#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.

How to Finish The Brothers Karamazov on Your nth Attempt

This is not a review of one of the best-known books in the literary canon. Instead, it’s my reaction to it, how I finally tamed the monster.

We all have at least one of the great classics lurking in our subconscious, taunting us with its impregnable unread status. My Achilles heel has been The Brothers Karamazov and I considered myself beaten after abandoning it no less than five times in three decades. It wasn’t even that I didn’t like Dostoevsky – he is, in fact, one of my favourite Russian authors and I lapped up all of his other work, even the gloomiest ones. Nor was it the length that put me off. I managed to get through Remembrance of Things Past (where far less exciting stuff happens) and War and Peace (although the war scenes did not enthrall me) relatively unscathed, while Genji Monogatari is one of my favourite books of all time.

So it was with some trepidation that I picked it up in December to read straight after the hugely enjoyable Sakhalin Island by Chekhov. To my astonishment, I not only managed to finish it in less than a month, but I actually enjoyed it this time! What made it different this time? Here are some top tips for vanquishing the beast (some of them tongue-in-cheek, some of them perfectly serious).

Clear your schedule:

I knew I had the Christmas holidays coming up, and that I wasn’t likely to go anywhere very soon, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to lie in bed for an hour or two in the morning and another couple of hours in the evening. I’d often find myself gravitating towards it during the day as well for a few pages.

Pick a good translation:

I had tried reading the book in Romanian, German and English translations, but none of them stuck. This one by Ignat Avsey (Oxford University Press World’s Classics) felt very fresh natural, really conveyed the feel of the spoken language of rural Russia, without sounding old-fashioned or ‘too exotic’.

Alternate with lighter reads:

When the going got tough, when bad news was forthcoming and I just couldn’t stomach any more Russian gloom and drama, I would switch to something lighter and more escapist, for example crime fiction like Ruth Ware’s skiing holiday from hell One by One, or John le Carre’s A Murder of Quality or the cosier puzzle mystery of The Marlow Murder Club by Robert Thorogood. I also watched plenty of lighter films over the holidays, and they too helped to lift the mood.

Skim read the bits that bore you rigid:

This will not be a popular piece of advice with the purists, but it’s what got me through. Classic though he is, Dostoevsky does tend to go on and on upon the slightest provocation. Alyosha and Ivan go to a tavern together and Ivan launches into several chapters’ worth of lengthy explanations about his world view and doubts and metaphorical tales. It sometimes feels like every single character has far too much of a back story, and that the unnamed narrator has to share all the gossip. As for the scenes in the monastery – that’s where I abandoned the book in the past. Father Zosima’s life and sayings were just a step too far for me – especially since he then disappears from the book without too much of an impact on the actions of any of the other characters (other than Alyosha). Even the sub-plot with the schoolboys befriended by Alyosha was not really all that necessary to the main story, although I personally quite liked it.

So yes, Dostoevsky tries to bring pretty much everything into this story: all of human philosophy, faith, psychology, as well as a good deal of discussion about the unique Russian traits (if those exist). At times it is simply too much, and he could have done with a good editor, but if you find some bits less enthralling than the others, read them a bit diagonally instead of giving up, because there will be plenty of good bits to follow.

Make notes as you go along:

I half-filled the book with post-it flags. There were so many interesting quotes and paragraphs that I wanted to reread, to remember, to return to. Perhaps, with so much currently going on in the news, and so much anger and sadness at the state of the world, the quotes that particularly struck me were the ones that seemed to show that human nature has not really changed over the years and has certainly not kept pace with any technological improvements.

Everyone says they hate wickedness but deep down they all love it.

Miracles never bother a realist. A true realist, if he is a non-believer, will always find within himself the strength and the ability not to believe in miracles. And if he believes, it’s because he wants to believe.

He prided himself on his ability to judge by appearances, a pardonable weakness in one who was 50, an age when an intelligent, well-to-do man starts to take himself seriously, sometimes even against his better judgement.

He who is false to himself is also the most likely to get offended. After all, it is sometimes very gratifying to feel offended… blow it out of all proportion so as to attract attention.

One can love one’s neighbour in the abstract and sometimes even at a distance, but close up almost never.

What is horrifying is that such dreadful crimes have ceased to shock us. What should horrify us is not that a certain individual commits an atrocity, but that we take these atrocities for granted.

We can be enthused by the noblest of ideals, only on condition that we don’t have to expend any effort, make any sacrifices, above all, that we needn’t pay anything. Paying is something we really resent…receiving, that’s really up our street.

The real world not only bestows rights but itself imposes enormous obligations… if we want to behave like civilised human beings… we must act rationally… not to harm our fellow man.

Additionally, I shared my enthusiasm by tweeting the shorter quotes, which sometimes led to people commenting. This helped to create a sense of community, even though I wasn’t reading it at the same time as anyone else.

Don’t expect to like the characters or identify with them:

Let’s be honest: the Karamazov family is pretty vile, as are many of the people around them. Dostoevsky seems to be playing with animal stereotypes there. The father is a greedy, selfish pig. Dmitry is a vain, flighty, spendthrift peacock. Ivan is a self-absorbed, supercilious fox. Smerdyakov is a secretive, nasty, double-crossing rat, while Grushenka and Katya are both volatile, extravagant and catty. Even my dear Alyosha is too much of an idealist, a bit of a rabbit or deer caught in the headlights and often used by those who are bolder than him. What struck me most is how operatic and over the top the whole story is, with lots of melodramatic set-pieces.

There was perhaps only one character in the whole book that I could somewhat identify with, and she is a very minor one: the mother of one of the schoolboys, Kolya Krasotkin, a single mother with a gentle but cheerful character, who does so much for her only son that he gets teased about it at school.

It always seemed to her that Kolya was aloof towards her, and on occasion she would weep hysterically and begin to reproach him for his aloofness. The boy did not like this, and the more anyone tried to elicit expressions of sentiment from him the more stubborn he became, as if on purpose. However he behaved thus not deliverately but involuntarily – such was his nature. His mother was mistaken; he loved her dearly, what he hated was ‘all this soppiness’…

These little observations, the psychological depth and understanding the author often shows for even his secondary characters, the subtleties of language or rich hidden meanings make this book feel both hugely specific and yet truly universal. What to make of that strange narrator, for instance, who seems to know far more than he really should, but is not an objective omniscient point of view at all, and even claims he cannot remember details from the trial.

Appreciate the humour:

Amid all the serious philosophical debate about the presence or absence of God, about the flaws of mankind and the absurdity of existence, I had forgotten that Dostoevsky can also be very funny. There are several scenes that have great comic potential, for example the clash between the Poles and the Russians, the misunderstanding between Dmitry and Mrs Khokhlaķova when it comes to her giving him money (and how she insists she is giving him far more than that, she is offering him the possibility to get involved in mining). But my favourite is the scene when the devil appears at Ivan’s side in the guise of a fairly polite, former serf-owner who has now become a mere hanger-on, and mocks all of his assumptions and beliefs. I could imagine him as a rather ridiculous looking Jacob Rees-Mogg, apparently all reasonable and cultured, but actually deeply vicious and immoral.

I’m a much maligned person… I’m blessed with a kind and cheerful disposition; I’ve turned my hand to vaudeville and that sort of thing. You seem determined to cast me as a grey-haired Khlestakov, but I’m destined for far greater things. I was singled out by some sort of prehistoric decree, which I’ve never been able to understand, as epitomising ‘negation’, but in fact I am genuinely kind and just not suited for negation. But no, I have to go forth and negate; without negation there would be no staire, and what’s the good of a magazine without a critics’ section… they made me the scapegoat and forced me to contribute to the critics’ section.

What torments? Oh, don’t ask, we used to have all sorts, but now we’ve gone over to moral torments, ‘pangs of conscience’ and all that rubbish. We owe that to you too, to your ‘relaxation of moral standards’. And who has benefited? Only the unscrupulous, because what are pangs of conscience to those who have no conscience?

I’m very sensitive and impressionable when it comes to artistic effects. But common sense… kept me within the proper bounds… purely out of a sense of duty and because of my social position, I felt bound to repress my virtuous impulse and to stick to nefarious deeds. All the credit for virtue goes to someone else, and I’m left with just a handful of dirty tricks.

Yes, if I were Dostoevsky’s editor in the present-day, I would advise him to start with the crime and the trial instead of the long lectures in the first half of the book, which made me abandon ship so many times. Nevertheless, I am not only glad I persevered with it, but I truly liked it this time round. There is a reason why some books are classics, why they still have so much to say even hundreds of years after they were first published. I have no idea how Shakespeare or Dostoevsky or Stendhal or Flaubert or Chekhov managed to gain such deep insights into human psychology, but their characters are unforgettable, and both modern and timeless.

More Creative When Living Abroad?

Break the RulesIs it true that artists, composers and writers who live abroad are more creative?  There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for it:  Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Stravinsky, Nabokov…  The list just goes on and on.  And of course it’s received wisdom that travel broadens the mind.

In 2008-2009 a flurry of articles appeared, mostly co-authored by Maddux and Galinsky, examining the links between living abroad and creativity.  They talk about the dangers of allowing yourself to be limited by a single culture or worldview:

To the extent that culture consists of a set of preexisting, routinized, and chronically accessible ideas, it
may limit the generation of creative thoughts.

Multicultural living experience, meanwhile  – and by that they mean not just a tourist briefly visiting a place, but actual immersion for  extended periods of time in another country – has the following consequences:

1) it exposes you to many new ideas and concepts – the larger your pool of ideas, the more likely you are to come up with new combinations of ideas

2) you recognise that the same form or appearance can have different meanings in different contexts – sensitivity and ability to distinguish between surface and depth

3) even when you go back to your own culture, you may be more curious and willing to access unconventional knowledge

4) you become more comfortable with addressing contradictory thoughts, values and beliefs, become able to integrate them into your own worldview

Dressing up showIn other words, living abroad enhances the ability to ‘think outside the box’, to find novel approaches and solutions to problems, to notice and tolerate differences, to create new insights.  All of these elements are important in the creative process, going far beyond merely artistic creativity.These findings are unlikely to surprise us: they make intuitive sense.  The more diversity you experience, the more you are confronted with different values and languages, the richer your personal repository of sounds and pictures with which to decorate your new canvas.

Of course, there are some methodological and conceptual problems with the way this research was conducted.  The first, most obvious  caveat is that correlation does not prove causation.  Perhaps more creative people are naturally more drawn towards living abroad.   Perhaps they have a hard time fitting into their own culture and feel its limitations all too acutely.  Secondly, it is difficult to measure creativity – the tests the researchers used had more to do with creative problem-solving rather than real-life artistic performance.

Carnival maskWhat I did find interesting is that the authors claim you do not gain this richness of experience merely through travelling.  This is where I would like to see more research.  Can it be true that superficial impressions, no matter how strong for sensitive artistic types, are not as valuable?  In other words, it’s not all about motion and change, but also about stopping, digesting and resting. About allowing those changes to trickle through and forever change your interior landscape.

And yet, I wonder if a well-travelled artist might not achieve a more profound understanding of a particular culture than someone who has lived there a while but never made an effort to understand, connect and integrate.  I can think of some expats who only saw what they expected to find in their host countries. I can think of people who never stepped outside their bubble, and for whom living abroad only served to reconfirm their own beliefs and values.