything was ever openly discussed. She died just a few weeks short of her fiftieth birthday in 1970.

The biographer Daniela Strigl interviewed family members and friends of Marlen Haushofer, as well as researching the archives. I wasn’t entirely convinced by her extensive use of quotes from Marlen’s novels to illustrate biographical details, but am not sure what else she could have done, because Marlen systematically destroyed all of her diaries (with one small exception) and the letters she received. Luckily, some of her correspondents kept the letters she sent them, but even then it would be a mistake to believe that this enigmatic author always meant exactly what she wrote. She wrote for maximum effect, in what was often a devastatingly cynical way that was in direct contrast to her apparently settled bourgeois housewifely existence. She was such a secretive person that her friends could never quite agree what she was like, whether she was happy or not – or even the colour of her eyes.

I’ll end with a few quotes from Marlen’s writings, some from her fiction, some from her personal papers:

You should never ask for too much, then you can never receive too little.

I find myself here in a place where I do not belong, living among people who know nothing of me, half of my strength is wasted on the effort of remaining inconspicuous. The older I get, the more I realise how hopelessly entangled all of us are, and I envy the person who never becomes aware of this.

She has become that friendly, slightly distracted woman who goes for a walk with her child, reads novels, receives her guests, puts flowers into vases, and generally feels life trickling away from her gently, without regrets. One of the many women whose will is broken, who are no longer really there. No matter how she chooses to live her life, she will sit there on that stone today, with the suspicion in her heart that she has picked the wrong path.

In spite of all my efforts, I seem stuck… I have the feeling, I am wasting all of my strength. I would not take pleasure in writing a successful book if I had the feeling I had let my family down. I really think it is impossible to be a good person and a good artist at the same time.

Marlen’s final letter, a sort of literary testament, which she wrote a week or so before her death, is truly heartbreaking, yet without the faintest hint of self-pity or self-indulgence:

Do not worry. You have seen too much and too little, just like everyone before you. You have cried too much, maybe too little, just like everyone before you. Maybe you have loved and hated too much – but not for long – twenty years or so. What are twenty years anyway? After that, part of you died, just like it did for all people who can no longer love nor hate […] Do not worry. Everything will have been in vain, just like it has always been. A completely normal story.

This is my last contribution to the German Literature Month extravaganza, but do please head over to the website hosted by Marcia (aka Lizzy Siddal) to see what other people have read this November.

#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!

#GermanLitMonth: Volker Kutscher and Babylon Berlin

Volker Kutscher: The March Fallen, trans. Niall Sellar, Sandstone Press.

A return to the German Literature Month reading with the most recent book in the Babylon Berlin series, although in this book there is far less of the Weimar decadence and much more of the ruthlessness of the Nazis. I have been captivated both by the books and by the TV series, although the adaptation is not 100% faithful to the books. Most interesting of all, the main protagonist, Gereon Rath, is a deeply flawed, often unlikeable individual, and it appears that the actor playing him may be more similar to the character than we might have expected.

February 1933 and the city of Berlin believes that Hitler and his rabble are only a passing fashion, and the upcoming elections will return things to normal. Charly and Gereon are about to get married (if you haven’t read the previous book in the series, as I hadn’t, then this might come as a bit of a surprise, so apologies for the spoilers), Charly is about to be promoted to the rank of inspector, but she is not happy at being sidelined in the Women’s CID, where the type of crimes they investigate are graffiti and runaway youths. Meanwhile, Gereon is part of a team investigating the murder of a homeless war veteran, who had been lying for several days unnoticed under the railway arches. Or at least, he was investigating that until the arson attack on the Reichstag, when he suddenly finds himself working alongside Hitler’s brownshirts to interrogate Communists.

Another war veteran, but of a higher social and military rank, Baron von Reddock, identifies the victim and claims that his own life might be in danger. For the victim, the baron and a few other soldiers all witnessed a nasty incident during the war and were involved in hiding some gold, which has since gone missing. The Baron has just written a book about it, which will be serialised in a newspaper, and he suspects that the man bent on killing them all is a Jewish captain who was believed to have died during the war.

With the anti-semitic feelings raging in Germany, the investigation turns into a manhunt rather than exploring all options. Gereon wants to keep his head down and not get involved in politics, but it is getting harder and harder to sit on the fence. Charly, with her far keener sense of justice, is suffering so much in her division, hearing all her female colleagues praise the Führer, that she takes sick leave, and uses that time to try and track down a young orphan girl who is said to be a lunatic after setting fire to a homeless shelter. She too seems to be targeted by the killer.

As you can imagine, the case itself is full of twists and turns, but what is most interesting about this book is to see that people whom Charly and Gereon considered friends have suddenly sided with the Nazis, whether for personal gain or because they genuinely believe in their ideology. Although Gereon does not stomach the Nazis any more than Charly does, he is equally sceptical about the Communists and believes that the messy democracy of the Weimar is to blame for the rise of Hitler and his party.

Much like Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, this is well-researched historical crime fiction with a moral compass and a bite, revealing how difficult it is for the ‘masses’ to even realise the dangerous road they are about to be led on.

Sometimes Charly felt as if Berlin had been full of people just waiting for this government who were now, suddenly, revealing their true colours. As if the whole time somewhere deep under this city there had been another, darker Berlin that was seeping upwards like sewage rising in the street. That wasn’t true, of course, it was the same people inhabiting the same Berlin. The new government simply had a talent for bringing out the worst in its citizens.

I absolutely love this series, but it is in danger of not being translated any further. Sandstone Press were crowdfunding for the translation and publication of the next novel Lunapark, which takes place in 1934. Sadly, they were unable to reach their funding goal, so work on this novel has been cancelled (or, hopefully, postponed). As a small indie publisher of translated crime fiction, I can fully empathise with this tricky situation.

#GermanLitMonth and #NovNov: Marlen Haushofer

Marlen Haushofer: Wir töten Stella (We Kill 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.

#GermanLitMonth: The Passenger

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz: The Passenger (transl. Philip Boehm)

Cannot believe that German Literature Month is now in its eleventh year! I have taken part in this ever since I became aware of it (I think in 2012 or 2013), and, having spent my childhood in Austria, and then quite a few years recently on the Franco-Swiss border, I have the chip on my shoulder of the smaller cultures dominated by the overwhelming Piefkes (slang word for Germans in Austria). So I tend to choose mostly Austrian and Swiss writers, and will do so again this year. However, I start off with a book by a German Jewish writer, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, because this is a book with a very interesting history. You can read more about the young author hounded out of Germany and moving from country to country during WW2, dying at the age of twenty-seven, before he got a chance to properly edit this novel. I for one could not resist its back story, nor its black/white/red cover (very well played, Pushkin Press, the colours of Nazi Germany).

The subject matter of course is very moving: a rather smug Jewish businessman who suddenly finds all his certainties and protected bubble of a world crumble after Kristallnacht in Berlin in November 1938. His house is ransacked, his family and friends abandon him, his business partners try to rip him off, the Gestapo are after him, and he is stuck in a nightmare of boarding first one train, then another, in an effort to escape across the border. And, although some might say that the story doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion, that is the only possible outcome: the nightmare of no way out. The dark heart of the story is perfectly mirrored in its noir apparel and style, which I suspect the author derived from the German and American cinema of the time. Imagine the absurd situations of a character from a Kafka novella, combined with the sharp social critique of Joseph Roth, and the poignant, yet somewhat deadpan delivery of Hans Fallada, married to the frenetic and clumsy action of the narrator from Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer.

Otto Silbermann has managed to navigate his way through the increasingly difficult waters of Nazi Germany: his appearance is not typically Jewish, his wife is a good German Christian, and his business has been doing well enough for him to be able to help out others. He is stunned to realise that all this can change in a second:

Ten minutes ago, it was my house that was at stake, my property. Now it’s my neck. Everything’s happening so quickly. They have declared war on me, on me personally… and right now I’m completely on my own – in enemy territory.

As he switches from train to train, from first class to second and third, he encounters a cross-section of the German population, including fellow Jews desperate to escape, vocal anti-semites, indifferent but not really friendly average people, even some well-meant encouragement (albeit always with a sting in its tail). Above all, he has to admit that he no longer recognises the country, his neighbours, the people he once trusted, even his business partner with whom he went through the war together.

[this is spoken by another character, but describes the general situation]

I had to sit in my shop and watch them march past, with flags and music. At times I could practically scream, let me tell you. They were all people I knew. The veteran’s association, teh skat club, the guild. All former friends, and suddenly you’re sitting there completely alone. No one wants to have anything more to do with you, and if they do happen to run into you, then you wind up being the one who looks away just so you don’t have to see them doing it… This person was in your class at school, that person trained alongisde you or was one of the regular at your table in the pub. And now? Now you’re just air, and bad air at that!

Gradually, and this is perhaps the most painful moment of insight, Silbermann discovers that he is as cowardly, as self-interested, as quick to disassociate himself from ‘the Jews’ as the Germans around him.

There are too many Jews on the train… and that puts every one of us in danger…If it weren’t for you, they wouldn’t be persecuting me. I could remain a normal citizen. But because you exist, I will be annihilated along with you…

He considered such thoughts undignified but couldn’t help thinking them. If people are constantly saying: You’re a good man, but your family is completely worthless. Or: You’re nothing at all like your cousins, they really are a nasty lot – then it’s easy to get infected with the general opinion.

There are a few moments when the reader’s hopes are raised: a few people willing to help him, or the moment he walks across the Belgian border. But surely it’s not a spoiler to say that all his attempts to escape are thwarted, and that he ends up in a downward spiral of aimless wandering – self-destruction you might say… except that there was nothing much else that he could do. The destruction was forced upon him.

A compelling read and depiction of both individual and general suffering. A shattering reminder of a dark period of history and an entreaty for us to learn and do better in the future. So many sentences that should jump out at us as warnings not to dehumanise any group of people: ‘my character and my qualities are entirely unimportant… the headline decides. The content doesn’t matter.’

Reading Plans for the Rest of 2021

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)

#GermanLitMonth Julia Franck’s tale of parental abandonment

Very nearly the end of the month and this may be the only German book I get to finish. Great plans fail in the execution, don’t they? However, I’ve been watching the first series of Babylon Berlin on NowTV, so I feel immersed in that period, almost as if I’d participated in the Berlin Alexanderplatz readalong.

Julia Franck’s strangely entitled Die Mittagsfrau (The Noon Witch, apparently after a Slavic myth) has been translated as either The Blind Side of the Heart in the UK (translated by Anthea Bell) or The Blindness of the Heart in the US (although still with Anthea Bell as a translator). Like in her other novels, Franck does a fantastic job of blending the personal with the historical, showing how we are all shaped by the political and social forces of the times we live in… and yet are often unaware of them, so self-absorbed are we.

Helene and her sister Martha are mixed-race (their mother is Jewish and their father Aryan German) but barely aware of the fact. Their father dies as a result of his wounds in the First World War and their mother becomes increasingly more depressed and erratic, with severe hoarding instincts, proving utterly unable to take care of the girls. They both hope to study medicine, but end up working as nurses in Weimar Berlin. Their brief period of freedom, fun and partying soon comes to an end. Helene endures heartbreak and marriage to an unforgiving man who feels she owes him because he faked ‘pure descent’ papers for her so she could continue working under the Nazis. It is a picture of the average person in wartime Germany, the great complicit masses, who were not heroic, who were disturbed by what they see around them, yet unable to do or say anything for fear of endangering their own lives.

What I liked most about this book is that it’s not judgmental or preachy at all – it just shows the unbearable sadness of a life marked by great upheavals, and how all we can hope for is to survive, albeit with huge scars. After the initial fireworks in the opening (more about that in the next paragraph), the piling on of disappointments, traumas and horrors both great and small is done subtly, as gradually as it happens in real life.

It has been grim reading, so I struggled with it especially in the chapters depicting the sisters’ childhood, but it’s not relentlessly dark. There are some comic moments (although always with a dark undertone). For instance, when Brecht’s Threepenny Opera literally makes Helene throw up. Or Helene’s wedding night, with her new husband very keen to show off his sexual prowess. But it’s the small, perfectly observed scenes where private life is suddenly confronted with the bigger picture that are most memorable: hearing her son sing a taunting song about Jews that everyone at school was repeating; seeing her mother in a mental asylum and having to pretend she is not related to her; going mushroom hunting in the forest and realising that the horrible stench coming from the train that is standing on the tracks there is not bovine or pig dung.

Everyone who has read the book (or who refuses to read the book) will refer to the shocking prologue, in which a mother abandons her 7 year old son on a station platform. We know from the start that it is 1945, that they are Germans trying to evacuate from Stettin (now part of Poland), that the father has abandoned the family and that the mother is a nurse who has been raped by Soviet soldiers, but it takes the rest of the book to examine just how the heart of a young girl has hardened, how desperate and hopeless she feels and how she arrives at the conclusion that sending her son alone back to relatives in Germany is the best thing she can do for him. In a very poignant epilogue, we also see how things have turned out for the son and what lasting effect this has had on him.

I’ve had a heated debate with a Russian friend who condemns Marina Tsvetaeva for leaving her daughers in an orphanage for a while during the Moscow famine during the Civil War in Russia 1917-1920. Her younger daughter died and my friend argues that no mother should ever abandon her children, even if she thinks that is what’s best for them at the time. But I think it’s easy to be judgemental when you are not living through such extreme times. We’ll never know for sure how we would react if we were faced with similar desperate circumstances. I also abhor the double standard: men have often abandoned their families for far less reason, while women are vilified if they do it.

This is not to say that we should admire or like Helene. No one emerges happy and pristine from the messiness of life lived with far fewer choices than most of us can imagine having nowadays. It is a wonderful metaphor for Germany, but like all good books, it has a truly universal message. I think of those parents who reluctantly, with broken hearts and with their last desperate reserves of money, send their children abroad to escape horrible wars and persecution in their own homes, without knowing if they will ever end up in a safe place or if they will ever see them again…

WWWednesday, 13 Nov 2019

Roughly once a month, I manage to take part in this weekly Wednesday meme, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words

The three Ws are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

However, thinking how my reading always reflects either my current preoccupations or moods or even the things I am running away from… I thought I would extend this into a kind of ‘diary’. What am I reading and why? What do I expect to get out of it? What is my state of mind as I read books simultaneously, especially when they contradict each other?

Currently reading:

For #GermanLitMonth I decided to do my own personal Germans in November reading session. However, for some reason I’m not feeling it this year and am struggling to get any reading done in German. Perhaps the anniversary of 30 years since the fall of the Wall made me melancholy rather than celebratory, as I thought of all the missed opportunities and how since then the world seems to have become more divided than united.

Perhaps it’s the choice of books.

Julia Franck’s Die Mittagsfrau is an exciting enough read – it starts with the abandonment of a child by his mother, but then we go back in time to find out the mother’s back story. Let down by family and fatherland, hurt by trauma and inability to relate to others after repeated disappointments, the book does not excuse the mother, but certainly makes her three-dimensional rather than a monster. I am enjoying the crisp language and lyrical but unsentimental descriptions of childhood impressions, but oh my goodness, the subject matter is grim!

The second German book is also about a mother but we jump forward to 1967, with Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries. We follow Gesine Cresspahl, a fairly recent German immigrant to the States, for a year in her life. Each diary-like entry contains some headlines from the New York Times, which she likes to buy and read every single day, but also thoughts on her current life with her young daughter (who is becoming more American every day) as well as her family history during the rise of the National Socialists. I initially joined the weekly readalong organised at Mookse and Gripes, but have fallen behind. I expected the ‘one entry a day’ reading method to be completely appropriate, but perhaps it is too little and makes me feel too detached from the book? On the other hand, when I try to binge read, it is such a dense work that I risk suffering indigestion.

By way of contrast, I am really enjoying the third book I am reading at the moment. Bogdan Teodorescu’s Nearly Good Lads is political crime fiction with a great satirical edge. Although it takes place in Romania (and is sharp and witty, making fun of certain Romanian foibles and political or social scandals), there is a lot there for readers in other countries to relate and enjoy. I am very excited about potentially translating this book in the near future!

Finished reading:

I’ve been a bit slow with my reading, since I had a lot of paperwork to look at and a lot of emotional stress with going to court for the divorce settlement last week. There was an initial moment of euphoria on Wednesday evening, when I thought that at last everything was finished and I could move on. However, just like Brexit, this is just the end of the beginning, there will still be many things to sort out over the next few months, plus I am beginning to wonder whether it was worth fighting so hard to keep the house.

Appropriately enough, the book I read last week was a domestic thriller by Bogdan Teodorescu called Liberty. A successful female doctor, married to a surgeon, has a book dedicated to her, although she doesn’t know the author at all. Worse still, the book, though fictional, seems to mirror her life but accuses her of being a slut and comes close to pornography in many instances. It is so accurate in some of the non-sexual descriptions that even those closest to her, family and friends, even her husband, believe that she has indeed done those dubious deeds. So who is out to destroy her reputation and why? An indictment also of the macho Romanian society, where a married man is encouraged to have multiple affairs if he is successful, while a woman is shamed for it.

Reading next:

I realise that all of my German reads are rather dark and melancholy, so I might have to delve in something more cheery in the immediate future. The bright yellow cover of The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao by Brazilian writer Martha Batalha (transl. Eric M.B. Becker) attracted me, as did the story of a talented musician turned housewife who attempts to introduce a bit of fun and creativity into her humdrum life and finds her long-lost sister in the process. I believe there is a film adaptation too, which won the Un certain regard prize in Cannes this year, although it seems to be more haunting in depiction of female resilience than the comic delight I am hoping for.

German Lit Month: Eva Menasse


I was going to do far, far better for German Literature Month, which is always one of the reading highlights of my year. But alas, this is only the second book I get to review, after stretching the definition a bit for Fred Uhlman’s Reunion.

I first came across Eva Menasse in an anthology of Austrian literature entitled Vienna Tales. I wanted to read more but her massive family saga about a Viennese family (entitled Vienna) seemed a bit too long. So I was delighted to find the slightly less intimidating book Quasikristalle when I visited Berlin, where Menasse now lives. 

Quasicrystals are structures which are ordered but not periodic. They fill all available space but lack translational symmetry – in other words, the patterns do not match if reproduced or rotated. If we use this as a metaphor for a fictional character, we can say that this book allows us to see a woman, Xane Molin, from all angles, enabling us to get a composite but confused picture of her, since all of the different viewpoints contradict each other. Perhaps that is all we can ever hope to understand of ourselves and others – an incomplete picture, an approximation of identity, or guesswork? Or perhaps over time our characteristics change so much, that we can never fully grasp ourselves entirely, can only offer a snapshot at a certain point in time?

Xane seems to share some biographical elements with Menasse herself: a Viennese transplanted abroad, marriage to an older man, living in a blended family, successful career. Yet there is little attempt to present her in a favourable light. Instead, we see a complicated, contradictory, difficult and garrulous woman. There are 14 different points of view ordered chronologically, but only one of them is Xane herself, right in the middle, soon after she has given birth to her son after several miscarriages. Before and after that moment in time, we see Xane as a schoolchild, a student on a trip to Auschwitz, a tenant, a sister’s friend, a patient, a helpful chance encounter on the street that might lead to infidelity, a stepmother, a boss, a daughter, an old friend, a person glimpsed from a window and finally an ageing mother who refuses to conform to expectations.

What is striking about the book, however, is that Xane is most often not the heroine of each of these vignettes. Each character telling the story is so preoccupied with their own life that they often don’t have the time or the inclination to think deeply about Xane (unless they are falling in love with her or fighting with her over something). In several of the vignettes she makes such a tangential appearance that you might miss her if you blink.

But that’s OK, because she is not the most interesting thing about this book. Her life is scattered with the usual vicissitudes and triumphs as anyone else’s. She is as prone to jump to conclusions about people as others are to misjudge her. What I enjoyed far more were the descriptions of all the other people whose lives have come within Xane’s orbit, however briefly. Their petty concerns, their selfish pursuits, their idealism giving way to pragmatism, their disappointments – it all felt very relatable. Above all, I enjoyed the sly digs at the age-old rivalry between Austrians and Germans. A disgruntled German employee muses about the ‘all mouth and no content’ Austrian style and considers himself marginalised by the ‘Viennese mafia’ in the workplace. Meanwhile, the Austrians consider the ‘Piefke’ (nickname for the Germans) too staid, ambitious, corporate.

All in all, a fun, easy read, giving some pause for thought, but not a particularly memorable masterpiece. Still, I think it would do quite well if it were translated into English and certainly thought it was better than the exceedingly popular French writers such as Guillaume Musso or Katherine Pancol.  

German Literature Month: Fred Uhlman

Fred Uhlman: Reunion

I am linking this to the German Literature Month initiative, which has been run so successfully for 8 years now as a collaboration between Lizzy and Caroline. Yet it is a rather odd one to include here. Although Fred Uhlman was German, he emigrated from Germany in 1933 (just like his protagonist) and wrote this book in English. Yet its theme is very German and the author’s nostalgia for the landscapes of Württemberg and for a defunct way of life (and innocence) is so evident, that I do think it fits here.

It is a very slim volume, almost a short story, about the friendship between Hans Schwarz, son of a respected local doctor, and aristocratic newcomer to the school, Konradin von Hohenfels. Dazzled by the sophistication of the newcomer and the effortlessly golden lifestyle he represents, Hans and his initial hero worship harks back to other male friendships, portrayed in Brideshead Revisited or Remembrance of Things Past. Yet, with its sense of mourning over a past that can never be recovered, and with the conclusion that good and bad live together in a person, however heroic they might initially seem and however much we love them, it reminds me most of Le Grand Meaulnes.

For one brief year Hans and Konradin become inseparable, against all expectations, for this is 1932 in Germany and one is Jewish, the other very Aryan indeed. The author sums up the differences between them in his very concise, spare style, leaving so much to be imagined by the reader.

Who was I to talk to him? In which of Europe’s ghettos had my ancestors been huddled when Frederick von Hohenstaufen gave Anno von Hohenfels his bejewelled hand? What could I, son of a Jewish doctor, grandson and great-grandson of a Rabbi, and of a line of small merchants and cattle dealers, offer this golden-haired boy whose very name filled me with such awe?

And yet their friendship thrives, as they discuss their coin collections, debate philosophy, hike up and down the region, shyly admit to fancying certain girls, and recite from their favourite poet Hölderlin (incidentally, their favourite poem by him is also my favourite, which I learnt by heart at much the same age as the main characters and yet refers to middle age). There is perhaps a slight hint that they are aware of a social chasm between them: Hans is ashamed of the way his parents are overly impressed by his new friend’s titles, while Konradin never seems to invite Hans into his home when his parents are around.

Hitler and Fascism still seem like a joke or a temporary madness that no one is willing to take seriously. Hans’ father is so firmly assimilated in his German home that he sends a Zionist fundraiser packing. He speaks for many of the German and Austrian Jews of the period.

To claim Palestine after two thousand years made no more sense to him than the Italians claiming Germany because it was once occupied by the Romans. It could only lead to endless bloodshed… And anyway what had he, a Stuttgarter, to do with Jerusalem?

When the Zionist mentioned Hitler… my father said: …’I know my Germany. This is a temporary illness, something like measles, which will pass as soon as the economic situation improves. Do you really believe that the compatriots of Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Beethoven will fall for this rubbish?’

Fred Uhlman

But they do. A lesson from history for us all. The ending is incredibly poignant, yet very spare stylistically. This is certainly not a writer who piles on adjectives or effusions, which perhaps makes this ‘typical’ story all the more memorable. Uhlman was a painter, and like Tove Jansson, also a painter, he knows how to convey just enough with words to build that picture in our mind.