#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.

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.

 

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.