#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

 

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#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).

Stefan Zweig: Novellas and Short Stories

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Some upcoming deadlines means that this may well be my last contribution to German literature month. I have enjoyed it greatly and will continue to read the reviews by other participants (and, of course, I will continue to read German literature throughout the year – in fact, I’ve just ordered two books for Christmas).

Stefan Zweig is an old favourite, but it’s been nearly two decades since I last read any of his work. I reread the ‘Chess’ novella and ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’, but I think it was the first time I read ‘Incident on Lake Geneva’ and ‘The Invisible Collection’. It’s these four I want to talk about.

The novella has been filmed many times. This is a German version from 1960, from cinema.de
The novella has been filmed many times. This is a German version from 1960, from cinema.de

Chess‘ is famous for being the only work openly addressing the interrogation methods and political persecution by the Gestapo. It has an interesting structure of a story within a story – or rather two stories within a story, as we also find out more about the background of the reigning world champion in chess, Czentowic – which serves perhaps to create a bit of distance and make the grim tale somewhat more bearable. (It did remind me of the structure of ‘Wuthering Heights’.) It was also the last complete work Zweig wrote before committing suicide and perhaps best conveys his feeling of hopelessness, his loss of idealism and how he felt the world of materialism (in the person of Czentowic) was winning over. Zweig commented at some point how he felt ‘so much of human dignity has gone lost during this century’. Most surprising of all, Zweig himself was not a good chess player at all – but clearly a keen observer of other players.

Joan Fontaine in the film version, from cinema.de
Joan Fontaine in the film version, from cinema.de

By way of contrast, ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman‘ struck me as a bit overblown and sentimental. It throws everything at us: passionate love, undying devotion, a child’s death and self-sacrifice. Yet the end rang true: that the writer to whom this is all addressed (the writer who is supposed to be such a sensitive, empathetic person) still cannot remember the woman whose life he has so dramatically influenced.

Incident on Lake Geneva’ is a very short tale which can be read allegorically. A naked man is fished out of Lake Geneva: he turns out to be a Russian POW who has escaped from camp. He is wild and unkempt, can barely make himself understood, but a hotel-owner who speaks some Russian finally manages to communicate with him. He was trying to swim eastwards towards Russia, which he thought was at the other end of the lake. When he is told that Russia is much farther away, that the country he was fighting for no longer exists, the Tsar is dead, the war not quite over and that he is not free to return home until he completes a lengthy bureaucratic process, he chooses to drown. A heartbreaking story of losing one’s identity and sense of belonging.

unsichbaresammlungThe last one I read was my favourite ‘The Invisible Collection‘: an art dealer visits the home of an old man, his father’s best client, in the hope of getting some valuable sketches and prints from his notable collection. But it turns out that the old man’s wife and daughter have sold the priceless sketches in order to cope with rampant inflation, relying on the fact that the collector is now blind and can no longer tell the real from the fake. A beautiful, moving scene follows, in which the collector leafs through his collection and describes each of his beloved pieces in detail, while the art dealer sees the feeble copies but tries to keep the illusion intact. This is a wonderful story about the power of imagination and passion, the joy that is within us rather than in anything we possess. Ultimately, an uplifting and hopeful story.

 

I Was Jack Mortimer

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JackMortimerA strange little number this time round, somewhat reminiscent of ‘The Third Man’, by an Austrian author I had never heard of before. Pushkin Vertigo, the new imprint from Pushkin Press, seems to specialise in little-known, unusual mystery books. Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer (transl. by Ignat Avsey) is no exception. Published in 1933, it’s a book balancing between faded past and uncertain future, aristocratic and working-class Vienna.

There are clear parallels with German Expressionist films – Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ comes to mind – and early American gangster films, with ambiguous and unreliable main protagonists, cold femmes fatales and lack of clarity about who – if anyone – is on the side of the good and the just. Dashiel Hammett’s sparse, hard-boiled style must have been an influence on Lernet-Holenia. It sounds like his work is derivative, but it has its very own quirky originality and goes in unexpected directions.

Ferdinand Sponer is a thirty-year old taxi driver with upwardly mobile aspirations. Having read the cover blurb, I was expecting a dead body in his cab from the word go, rather than a longish introduction in which he moons around after one of his passengers, a beautiful and haughty young lady of aristocratic descent. His behaviour might best be described as stalking, despite the fact that he has a long-suffering girlfriend, Marie, who takes good care of him (one of the typical Viennese ‘süßes Mädl’, a good-natured working-class girl more sexually available than her bourgeois counterpart, who frequently crops up in art and literature as an object to be used and discarded). So by no means a likeable person. Nor does author give us a great deal of insight into the character’s psyche: we can only deduce Ferdinand’s personality and thoughts from his actions, which are described in minute detail, with almost forensic precision and coldness. Here’s how he reacts, for instance, when he discovers the dead body (when it finally does appear):

He edged backwards out of the cab, straightened up and struck his head hard against the top of the door frame. His cap fell forward over his face. He instinctively pushed it back with his forearm instead of with his blood-stained gloved hand. He turned around… He took a couple of slow steps, then three or four very quick ones. He pulled off his blood-stained gloves and threw them into the car. Closing his eyes momentarily, he slammed the rear door shut, then got in his seat, turned off the interior light and, closing his own door with his left hand, swung the car to the right and headed towards the policeman operating the traffic signals at the centre of the crossroads.

Scene from The Third Man, from filmcapsule.com
Scene from The Third Man, from filmcapsule.com

But, needless to say, he does not quite succeed in alerting the police. Instead, he gets sucked ever deeper into a dangerous game of concealing the body and impersonating the dead man. This isn’t a conventional detective story, though, for it’s not really about finding a killer or even about discovering how the man in the cab got shot without the driver noticing. It’s more of a mad race through the streets of Vienna by night, including a scene of confusion and paranoia in the hotel room, plus a longish, very cinematographic chase scene with Marie as the heroine. So a thriller with a mad caper thrown in for good measure, and a personal journey of awakening for the main protagonist. Not quite a noirish ending either.

I’m not quite sure what to think of it. I rather admire the ‘behaviourist’ style, although it does get more interiorised as Sponer gets more panicky. I would have liked perhaps something more obviously noir and downbeat, but of course I enjoyed the descriptions of driving around a grey, Novemberish Vienna. I also liked the sly digs at a city in which everyone is slightly dishonest and snobbish. All in all, this is an atmospheric recreation of Vienna between the two World Wars.

 

Julia Franck: West (transl. Anthea Bell)

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I received this book just in time for German Literature Month, from the fair hands (or post office) of Lizzy herself. Big thanks to Lizzy for a book which left a deep and unsettling impression.

WestI noticed many reviews on Goodreads stating that it was too depressing and bleak, an accusation also levied against Herta Müller, who also handles similar themes. Perhaps the problem is that there is no character readers can fully identify with: each one is flawed, ambiguous, makes us slightly uneasy. We get to hear in alternating chapters from scientist Nelly Senff, who escapes to the West with her two children; Krystyna, a Polish cellist who has given up her music, sold her instrument and moved her whole family to Germany to seek medical treatment for her brother; John Bird, the American CIA agent who hopes to further his career by unearthing Stasi spies; and Hans Pischke, an actor who was a political prisoner back in his native East Germany. Although each is narrated in first person, we never feel we completely understand the motivation of each protagonist. But then we get to see each character through the others’ eyes, which gives an interesting multi-faceted perspective, but also creates a distancing effect.

The daily humiliations and harassment the immigrants have to face, both inside the refugee camp and outside it, are described with blistering realism. The cramped conditions, the parcelling out of unwanted food, babies crying, couples quarrelling, suspicions and accusations of favouritism. In addition to all that, Nelly’s children are horribly bullied at school. There is a painful scene in the hospital with the doctors refusing to believe the son’s account of how he got beaten up, culminating with an even more cringeworthy scene when one of the bullies’ mother brings him to the hospital to apologise to Nelly’s son.

Finally, you also have an additional layer of humiliation from the gender perspective, as Nelly is an attractive young woman, while Krystyna is a fat middle-aged woman, and the men all around them feel entitled to make rude remarks about both. There are many other such memorable scenes, and on the whole the three refugees handle them all with a passivity and resignation which may infuriate some readers, but has probably allowed them to endure so much. Just occasionally, however, they break down and burst out, as Nelly does in the West German interrogation room. Or else they employ the ‘weapons of the weak’, as Hans does by refusing to thank the woman who hands out the weekly rations at the camp because:

I didn’t feel like heightening her sense of self-importance; there was far too much of it in her voice anyway.

This book reminded me of other books about immigration which I have read recently: Americanah and Die undankbare Fremde, which also discuss the heavy burden of expectations on the shoulders of ‘good’ immigrants. The host country expects immigrants to be grateful, fit in, accept everything unquestioningly, remain uncritical of their hosts, smile and be happy.

West German officials certainly don’t come out well from these exchanges. When Hans refuses to cooperate by informing about women who might be engaging in prostitution in the camp, his employment advisor lambasts him:

‘I just don’t get it… here you all are, you arrive without anything, without winter shoes, without a washing machine, without even clothes to put in a washing machine, without a roof over your heads, without a penny in your pockets, let alone a mark, you hold up your hands, you take what you want and turn down what you don’t, you make claims. That’s what you do.’

Author photo from Hochschule Rhein Main
Author photo from Hochschule Rhein Main

Well-meant efforts of help come across as patronising and misguided. The final Christmas party scene at the refugee centre is a perfect example, full of sardonic humour. And that’s what makes this book difficult to read, perhaps, and yet so topical during the current refugee crisis. We in the Western world mean well, yet for scarred and victimised individuals, we can come across as arrogant and ignorant. They then react in unexpected ways, which do not conform to our norms of  acceptable and understandable behaviour. So the misunderstanding, mutual dislike and suspicion grows between us.

How to resolve this? Short of making everyone experience a little of the fear, uncertainty and infantilisation which immigrants often encounter? Well, it will have to be books like this, both fictional and real-life accounts, which will hopefully keep our vein of compassion flowing and our sense of justice forever insatiate.

Side-note: Julia Franck’s family moved to West Germany when she was eight years old, and spent some time in a refugee camp, so this novel is based on personal experiences. I understand some of her other books are far more bleak, but this one had a fierce, scathing humour and sarcasm which made it bearable.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Der Verdacht (Suspicion)

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My first review this year for the always inspiring German Literature Month – see more reviews and recommendations here, including another review of Dürrenmatt by Jacqui.

The playwright at the age of two, from duerrenmatt.net
The playwright at the age of two, from duerrenmatt.net

I still find it hard to believe that Dürrenmatt was writing both this novel and its predecessor as a way of paying bills (for his wife’s hospitalisation, amongst other things). In fact, this one was written and published at a rapid pace, almost concurrently, in weekly installments in the populist newspaper Schweizer Beobachter. At the time he was also working on a play and living in rather cramped conditions with his small family in the house of his mother-in-law on the lake in Biel. Some of it was written in the hospital in Berne, where half of the action takes place.

Dürrenmatt was well-known for his anti-Nazi stance and for poking fun at his fellow countrymen’s supposed neutrality during the Second World War. Suspicion takes up where The Judge and His Hangman left off. Inspector Bärlach is in hospital recovering from an operation which has only managed to prolong his life by a year. His surgeon, Dr. Hungertobel, is also a friend and as they sit together chatting one day, the doctor thinks that he recognises an old classmate of his in a picture of a Nazi camp doctor known for his terrible atrocities. He quickly repudiates that idea, however, as his classmate spent the war years in Chile and even published articles in medical journals during that time. But the seeds of suspicion have been planted in Bärlach’s mind and this most intuitive and internalised of detectives embarks upon a personal investigation from his hospital bed.

There are similarities with Josephine Tey’s ‘The Daughter of Time’ in this set-up, but the stubborn Swiss inspector goes one step further. He persuades the reluctant Hungertobel to move him to convalesce in the sanatorium for wealthy people opened by the doctor he suspects of Nazi war crimes. This is when the story becomes much less of a straightforward investigation and takes on certain nightmarish, almost surreal qualities.

verdachtDürrenmatt’s playwriting skills come to the fore in this book. We have far fewer descriptions of landscapes and houses: nearly every scene takes place in an enclosed, indoor space, quite claustrophobic. Dialogues drive the plot and some of them even turn into serial monologues as first one character and then another spells out their view of the world, their beliefs and values (or lack thereof). As one of the protagonists says:

You’re silent. People nowadays don’t like answering the question: ‘What do you believe in?’ It’s become indecent to ask such a question. ‘We don’t like using big words’ is what we modestly tell ourselves, but most of all we don’t like giving an exact answer… (own translation)

With just a few deft strokes and excellent use of dialogue and humour, the author sketches some unforgettable character portraits: the stubborn and profoundly religious nurse from the Emmental (interesting aside: Dürrenmatt himself was born there as the son of a Protestant pastor); the assistant doctor Marlok, a former Communist who has lost all her ideals and needs daily doses of morphine to maintain her beauty and perhaps her conscience; the increasingly uneasy Dr. Hungertobel, who wants to believe the best of every one he encounters.

Above all, it is not just Bärlach’s life which is in danger, but also his soul, for the nihilistic voices taunt him and his belief in justice:

You’re the kind of fool who swears by mathematical truths. The law is the law. X = X … But the law isn’t the law: power is… Nothing is what it seems in this world, everything is a lie. When we say law, we mean power; and when we say power, we think of riches…

Dürrenmatt captures perfectly the spirit of his age, the immediate post-war years, with all the doubts, anxieties and dislike of any kind of ideology. As the world descended into the newly rigid battle trenches of the Cold War chaos, suspicion becomes a way of life. But how can humanity survive on nihilism alone?

So, not a conventional crime novel as such, but posing many moral dilemmas instead. Yet it still has puzzle-solving and tension (including a ‘race against the clock’) to please crime readers. The author takes up the theme of guilt and responsibility, revenge and justice again and again, including in his best-known plays Romulus the Great, The Visit and The Physicists.