#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…

#1930Club: Camil Petrescu

1930 was a bit of a bumper year for great literary works, all around the world, so I couldn’t resist taking part in this reading club hosted by Simon and Karen this week.

My choice is a book which is very well-known in Romania (required reading, I believe, in secondary school): Camil Petrescu’s Ultima noapte de dragoste, întâia noapte de război ( Last Night Of Love, First Night of War). It is considered one of the first modern psychological novels in Romanian literature and combines the story of a marriage beset by jealousy and lack of trust, as well as horrific scenes from the First World War (in which the author himself participated). Camil Petrescu believed that ‘humans are at their most authentic when they are confronted by love and death’ and the entire novel is a close exploration of one such individual drive to extremes by both love and the imminence of death.

To summarise the story: Stefan Gheorghidiu is a philosophy student who is flattered by the attentions of one of the most beautiful fellow students at the University of Bucharest, the angelic blonde Ela. They get married, much against the advice of their respective families, since they are penniless. But then one of Stefan’s uncles dies and leaves them an inheritance significant enough to allow them to enter ‘high society’. And everything starts to change. Stefan is not keen on the corruption and cruelty he finds in this new environment. Much to his horror, he discovers his wife is more materialistic and shallow than he had imagined and he starts suspecting her of infidelities. When Romania enters the war in 1916, he is on the frontline in the Carpathians and is considering desertion in order to have one last meeting with his wife, to convince himself that she does still love him and is faithful to him. He does not quite manage to allay his fears regarding Ela, but when his battalion finally plunges into war after a long period of waiting, he encounters so many traumatic situations and losses that he realises just how petty and meaningless his worries had been.

The two-volume edition my parents owned. A rather eloquent, minimalist cover.

Back in my teens, when I first read the book, of course I was more interested in the love bits. The reverse has happened when I reread it now. (Just like with War and Peace, where the girls broadly speaking liked the peace and love bits and the boys liked the battlescenes). The love scenes, particularly one infamous one where he tries to ‘teach’ his wife philosophy while she is being kittenish around him, wearing a more or less translucent nightie, seemed both cloying and unbearably patronising. Overall, Stefan is not a nice man, he jumps far too quickly to conclusions. As soon as he sees his wife flirting with a man, he runs off to a brothel or takes up with another woman to ‘punish’ her. He is far too prone to see women as mere objects of his desire, put on earth to flatter him and obliged to listen to his opinions, even commenting how his wife’s body has gone all flabby in her old age – possibly her mid to late 20s at most! It is quite possible that Ela does end up cheating on him, but boy, does he ever deserve it!

The main protagonist no doubt reflects the chauvinistic culture of his time (and his country), and Mihail Sebastian’s journal indicates that Gheorghidiu may have had some of the less desirable traits of his creator (the two of them were friends, but Sebastian can be quite critical of him). Nevertheless, I rather think that Camil Petrescu deliberately made his ‘hero’ so unheroic and so unlikeable. This is a man who excels at tormenting himself, filling his head with all sorts of fanciful notions, over-analysing every gesture (with friends and family too, not just with his wife). He is far too enamoured with his own belly-button, and it’s only when he is finally exposed to the relentlessness of war, when he sees the futility and horror and sheer repetitiveness of it, as well as the appalling organisation of the army on the frontline, that he finally starts to move beyond his immediate concerns and show empathy with others.

And yet there are moments when you really warm to the young man’s initial idealism, which soon gets crushed into cynicism by the corruption and lies he sees all around him in a country where he considers that ‘it’s easier to be mediocre or a rogue, and much harder to be a decent, honest person’. After the war starts, his cynicism gives way to shock, black humour and, occasionally, despair. There are some brilliant off-the-cuff remarks which make Stefan more sympathetic:

When it’s in a farmer’s interest to drown his dog, he will convince himself gradually that the dog has rabies.

Radulescu has gathered his troops to give them a lecture about Patriotism. We all consider it a brilliant parody, until we realise, to our surprise, that he is deadly serious about it.

The ending is too abrupt and I’d have liked to see what happened to Stefan after the war, but in subject matter it reminds me of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. There are also similarities with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front in the descriptions of painfully tenuous advances and retreats, or, in more recent days, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. The French translators also say there is a hint of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity in the novel.

What really stood out for me is the severe criticism that the author makes (via his main character) about the lack of Romanian preparation for the war. On the very first page, he sets the scene:

Ten pigs with sturdy snouts could have dug up the whole fortifications on the Prahova valley in half a day, with all of its barbed wire and ‘wolf holes’. The wolf holes were the kind of holes that children make in the sand when they are playing, but with spikes in them. The Army General HQ in 1916 – about the time of the Battle of Verdun – were convinced that the enemy would carelessly step right into these holes and would get spiked either in the soles of their feet or in their backs. The whole country spoke with respect of the ‘fortified valley’ in Prahova: the parliament, the political parties, the press.

There are several memorable scenes from the war, no doubt taken from Petrescu’s personal experience: coming face to face with enemy fire in a tight place and understanding your own cowardice; having a discussion with a German prisoner and realising that both of them have been brainwashed into despising the ‘enemy’ and believing their own propaganda; freezing at night without adequate clothes or blankets and having to sleep covered by the other men in his regiment to keep warm. All the more surprising then, that just a few years after he published this novel, the author was temporarily seduced by the nationalist rhetoric of the Iron Guard (the far-right militaristic group concerned about ‘ethnic purity’ and Romanian exceptionalism).

Although the novel has not been translated into English, there is a French translation by Laure Hinckel, published by Edition des Syrtes in 2006. There is also a 1980 film adaptation (considerably different from the book), directed by Sergiu Nicolaescu, which might be available online with subtitles.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Pat Barker is famous for her brutal depictions of the realities of war, n essence making her books anti-war narratives. In the past, she has written about the First World War (the Regneneration trilogy), but on this occasion she turns her hand to the Trojan War, that ten year stand-off between the allied Greeks and the probably Asia Minor city of Troy (and its allies). It is essentially a retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of the women. So that we no longer only hear the deafening silence of the female perspective.

I beg your pardon, the title is ‘girls’, not women, and this is probably deliberate. Many of the protagonists are very young, but all of them, even the older ones, the noble ones, the wives of great rulers, are little more than objects to be used, cast aside, bartered over, plundered – a bone that dogs fight over. ‘Girl’ is used pejoratively by their captors, it diminishes them.

The events Barker recounts stick pretty close to the Iliad and traditional Greek mythology. The main protagonist is a lesser-known secondary character, however, which means that we have little knowledge or preconceptions about her and her role in the war. She is Briseis, wife of Mynes, king of one of the lesser Trojan city states, Lyrnessus. Her husband and brothers are slaughtered and she is given to Achilles as a prize after he conquers her city. The author has some leeway with where she takes her character, because by and large her fate is unknown.
She disappears from the story after the arrival of Achilles’ son to fight in the final days of Troy, which is precisely when the author tells us that her ‘own story’ finally starts.

At first I thought: ‘What a novel concept! How refreshing to hear about the futility and tragedies of war from women, and to have these heroes like Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon discussed with refreshing candour of a woman forced to have sex with them. Very much like prostitues might discuss their clients’ foibles with disdain.’ These women are victims, but they take revenge too on these powerful men, albeit with the weapons of the weak, i.e. gossip.

But as I read on, two things struck me. First of all, the concept is not all that novel. It has all been done before, above all in the tragedy by Euripides Trojan Women – the final chapters about the fall of Troy and the fates of Andromache and Polyxena directly reference that work.

Secondly, I became somewhat annoyed by the Stockholm syndrome that Briseis seems to display towards her captor. While I appreciate that the author is trying to convey the complexity and charisma of Achilles as a character, show that he was not all bad (although stupidly stubborn and brutal), Briseis’ ambiguous feelings towards him did jar. (It worked better in her relationship with the more gentle and empathetic Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend and possibly his lover.)

Typical representation of Achilles, here in a painting by Franz von Matsch.

Where this book does excel is in the sharp-tongued, zingy cutting down to size of abstract concepts such as heroism and glory, friendship and love. So perhaps it felt wrong to me that Achilles is still too heroic and larger than life in this story. The change of voice from first person Briseis’ account to something approaching the omniscient third person didn’t quite sound right to me either.

But here are some of the quotes which did strike me:

Nothing happened. Well, of course nothing happened. Isn’t nothing what generally happens when you pray to the gods? (and yet plague like symptoms decimate the Greek camp very soon)

Yes the death of young men in battle is a tragedy. I’d lost four brothers, I didn’t need anybody to tell me that. A tragedy worthy of any number of laments – but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave (and see her child slaughtered), and I thought: We need a new song.

Finally, let me end with this quote about Agamemnon, who duly sacrifices Polyxena (Priam’s daughter) to ensure a safe journey home for the Greeks.

Though on second thoughts I doubt if Polyxena’s death affected him much. This was a man who’d sacrificed his own daughter to get a fair wind for Troy. I looked at him as he turned and walked away and I saw a man who’d learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, a coward without dignity or honour or respect.

Collective Artistes performing Trojan Women, directed by
Femi Osofisan

This reminds me of the puzzled hatred I’ve felt since I was a child for Agamemnon, Oedipus, Jason and so many other so-called Ancient Greek heroes, and the poor women who have to suffer their crassness, obstinacy and stupidity but end up getting the bad rap. Surprisingly, there is a lot of reading between the lines that you can do with all these ancient tragedies, which makes me think the Greeks were very subtle and good at psychology, or else that women were involved in the writing too somehow. Anyway, here is an earlier poem I wrote about that.

Perfect Summer Read: Shining Sea by Anne Korkeakivi

Korkeakivi.ShiningSea (1)Michael Gannon is a doctor and a war hero, happily married and father of four (another on the way). One sunny day in 1962, just before Easter, while repainting the house, he has a heart attack and dies. This book is the story of his family after his death, but it’s also a condensed version of American history, covering a significant chunk of time (1962 to 2015), births and deaths, marriages and divorces, wars and grief. We travel with the protagonists from Southern California to Arizona, to Woodstock, to Massachusetts and New York, as well as London and Scotland.

We hear mostly from Michael’s widow, Barbara, and from the sensitive youngest son, Francis, who is just nine when his father dies, but it feels like we get to know and understand other family members as well: older daughter Patty Ann, who marries early, and whose oldest son Kenny becomes his grandmother’s pet; Mike Jr. who becomes a doctor like his father; Luke and Sissy, who leave home far too soon and never come back.

It’s an ambitious project, with many voices, so it has the potential to get very messy. Anne Korkeakivi, however, navigates this with elegance and impeccable prose. I really admire writers who can telescope several years’ worth of events but then also linger on a revealing detail. The chapters are not very long, and usually skip a few years, as well as switching between Barbara’s and Francis’ POV. There is a more lengthy part in the middle of the book, set in 1984 in the Inner Hebrides, where Francis meets and joins a group of friends preparing to sail across the Irish Sea on a mission of conciliation between Catholics and Protestants – with some tragic consequences.

AnneKorkeovikiThis is a character-driven family story (and none of the characters are intimidatingly perfect, they all feel very realistic), composed of a series of vignettes of key moments in their lives. The sea runs through it as a theme, sometimes beautiful, sometimes agitated, now friend, now foe. Barbara deliberately banishes the sea from her life when she remarries and moves to the desert of Arizona. The tragic moments are sometimes on-screen, sometimes off, but we always see the long-term effects of grief and how family relationships can be impacted. We the readers gain a little extra understanding of events and people as the years pass, as do some of the characters. Yet the author also demonstrates that sometimes even the most well-meaning and loving family members can misunderstand and challenge each other, hold different political beliefs and personal values, which often drives them apart and only sometimes brings them back together.

I loved it above all for the precise, lyrical language; the dusting of poetry contained in the writing. Here, for example, is the passage describing Michael’s death:

A cool breeze. Then calm. He is not sure where he is. He is no longer walking along a body-strewn road in the Philippines He is no longer passing through winter, autumn, one season after another. He lays his whole body down flat; the breezer rushes over him. The ground beneath him feels soft and mossy. Rain begins to fall, and it is tender, warm, it is the sound of his sister’s voice… It is Barbara. Her bright eyes… her way of clasping her hands together when laughing.

He is home. He is home.

You’ve heard me say this many times: family sagas are not my ‘thing’. And yet I would recommend this: a striking portrait of an American half-century and a family which manages to be both average and remarkable at the same time. I also have Anne’s first book An Unexpected Guest, whose main character has been compared with Mrs. Dalloway, so I look forward to picking that up and losing myself in her subtle brand of writing again quite soon.

 

Myths Ancient and Modern

Over at dVerse Poets Pub, we are sharing our retelling of myths with a modern slant. I took a biblical story from the Old Testament which I’ve always had problems with (blind obedience does not sit well with me) and gave it a contemporary reading.

deckchairsSo Abraham took Isaac’s hand and led him to the barren hilltop

with view unimpeded,

deckchair aligned for a demanding god

to witness ultimate devotion.

Higher and higher they mounted:

in altitude

in death toll

in bare-faced wails and covered eyes

He was bound – he did not ask to be martyred.

Your son is not my son.

How easy to sever limbs you’ve proclaimed not your own!

Yet our sinews are joined,

through our arteries the same venom pulsates.

One cut and history bleeds out unchecked.

‘I was only obeying orders.’

Where is the word to halt, the hand to tremble?

Have they not proved enough to this rancorous Master?

And Now for Something Completely Different…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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