Early Wrap-Up for November 2021

I should in theory wait until tomorrow or the 1st of December to write my monthly summary, but I have other plans for this week, so will wrap up a little earlier. It has felt like a very long month, with the exception of my 4-5 days in Yorkshire, which simply flew by. With the exception of those few days of real holiday, my first in two years, I have been mostly ill (in fact, I had a headache for two of my days in Yorkshire too). I don’t know if my tussle with Covid in October left my body drained and my immune system struggling, but I seem to have caught every single one of the bugs from school and university, with at most a day or two of feeling fine in-between.

So, for anyone wondering where I got all my energy from – wonder no more, for my batteries have well and truly gone this month! I have just about managed to keep the day job going, spent most of my weekends in bed, and have resigned myself that I will be missing out on various projects I wanted to be involved in that have a 30th November deadline.

The only event I was able to attend (on one of the few days when I felt fine) was the Corylus event at the Romanian Cultural Institute in London on the 16th of November, where I got to speak together with the two Bogdans that I’ve been translating: Bogdan Teodorescu and Bogdan Hrib in a debate about BalkanNoir: Is Romania the Wild Wild East of Crime Fiction. The discussion was recorded and I hope we can share the link with you very soon.

Enforced bed rest and a wet mush of a brain might not be conducive to writing or translating, but it worked fine for reading, although admittedly some books were chosed for ease of reading – rather like porridge with honey to soothe a sore throat. I read no less than 18 books, helped by the fact that many of them were novellas. I have even reviewed quite a few of them.

My German Literature Month reads were all novellas, with one exception, so I managed to participate in #NovNov as well.

#GermanLitMonth and #NovNov Reads:

#GermanLitMonth that was not a novella (as you can see, I was scrupulously fair, had two Austrians, two Germans and two Swiss writers)

The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, transl. Philip Boehm

Additional #NovNov Reads:

Escapist Reads:

  • Dan Rhodes: Sour Grapes
  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon: The Doctor’s Wife
  • Brian Moore: The Doctor’s Wife (a review comparing the two of them coming soon)
  • Catherine Fox: Angels and Men
  • ECR Lorac: These Names Make Clues
  • Abir Mukherjee: A Necessary Evil
  • Bella Ellis: The Vanished Bride – all the four above were reviewed in a vlog
  • Alan Johnson: The Late Train to Gipsy Hill – imagine a fun spy novel, more goofy than seriously chilling, despite the rather serious subject matter
  • Christine Mangan: Palace of the Drowned – which did not live up to the blurb and premise – Venice in winter, an author suffering from writers’ block and waning popularity, a creepy old palazzo, an over-eager young fan. Let’s just say that it was verbose rather than truly atmospheric, neither Death in Venice nor The Talented Mr Ripley.
  • Margaret Kennedy: The Feast – review to come, hopefully

Surprisingly, only a third of the books I read this month were foreign language books – all of them German. Ten of the eighteen were by women writers and five were in the crime genre (a very low percentage by my standards).

Reading plans for December will be all about snow and frozen climes: Russians and Scandinavians will have pride of place, so that I can snuggle indoors under many blankets while the blizzard rages outside.

#GermanLitMonth and #NovNov: Irmgard Keun

Irmgard Keun: Child of All Nations, transl. Michael Hofmann

I had read about Irmgard Keun in the really quite wonderful book about women under the national socialist regime in Germany by Edda Ziegler, but I hadn’t actually read anything by her. However, a lot of my bookblogging friends seemed to really enjoy her work. This one caught my eye in the bookshop and, as a child of all nations myself (raising even more international children), I couldn’t resist it, even though I prefer reading German books in the original if I possibly can.

After reading The Passenger so recently, it struck me how similar the subject matter is, but seen from a child’s perspective. Written in 1938, before the full horrors of the war would grip all of Europe, it is prescient and claustrophobic, just like The Passenger, but because it is told by a child narrator, it does not quite have the despair and airless sensation of Anna Segher’s Transit – nor its power, I thought.

Child narrators are notoriously difficult to pull off. Ten-year-old Kully is a curious mix of naivety and street smarts. Shunted from country to country, learning to beg and trick and bribe while living in a constant fear of being kicked out of hotels and friends’ houses, she has had to grow up far beyond her years. School is too dull for her, because she already knows far more of real life, geography and languages than what she is taught there., ‘all the things she needed to know in her life, there was not one she had learned at school.’ But at other times she comes out with startling statements about the relationship between men and women in particular which sound far too childish – or perhaps show that she has not spent enough time with both parents to have this kind of conversations with them:

It seems a Maharaha has several wives, which I think is a good thing. That way when he has to leave, I won’t be alone but will be able to turn to the other wives for comfort. I don’t know whether it’s allowed to marry several Maharajas. Obviously that would be the best. Then, if a couple of them had to travel to Poland, I’d still have a few more to hand. My mother is a great example of how diffiult it is for a woman who has to get by on just one man.

Some of the smart-aleck observations are more successful than others, and often Kully has too advanced overtly political thoughts (although they are often quoted as her father’s thoughts):

Everything that’s wrong with the world begins with fear… All that mess in Germany could only result because the people there have lived in fear for ever…. the people are so crippled and warped by fear that they elect a government that they can serve in fear. Not content with that, when they see other people who are not set on living in fear, they get angry, and try in their turn to make them afraid.

The bills mount up, the father keeps travelling around trying to sell his writing, while Kully and her mother have to deal with the fallout. Along the way, she encounters (even if she doesn’t always understand it) mental breakdown, infidelity, rejection, suicide, death and alcohol. She often has to be more of a grown-up, more sensible than her parents. She is, in essence, robbed of a proper, carefree childhood, even when she plays with other children, she is cynically copying their gestures and manipulating things so she can fit in.

There is a brief moment of joy in the milder climes of Italy with her mother and grandmother, as well as an interlude of hope when she and her father make it out on the ship to America. But Italy has its own dictator, and the promised land across the ocean does not offer as much of a welcome as they were hoping for, plus their mother got left behind in Europe by accident. So Kully returns to Europe, just as Keun herself almost inexplicably did in 1938, condemning herself to inner exile, anonymity, living under a false name and losing her voice.

I can’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t quite enjoy the book as much as I expected to: maybe the rumours that the difficult, somewhat feckless father is modelled on Joseph Roth, maybe the inconsistent child narrator voice, maybe the rather unbelievable ‘temporarily happy’ ending (of course we know that any happiness or togetherness was bound to be short-lived in Amsterdam at the time). I think her earlier, more optimistic novels such as Gilgi or The Artificial Silk Girl, with indomitable, independent, fearless young women trying to make their way in the world, might have been a better place to start. In this book, I could detect the bitterness of defeat.

Nevertheless, I am glad I managed to sneak this one into my German Literature Month reviews and Novellas in November. It has been a fantastic month of reading – novellas really are often more powerful than novels, perhaps because they have to convey so much in so little space!

#GermanLitMonth and #NovNov: Jonas Lüscher

Jonas Lüscher: Frühling der Barbaren (Barbarian Spring), 2013. Translated by Peter Lewis and published by Chicago University Press/Haus Publishing.

You might argue that a 192 page book is not a novella, but that is the length of the English-language version. The German version is roughly 120 pages, which makes me wonder whether the English translation also contains some additional notes or simply a larger font and more white spaces.

Lüscher is a contemporary Swiss novelist and essayist. He studied philosophy and therefore seems to delight in writing books that pose a bit of an ethical dilemma or a larger existential question. His second novel, Kraft, is about an aging, out-of-kilter German professor trying to win a prize by demonstrating to a Silicon Valley audience that ‘our world is still, despite all evidence, the best of all possible worlds, and how we might improve it even further through technology’. That should make it clear that the author loves satire, and this is obvious in his first book too, Barbarian Spring.

Written soon after the 2008 financial crash but well before the Brexit referendum and all that followed, the book makes fun of the UK’s banking industry (one might say ‘the pot calling the kettle black’) but has a more profound message about just how quickly our trappings of civilisation can disappear when faced with a crisis. I will share the blurb with you for a plot summary, because I don’t think I can write a better one myself:

Preising, Swiss industrialist and garrulous fusspot, finds himself in Tunisia, attending the wedding of two City traders from London. At an old Berber oasis transformed into a luxury resort, the bride rides in on a camel to take her vows. The ludicrous excesses of these braying, young, high-flying wealth-creators knows no bounds. But as they carouse the night away, sterling stands on the brink of collapse and Britannia looks set to slip beneath the waves of bankruptcy and chaos. Next morning, with thumping heads and their credit cards maxed out, and as the first rumblings of the Arab Spring grip their host country, the Bright Young Neo-Thatcherites stage a revolt of their own with unimaginably grotesque and blackly humorous consequences.

Bill and Ben Books, https://www.billandbenbooks.co.uk/general/0046356-barbarian-spring

The story is told in a rather unusual way. Preising is prattling away, telling his story to the actual first-person narrator. They are both of them recovering from some kind of mental breakdown in a sanatorium. I wasn’t sure why this distancing device was necessary in such a short novel, but it does allow the narrator to comment more critically on Preising’s own interpretation of the story. Not that we are in any doubt that he is a rather unreliable narrator, well-meaning but weak, fairly observant about others, but at the same time rather blind to his own cultural relativism and liberalism ‘shallow as a children’s paddling pool’. He is a complete Mr Average, who has inherited his family’s business, run quite efficiently by the scrappy Bosnian immigrant Prodanovic, who uses him as a figurehead of dependability, but sends him out of the way whenever important decisions are being made.

This is how he ends up in the very upmarket Tunisian resort (designed to resemble what Westerners expect a Berber or Touareg camp to be like, although the architect did point out that there were no Touaregs in Tunisia). Supposedly, he is there to finalise a deal with one of their Tunisian suppliers, who owns the resort (among many other pies), but there doesn’t seem to be much for him to do, so he befriends the parents of the bridegroom of a wedding party, a financial trader who has brought all of his equally swanky, spoilt friends to the resort.

Of course all their luxury and high jinks become a desperate scrabble for survival, as the resort manager – uncertain of ever being paid for the whole wedding party – stops giving them any food and closes the pool and other amenities, while an Arab Spring type uprising turns against the rich and corrupt Tunisian owners as well. Some Lord-of-the-Flies-type scenes follow, including a particularly graphic one involving camel death. Turns out we are never too far from descending into barbarity, but in the end the narrator is left wondering what the whole point of Preising’s story was, and whether there was anything to be learnt from it.

I too couldn’t help but wonder about that. I enjoyed the satirical tone and the scene-setting, but found it took too long to reach the point of economic collapse (aside from the fact that the complete and utter collapse of a country and its currency is rather far-fetched, Argentina, Venezuela and recent examples of bankruptcy and defaulting on debts notwithstanding). ‘While Preising slept, England went under.’ By way of contrast, the scenes following the collapse were rather too rushed, hurtling towards a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion. The suave swerve into dystopia was not quite as elegant as with J. G. Ballard or Don DeLillo, but it was amusing nonetheless. For UK politics watchers, there was the additional bonus of visualising David Cameron in this scene (it was too early for Boris Johnson):

In effect, what Preising was presenting me with here was a variation on the theme of ‘Where were you when Britain went bankrupt?’. This genre had recently taken over from the earlier ‘Where were you on 9/11?’ […] Likewise, we all now vividly remember the moment when the fresh-faced PM in his baby-blue silk tie – which I always considered an unduly optimistic and frivolous choice under the circumstances – commenced his speech with the words ‘In thirteen hundred and forty-five, when King Edward the Third told his Florentine bankers…’ Sure, it had a far less iconic image than 9/11, but it’s still seared on our collective memory.

It’s these satirical moments about globalism that really lifted the work for me, even when it felt a little top-heavy in terms of structure. A sharp, witty debut, which certainly makes me curious to search for the second novel by this author.

#GermanLitMonth and #NovNov: Marlen Haushofer

Marlen Haushofer: Wir töten Stella (We Kill Stella). [And a special review bonus: Sara Gran’s Come Closer]

Marlen Haushofer is the high priestess of succinct, almost detached narration that conceals something profoundly moving and horrific. This 54 page novella will pierce your heart and mess with your mind – if you can read it in German, because, alas, it has not been translated into English. You can, however, try and catch a filmed version of it (translated as Killing Stella) directed by Julian Roman Pölsler, who also directed The Wall based on Marlen Haushofer’s far more famous novel. You can catch a short trailer for the film below (in German, also).

The plot is simple: the narrator Anna remembers the past year or so, and how the death of young Stella came about. We know from the outset that Stella died and that our narrator feels somehow responsible for this, so I’m not divulging any spoilers.

Stella is the daughter of an old friend of the narrator Luise (‘frenemy’ would be the more correct term, as Anna despises her desperate attempts to remain young and sexually desirable) and comes to live with the narrator and her family for a year, so that she can attend a commercial school in the city. Initially, the family (Anna, her husband Richard, their fifteen year old son Wolfgang and their younger daughter Annette) are slightly annoyed and amused by the ‘country bumpkin’. Stella is bored with her studies, but seems to have no other passions or interests, dresses badly, and appears incurably naive, shy and polite. Despite Richard’s derision of her, they end up having an affair – a situation that Anna was almost expecting, but that she feels unable to stop. When Richard, an inveterate womaniser, moves on, Stella struggles to accept the situation, especially since she has been forced into an abortion too, and commits suicide – or it could have been an accident, as the family reassures itself hastily. The ‘we’ in the title is significant – every member of the family has had a part to play in driving Stella to her death.

It’s a simple story, but what is fascinating is the ambiguity of Anna as a narrator, and the strange, detached, almost other-worldly voice that Haushofer gives her. Anna is telling this story in first person, while she looks out of the window into the garden – something she does for hours on end, She prefers that to actually going into the garden itself, which has always proved disappointing – she prefers to have that distance and the glass wall between her and reality. She notices a baby bird that seems to have fallen out of its nest, and is struggling to move and calling for its mother. Anna keeps telling herself that the mother cannot be that far away, that she will show up and help, but as the day goes on, the cries of the bird get more desperate, and then weaker. The baby bird dies on Anna’s watch, yet not for a moment does Anna step outside into the garden to attempt to rescue it in any way, in a horrible but telling parallel to the story about Stella. ‘I cannot help him [the bird] and therefore I must try to forget him.’

It’s all too easy to write Anna off as an unreliable narrator, but if she is one, it is because she herself is conflicted and nowhere near as in control as she would like to be. From the very outset, we hear that Anna’s nerves are shot to pieces, that she has become fearful, agoraphobic, almost paranoid – all clear manifestations of guilt. At the same time, she refuses to delve too deeply into her complicity, all she wants is for life to return to ‘normal’. Yet what is normal in this ‘good’ bourgeois household of the 1950s, in conservative, Catholic Austria?

Haushofer is too clever to give us a definitive explanation for Anna’s passive nature, but there are many hints. Anna is treated like property by her husband, whom she seems to fear and tolerate rather than love. She has often thought of escaping her marriage, but is either too afraid, feels too useless, or else has become too cynical about the outside world. She is unhealthily obsessed with her son and fears losing his love and respect more than anything else. Her daughter reminds her too much of her husband, she is one of nature’s sunny, thoughtless people. ‘Annette is too healthy and happy for me to truly love her’, Anna observes, while she herself overanalyses everything, and is therefore stuck in analysis paralysis. She also seems to harbour some suicidal thoughts, almost envying Stella for her ability to break free of this burden called life… and resigning oneself to an unfulfilled life.

I read somewhere that you can get used to anything and that the force of habit is the strongest force in our lives. I don’t believe that. I think that is just an excuse that we use, so that we don’t have to think about other peoples’ suffering, or indeed about our own suffering. It is true that humans can bear a lot of things, but it’s not because they get used to it, but because within them there is a faint spark of hope that some day they might break free of the habit… If the first attempt to break free is unsuccessful – and it usually is – then we try again, but the second impulse is weaker, and leaves us even more bitter and beaten up.

And so Richard continues to down his red wine, and chases after women and money, my friend Luise continues to chat up men young enough that she could be their mother, while I continue to stand in front of the window and stare out into the garden. Stella, this stupid young person, was successful at her very first attempt at escape.

My own translation.

You could argue that female emancipation has come a long way since the 1950s, but I still know so many women (not just of the older generation, but of my age and younger) who are clinging onto unsatisfactory relationships for the sake of the children or for financial reasons, and tell themselves stories that enable them to continue to lead their lives without rocking the boat too much.

It is incredible how much the author manages to fit into very few pages, how complex the thought processes are, and how much there is to read between the lines. Every word counts with Marlen Haushofer. This is tightrope walking on the very edge of the precipice (or the verge of a mental breakdown) and you keep reading to see just how the narrator can pull it off.

Sara Gran: Come Closer

The ambiguous narrator in Gran’s short novel (almost a novella, 165 pages with lots of blank spaces) is not just on the verge of a mental breakdown, but actually plunges into it before our (horrified) eyes – or rather, into demonic possession. Amanda is a successful architect who has just moved into a rather lovely loft apartment with her husband. It starts off with unexplained tapping noises, escalates with unprofessional conduct at work, uncontrollable urges to shoplift or hurt others, start smoking again or hooking up with strangers in bars. And it just gets more and more self-destructive and dangerous to others from there onwards. Amanda thinks she knows her demon, a beautiful wild woman called Naamah, and she makes sporadic efforts to exorcise her, but at other times she is exhilarated by the things the demon makes her do… and we start to wonder if it isn’t a split personality or some form of schizophrenia. Or perhaps another attempt at escape – a far more active one than Marlen Haushofer’s Anna.

Of course she fought at first. They all do. And then they see the possibilities and they’re happy to go along. She could have gone on forever, in her small lonely life. But sometimes the door to a bigger life opens, and it isn’t so easy to say No. You can’t spend your whole life saying No. Sometimes you have to say Yes, and see where it takes you.

I love the ambiguity of it, that there are hints at Amanda’s past or the small dissatisfactions in her present-day life which might make her susceptible to ‘demon attacks’. This book too has a real sense of malevolence and menace, although the horror is more graphic than in Marlen Haushofer’s work. Both authors, however, have a slightly detached, almost deadpan style at times, the kind of voice I can hear echoing for days afterwards in my head. Ultimately, just like with We Kill Stella, this book refuses to give us any clear-cut answers. Both these stories fit into a long line of prestigious ‘uncanny’ portrayals of the female psyche by such writers as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shirley Jackson or, more recently, Carmen Maria Machado.

#GermanLitMonth and #NovNov: Casanova’s Homecoming

Arthur Schnitzler: Casanovas Heimfahrt. This novella has been translated into English but is not easily available (you can get it via CreateSpace or second-hand). And yes, virtually all of my German Lit Month books are novellas, so that I can complete two challenges at once.

I read this a long, long time ago, in my teens, but when I reread it last week for #GermanLiteratureMonth, I realised that I had actually mistaken it for Mozart on the Road to Prague by Eduard Mörike (which I had also read before). So naturally, I was expecting a wistful meditation on art and mortality and instead got a much more insalubrious piece of work.

Yet I think there is far more about mortality and hubris in this novella than one might initially think, and it’s not coincidental that it was written at the end of the First World War, a war which reduced Austria from an empire to an insignificant landlocked country with an oversized capital city.

It’s 1778, Casanova is 53 and hanging about in Mantua, waiting for his home town of Venice to pardon him and allow him to return after a 25 year exile. He comes across an old friend, Olivo, whom he helped to get married 15-20 years ago, who is eager to invite him to his house. Olivo has done well for himself, he has three daughters, a thriving farm, and he seems happy and content. Everything that Casanova, for all of his past glory and adventures, is clearly not. He is aging, he has to rely more and more on his reputation or on the favours of older women, rather than being able to seduce whomsoever he chooses.

He is finally persuaded to visit Olivo’s estate, with the hidden thought that he might seduce his young niece Marcolina. However, the niece is a bluestocking, far more interested in her studies of mathematics than in this lecherous old man. Casanova suspects she is not quite as virginal as her aunt (somewhat infatuated with Casanova herself) makes her out to be, and she seems indeed to be in love with the dashing young soldier Lorenzi. Casanova recognises something of his own younger self in the charisma and insouciance of Lorenzi – so of course he hates him on sight and plans a diabolical trick to blackmail the soldier and seduce Marcolina.

So far, so typically Casanova, the man who cannot curb his sexual appetites (but of course imagines that he is in love with almost every woman he seduces). But there is more nuance here: for the profligate rake has started to worry about his legacy – in particular, he wants to write a polemical paper against Voltaire and wants to consult Marcolina about it – a first for him, to recognise a woman’s intelligence and ask for her opinion. Secondly, he is being invited back to Venice, but with a mission to spy on potential rebels and freethinkers, which angers and disgusts him.

Casanova is clearly at a turning point in his life, suffering a bit of an identity crisis. No longer rich, no longer sought after, the younger generation no longer know about his legendary deeds. There is one passage in which he almost regrets that he didn’t pursue anything in life seriously enough: he should have spent more time with writing and philosophy, he should not have wasted his talents as a financier or diplomat, but he threw it all away whenever a woman showed up. But he then realises that he doesn’t regret frittering away his time and energies on women – that he has lived his life like no one else. However, he only really seems to come alive when he starts talking about the past with his hosts (and often embellishing things – which may have given him the impulse to write his memoirs).

Just when you think that Casanova might be learning something in his old age, that he might be redeeming himself, he veers back onto the well-trodden path of vice, greed and selfishness. There is a particularly nasty thread there where he seduces the thirteen-year-old daughter of his host, simply because she happens to be there. Of course, he ends up accepting the job as an informer too.

A stroke of inspired casting here: Alain Delon as the aging Casanova in the 1992 film version.

Casanova’s memoirs were translated into German for the first time in 1913 and Schnitzler was fascinated by them. With a little help from Freud and other psychologists popular at the time, he saw Casanova as a narcissist who cannot really relate with the world, because the world itself does not interest him other than as an extension of himself, a place filled with people that he wants to dominate. Schnitzler also wrote a comedy about Casanova, entitled The Sisters or Casanova in Spa, which was not at all well received. I am unable to find any information about how this novella was received at the time – although I suspect that after Reigen, he was considered a controversial writer anyway.

#GermanLitMonth: The Passenger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#GermanLitMonth: World War One

With apologies to Caroline and Lizzy for this very late review for #GermanLitMonth.

I was planning to read more for one of my favourite annual reading challenges, namely the German Literature Month, but the Young Writer of the Year Award reading took priority this time round. Besides, even though it was a reread, Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) is not a book to be read in a rush. I obviously had a stronger constitution as a teenager, as this time nearly every chapter left me in tatters and I needed a day to recover before attempting the next.

The book is based partly on own experience (although Remarque was only very briefly on the front) and mostly on eyewitness accounts. The First World War has been dragging on for several years now. The ‘Hurrah- patriotismus’ fervour and speeches of their schoolmaster Kantorek, which made the four friends and schoolboys join the army in 1914, has turned to disillusionment and ashes. The frontline seems to be stagnating, as they fight over the same piece of land over and over again, fruitlessly. There is no glory, no heroism here, just endless drudgery and pain. The young soldiers know nothing else but despair, death and fear. The narrator, Paul, paints the contrast between those espousing the necessity of war and the virtues of the Fatherland with those who actually experience the futility of it.

While they wrote and talked about it, we saw the military hospitals and the dying; while they talked up one’s duty to the state, we knew that fear of death trumped it. We didn’t become rebels, deserters, cowards – all those terms that they bandied about so easily – we loved our home just as much as they did, and we advanced courageously at every attack. But we were now able to distinguish between the two, we had learnt to see. And we could see that there was nothing left of their world. We were suddenly left all on our own – and we had to deal with it on our own.

Little wonder that this book was banned when the National Socialists came to power in 1933, as it goes against all of the ideology that they espoused. But it wasn’t just them who objected to this book – quite a few other German readers were concerned that it didn’t portray their country (or its military doctors and nurses) in a good light, that it was badly written, sensationalist, piling on horror upon horror merely to further the author’s pacifist agenda.

I personally found the style often dry and matter of fact, rather than melodramatic, but the simple factual description of some scenes makes them truly horrific and unforgettable – both visually and auditively. There is the constant booming of gunfire, the whistle of grenades, of course, but there is also the crying of the wounded and, in one particularly gruesome scene that I had somehow managed to suppress from my earlier reading, the agonised groaning and whinnying of wounded horses.

Another vivid scene is when they head off to the frontline and on the road they see piles upon piles of freshly-made coffins, with the smell of resin and forest still upon them. The soldiers joke about them, but they are in fact intended for them: heavy casualties are expected. The narrator says drily:

The coffins are indeed for us. In such matters, the army is very organised.

This contrasts with the lack of food and boots (one pair of boots gets inherited from one member of the platoon to another when their owner dies).

What Remarque manages to convey so well is how war has damaged these young men beyond redemption: they are numbed, they have become dehumanised, they don’t fight – they are cornered beasts, merely defending themselves from being annihilated. They have lost the connection with their home and family. When Paul goes briefly home on sick leave, he struggles to explain his experience, he doesn’t want to talk about the war, and he realises that he no longer belongs in his quiet town. Although he is glad to see his dying mother again, his conclusion is that it’s best not to go home from the front. There is a refrain of ‘What will become of us now, even if the war ends?’ that is typical of a lost generation, regardless of which side of the war they were fighting on.

Another reason for the delay in reviewing this book, which I appropriately enough finished on the 11th of November, is that I wanted to compare it with the reread of another favourite war book, this time about a lesser-known front during the First World War, the Eastern Front, as described in The Forest of the Hanged (Pădurea Spânzuraţilor) by Liviu Rebreanu. This was published in 1922, even earlier than Remarque’s novel (published in 1929), and likewise shows the pointlessness of war and the psychological damage it wreaks on participants. Interestingly, enough, it too is written from the point of view of what one might call ‘the baddies’ or the ‘wrong side’ and it too has been accused of bad writing, not so much melodrama but for having a style that is too dry, too banal. I wonder if in this case it is a bit of a cultural dig towards the Transylvanians, who had just united with the ‘Kingdom of Romania’ after 1918. The Transylvanians are renowned for being less verbose, more phlegmatic and colder than the rest of the Romanians from other parts of the country (as well as more organised, more disciplined and more Westernised – too German, in other words, make of that what you will!).

Liviu Rebreanu’s book is an account of Apostol Bologa’s internal journey from blithely joining the Austro-Hungarian army as an ethnic Romanian living in Transylvania (which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) to becoming a tormented soul, disenchanted by war, who decides to desert and is condemned to death as a traitor. Bologa’s moral dilemma is all the greater because he is actually not fighting for his fatherland. The ethnic Romanians were often oppressed by their Hungarian overlords and his own father had been one of a group of militants for equal rights. Yet Apostol joined the army mostly to impress his girlfriend Martha. His mother and the local priest are frankly horrified when he tells them he has joined up. ‘You are going to fight for the Hungarians, who beat us up? This is not our fatherland. When you have a “fatherland” like ours, you are not at all obliged to step up to do your duty, on the contrary!’

Nevertheless, Apostol does his duty, somewhat grumpily, having to endure some needling from his fellow officers. His first moment of doubt comes after witnessing the execution by hanging of a Czech officer who had been caught while trying to run away. Apostol initially brands him a traitor and shows little understanding or mercy, but after a conversation with his superior office, Klapka, also a Czech, who describes a forest of the hanged which he encountered on the Italian front, a tiny crack appears in his facade.

And then the bad news comes: their regiment will be moved to the Romanian front. Romania was on the side of the Entente powers during World War One. In other words, Apostol will have to fight against his own ethnic group. He begs to be sent to another frontline, he even attempts to cover himself in medals and glory to impress the Hungarian general and be excused from fighting in Romania. But to no avail. So, for the rest of the book, we witness partly the absurdities and ruthlessness of war, but above all a man’s inner turmoil, a fight between mental deterioration and a struggle for forgiveness and salvation. Unlike Paul in Remarque’s work, Apostol does find connection with other human beings (interestingly, he falls in love with Ilona, an ethnic Hungarian, showing that it’s not about ethnic animosity, but about the hollowness of nationalistic discourse). There are touches of religious mysticism which some modern readers may find old-fashioned, but remind me of Dostoevsky.

As is the case with Remarque, Rebreanu did not personally experience the war, although he was briefly in the Hungarian army in 1906, but he left both the army and Transylvania and settled in Romania in 1909, working as a journalist and novelist. However, his brother Emil faced precisely the dilemma he describes in this novel. Emil was executed for desertion in 1917, but his family only found out after the end of the war. Of course, the author was profoundly shocked and influenced by this personal tragedy, but he explained that the novel was not his brother’s story, but rather the story of an entire generation.

Update: For those showing an interest in the Romanian novel, there is an English language translation (I cannot find the name of the translator) from Casemate Publishers, which is a publisher of mostly military history. There is also a film adaptation from 1965 directed by Liviu Ciulei, which won the Best Director Prize in Cannes that year.

#GermanLitMonth: Marlen Haushofer

This is a good year to be reading Marlen Haushofer: 100 years since her birth and 50 years since her death. I wasn’t aware of these anniversaries but finally got to read her best-known work The Wall a few months ago and was blown away by its mix of vivid description, eerie atmosphere and philosophical/ecological musings. I’ve been keen to read anything and everything by Haushofer since, but was disappointed to find that, although her output for adults is reasonably small, it is not exactly easy to find even in German. I think her biographer Daniela Strigl is quite right to criticise the publishers for falling asleep on the job and missing this opportunity.

The truth is that, beyond her tales for children, which were frequently read in Austrian schools when I was a child, her work has always been a minority taste. She was very much admired but not widely read, although she enjoyed a brief renaissance as a feminist icon in the 1970s/80s. Her current book covers don’t do her any favours either, as they make it look like romantic (which many people misread as sentimental) fiction for and about women. Not that there is anything wrong with that kind of fiction, but it puts off a wider audience.

So I should say that Haushofer is in fact the anti-romantic writer. She depicts human loneliness (yes, particularly for women, but more generally as well) like no other writer I know. The loneliness can be physical (as it is in The Wall), but, equally, it can be the devastating loneliness of being in a relationship, or living in a crowded city, or being in a group of friends and still feeling misunderstood.

Die Tapetentür (translated as The Jib Door, but I have no idea what that means so I translated it as The Wallpaper Door – a concealed door in the wallpaper) is the story of Annette, a quiet, introverted, solitary librarian. She has had some relationships with men, but is quite relieved when things go nowhere or the men move away. She enjoys her life and routine, has one good friend and a few acquaintances whom she either respects or secretly mocks.

She is shaken out of her contentment when she meets the lawyer Gregor, who is temperamentally almost her exact opposite – extroverted, a womaniser, a bit of a macho man, who doesn’t enjoy reading or being quiet. In spite of her misgivings, she marries Gregor and expects a child. She is not entirely convinced she will be a good mother, but she is both fascinated and repulsed by the animal response and change in her body. She seems resigned to the traditional division of labour and gender roles in the household, even though she resents Gregor for cheating on her and not being more tender and understanding.

The narrative switches between close third person POV and Annette’s diary entries, so we get to see both her behaviour in social situations, but also see her anxieties and doubts reflected in her journal. She also muses about life more generally and makes some witty observations about society, single and married people, even wealth and poverty. The concealed door that Annette suddenly sees in the wallpaper (she is the only one that notices the door, so it probably is a metaphorical rather than a literal one) represents perhaps the wall that Annette has put up between herself and others, and a door that she is unable or unwilling to walk through in the battle of the sexes.

Living in the Pleasure of Anticipation: Reading Plans for Autumn/Winter

One of my favourite bookish Twitter people Alok Ranjan said: ‘Sometimes just the anticipation of books to come is even more pleasing than the actual reading of them’. And in times of uncertainty, with no doubt a tough autumn and winter ahead, you take your small pleasures where you can. So I’ve been spending a few joyful hours luxuriating in planning my reading and joining in with some like-minded online friends.

October

There are two reading challenges in October that I cannot resist. First, Paper Pills is planning a group read of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels starting on the 1st of October, which got me looking through my shelves for other Fitzgerald books, so I’ll also be attempting her short story collection The Means of Escape and rereading The Bookshop and The Blue Flower.

Secondly, the week of 5-11 October is also the #1956Club organised by Simon Thomas and Karen aka Kaggsy. I have bought books in anticipation of that year and will be reading: Romain Gary’s Les racines du ciel, plus two books I remember fondly from my childhood Little Old Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Pryosen and The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier. If I have time after all of the above, I may also attempt Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz, but might not make it in time for the 1956 week, lucky if I squeeze it in before the end of October.

November

It’s been quite a few years now that November has been equivalent with German Literature Month for me, so this year will be no different. I’m in the mood for rereading Kafka’s Das Schloss (especially since my son recently read The Trial and I didn’t have my German language edition to read it in parallel with him). I was so enamoured of Marlen Haushofer that I will read another of her novels, a very short one this time Die Tapetentür (which I’ve seen translated as The Jib Door, an English expression I am unfamiliar with). I can’t stay away from Berlin, so I’ll be reading Gabriele Tergit’s Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm (Käsebier takes Berlin). I’m also planning to read a book of essays about Vienna and its very dualistic nature: Joachim Riedl’s Das Geniale. Das Gemeine (Genius and Filth/Rottenness) and another non-fiction book, a sort of memoir of studying in England by Nele Pollatscheck entitled Dear Oxbridge (it’s in German, despite the title).

Since taking the picture above, I’ve also decided to reread the book I borrowed from my university library just before lockdown in March, namely Remarque’s Nothing New on the Western Front.

December

Alok is once again to blame for his persuasive skills, as he’s managed to convince a group of us, including Chekhov obsessive Yelena Furman to read Sakhalin Island in December. Of course, winter seems to lend itself to lengthy Russians, so I’ll also be attempting The Brothers Karamazov (my fifth attempt, despite the fact that I am a huge Dostoevsky fan, so fingers crossed!). If I have any brain or time left over at all after these two massive adventures, I’d also like to read the memoir of living with Dostoevsky written by his wife and the memoir about Marina Tsvetaeva written by her daughter.

I also have a rather nice bilingual edition of Eugene Onegin by Pushkin from Alma Press, so I might put that into the mix as well, let’s see how it goes.

January

Meredith, another Twitter friend, has been organising January in Japan reading events for years now, and I always try to get at least 1-2 books in. This coming January I might focus exclusively on Japanese authors or books about Japan, as I have a lot of newly bought ones that are crying out loud for a read.I have a new translation of Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku (A Shameful Life instead of No Longer Human) by Mark Gibeau, I’d also like to read more by Tsushima Yuko (who, coincidentally was Dazai Osamu’s daughter), the short story collection The Shooting Gallery. Inspired by Kawakami Mieko (who mentioned her name as one of the writers who most influenced her), I will be reading In the Shade of the Spring Leaves, a biography of Highuchi Ichiyo which also contains nine of her best short stories. Last but not least, I’m planning to read about Yosano Akiko (one of my favourite Japanese poets) and her lifelong obsession with The Tale of Genji, an academic study written by G. G. Rowley and published by the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. (Once upon a time, I dreamt of studying there for my Ph.D.)

Saving the best for last, I have a beautiful volume of The Passenger: Japan edition, which is something like a hybrid between a magazine and a book, focusing on writing and photography from a different country with each issue. While I’d have liked more essays by Japanese writers themselves (there are only 3 Japanese writers among the 11 long-form pieces represented  here), there is nevertheless much to admire here.

Ambitious plans for the next few months, but they feel right after a month or so of aimless meandering in my reading. Let’s just hope the weather, i.e. news, outside isn’t too frightful!