Who’s Sorry Now? #GermanLitMonth

Zoran Drvenkar: Sorry

I’ve just spent ten minutes writing, erasing and rewriting the first sentence of this review. I still can’t quite make up my mind about this book. There were parts of it which appealed to me: the setting, a few (very few) of the characters (Tamara, Wolf and the lovely elderly couple living opposite them), some passages of great power, anger and insight. But there were downsides too: the graphic violence and descriptions of paedophilia, being in the head of a remorseless criminal, characters you could not really care for (even if you felt sorry for some of them), the deliberate confusion of points of view to make the story more exciting.

It all starts rather too slowly for what then descends into a race against time kind of thriller. We hear a little too much about how Kris lost his job and found his calling in apologising for others. We spend far too long in the company of Tamara and her sister, then watch her and Frauke shopping to cook dinner to cheer up their friend Kris. I’m not sure what we have to gain by getting to know the back story of Wolf’s doomed love affair with a junkie. The back stories of the four friends are too long and irrelevant for what the book turns out to be. The only back story which does count is that of the killer – and that is given to us in dribs and drabs – rightfully so, as it heightens the tension.

The premise of the book is really appealing: these four friends in their late 20s, who thought they’d have made a success of their lives in Berlin by now, decide to start their own company and offer apologies for companies or individuals who have wronged people (unfair dismissal, bullying, etc.). Soon they have a roaring business and a long waiting list. Apparently, people are willing to pay good sums of money to cleanse their conscience. But then they end up in a house to apologise to a woman whom they find murdered and hung on the wall (I told you it was graphic). The murderer (their client) threatens that he will harm their families if they don’t clean up the mess and send him proof of it. And that’s when things derail and they all start behaving irrationally, not to say foolishly.

Old villas on the Wannsee in Berlin, the setting for much of the book.

The motivations are often puerile and random, and there is something of the grotesque about certain situations (the repeated attempts at burying the body, for example, has a farcical quality reminiscent of frenetic silent comedies). Then the tone changes and there is real menace or darkness, as well as frequent moments of sadness and despair. The tone veers too wildly from one to the next, it feels like the author is not quite in control of the narrative voice. Which, of course, isn’t helped by the fact that it also swoops from first to second to third person. Add to that the final bit of clever clogs-iness: the ‘before’ and ‘after’ timeline and lots of foreshadowing and commentary by an omniscient narrator – and you will find me well and truly irked!

So, overall, although it was fun (in a gruesome, reading-through-your-fingers kind of way), it was not the most memorable of reading experiences for #GermanLitMonth. I have bought his second novel Du (You) though, which is written entirely in the second person, because I have every confidence in the opinions of FictionFan and Margot Kinberg.

 

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Elfriede Jelinek: In den Alpen #GermanLitMonth

Like her contemporary Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek is both revered and hated in almost equal measure in her homeland Austria. She is a Nobel Prize winning author, a beautiful writer and unafraid to experiment and tackle challenging themes, but she is also a sharp critic of the hypocrisy in Austrian society, its xenophobia and its unquestioning acceptance of Catholic authoritarianism. So an inconvenient thorn in the side of the establishment and the reputation of Austrian ‘Gemütlichkeit’ (warm, friendly, cheery mood). As recent election results show, her critique is entirely justified and the dark side of the Austrian soul is never too far from its more hospitable and charming surface.

In her volume consisting of three plays In den Alpen (In the Alps), Jelinek digs out the mountain of bones and darkness upon which resides that idyllic Alpine landscape her home country prides itself on. Not for nothing do the Austrians regularly refer to their country as the Alpenrepublik (a term which could apply to Switzerland too, but the Swiss like to think of themselves as a confederation).

Kaprun dam and mountain railway are part of the famous Salzkammergut tourist region in Austria. The first play entitled In the Alps looks at Kaprun as the scene of one of the greatest mountain disasters ever in Austria – in Nov 2000 155 people lost their lives in the railway tunnel when it caught fire, most of the victims being skiers and tourists going to visit the glacier. This play shows the contrast and eternal fight between technology and the environment, mass tourism and a healthy respect for the dangers inherent in nature. (See recent articles about not being able to see the lonesome beauty of Iceland or Peru because of the crowds of tourists). On the other hand, Jelinek also refers to the fact that Jews were excluded from the mountain-tourism associations in the early 20th century – as if they would taint the purity of the clean crisp mountain air. There is also the unspoken contrast between the pure Heimat (homeland) of the Alps, contrasting with the decadence of Vienna (full of Jews), a dichotomy which clearly influenced young Hitler as he was growing up.

The other longer play Das Werk (The Work) is about building the huge dam and power station, started in the 1920s and finished in the late 1950s with Marshall Plan funding. Before that, it had a bit of an inglorious past, with internment camp labour under the Nazis and later Russian POWs, many of whom died in avalanches and because of negligence in safety procedures. These two plays examine egos, ambition, exclusion and exploitation, natural and man-made catastrophes and the small, patient work of rebuilding. They are perhaps easier to read rather than to see performed: there is little action or dialogue – rather, it is more like a collection of long oratorios or tirades against industrial, political and military powers.

The plays have been performed in German (the first was premiered at the Munich Kammerspiele, the second at the Burgtheater in Vienna) but have not been translated into English. I found the volume by accident on the open shelves in the German studies reading room at the Senate House library (and read it there during my lunch breaks). An unplanned but lucky German literature month find!

 

Arthur Schnitzler: Late Fame #GermanLitMonth

Arthur Schnitzler is both fortunate and unfortunate in being very closely identified with his home town of Vienna. On the one hand, it means that publishers and readers think they know what he stands for, but on the other hand it has meant that he doesn’t travel quite so well beyond its borders. I grew up with him as part of my upbringing in Vienna, but I was not surprised that his star went into decline abroad (like Stefan Zweig), because he doesn’t actually fit in that well with the clichés people have of Vienna as the city of wine, women and song.

Schnitzler never quite belonged to the stuffy bourgeoisie of the Ringstrassenpalais times (1870-80) although he was born into that world, with his father being a prominent doctor. However, his parents were of Jewish and Hungarian origins, so he probably was made to feel that he didn’t fit in quite 100%.  Nor was he quite the poor Bohemian living a ropey existence in the Depression era of the 1930s, like Joseph Roth. Yet he certainly pierced the gilded Jugendstil facades to show the agony and self-doubt underneath. In pre-WW1 Vienna, it was fashionable to be disenchanted and morose despite the high standard of living.  It was the last dying gasp of the great empire, much like the death throes of the Roman Empire: the time of decadence (Schnitzler was often accused of pornographic obsession), fetishes and neuroses. It was the time when the psychoanalysis of Freud and agonised silhouettes of Schiele coexisted with the luxurious, settled art of Gustav Klimt and the genteel debates of the well-established café culture.

Schnitzler’s analysis goes deeper than fashion: he trained as a doctor himself and that enables him to understand psychology better than many others. He uses a fine scalpel to dissect emotions, as well as being an early innovator of stream of consciousness techniques. His prose is always limpid, clear, elegant, witty, yet with a certain easy colloquial charm and cadence that is typically Austrian – like characters from The Fledermaus. There is certainly something of the humour and lightness of that operetta in this novella Später Ruhm, with a strong dash of satire and piercing of egos.

Eduard Saxenberger is a mild elderly civil servant, quite content with his bachelor lifestyle and regular evenings out at the local pub. Back in his youth he had briefly flirted with poetry and even published a volume of poems, which sank without a trace. Until, that is, he receives a visit from a young poet, who is part of a literary circle who meets daily at one of the famous Viennese cafés. To his astonishment, Saxenberger discovers that these young (and not quite so young) writers venerate him on the basis of that rediscovered volume. He lets himself be seduced by the flattery and idealism of the group of artists and dares to hope for some late fame for himself… but, needless to say, he soon finds out that there is indeed such a thing as too late.

This is a merciless parody of wannabe writers and actors, and many critics believe that Schnitzler made quite sharp references to several of his contemporaries, such as Hugo von Hoffmansthal, Peter Altenberg, the actress Adele Sandrock but also himself. It also rings true of many writing groups you might have encountered, where egos are greater than actual output, where artists like to complain of being misunderstood by their contemporaries even though their art is mediocre.  There are some very funny statements such as, when trying to select which of Saxenberger’s poems might best fit the printed programme: ‘all lyrical poetry is about morning moods or evening moods… or night moods’. A joy to read, but tinged with melancholy – perhaps an awareness on the part of Schnitzler where he might have ended up if he hadn’t given up practising medicine. A warning to myself, as well!

Coffee house in Vienna.

This novella was recently rediscovered in his archives, which had been smuggled out of the country after his death during WW2 (when his published works were burnt by the Nazis).  He wrote it in the early 1890s, towards the beginning of his career, but was unwilling to cut it into 8 parts for serial publication in a magazine, so he put it in a drawer and forgot about it.  It’s amazing that a young writer was able to convey so well the discontent and loss of hope of an elderly writer.

As an aside, when Schnitzler was training to be a surgeon, he studied for a year in 1888 in London. His uncle and aunt lived in Honor Oak, and he himself lived in a boarding house in South Kensington. He was not that impressed with the rather dry English types he met in the boarding house, disliked the weather and complained about the lack of cafés and places to eat outside in London. He also remarked that nobody seemed to just go for a walk through town, everyone was just rushing to and fro – sounds familiar!

I’m linking this up to the wonderful initiative of German literature month. You can find many more reviews on this page.

Remember, Remember the Month of November…

… is German Lit Month!

When I wrote up the reading plans for November in my last post, it completely slipped my mind, so focused was I on #1968Club. Then I saw Tony Malone tweeting about it and I realised that of course I have to participate.  I have done so for the past few years and it’s always a pleasure to make a bit of an indent in my rather large pile of books in German.

I will be modest about how much I can read (and will probably have other things to review), so I will list a mere four:

Herta Müller: Herztier

A group of friends try to stand up to Ceausescu’s regime in Romania, and end up being placed under surveillance. Can friendship and love survive when suspicions and betrayals become the norm? Can they escape all of that by moving abroad?

Arthur Schnitzler: Später Ruhm

Schnitzler’s lost novella about an elderly man who finds literary success far too late in life.

Zoran Drevenkar: Sorry

Four young unemployed Berliners hit upon the idea to create a company which sells apologies—apologise, on a contract basis, for others’ misdeeds (firms laying off workers, managers abusing their employees etc.). But then one of their clients turns out to be a killer.

Thomas Willmann: Das finstere Tal

Heard this author talk about his debut novel in Lyon last year and could not resist it. A stranger comes to a remote mountain village, claiming to be a painter. The inhabitants are at first suspicious but are won over by his money. Then winter comes and the village is cut off from the rest of the world. And dead bodies start piling up.

But of course I am keeping my choices open: I might swerve and swoop on something else entirely from my shelves. Or even find new things in the library or in bookshops.

And on that note I just bought another book today which fits into this category. There was a historical research day and book fair at Senate House today and I couldn’t resist taking a peek and found Women in the Weimar Republic by Helen Boak, published by the University of Manchester. I don’t think it will replace my favourite book about women in Germany during the Nazi regime, but it promises to be interesting. Just look at that cover!

Of course, German Lit Month is to celebrate translations of books from German and not specifically books in German, and it also celebrates books from Austria and Switzerland, so do join in if you have anything suitable. And do check out the reviews that others will be posting on the site hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

#GermanLitMonth: Robert Seethaler – Der Trafikant

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It is 1937 and 17 year of Franz Huchel leaves his beloved mother and the little village on the Attersee in the Salzkammergut (an idyllic area of Austria) to come to Vienna to train to be a tobbaconist, i.e. a seller of newspapers, cigars and other small merchandise in the formerly ubiquitous Tabak-Trafik stores of the Austrian capital.

tabaktraficOtto Trsnjek, his new boss, is a bit grumpy and demanding, but then he did lose a leg in the war and he hates politics because of its impact on the cigar industry. Franz is naive but means well and struggles to learn more about tobacco and the newspapers. He is fascinated by one of the regulars, Professor Sigmund Freud, famous by then all over Austria. As Franz sets out to discover the world of women and affairs of the heart, he asks Freud for advice, which leads to some of the funniest scenes of the book. He tells Freud that he plans to read all of his books, to which the elderly professor replies [my translation rather than the official one, with some cutting of the text]:

‘Haven’t you got anything better to do that to read the dusty old tomes of an old man?’

‘Like what, Professor?’

‘You’re asking me? You’re the young one here. Go out in the fresh air. Take a trip. Have fun. Find a girl.’

Franz looked at him wide-eyed… ‘A girl? If only it were so easy…’

‘Well, most people have done it.’

‘That doesn’t mean that I will.’

‘And why wouldn’t you, of all people?’

‘Where I come from, people know something about timbering or how to eke money out of the summer tourists. They don’t know a thing about love!’

‘That’s normal. Nobody knows anything about love.’

der-trafikant-robert-seethaler-1So this is a coming of age story, but given the setting and time period, you just can feel in your bones that it’s not going to end well. This sense of doom permeates the whole book, although there are plenty of light, amusing moments. Seethaler is a great storyteller, and the book is filled with memorable characters.

Franz pursues his love for a round-faced Bohemian girl through the Prater amusement park and the whole city, but is soon disappointed, while Freud proves to be no help whatsoever in affairs of the heart. However, he does take the old man’s advice on another matter: every morning he writes out his dreams from the night before and sticks them in the shop window. This attracts clients: some of them can relate to those strange dreams, but it leaves many more of them shaking their heads. The symbols of hatred, the day-to-day bullying or ignoring or complaining by the neighbours starts to build up. The shop front is daubed in pigs’ blood for daring to serve Jewish customers. Dr. Freud decides to leave the country. And Otto and his disciple… well, you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly what happens to them. The ending is perhaps just slightly sentimental, yet feels completely right.

Of course, with my current obsession about relationships between parents and children, I particularly adored the exchange of postcards and letters between Franz and his mother: such sweet, warm exchanges, yet very no-nonsense too. A mother all too aware that her (still) teenager is embarrassed by her, shows a lot of patience and understanding when he falls in love, but who insists: ‘Stop calling me ‘Mother’ in your letters, I’m your Mama and that’s that!’

tobacconistGood news: following the success of A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, this other novel of his has just recently been translated into English as The Tobacconist, transl. by Charlotte Collins, published by Picador. Bad news: the cover shows some random Central European townscape, rather than the Votivskirche/Währinger Straße area of Vienna, which provides the backdrop for the story.

See below a more suitable suggestion, although probably from 1910s.

From Vienna.at website
From Vienna.at website

 

#GermanLitMonth: Anna Katharina Hahn

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For Translation Thursday and for German Lit Month, here is a German book which has the relationship between parents and children at its very heart. Clearly, although I bought this a while ago, it’s a subject which continues to rumble through all of my recent reading.

anna-katharina-hahn-kurzere-tageAfter 2 volumes of short stories, Anna Katharina Hahn published her first novel Kurzere Tage (Shorter Days) in 2009. It was highly praised and apparently quite a successful debut. In many respects, it maintains the fragmentary, vignette-like character of a collection of short stories, albeit about the same street in Stuttgart, neighbours who all know each other (more or less). The author examines the cracks in the façade of bourgeois families in a leafy neighbourhood.

Judith is one of those Yummy Mummies who smotes everyone else with judgemental observations: she bakes cakes and doesn’t allow her children to watch TV or play with plastic toys. She is a convert to the therapeutic benefits of cleaning (without the help of a vacuum cleaner) and loves her little routines. Of course, she masks her breath after an occasional cigarette with a mint, and she doesn’t let her husband know that she is popping pills in order to function. Leonie is a working mother whose husband seems to be putting in far too many overtime hours, and often loses her patience with her offspring. Marco is a youngster in danger of turning into a criminal, neglected by his mother and her latest boyfriend. The last POV we encounter is Luise, devoted wife to her beloved Wenzel, the oldest inhabitant in that block of flats, who remembers the deprivation but also the youthful romanticism of the post-war years.

In the hands of a gifted writer, these rather stereotypical characters could find heart and come to life.  And perhaps Anna Katharina Hahn is a gifted writer, she has won plenty of prizes and there are plenty of satirical observations and social critique bubbling away underneath the calm surface. The interaction between mothers and children (or the lack thereof) is perhaps the most successful aspect of the novel to me. But I nearly gave up halfway through the book because the minutiae of the description of daily life and household objects was really overwhelming. Nothing was happening, there was no interaction between any of the characters in whose POV we were slipping, and we kept moving from Judith to Leonie then back to Judith again, and it didn’t seem to be leading anywhere. What kept me going was sheer bloody-mindedness and refusal to acknowledge I could have wasted 9 euros plus P&P to have the book shipped over from Germany. It did improve in the end – and the young boy and old woman’s scenes were particularly affecting. However, it was a lesson in how NOT to start a novel.

Summary of November Reading

German Literature Month took up most of my reading time this month, with a pronounced leaning towards crime fiction:

  1. Julia Franck: West (transl. Anthea Bell)
  2. Friedrich Durrenmatt: Der Verdacht (Suspicion)
  3. Alexander Lernet-Holenia: I Was Jack Mortimer (transl. Ignat Avsey)
  4. Jutta Profijt: Morgue Drawer Four (transl. Erick Macki)
  5. Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord (One Man, One Murder)
  6. Stefan Zweig: Meisternovellen

Of course, there were some other crime books which caught my eye:

  1. David Lagercrantz: Fall of Man in Wilmslow (transl. George Goulding)
  2. Nicci French: Friday on My Mind
  3. Helen Fitzgerald : Viral (to be reviewed on CFL)
  4. Gregoire Carbasse: L’Helvete Underground
  5. Jari Järvelä: The Girl and the Bomb
  6. Mary Kubica: Pretty Baby
  7. SJ Watson: Second Life

11 out of 13 so far have been crime/psychological thriller type novels, but I did also read some other ‘genres’, namely:

  1. Stanislaw Lam: Solaris (transl. Bill Johnston) – science-fiction
  2. Kim Thuy: Ru – Quebecois-Vietnamese poetic literature about immigration
  3. Finally, this childhood favourite off my son’s bookshelves: Jules Verne’s Voyage to the Centre of the Earth, which I read for the first time in French.

So, a lot of reading, far less reviewing, a mix of languages and 6 out of 16 books by women authors (I’m surprised, I expected it to a higher proportion). I travelled to Canada, Berlin, Bern, Vienna, Frankfurt and an ocean liner on the Atlantic; London, Chicago, Wilmslow, Magaluf, Geneva and Kotka in Finland; finally, Vietnam, space and the centre of the earth. What more could one ask for?

For December, I am still on track to blast a corridor through my virtual mounds, a special effort to clear the cobwebs off my Netgalley shelf in particular.

My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month is Jakob Arjouni. My favourite overall read: Julia Franck (sorry, Stefan Zweig, but you were a re-read anyway).