Alice Munro: Too Much Happiness

toomuchhappinessWith an unwitting stroke of irony, this book was shelved, thanks to its promising title, under ‘mood-boosting books’ at my local library. I did wonder a little at that, as past experience with Alice Munro had acquainted me with her sharp eye for dissecting trouble under a seemingly happy façade…

And sure enough, this was another collection of stories with brutal themes – families destroyed by anger and resentment, wrestling for control, manipulation and deceit. Her style is, as always, cool and collected, all about controlled fury rather than rants, about women’s hidden strengths and men’s visible weaknesses, the cruelty of children and the countless small hurts which add up to a lifetime of cracks and fissures.

The title story is about a real person, Sophia Kovalevsky, the first Russian female mathematician and the first woman to hold a professorial chair at a North European university (in Sweden). Munro riffs on the challenges and possibilities of this extraordinary woman, ‘full of glowing and exceptional ideas’, who was both politically engaged and also a prose writer, and who died at the age of forty-one.

We do get to see Sophia’s family in this story, but other stories are much more explicitly about those ties which bind us. And the family is not seen as a place of harbour and refuge in Alice Munro’s world. In fact, quite the opposite: men as dominant bullies taking advantage of young girls who then wreak revenge (‘Wenlock Edge’), men and women as more or less subtle murderers (in ‘Dimensions’ or ‘Free Radicals’), children teasing or harassing those who are different to themselves (‘Face’ or ‘Child’s Play’), first wives being abandoned , families reforming and mothers feeling disappointed about their offspring (‘Deep-Holes’ and ‘Fiction’). These are all people I would hate to encounter in real life… and yet I probably have.

alicemunroOften described as ‘stark and unflinching’, you can certainly understand why this dissection of modern family life is disturbing and unforgettable. I cannot read too much of her in one go, I have to admit. Add to this the fact that Munro often edits her stories quite extensively between the first publication (usually in a literary journal) and the final appearance in a collection, and you can see just sharp her scalpel is, and how precise and exquisite her style.

#ReadingRhys — Short Fiction and Memoir

Smile Please is Jean Rhys’ autobiography, or rather a collection of vignettes about her life in Dominica, London and Paris, left unfinished at the time of her death. She revisits much of the same ground that she has already addressed in her fiction, although it is dangerous to assume that her fiction is confessional. However, it is close in subject matter and style to her short story collection Sleep It Off, Lady, so this is the comparison I shall make.

smilepleaseWhere Jean Rhys succeeds so well, to my mind, is how she takes a certain experience from her own life (her husband’s jail sentence, an abortion, being educated by Catholic nuns, being abandoned) and heightens it, polishing it until it catches all the light of universality.

The first tales in both books are remarkable for their vivid evocation of the Caribbean smells, sounds, heat and colours. But what is remarkable is how there is always something sinister under the lovely trappings. In Smile Please the author does allow herself some wallowing in nostalgia when describing her aunt’s estate in Geneva or carnival or riding or musical evenings, although she also mentions her terrifying nurse Meta, the Englishman who superciliously declared her ‘not a pretty little girl’, the racial tensions. But in the fictional accounts of her childhood the danger is much more apparent, the disillusionment all the more acute. In ‘Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose’ a twelve-year-old girl is inappropriately fondled by an old Englishman, a war hero, on holiday in Jamaica. In ‘Fishy Waters’ white privilege, sense of entitlement and child molestation all come together to create an unpalatable truth which is never explicitly stated, only hinted.

What we do get to see in Smile Please is Jean’s family: her opinionated, generous and charismatic father, her withdrawn, cold mother, early separation from her older brothers and sister, a slight resentment but also protectiveness towards her younger sister who ‘was now the baby, the spoilt and cherished one’, and her great sense of loneliness. She found companionship and consolation in books.

sleepitoffWhen she goes to England however (where the dominant first impression is of a grey, cold, unwelcoming place), she loses her love of books for many years. Scenes from her first encounters with London, falling asleep in the Wallace Collection, her mediocre acting career, dirty bedsits and suspicious landladies are very similar in both books and have indeed been described in other books. This is the landscape and state of mind we associate with Jean Rhys. The narrative voice so often echoes the author’s thoughts that it’s no wonder we confuse the two, yet it’s worth remembering that she liked shape and said, ‘A novel has to have shape, and life doesn’t have any.’

You can detect some of this ‘shapelessness’, a meandering through memories (where one memory gives rise to another), in her autobiography, and not just in the unfinished second part of it. There is a rawness and immediacy to her work in Smile Please.  The words are perhaps less carefully measured out than in her fiction, but we feel we are participating in the author’s thought processes.

Is the following truth or fiction? And does it matter? It certainly explains the self-destructive and passive tendencies of the female characters in Rhys’ novels and stories.

I had started out in life trusting everyone and now I trusted no one. So I had few acquaintances and no close friends. It was perhaps in reaction against the inevitable loneliness of my life that I’d find myself doing bold, risky, even outrageous things without hesitation or surprise. I was usually disappointed in these adventures and they didn’t have much effect on me, good or bad, but I never quite lost the hope of something better or different.

Jean Rhys’ writing represents the poetry of the downtrodden and vanquished, who nevertheless display an obstinate pride from time to time and an occasional wild streak, like the black cat in the story ‘Kikimora’. There remains something untamed about the narrator. Her language is simple, eloquent, almost child-like in its simplicity. The narrators come across as pathetically naive at times, cynical and world-weary at other times, but they often surprise the men in their lives or the reader (and even, occasionally, themselves).

Jean Rhys at about the time of the publication of 'Sleep It Off Lady'
Jean Rhys at about the time of the publication of ‘Sleep It Off Lady’

Inevitably, you’ll find the fictional account (because it was finished) far more lucid about the fear of illness and old age, the inevitable decline and raging against it, and finally some kind of troubled acceptance of death. But there is a lot more self-deprecating humour in her autobiography. Take for instance, her delightful anecdote about being a governess to a small, solemn little boy and getting lost on the way back from the park. So typical of the well-meaning but accident-prone and muddled heroines of Rhys’ novels.

Sometimes now I smile when I think there is a middle-aged, or even elderly, man in Paris with an unnecessary hatred of everything English, and vague memories of a thin Englishwoman in black who tried to kidnap him.

In today’s world, when everyone bares their soul and the kitchen sink on their blogs and in personal memoirs, does Jean Rhys’ brutal honesty still have the power to shock? Perhaps not, but it’s not about the subject matter, the relentless drabness and numbing one’s senses in alcohol. It is about transcending greyness, about turning it into luminous prose. Thank you to Eric and Jacqui for initiating #ReadingRhys week and thereby reminding us once more just what a consummate artist she is.

jeanrhysreadingweek-banner

 

 

Short Stories for Millennials

Another pure coincidence: in the same week, I read short story collections by an American and a British millennial trying to find themselves, love and a purpose to life. But, oh, how different their approach!

slutLauren Holmes: Barbara the Slut and Other People

One story is told from a male point of view, another from a dog’s perspective, but in fact all the stories share the same first-person angsty young person’s voice, recognisably white American female and from a privileged background (regardless of how broke they might be at present). The stories are also not really constructed as stories, more as a slice of life, with no seeming conclusion or character development. They almost feel like writing exercises to me – and, as such, they do succeed. They are funny, often outrageous, with that deadpan honesty and wide-eyed egocentricity that is often endearing even if it makes you squirm a little.

I particularly liked: ‘New Girls’, the story of a youngster moving from America to Germany with her family and having to fit into her new school – although it did feel a little superficial; ‘Desert Hearts’ about a young woman who pretends to be a lesbian to get a job as a sales assistant in a sex shop; the interaction with a confused patient at a sex clinic in ‘Mike Anonymous’; and the title story ‘Barbara the Slut’, which seems almost like a nasty fairytale about American high schools. The 16-year-old Barbara is an absolutely brilliant student but also somewhat indiscriminate with her sexual favours (because she doesn’t believe in men and love), until she turns down one of the boys and gets labelled a slut and publicly bullied/shamed. Oddly enough, another recently read book, Viral by Helen Fitzgerald handles the same topic of labelling and bullying, although in that case it’s largely internet-based.

Perhaps my own high-school years were too long ago or not traumatic enough, perhaps I can no longer relate to the aimless and self-centred rambling of young people (at least as depicted in these stories), but I struggled to empathise with the characters in Lauren Holmes’ stories. The situations described were often quite sad, quite hopeless, yet I never felt emotionally involved.

Anthony Anaxagorou: The Blink that Killed the Eye

blinkBy contrast, these stories punched me in my emotional gut!

We come back to the grey shores of Great Britain, except there is nothing ‘great’ about it. It is perceived as a diminished, impoverished island, with fearful people and dysfunctional families, in this collection of loosely related short stories. We find here stories about birth and death, love and work, stories of violence and unfulfilled needs, of having hope leached out of you again and again. This is a much bleaker view of life, and there are many different and distinct voices, of all ages.

In ‘Bad Company’ we first meet Alex, the person who appears in almost all of the stories and acts as a sort of connection. He is a young man working on a building site and hurts his back badly, but dreams of becoming a poet. In a separate story, ‘Keep Still’, we meet Rupal, stuck in a violent marriage with a drug addict husband. This is a virtuoso monologue chronicling her life of abuse and her feelings of abandonment. In the third story, ‘Building Six’, these two characters come together in a rather unexpected way, seen through the eyes of a young security guard working in an office building. Alex is his older colleague and a stickler for correct procedure: with his inflexibility, he torments Rupal when she forgets her ID pass. She has a nervous breakdown as she attempts to humanise the unforgiving Cerberus. The third time we encounter Rupal, she is dead, viciously stabbed by her husband, whose time in prison we witness in ‘Yellow Daffodil’. Alex reappears in another story, ‘Cowboy’, which seems to take place earlier. He is waiting patiently in the car for his girlfriend to say goodbye to her mother as she prepares to leave home and move in with him, but in the next story their ‘great gamble of life and love’ is falling apart in a morass of expectations drenched in failure, shame and reproaches. Alex then tries to work for a charity dealing with patients with brain injuries and meets Arthur, an old man who shows him ‘an entire universe trapped in a wheelchair’.

I read this book before I met Anthony, but I was familiar with his poetry. This short story collection is certainly the work of a poet: despite the gritty subject matter, there is something so right about the choice of words and the emotional fireworks we are witnessing. These are stories made to be read out loud and to be reread.

Stefan Zweig: Novellas and Short Stories

german-2015

Some upcoming deadlines means that this may well be my last contribution to German literature month. I have enjoyed it greatly and will continue to read the reviews by other participants (and, of course, I will continue to read German literature throughout the year – in fact, I’ve just ordered two books for Christmas).

Stefan Zweig is an old favourite, but it’s been nearly two decades since I last read any of his work. I reread the ‘Chess’ novella and ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’, but I think it was the first time I read ‘Incident on Lake Geneva’ and ‘The Invisible Collection’. It’s these four I want to talk about.

The novella has been filmed many times. This is a German version from 1960, from cinema.de
The novella has been filmed many times. This is a German version from 1960, from cinema.de

Chess‘ is famous for being the only work openly addressing the interrogation methods and political persecution by the Gestapo. It has an interesting structure of a story within a story – or rather two stories within a story, as we also find out more about the background of the reigning world champion in chess, Czentowic – which serves perhaps to create a bit of distance and make the grim tale somewhat more bearable. (It did remind me of the structure of ‘Wuthering Heights’.) It was also the last complete work Zweig wrote before committing suicide and perhaps best conveys his feeling of hopelessness, his loss of idealism and how he felt the world of materialism (in the person of Czentowic) was winning over. Zweig commented at some point how he felt ‘so much of human dignity has gone lost during this century’. Most surprising of all, Zweig himself was not a good chess player at all – but clearly a keen observer of other players.

Joan Fontaine in the film version, from cinema.de
Joan Fontaine in the film version, from cinema.de

By way of contrast, ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman‘ struck me as a bit overblown and sentimental. It throws everything at us: passionate love, undying devotion, a child’s death and self-sacrifice. Yet the end rang true: that the writer to whom this is all addressed (the writer who is supposed to be such a sensitive, empathetic person) still cannot remember the woman whose life he has so dramatically influenced.

Incident on Lake Geneva’ is a very short tale which can be read allegorically. A naked man is fished out of Lake Geneva: he turns out to be a Russian POW who has escaped from camp. He is wild and unkempt, can barely make himself understood, but a hotel-owner who speaks some Russian finally manages to communicate with him. He was trying to swim eastwards towards Russia, which he thought was at the other end of the lake. When he is told that Russia is much farther away, that the country he was fighting for no longer exists, the Tsar is dead, the war not quite over and that he is not free to return home until he completes a lengthy bureaucratic process, he chooses to drown. A heartbreaking story of losing one’s identity and sense of belonging.

unsichbaresammlungThe last one I read was my favourite ‘The Invisible Collection‘: an art dealer visits the home of an old man, his father’s best client, in the hope of getting some valuable sketches and prints from his notable collection. But it turns out that the old man’s wife and daughter have sold the priceless sketches in order to cope with rampant inflation, relying on the fact that the collector is now blind and can no longer tell the real from the fake. A beautiful, moving scene follows, in which the collector leafs through his collection and describes each of his beloved pieces in detail, while the art dealer sees the feeble copies but tries to keep the illusion intact. This is a wonderful story about the power of imagination and passion, the joy that is within us rather than in anything we possess. Ultimately, an uplifting and hopeful story.

 

Displacement and Alienation: Reading between Cultures

Moving between cultures and trying to understand or adapt to a new environment have always been subjects dear to my heart, in my personal, professional and reading life. So it’s no surprise that four of the books I’ve recently finished feature people caught between cultures, either outsiders looking in or insiders trying to see out into the wider world beyond. In reading them, I moved between France, Morocco, Belgium, East and West Germany, American Samoa and San Francisco, Russia, Serbia and London.

pantalonFouad Laroui: L’Etrange Affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine

#TBR14

A fine collection of short stories by this French writer of Moroccan origin. I had previously enjoyed his (fictional) account of being educated at a French school in Morocco, and, despite the uneven quality of the stories, they are often funny and always thought-provoking, a deserved winner of the Goncourt Prize for short fiction in 2013.

There are two very distinct types of short stories in this book. The Moroccan tales told by groups of friends around a table in a cafe are full of humour, interruptions, interjections, digressions and tender absurdity. The title story tells of a Moroccan bureaucrat who’s been sent to Brussels to try to negotiate a good price to buy wheat from the EU… but loses his trousers before the all-important meeting. Faced with a new demand from the Ministry of Education to introduce swimming in the national curriculum, schools in a small Moroccan town not possessed of a single pool prove inventive and introduce ‘dry swimming’.

There are also the more global tales of displacement, of identity, of wondering about origins and the possibility of cross-cultural understanding. The story of a couple unable to quite put an end to their relationship as they meet one final time in Brussels and the short sketch featuring a philosophy teacher being chastised by her student for introducing him to a world of pain and questioning are particularly effective.

fliehganzleisFriederike Schmöe: Fliehganzleis

#TBR15

Larissa Countess Rothenstayn grew up in the GDR but managed to escape to the West and reclaim her ancestral seat in 1975. She has asked Kea Laverde to write her memoirs and Kea is enjoying her company and the peaceful palace gardens. But then the Countess is attacked and left for dead by an intruder. While the police are investigating the incident, Kea starts her own research into the family archive, trying to understand just how the Countess managed to escape to the West (her first attempt was unsuccessful) and also why she is so obsessed with the case of a young girl who drowned in 1968.

This is the second in the series featuring likeable and feisty travel writer turned ghostwriter Kea and her boyfriend, the policeman Nero Keller. This is a book I could particularly relate to, as it is a case that involves the Stasi and escape routes out of the GDR, and how we are never quite rid of the past. Perhaps a slightly more leisurely pace than Anglo-Saxon readers might be used to in their crime fiction (there is quite a bit of historical detail), but a good read and engaging characters. And I love Kea’s two geese Waterloo and Austerlitz (or Loo and Litz). What struck me was how difficult even those belonging to the same German nation find it to understand each other, given that they’ve had a different historical path and living conditions for a number of decades. The title can be roughly translated as ‘escape as quietly as possible’.

I’ve previously done a Q and A with Friederike on what got her hooked on crime fiction.

John Enright: Blood Jungle BalletBloodJungle

#TBR13

I’ve reviewed the first one in the series and always thought that I would end up reading another one, as I enjoyed the description of Samoan culture (from the point of view of a policeman who has grown up in San Francisco). This is the fourth in the series and it has an end-of-series feel to it, as by the end of the story Apelu is burnt out and prepares for retirement on his plantation.

A disquieting string of murders terrorizes the remote, lush island of American Samoa. Det. Sgt. Apelu Soifua has seen a lot in his time with the police force, but even he is unsettled by the bodies that have started piling up. At first, the murders don’t seem connected: a local transvestite found castrated and brutalized, a visiting politician who drops dead on the dance floor, a prison guard and an inmate who kill each other, a priest specialising in exorcism seems to commit suicide. As Apelu works with the hospital’s new medical examiner imported from the US, they establish a disturbing pattern pointing to a serial killer.  Although the idea of a serial killer on such a small island is a bit preposterous, what I really enjoyed about this book is that it runs on Samoan time – the whole investigation takes place over 2 years, which is far more realistic for a serial killer pattern to emerge.

The characters and the interactions are very well written, although the plot did feel a tad predictable and relies on some coincidences to come to a conclusion. There was a LOT of foreshadowing, to the point where I did at times feel like shouting: ‘Get on with the actual thing already!’. And it feels much more serious, elegiac almost, as external events (the war in Iraq, Christian missionaries) affect island life. A mourning for lost paradise – while still acknowledging that paradise has always been illusory.

GorskyVesna Goldsworthy: Gorsky

#TBR16

Gorsky is a Russian oligarch determined to regain the love of his youthful sweetheart, although she is now married to an Englishman. He builds a magnificent abode on the Thames in London, right opposite her own mansion, and hires a Serbian bookseller to put together the most amazing library for him. It is Nikola the bookseller who is telling the story and if you’ve spotted the similarities to The Great Gatsby, that is indeed the case and very deliberate.

I’m not sure what to make of this fan fiction. It is amusing enough to see Gatsby transposed into present-day Chelski and the London of its super-rich (and usually foreign) new residents, and I enjoyed the description of some of the treasured books Nikola digs up, but I don’t quite see the point of this. It doesn’t seem to add much to the original story, except for that foreign point of view, of someone trying to fit in with a culture that is not his own, and that he can never be part of. And, to be honest, I don’t find the lives of the super-rich very interesting at all…

 

Joseph Roth stories in ‘Vienna Tales’

This week is Joseph Roth week at German Literature Month. Although the month itself is hosted by Caroline and Lizzy in equal measure (and you will find many outstanding reviews and discover many enticing authors here) , the Joseph Roth special is hosted by Caroline.

From kuenste-im-exil.de
From kuenste-im-exil.de

Joseph Roth was an Austrian Jew who lived and worked both in Vienna and Berlin, fled to Paris after the rise of Hitler in 1933, and died there in 1939, following a period of alcoholism and depression. He is most famous for that masterpiece of a novel documenting the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Radetzky March (named after the march by Johann Strauss the Elder that is always played at the end of New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra).

The three short stories I am talking about here are really journalistic pieces which Roth wrote in 1920, when he was working as a journalist for several short-lived left-wing newspapers in Vienna.

The first of these, Ausflug (Day Out), is almost an impressionist painting of autumn in Grinzing – the outer district of Vienna where the new wine is served at open-air pubs called Heurigen.

You can smell the new wine already at Schottentor, the number 38 tram is tipsy and staggers off hung with bunches of human bodies.

It’s a very short, slight piece, yet it perfectly conveys the drunken shenanigans of the city-dwellers out on a day trip. Blackmarketeers without table manners (one of the most terrible accusations one can make in good old conservative Vienna), ordering hot chocolate and Sachertorte without really knowing what either of them are, sarcastic descriptions of the contrast between peaceful nature and sleepy suburbia and the almost unbearable despoiling of it by the urban hordes.

Grinzing vineyards.
Grinzing vineyards.

Nearly a hundred years later, the tram No. 38 still follows the same route from Schottentor to Grinzing, and the atmosphere is still the same at the Heurigen and in the Wienerwald. Roth was writing at a time when the great empire had disintegrated and he thought the city would be full of traumatic changes. He could not have foreseen that, even after a further World War, the city would change so little. The black marketeers have been replaced by tourists, the atmosphere in the trams is calmer and more subdued, but the outer districts retain their country feel and green vineyards. The pubs are still full of pleasure-seekers speaking and singing in all languages. And the Sachertorte is still rich and sinful.

The second and third piece are portraits of some of the eccentric characters which are also part of the Viennese landscape. In ‘The Spring Ship’ we meet a boatsman and his family, off a white steam ship on the Danube Canal. The yearning for the great wide world in this small landlocked country is evident here. In ‘The Merry-Go-Round’ it’s Herr Rambousek, director of said merry-go-round, which migrates annually all through the Vorstadt neighbourhoods. He wears a suit of blue corduroy velvet and brandishes a horse-whip. He too reeks of the wider world and its dangerous charms…

In just a few pages we catch a glimpse of the sharp observational skills, irony and wistfulness of the Roth style. Even in his mid-twenties, early on in his writing career, he has the knack of the perfect phrase. “The poodle’s chain of thought is soaked now. It trembles, dripping nerves and water.’ ‘People who have city slicker ties around their necks and the boots of country dwellers on their feet.’

ViennaTalesThe whole book ‘Vienna Tales’ (edited by Helen Constantine, translated by Deborah Holmes, published by OUP) is worth reading for the combination of nostalgic and neuralgic insights into the city and its inhabitants. Ingeborg Bachmann is present with a story about a woman whose bad eyesight permits her to distance herself from any painful realities. Bulgarian-born Dimitre Dinev shows us the tribulations of an asylum-seeker in the centre of (still quite xenophobic) Vienna. Arthur Schnitzler is featured with two previously untranslated stories, while other writers such as Christine Nöstlinger, Veza Canetti, Adalbert Stifter and Heinrich Laube are little-known outside their native country.

This is a review linked of course to that wonderful German Literature Month meme as seen below. I’m discovering so many outstanding new writers thanks to having joined this initiative, I am truly grateful. And that’s my Thanksgiving moment for the week! Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends!

 

Bernhard Schlink: Liebesfluchten (Flights of Love)

My second review for German Literature Month, expertly organised and hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. Another prize winning author, best known for his novel ‘The Reader’, this former law professor and judge is constantly preoccupied with the ‘burden of being German’.

In this short story collection, the more obvious immediate subject is love – in all its forms and nuances. It’s about taking flight and finding refuge in love (or in our idealised view of it) or about love that has flown away after many years of marriage. It’s about suppressed yearning and regrets for things not done, about the comfort of habits and rituals, and about the consequences of attempting to make the grand gesture. The protagonists are all men, of different ages, but virtually all slightly confused loners, no matter what outward trappings of success they might have. The author seems to build up towards a surprise ending in each story – yet the surprise is often not quite as dramatic as we might expect. Perhaps the surprise is that life goes on even after we try to change it.

I found ‘Girl and Lizard’ a bit creepy, about a man’s obsession with a family painting, which inhibits his ability to have normal relationships with other women. ‘Sugar Peas’ and ‘The Other’ are about affairs and keeping secrets, with twists which show us that nothing is simply black-and-white when it comes to marriages or extramarital relationships. ‘The Son’ is about a German professor sent to a country in the grips of a civil war as an international observer – and how he rediscovers his human empathy and his love for his son. ‘The Woman at the Gas Station’ is the most successful story in terms of capturing that universal human longing for the unattainable, the wondering ‘what if…’, the anxiety about missed opportunities in life, the attempt to rekindle a love grown cold.

Kann man sich in den anderen ein zweites Mal verlieben? Kennt man den anderen beim zweiten Mal nicht viel zu gut? Setzt Verlieben nicht voraus, daß man den anderen noch nicht kennt, daß er noch weiße Flecken hat, auf die man eigene Wünsche projizieiren kann?… Oder gibt es Liebe ohne Projektion?

Can you fall in love with the same person twice? Don’t you know the other person far too well the second time round? Doesn’t falling in love assume that you don’t quite know the other, that there are blank spots in which you can project your own dreams?… Or is there such a thing as love without projection? (my translation)

LiebesfluchtenYet my favourite two stories are more overtly political: they are about the clash of two cultures, two ideologies, as well as two people in love (or friendship). In ‘A Little Fling’ (ironic title – ‘Der Seitensprung’ in the original is slightly more neutral), it’s about the friendship between a West German man and an East German family, the betrayals on both sides – personal, political – and the question whether we can maintain a relationship even after we become aware of the betrayals. Can we still live with someone when we know them all too well, know even the worst that they are capable of?

Alle Ost-West-Geschichten waren Liebesgeschichten, mit den entsprechenden Erwartungen und Enttäuschungen. Sie lebten von der Neugier darauf, was am anderen fremd war, von dem, was er hatte und man selbst nicht… Wieviel gab es davon! Genug, um aus dem Winter, als die Mauer fiel, einen Frühling ost-west-deutscher Liebesneugier zu machen. Aber dann war, was fremd und anders und weit weg war, auf einmal nah, gewöhnlich und lästig…

All East-West stories were love stories, with the same expectations and disappointments. They thrived on the curiosity about what made the other different, what they had that we did not have… So many such stories! Enough, to make a spring of east-west German love-hunger out of wintry landscape of the Fall of the Wall. But then everything that was foreign, different and distant became, all of a sudden, close, common and annoying… (my translation)

‘The Circumcision’ shows a young German man trying to come to grips with his cultural heritage when he falls in love with an American Jew. In several interesting dialogues between the couple and their friends and relative, we discover how deep-rooted prejudices can be. The man, Andi, riles against his girlfriend’s declaration that she loves him ‘in spite of him being German’. He reproaches her family for not being at all genuinely curious about him: ‘You meet me above all with prejudice. You know everything about the Germans, ergo, you know everything there is to know about me.’ And ultimately, self-censorship creeps into their relationship – so many subjects they dare not discuss openly, so many trigger points they have to be careful to avoid, so many opinions they dare not voice.

Bernhard_Schlink
From http://www.daad.de

Schlink is a very different writer from Alois Hotschnig, and not just in subject matter. His stories very much anchored in reality, there are only flights of fancy in his stories, not flights into surrealistic landscapes. He is also much less ‘slant’ in style: he tackles subjects head-on, he introduces quite explicit (sometimes unrealistically so) dialogue and does not shy away from underlining a point, to make sure the reader gets the message. He is a writer of ideas, one to provoke discussions at book clubs or to cause one to ruminate about one’s own life, rather than one to admire stylistically or to seek to emulate. I can’t say I was uniformly delighted by all of these stories, but I rather admire the fact that there is no neat ending to most of the stories. For such an emphatic writer, it must have been hard to abstain from tying up all the loose ends.