Riveting Germans: 30 Years Later…

Or, to be precise, two riveting Germans and an equally riveting Georgian now living in Germany!

With impeccable timing, the day I posted my review of Julia Franck’s Die Mittagsfrau, I got to see the author at the British Library, in an event organised by the European Literature Network (headed by Rosie Goldsmith). She was joined on stage by poet and essayist Durs GrĂĽnbein and playwright and novelist Nino Haratischwili (or should that be ‘shvili’ for English readers rather than ‘schwili’ for German ones?), whose monumental work The Eighth Life (for Brilka) has just been published in English by Scribe. The translators Charlotte Collins, Ruth Martin and Karen Leeder were also there and read the English version of extracts from the authors’ work.

Ooops, I may have bought a few books once again! Zoe has given up on me as incorrigible…

There was a lot of ground covered in the nearly 90 minutes of discussions and readings, but what particularly stuck in my mind:

Julia Franck and her identical twin sister wrote and enacted fantasy stories together as they were growing up, a bit like the Brontës. She mentioned her Communist grandmother, who was so reluctant to give up her dream of an alternative, better Germany even after the fall of the Wall. She also spoke about the humiliation and cruelty of life as a refugee, the contrast between the utopia you are chasing and the reality of what you find (especially when you are not allowed to integrate into the host society), and why in her book West, the refugee camp itself is a main protagonist. When Rosie Goldsmith asked her why there were so many cruel or cold women in her books (or women who could be interpreted as such), she replied:

Women are not necessarily the better people. I have experienced cruel women in my life… But also what we expect from mothers nowadays is so different from what it was 50-100 years ago. In those days women tried to be strong, to survive, to solve problems, they had no time to be helicopter parents, so they might come across as cold and neglectful.

Durs GrĂĽnbein admitting that their generation of German writers were privileged to have the material (of the division and then reunification) to write about. Also, why he prefers poetry: it is easier to swerve from past to present, to be in both time frames and in many different places simultaneously. I loved one particular phrase from one of his poems:

Ist der Sand enttäuscht wenn die Dämmerung fällt?

Is the sand disappointed when evening falls?

Meanwhile, Nino Haratischwili claims she had no intention of writing such an epic novel, and that if she had realised from the outset that it would take four years and 1200 pages to write, she might have abandoned the project before she even started. She was focusing initially only on Georgia in the 1990s, a messy, confused period with the fall of the Soviet Empire and lots of infighting. She was trying to answer her own questions about Georgia’s history and why her country keeps on repeating the same old mistakes, but found that it took her earlier and earlier in time. She also said she wrote in German out of laziness (because she would have had to translate it from Georgian later on), but also because writing in her second language gave her a freedom and a sense of adventure and playfulness.

In your mother tongue you use words and expressions more automatically, but in another language you question things more and have more freedom to experiment. I still have this feeling of discovery in German.

The evening was also an opportunity to launch the newly published German Riveter magazine, with illustrations by the wonderful Axel Scheffler. Containing exclusive extracts and reviews of many new German authors, it also contains an article about German crime fiction written by Kat Hall (mainly) and yours truly (very tangentially).

All in all, a brilliant evening which I’d been looking forward to for months, well worth the logistical acrobatics of arranging for alternative pick-up of the French exchange student.

#GermanLitMonth Julia Franck’s tale of parental abandonment

Very nearly the end of the month and this may be the only German book I get to finish. Great plans fail in the execution, don’t they? However, I’ve been watching the first series of Babylon Berlin on NowTV, so I feel immersed in that period, almost as if I’d participated in the Berlin Alexanderplatz readalong.

Julia Franck’s strangely entitled Die Mittagsfrau (The Noon Witch, apparently after a Slavic myth) has been translated as either The Blind Side of the Heart in the UK (translated by Anthea Bell) or The Blindness of the Heart in the US (although still with Anthea Bell as a translator). Like in her other novels, Franck does a fantastic job of blending the personal with the historical, showing how we are all shaped by the political and social forces of the times we live in… and yet are often unaware of them, so self-absorbed are we.

Helene and her sister Martha are mixed-race (their mother is Jewish and their father Aryan German) but barely aware of the fact. Their father dies as a result of his wounds in the First World War and their mother becomes increasingly more depressed and erratic, with severe hoarding instincts, proving utterly unable to take care of the girls. They both hope to study medicine, but end up working as nurses in Weimar Berlin. Their brief period of freedom, fun and partying soon comes to an end. Helene endures heartbreak and marriage to an unforgiving man who feels she owes him because he faked ‘pure descent’ papers for her so she could continue working under the Nazis. It is a picture of the average person in wartime Germany, the great complicit masses, who were not heroic, who were disturbed by what they see around them, yet unable to do or say anything for fear of endangering their own lives.

What I liked most about this book is that it’s not judgmental or preachy at all – it just shows the unbearable sadness of a life marked by great upheavals, and how all we can hope for is to survive, albeit with huge scars. After the initial fireworks in the opening (more about that in the next paragraph), the piling on of disappointments, traumas and horrors both great and small is done subtly, as gradually as it happens in real life.

It has been grim reading, so I struggled with it especially in the chapters depicting the sisters’ childhood, but it’s not relentlessly dark. There are some comic moments (although always with a dark undertone). For instance, when Brecht’s Threepenny Opera literally makes Helene throw up. Or Helene’s wedding night, with her new husband very keen to show off his sexual prowess. But it’s the small, perfectly observed scenes where private life is suddenly confronted with the bigger picture that are most memorable: hearing her son sing a taunting song about Jews that everyone at school was repeating; seeing her mother in a mental asylum and having to pretend she is not related to her; going mushroom hunting in the forest and realising that the horrible stench coming from the train that is standing on the tracks there is not bovine or pig dung.

Everyone who has read the book (or who refuses to read the book) will refer to the shocking prologue, in which a mother abandons her 7 year old son on a station platform. We know from the start that it is 1945, that they are Germans trying to evacuate from Stettin (now part of Poland), that the father has abandoned the family and that the mother is a nurse who has been raped by Soviet soldiers, but it takes the rest of the book to examine just how the heart of a young girl has hardened, how desperate and hopeless she feels and how she arrives at the conclusion that sending her son alone back to relatives in Germany is the best thing she can do for him. In a very poignant epilogue, we also see how things have turned out for the son and what lasting effect this has had on him.

I’ve had a heated debate with a Russian friend who condemns Marina Tsvetaeva for leaving her daughers in an orphanage for a while during the Moscow famine during the Civil War in Russia 1917-1920. Her younger daughter died and my friend argues that no mother should ever abandon her children, even if she thinks that is what’s best for them at the time. But I think it’s easy to be judgemental when you are not living through such extreme times. We’ll never know for sure how we would react if we were faced with similar desperate circumstances. I also abhor the double standard: men have often abandoned their families for far less reason, while women are vilified if they do it.

This is not to say that we should admire or like Helene. No one emerges happy and pristine from the messiness of life lived with far fewer choices than most of us can imagine having nowadays. It is a wonderful metaphor for Germany, but like all good books, it has a truly universal message. I think of those parents who reluctantly, with broken hearts and with their last desperate reserves of money, send their children abroad to escape horrible wars and persecution in their own homes, without knowing if they will ever end up in a safe place or if they will ever see them again…

WWWednesday, 13 Nov 2019

Roughly once a month, I manage to take part in this weekly Wednesday meme, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. 

The three Ws are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

However, thinking how my reading always reflects either my current preoccupations or moods or even the things I am running away from… I thought I would extend this into a kind of ‘diary’. What am I reading and why? What do I expect to get out of it? What is my state of mind as I read books simultaneously, especially when they contradict each other?

Currently reading:

For #GermanLitMonth I decided to do my own personal Germans in November reading session. However, for some reason I’m not feeling it this year and am struggling to get any reading done in German. Perhaps the anniversary of 30 years since the fall of the Wall made me melancholy rather than celebratory, as I thought of all the missed opportunities and how since then the world seems to have become more divided than united.

Perhaps it’s the choice of books.

Julia Franck’s Die Mittagsfrau is an exciting enough read – it starts with the abandonment of a child by his mother, but then we go back in time to find out the mother’s back story. Let down by family and fatherland, hurt by trauma and inability to relate to others after repeated disappointments, the book does not excuse the mother, but certainly makes her three-dimensional rather than a monster. I am enjoying the crisp language and lyrical but unsentimental descriptions of childhood impressions, but oh my goodness, the subject matter is grim!

The second German book is also about a mother but we jump forward to 1967, with Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries. We follow Gesine Cresspahl, a fairly recent German immigrant to the States, for a year in her life. Each diary-like entry contains some headlines from the New York Times, which she likes to buy and read every single day, but also thoughts on her current life with her young daughter (who is becoming more American every day) as well as her family history during the rise of the National Socialists. I initially joined the weekly readalong organised at Mookse and Gripes, but have fallen behind. I expected the ‘one entry a day’ reading method to be completely appropriate, but perhaps it is too little and makes me feel too detached from the book? On the other hand, when I try to binge read, it is such a dense work that I risk suffering indigestion.

By way of contrast, I am really enjoying the third book I am reading at the moment. Bogdan Teodorescu’s Nearly Good Lads is political crime fiction with a great satirical edge. Although it takes place in Romania (and is sharp and witty, making fun of certain Romanian foibles and political or social scandals), there is a lot there for readers in other countries to relate and enjoy. I am very excited about potentially translating this book in the near future!

Finished reading:

I’ve been a bit slow with my reading, since I had a lot of paperwork to look at and a lot of emotional stress with going to court for the divorce settlement last week. There was an initial moment of euphoria on Wednesday evening, when I thought that at last everything was finished and I could move on. However, just like Brexit, this is just the end of the beginning, there will still be many things to sort out over the next few months, plus I am beginning to wonder whether it was worth fighting so hard to keep the house.

Appropriately enough, the book I read last week was a domestic thriller by Bogdan Teodorescu called Liberty. A successful female doctor, married to a surgeon, has a book dedicated to her, although she doesn’t know the author at all. Worse still, the book, though fictional, seems to mirror her life but accuses her of being a slut and comes close to pornography in many instances. It is so accurate in some of the non-sexual descriptions that even those closest to her, family and friends, even her husband, believe that she has indeed done those dubious deeds. So who is out to destroy her reputation and why? An indictment also of the macho Romanian society, where a married man is encouraged to have multiple affairs if he is successful, while a woman is shamed for it.

Reading next:

I realise that all of my German reads are rather dark and melancholy, so I might have to delve in something more cheery in the immediate future. The bright yellow cover of The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao by Brazilian writer Martha Batalha (transl. Eric M.B. Becker) attracted me, as did the story of a talented musician turned housewife who attempts to introduce a bit of fun and creativity into her humdrum life and finds her long-lost sister in the process. I believe there is a film adaptation too, which won the Un certain regard prize in Cannes this year, although it seems to be more haunting in depiction of female resilience than the comic delight I am hoping for.

Birthday, Berlin and Books

Or ‘The Three Bs that made me very happy this weekend’.

Can heartily recommend: celebrating with your two oldest and kindest friends who have also just turned the same age and still have pictures of you giggling together from your youth, feeling loved, dancing to 99 Luftballons and Falco’s Der Kommissar (songs from our childhood), watching football with German friends unhappy about the way their team played but relieved that they won nevertheless, home-cooked party food, lots of dancing, partying with former Olympic rowers, walk along the banks of the Tegeler See at sunset, walk through the tourist-thronged streets of pretty much anywhere in Museumsinsel area and not feel like a tourist, stop at the biggest bookshop in the city with a friend who has the same literary tastes as you do, not mind the rain, discover your friend lives just opposite the house where Christopher Isherwood stayed during his year in Berlin.

To be honest, the Berliners didn’t understand much of the song lyrics either – it’s very Viennese dialect and humour.

Not so good: forgetting your mobile phone at home, so I couldn’t take any pictures [but I have the memories!] And having your flight delayed by two hours on the way home.

Wonderful book haul, though, especially for hand luggage only standards.

And great reasons for acquiring each one of them. From top to bottom:

  1. Pascal Mercier: Perlmann’s Silence – Swiss writer who was professor of philosophy at the University of Marburg where I spent a year during my Ph.D. The topic of the novel is also one that is perpetually fascinating to me: academic conference, plagiarism, professional identity and murder…
  2. Daniel Kehlmann: Measuring the World – not as well known as more recent works by Kehlmann which have been translated since, this story of German scientists Humboldt and Gauss, and their obsession with time/space displacement.
  3. Ilinca Florian: When We Learnt to Lie – Romanian film director and writer, this is her debut novel, about a Romanian family during the last few years of Communism, a society about to transform profoundly.
  4. Joachim Riedl: The Genius the Meanness – Austrian writer, who studied in Cambridge and has written a lot about Jewish life in Vienna. This book, originally published in 1992, was one of the first to question the golden shimmer of fin de siecle Vienna and show its tarnished side as well. This was a present from my Viennese friend, who shares my critical love relationship with that city.
  5. Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall – have wanted to read this one for ages, but not in translation. I don’t know why I wasn’t aware of its existence before, since it was first published in 1963 (and so has nothing to do with the Berlin Wall), well before I was born, but I only started hearing about it about 4-5 years ago. Perhaps the ultimate dystopian novel about human isolation.
  6. Julia Franck: The Midday Woman – I was impressed by Franck’s book West and when I asked my friend what else I could read by her, she said that this novel is perhaps one of her favourite novels of the past decade or more. This one has apparently also been translated into English by the much-missed Anthea Bell as The Blind Side of the Heart.
  7. Eva Menasse: Quasi-Crystals – Another author I really liked (having read some short stories by her). I was thinking of acquiring her prize-winning historical novel about a Jewish-Catholic mixed family in Vienna (entitled Vienna), but then I found this book about a woman at 13 different stages in life. Turns out my friend knows the author personally (not just because Vienna is a small town and she is of the same age as we are, but their sons went to the same school in Berlin too).

 

 

 

Julia Franck: West (transl. Anthea Bell)

german-2015

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 MĂĽller, 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.