German Women Writers Fighting Against National Socialism

GermanLitMy third review for German Literature Month, organised and hosted for the fourth year in a row by Caroline and Lizzy, is a non-fiction book.  In fact, it’s one that I first read about on Caroline’s blog – so many thanks, Caroline, for bringing it to my attention!

verboten_-_verfemt_-_vertrieben-9783423346115Edda Ziegler’s ‘Verboten Verfemt Vertrieben’ (‘Forbidden/Ostracised/Banned’, sadly, only available in German) is a fascinating study of German-speaking women writers (many of them of Jewish origin, as one might expect) of the 1920/30s who were banned in Germany following the rise of the Nazis. I cannot quite do the book justice, as there are so many authors featured in it, as well as a discussion of the German literary scene during the Weimar Republic, WW2 and afterwards. Suffice it to say that it is encyclopedic, very well documented but also written in a lively, accessible manner.

Some of the women were well-known both then and now (Nelly Sachs, Else Lasker-Schüler, Anna Seghers), while others have drifted into obscurity (Mascha Kaléko, Hermynia Zur Mühlen, Rose Ausländer). The author follows their personal and literary journey across borders and oceans, overcoming language barriers, discrimination, prejudice and, in some cases, far too much self-sacrifice for the sake of their male partners.

‘They’ve  burnt my soul, destroyed my life, my youth, my sense of joy, they’ve extinguished my whole identity like a storm extinguishes a flame’ is how Hertha Nathorff, doctor and writer, describes the actions of the Nazis. There were three possible reactions to the persecutions they suffered: direct resistance, going into exile or committing to ‘inner exile’ (silence). Most of the women opted for the flight to another country, but there were few countries willing to accept them, so their life became one of endless waiting, false hopes and transient places.

‘Well, there were the wives…’ is the answer a German writer gave when he was asked how he managed to survive in exile. And the original phrase in German doesn’t sound like a loving testimony of eternal gratitude (‘Nun, man hatte ja eine Frau…’) but a cynical, throwaway statement of entitlement. The wives (or mistresses) were the ones who made the effort to learn the new language, gather together all the necessary paperwork, handle all the day-to-day administrative hassles, find a place to stay, make sure the family were clothed, shod, fed and sent to school, worry about the family members left behind and investigate in which country they could find refuge next, work in low-paid jobs for which they were blatantly overqualified so as to support the husband’s attempts to continue their careers. Under these circumstances, it is surprising that the women kept on writing: a true testament to their resilience, creativity and desire to ‘bear witness’.

This book might be worth a read next...
This book might be worth a read next…

However, many of the individual stories – almost all of them, in fact – are sad. Some women died in concentration camps (Gertrud Kolmar) or barely survived in Gurs, a camp for ‘aliens’ in the French Pyrenees (Adrienne Thomas, Käthe Hirsch). Most of the women were disillusioned, disappointed, felt an acute sense of loss. A few of the women suffered mental breakdowns: Nelly Sachs (paranoia), Irmgard Keun (alcoholism). Bertolt Brecht’s ‘harem’ of seduced, exploited and abandoned women – who collaborated with the playwright but were never acknowledged as co-authors – came as a complete surprise and shock to me.

Even before 1933, women’s literature had been disparaged in Germany, was certainly not quite on equal footing with that of the men. Many of these women had nevertheless enjoyed quite a bit of success with their writing. Yet even the strong, independent women who were committed to making a new creative life for themselves abroad were punished for their audacity. They lost their mother tongue, their most critical artistic tool, as well as the support of the publishing houses. Their ‘European’ writing style was not appreciated in Hollywood, although at least one of them, Vicki Baum, was reasonably successful there. However, she always considered her second career as a scriptwriter to be a ‘temporary breadwinning solution’, of questionable literary merit. Gina Kaus was also able to support her family with her earnings as a scriptwriter, but thought of herself as a ‘sell-out, a failure’, having lost the spark and motivation which led her to become the darling of the Viennese café culture. Even Hilde Spiel, the Austrian writer who became a journalist in Britain and published a number of books in English before returning to Vienna via Germany and becoming a ‘grande dame of German-speaking culture’, felt  that her career had taken a hit in exile and that she was never quite able to build on her earlier successes.

From Uni Potsdam archive.
From Uni Potsdam archive.

Outwardly, at least, Anna Seghers seems to come off lightly. She was active both politically and culturally while in exile in Mexico, producing some of her most poignant work during her years abroad. Moreover, as a committed Communist, she was welcomed with open arms in the GDR after the war (although it transpires that she would have preferred to settle in France, but was refused a visa). She won numerous prizes and honours in the 1960s/70s.  Dig a little deeper and her victories look a little more tarnished. She was the main breadwinner (as well as organiser, administrator, cook, cleaner) for her family throughout those difficult years, her husband having been described by some contemporaries as ‘Anna’s eighth cross’, an allusion to her novel ‘The Seventh Cross’. Although he also worked as a political agitator and teacher at the Workers’ University in Mexico, most of his work was unpaid, and he proved to be completely useless with any practical, everyday matters. He also had countless affairs and left Anna as soon as he established a foothold for himself in Mexico. When Anna returned to Europe after the war, she assumed that her husband would follow. He only came five years later, in 1952, accompanied by an American lover.  They never divorced and she supported his lover after his death, despite the fact that from the mid-60s onwards she herself was fragile and frequently hospitalised.

Aside from the very moving personal stories, Ziegler also discusses the rise of women writers in the rather patriarchal German literary world and makes many interesting observations about publishing then and now. For instance, even back in the 1920s there was much lamenting about a ‘book crisis’: inflation and depression, the fall of the ‘cultured’ bourgeoisie, the lure of the new media meant, according to famous German publisher Fischer, ‘that books have become the most dispensable objects of daily life… People do sports, go dancing, spend their evening hours in front of the radio or at the cinema, are busy with their working life, and never find time to read a book.’

Ziegler also discusses hitherto taboo subjects such as why most of the exiled writers chose to return to the GDR rather than West Germany after the war (if they returned at all). She contrasts the more openly welcoming attitude of East Germany with the suspicions and reservations shown by the Austrians and West Germans for their exiled writers. This only changed after the 1968 generation confronted their parents’ generation about their individual and collective guilt during the war, while the rise of feminism gave a new impetus to read voices which had previously been silenced.

All in all, a fantastic book which really shook me beyond all my expectations, and which provided me with many fresh insights. Plus a lot of new additions to my reading list, although it is doubtful that many of them are easily available, certainly not outside Germany.

 

July Reads and Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

A good month of reading, despite holidays and other distractions. 17 books, of which 4 translations, 2 in foreign languages, 2 poetry collections and 10 crime novels (or psychological/political thrillers).

Crime/thriller

Miyuki Miyabe: All She Was Worth

BlackHousePeter May: The Blackhouse

This was a reread for the virtual Crime Book Club.  I love the atmosphere Peter May has created of the very harsh, rather alien way of life on the Isle of Lewis. The description of the two-week guga hunting trip on the rock is not for those of a squeamish disposition like me. Although, interestingly, the animal rights activists are not presented in a particularly sympathetic light either. An uncompromising look at believable rather than ‘nice’ characters, with lots of back story, but they are all complex and ring true.

Dominique Manotti: Escape

Anna Jaquiery: The Lying-Down Room

Eugenio Fuentes: The Depths of the Forest

Harriet Lane: Her – also reviewed on CFL

Julia Crouch: The Long Fall – also reviewed on CFL

Maurizio de Giovanni: The Crocodile – review forthcoming on Crime Fiction Lover

Michael Arditti: The Breath of Night

An incendiary political thriller and a hunt for clues about a dead missionary who is going to be canonised as a saint.  This book is about the Philippines during the Marcos regime and after, with very vivid, harsh and poignant descriptions of daily life and the contrast between rich and poor, expats and local people. The constant shift between time frames work well, as it shows so clearly ‘plus ça change plus c’est la meme chose ‘ and the afterword is a masterpiece in apologetics.

playdateLouise Millar: The Playdate

Believable tale of motherly angst and struggle to balance work and childcare, a social life and relationships with the other sex, all in an anonymous big city. Three main female characters are all plausible and there is much to sympathise with in each one… until you discover that each one of them has some unsavoury secrets.

Poetry:

101 Sonnets

Adam Wyeth: Silent Music – my poetry tutor and a very talented poet indeed (no, he doesn’t read my blog, so I can praise him without hoping for leniency on the next module). More detailed review will be coming up shortly.

 

Gossip/Groupie Fanfiction

bowieAngela Bowie: Backstage Passes

Pamela Des Barres: I’m With the Band

It was interesting to read these two in quick succession, as they are so similar in subject matter, and yet so different in tone. Angela Bowie’s account is quite bitter and all about point-scoring (perhaps understandably so, as Bowie’s super-stardom and drug-taking in the 1970s cannot have been easy to live with, although it sounds like Angela was keen to give as good as she got). She also sounds extremely self-centered and takes herself far too seriously. Meanwhile, Pamela comes across as very needy and rather silly at times, but also self-deprecating and humorous. Not the kind of life I would recommend as aspirational for young women: gain fame by being linked to famous people. The endless recitals of drug-taking and sex scenes become terribly dull and repetitive after a while, rather than titillating.

German:

Hilde Spiel: Ruckkehr nach Wien

French:

Martin Vidberg: Le Journal d’un remplacant  – wise, wry and funny observations (in cartoon format) about life as a supply teacher at a school for children with special emotional needs.

Other:

Courtney Maum: I’m Having So Much Fun Here Without You

And my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month (a meme hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise) was a tough choice, as I enjoyed most of the crime I read this month very much. But in the end, I think the political thriller of Dominique Manotti wins out, as it taught me a lot of new things about the Red Brigades, Italian exiles in France and the pomposity of the French literary world. Besides, who can resist this gorgeous cover?

Manotti

 

 

And Now for Something Completely Different…

Two very different books for a change (and a break from my usual crime or other gruelling subjects): memoirs and poetry.

www.wien.gv.at
http://www.wien.gv.at

Hilde Spiel was a highly versatile Austrian writer and journalist (from a highly integrated Jewish family), who fled to London in 1936 (after the assassination of her beloved university lecturer Moritz Schlick). Her diary of her trip to Vienna in 1946 as a correspondent for the British Armed Forces was originally written in English but was later edited and published in German as ‘Rückkehr nach Wien (Return to Vienna).

This is a very poignant and thoughtful report of a city changed beyond recognition by bombs and defeat… and yet unchanged in many ways (some good, some bad). [All translations my own.]

I must learn everything anew. The cold mouldy stone smell of Viennese houses… the unrelenting stare of the housekeeper… the suspicious, unfriendly smile that was there before the Nazis and will always be there.

hilde spielSpiel refrains from sentimentality. She is clear-sighted and precise in her description of everyday heroism and cowardice, of opportunism and the complicated relationship between the victorious Allies and the local population. She talks to a Count and Countess, who now live in their crumbling little palace in the Russian Sector. They tell her about the day the Russian army descended upon their property, camped in their garden with fifty horses, shattered all their crystal and raped their female servants. The author understands their feeling of helplessness, but cannot help thinking:

Nevertheless, the two of them have lived for seven years side by side with barbarians. Only… their own barbarians were smooth-tongued, able to converse politely about Goethe and Mozart, with good table manners, agreeable hosts and guests, polished, elegant and thoroughly European. Yet they did far worse things behind prison walls and camp fences than the rape of helpless women. It’s only when the barbarians take on their eastern, unvarnished and shameless form that the Count and Countess realise the degeneration of the present day.

This trip is of course also an opportunity for self-reflection. To what extent can we ever go home to that place where we have been happy in the past, when we have changed and the place too has changed in a different way? Who wins in the battle between heart and mind? How much of our true selves do we have to hide or abandon when we become immigrants and have to abide by the rules and cultural mores of our adopted country?

 

I fear that my centre of gravity is somewhere above the skies of Europe, drifting in a cloud above England, Austria, Italy, France, simultaneously attracted and repelled, never really coming down in any of these places… I will have to test again and again where my true home is.

returnViennaSpiel once said that she could never have worked without England, but she couldn’t live without Vienna. Yet, even as she enjoys a few musical performances at the temporarily re-housed Vienna Opera, she wonders:

Is there anything in this city still alive and contemporary, something I can admire unreservedly, that is not soaked up in the past like a sponge …?

Bonus tidbit of information that I discovered while reading the book is that Hilde Spiel spent the first ten years of her childhood on the street next to the one where I spent mine and had a similar near-Catholic experience in the very same little parish church (which is featured on the cover of the English language edition of her book).

For an additional book review and information on how to get hold of this fascinating book, see here.

 

 

sonnetsThe second book is a collection of 101 Sonnets published by Faber and Faber.  Poet, writer and musician Don Paterson curates this eclectic collection of one of the best-loved and most popular verse forms in the Western world, often with witty asides about each poem. For instance, about Elizabeth Daryush’s Still Life:

The best breakfast every described, though the end of the poem you want to go at it with a cricket bat. It’s hard to know exactly where the poet stand on all this, but we can perhaps sense her disapproval in the pampered insularity of the scene. I hope.

I had no idea there were so much breadth and variety of modern sonnets, from Seamus Heaney’s beautifully controlled ‘The Skylight’ to Elizabeth Bishop’s unconventional two-stress lines to Douglas Dunn’s blissful description of a summer of ‘Modern Love’. A volume to treasure and dip into, again and again. (And yes, that explains my own two recent sonnet attempts.)