I spent my entire Sunday morning in bed reading the book Dear Oxbridge: Love Letter to England by Nele Pollatscheck that a friend of mine sent me from Germany. I was actually going to be smug about ‘pre-reading’ for #GermanLitMonth for once, but in fact I’ll review it right away, because it says much more about the English than the Germans (yes, mainly the English rather than the British in general).
Since starting work, it’s been difficult to find the energy to write any blog posts in the evening, but I wanted to share with you the wonderful event with Herta Müller, organised by the University of Swansea (see their storification about the event on Twitter) and held at the British Library on Sunday 17th of September, in conversation with American translator, playwright and theatre director Philip Boehm.
I had heard of Herta Müller before she won the Nobel Prize, but had only read small fragments of her work. Of course I was proud that she was the only Romanian Nobel Prize winner in Literature, but the truth is she writes in German, so I shouldn’t really claim her. Nevertheless, I became enamoured with her eloquence in the moving acceptance speech about the power of language. I have since explored her work and her themes of oppression, submission, guilt and inner revolt resonate very powerfully with me.
In person she is as passionate about language and writing and storytelling as you’d expect, but also much funnier than you might think, given her sombre topics. She is delightfully modest and thoughtful and politically engaged as well. It’s safe to say that I fell completely under her spell and have found my role model. [Interestingly enough, although the Romanian Cultural Institute was involved in sponsoring the event and many Romanians were present, she is not very popular in Romania because she is so critical of life there under the Communist regime – much like Thomas Bernhard is criticised in his home country for ‘washing Austria’s dirty linen in public’.]
She read from Atemschaukel (translated as The Hunger Angel), which is the story of the German minorities in Romania who were deported to Soviet work camps after WW2, because they had fought on the side of the Nazis. In practice, the people deported were often not the men who had been soldiers, but those who were too young or too old to have been conscripted, or women. Herta’s mother had been in such a camp for 5 years and she spoke movingly about how old and strange her mother seemed, and what a morbidly intense relationship she had with food (she would always eat hurriedly, in standing, for instance, and chide her daughter for not peeling the potatoes thinly enough and wasting food). However, the main inspiration for the book was Oskar Pastior, a poet who was also deported after the war and pretty much invented afresh the German to describe the horrors of what he had experienced there. After working intensely with Pastior in preparation for co-writing a book, she was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006. For 18 months she could not bear to touch the notes – ‘sometimes literature is not enough’ she said wryly – but then she felt she owed it to him to tell his story and it became a way of expressing her grief.
Above all, I was fascinated by what Herta said about her place somewhere in-between languages (which I feel so acutely myself). ‘No language belongs to you – you are only borrowing it, given it on loan.’ She grew up with a local Swabian dialect, then learnt high German at school and only learnt Romanian at secondary school, but she was fascinated by the differences between the languages. Romanian to her feels very sensual, humorous, frivolous, excellent at heightening everyday language, without trivialising it. She could often empathise with the more interiorised world of the Romanian language. The lily of the valley is ‘May bells’ in German, but ‘little tears’ in Romanian, for instance. A falling star is something to wish upon in German, but the sign that someone has died in Romanian. A pheasant is a boastful, show-off, winner kind of person in German, but a loser in Romanian, because it is a highly visible bird which cannot fly well, so it’s the first one to get shot by hunters. As Herta said: ‘The Germans look at the superficial appearance of the bird, while the Romanian see the inner life of the pheasant.’ Her genuine love for the Romanian language moved me tremendously and it certainly helps to explain why her use of German in her writing is so innovative, poetic and unique.
After reading The Enchanted April and Elizabeth and Her German Garden in quick succession, I have to concede I have fallen in love with the witty, sly, unconventional author best known under the name Elizabeth von Arnim. These two novels are fairy-tales to a certain extent, where the brutal reality of married life is somewhat swept under the carpet, where amused forgiveness is still possible and desirable. I do worry about Mrs. Wilkins in The Enchanted April, and how she and the other ladies will fare once they return to the less romantic English landscape and climate.
In Elizabeth and Her German Garden the narrator openly refers to her husband as the Man of Wrath and his humourless, judgemental pronouncements (which she excuses with an ironical laugh) make me want to slap him around the face at times. Clearly, the author herself did not find her first husband all that congenial either, and none of her marriages or love affairs were fully satisfactory. She emerges as a strong-willed and eccentric woman, very dreamy, absorbed by nature and literature, but still caring about other people’s opinions and needs.
Although I barely knew the plants she was listing and describing, I enjoyed the passion she felt for her garden, her sadness at not being able to do the digging herself, the detailed study of seed catalogues and obvious pride at the results. It is utterly charming and unusual, the very essence of Englishness, full of astute observations about people and cultures. And sometimes she voices opinions which sound remarkably modern.
To most German Hausfraus the dinners and the puddings are of paramount importance, and they pride themselves on keeping those parts of their houses that are seen in a state of perpetual and spotless perfection, and this is exceedingly praiseworthy; but, I would humbly inquire, are there not other things even more important?… It cannot be right to be the slave of one’s household gods, and I protest that if my furniture ever annoyed me by wanting to be dusted when I wanted to be doing something else… I should cast it all into the nearest bonfire and sit and warm my toes at the flames with great contentment…
The hours fly by shut up with those catalogues and with Duty snaring on the other side of the door. I don’t like Duty – everything in the least disagreeable is always sure to be one’s duty.
Well, trials are the portion of mankind, and gardeners have their share, and in any case it is better to be tried by plants than persons, seeing that with plants you know that it is you who are in the wrong, and with persons it is always the other way about…
Miss Jones looked as though she did not like Germans. I am afraid she despises us because she thinks we are foreigners – an attitude of mind quite British and wholly to her credit; but we, on the other hand, regard her as a foreigner, which, of course, makes things very complicated.
Happiness is so wholesome; it invigorates and warms me into piety far more effectually than any amount of trials and griefs… In spire of the protestations of some peculiarly constructed persons that they are the better for trials, I don’t believe it. Such things must sour us, just as happiness must sweeten us and make us kinder, and more gentle.
If your lot makes you cry and be wretched, get rid of it and take another; strike out for yourself; don’t listen to the shrieks of your relations, to their gibes or their entreaties; don’t let your own microscopic set prescribe your goings-out and comings-in; don’t be afraid of public opinion in the shape of the neighbour in the next house, when all the world is before you new and shining, and everything is possible, if you will only be energetic and independent and seize opportunity by the scruff of the neck.
If this sounds like a self-help book, it is not. And the narrator is quickly brought down to earth by her friend’s retort to the above exhortation:
To hear you talk, no one would ever imagine that you dream away your days in a garden with a book, and that you never in your life seized anything by the scruff of its neck.
It is this down-to-earth quality, this endearing exchange of firmly-held points of view, as well as the love of nature which makes this book such a delightful companion, although it is clear that the author is speaking from a position of privilege to which we may find it difficult to relate. A true mood-booster, which should not have been relegated to the dark, dank reserve stock cellars of the library.
Written just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this book by Birgit Vanderbeke is both domestic and allegorical, examining how all revolutions start with one small act of insubordination.
The story is deceptively simple. A brother and sister and their mother are waiting for the head of the family to show up for supper. They are having mussels, a food none of them like very much, but which is their father’s favourite meal. It is a special occasion, they tell each other, father is having a business meeting which may well end in a promotion. As they sit and wait, we find out more and more about this apparently ordinary German family, about the parents’ escape from East Germany and the back-breaking menial jobs their mother had to endure in order to support their father’s studying. The author does an excellent job of describing the public charm and private horror of an inflexible, tyrannical man, but she doesn’t spare the mother either. From the daughter-narrator’s point of view, her mother has colluded with her oppressor, switching to ‘wifey mode’ to appease and soothe him. Yet only a few pages further, we discover that the daughter herself likes to be thought of as ‘Daddy’s girl’ and takes sides with her father to mock the other two members of the family. The dictator’s policy of divide and conquer seeps in gradually, poisoning everything in sight. The more we find out, the more we discover this is a family reigned by fear and despair.
Presented as an ongoing interior monologue (much of it in just one paragraph), the book is an easy read, partly because of its brevity, but also because of its subtle humour and contradictory statements. Yet for anyone who has lived in a non-democratic society or in an abusive family, it is a painful read. It works perfectly well on both levels, describing the gradual descent from praiseworthy public ideals to subverted, selfish interpretations. Thus, the father’s vision of ‘a proper family’ ends in constant criticism and disappointment that his flesh-and-blood children do not live up to his ideal. His desire to be ‘doing things together’ ends in him spoiling the atmosphere and blaming everyone else when things are not quite perfect. And ‘investing in the children’s future’ becomes a pointless exercise involving an expensive stamp collection that no one is interested in.
Communism failed not because it didn’t have inspirational ideas, but because it refused to take into account human nature when putting them into practice. Marriages and families fail because we cannot allow the others to be themselves. A valuable lesson, presented in an intriguing way, with an ending that is stunning in its shocking simplicity.
I read this as part of my 2013 Translation Challenge and on that note, let me make one small aside. I was sharing this book and my delight that Peirene Press is making such work more available to an English-speaking audience with a group of aspiring or even published writers based here in the Geneva area. I bemoaned the fact that there have been few translations into English of world literature so far, and commented how pleased I was to see some new initiatives.
Their reaction surprised me a little. OK, a lot!
They said that no wonder that German and French publishers translate so much literature from the UK and the US, because that’s where the best work is produced. (Never mind that they also translate from many other languages.) And that they themselves cannot be bothered to read literature from other countries, because the style is too different ‘from our own’. Bear in mind that this is not a random group of expats, but keen readers and aspiring writers, who have been living in the local area for many years and usually speak the language very well. The lack of curiosity and insularity perhaps explains why so little contemporary fiction is being translated into English. It saddens me, because it feels like people are deliberately limiting their horizons, but what do you think?