#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: 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: Robert Seethaler – Der Trafikant

germlitmonth

It is 1937 and 17 year of Franz Huchel leaves his beloved mother and the little village on the Attersee in the Salzkammergut (an idyllic area of Austria) to come to Vienna to train to be a tobbaconist, i.e. a seller of newspapers, cigars and other small merchandise in the formerly ubiquitous Tabak-Trafik stores of the Austrian capital.

tabaktraficOtto Trsnjek, his new boss, is a bit grumpy and demanding, but then he did lose a leg in the war and he hates politics because of its impact on the cigar industry. Franz is naive but means well and struggles to learn more about tobacco and the newspapers. He is fascinated by one of the regulars, Professor Sigmund Freud, famous by then all over Austria. As Franz sets out to discover the world of women and affairs of the heart, he asks Freud for advice, which leads to some of the funniest scenes of the book. He tells Freud that he plans to read all of his books, to which the elderly professor replies [my translation rather than the official one, with some cutting of the text]:

‘Haven’t you got anything better to do that to read the dusty old tomes of an old man?’

‘Like what, Professor?’

‘You’re asking me? You’re the young one here. Go out in the fresh air. Take a trip. Have fun. Find a girl.’

Franz looked at him wide-eyed… ‘A girl? If only it were so easy…’

‘Well, most people have done it.’

‘That doesn’t mean that I will.’

‘And why wouldn’t you, of all people?’

‘Where I come from, people know something about timbering or how to eke money out of the summer tourists. They don’t know a thing about love!’

‘That’s normal. Nobody knows anything about love.’

der-trafikant-robert-seethaler-1So this is a coming of age story, but given the setting and time period, you just can feel in your bones that it’s not going to end well. This sense of doom permeates the whole book, although there are plenty of light, amusing moments. Seethaler is a great storyteller, and the book is filled with memorable characters.

Franz pursues his love for a round-faced Bohemian girl through the Prater amusement park and the whole city, but is soon disappointed, while Freud proves to be no help whatsoever in affairs of the heart. However, he does take the old man’s advice on another matter: every morning he writes out his dreams from the night before and sticks them in the shop window. This attracts clients: some of them can relate to those strange dreams, but it leaves many more of them shaking their heads. The symbols of hatred, the day-to-day bullying or ignoring or complaining by the neighbours starts to build up. The shop front is daubed in pigs’ blood for daring to serve Jewish customers. Dr. Freud decides to leave the country. And Otto and his disciple… well, you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly what happens to them. The ending is perhaps just slightly sentimental, yet feels completely right.

Of course, with my current obsession about relationships between parents and children, I particularly adored the exchange of postcards and letters between Franz and his mother: such sweet, warm exchanges, yet very no-nonsense too. A mother all too aware that her (still) teenager is embarrassed by her, shows a lot of patience and understanding when he falls in love, but who insists: ‘Stop calling me ‘Mother’ in your letters, I’m your Mama and that’s that!’

tobacconistGood news: following the success of A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, this other novel of his has just recently been translated into English as The Tobacconist, transl. by Charlotte Collins, published by Picador. Bad news: the cover shows some random Central European townscape, rather than the Votivskirche/Währinger Straße area of Vienna, which provides the backdrop for the story.

See below a more suitable suggestion, although probably from 1910s.

From Vienna.at website
From Vienna.at website