Remember, Remember the Month of November…

… is German Lit Month!

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

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

Herta Müller: Herztier

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

Arthur Schnitzler: Später Ruhm

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

Zoran Drevenkar: Sorry

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

Thomas Willmann: Das finstere Tal

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

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

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

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

An Afternoon with Herta Müller #TranslationThurs

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.

 

 

All Appeared New and Strange at First…

Although perhaps not quite at the level of the end of this quote from metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne: ‘… inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful’.

Yes, I am pushing out my little sailing-boat to new, unexplored shores. New job, new timetable, new way of presenting my book haul and a meeting with one of my living heroines: Herta Müller.

I thought I might save some time if I present my book haul in a one-take video and upload that on You Tube. I’m not quite convinced yet that it will be a time-saver, but perhaps this will get faster as I become more familiar with the settings. I rather cringe, though, when I see and hear myself speaking. Plus, my anonymity is gone now!

Here is the link to the video. Let me know if you have any problems viewing it.

I’m off to catch the train to see Herta Müller at the British Library and will write more about it when I get back.