Archive for November, 2020


November 27, 2020

Stella is a late novel by Siegfried Lenz – who began his writing career in the fifties – originally published in 2008 and almost immediately translated by Anthea Bell in 2009. It is a tragic love story, the tragic nature of which is immediately revealed by its German title, Schweigeminute – One Minute’s Silence. The English-speaking reader does not take long to catch up, however, as the novel opens at a memorial service for a teacher, the Stella of the title, as relayed to us by one of her students, Christian, whose close relationship with her is not hidden:

“I looked at the short black hair I’d caressed, the bright eyes I’d kissed on the beach of Bird Island.”

The affair between Stella and Christian happens in the world of boats and beaches, far from the setting of the school. Christian works with his father, a ‘stone fisher’, who uses his boat to lift and place rocks in order to create breakwaters, a perhaps ironic endeavour giving the intent of calming stormy seas at the same moment when Christian’s emotional life will experience the turmoil of falling in love. It is Stella who, seeing Christian from the beach one day, asks to come aboard his father’s boat. Does she initiate the relationship? This is certainly implied later when she asks to visit the stone fields with Christian and they end up stranded on Bird Island:

“You leaned your head against my shoulder. I dared not move. I let you take my hand and lift it to your cheek, and you left it there for a moment.”

They are rescued from the island but spend that night together in Stella’s hotel room:

“Stella didn’t ask me to accompany her, she simply assumed that I would, and she did the same in the hotel, where there was no-one at the reception desk.”

The difficulty comes in the diverse expectations they have afterwards, Stella offering silence in reply to Christian’s, “We’ll see each other again.” Similarly, he is disappointed on their return to school, expecting that they would “communicate in secret ways”:

“I tried to meet her eyes but she took no notice, and the glance she gave me was almost indifferent.”

Christian’s longing for Stella is such that he cannot, or will not, see any reason they cannot be together. Stella, unsurprisingly, is more realistic. When he turns up at her home, she asks him, “Do you know what it means for me? And for you?” Others begin to suspect. A photograph of them together clearly reveals that they are more than pupil and teacher: Christian’s mother, on seeing it, says in an under-stated fashion, “And you like each other. I can see that too.” His neighbour Sonja, although a child, picks up the same message:

“Well, if you love each other, Christian, they’re sure to make you repeat a year at school.”

Sonja’s inclusion in the narrative is a rare implied criticism of the relationship – when she first meets Stella she tells her she is Christian’s ‘boyfriend’ and it’s reasonable to assume that the age difference between her and Christian is around the same as between Christian and Stella. On the other hand, Christian’s father is more sanguine: “a difference in age is sometimes an advantage.” This betrays the novel’s setting well before its publication date, something that is revealed by Stella’s back story when she tells Christian that her father was shot down over England during the war and put in a POW camp. After the war, he takes his family back to England and Stella is inspired to learn English and become an English teacher. This places the novel in the 1960s when teacher-pupil relationships (where the pupil was ‘of age’ – Christian is eighteen), though not encouraged, were neither criminalised nor regarded with quite the same moral outrage. Even for a modern reader, opprobrium is blunted by the fact the pupil is male and the teacher female.

For Lenz this is the story of two lovers separated by circumstances, firstly as a result of both their ages and their roles, and then finally by death. Stella’s death is not the result of her love for Christian, but a sailing accident in a storm; no matter how hard we try, some forces just cannot be controlled.

The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

November 21, 2020

Peter Handke’s The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick remains his most famous book, in part thanks to Wim Wender’s film adaptation but also, I like to think, because of its memorable if somewhat clumsy (at least in a variety of English interpretations) title. Originally published in 1970, and translated by Michael Roloff in 1972, that translation has now been issued as a Penguin Modern Classic in response to Handke’s Nobel win.

The novella does, indeed feature a goalkeeper, though Robert Bloch is retired from the sport and finds himself fired from his current job as a construction worker in the first line, for reasons which are never explained. Or “at least that was how he interpreted the fact that no one except the foreman looked up from his coffee break when he appeared at the door of the construction shack.” This, and the fact that he simply turns and leaves, goes to the cinema, and then takes a room in a hotel gives us our first indication that Bloch has become (or perhaps always was) detached from his life. ‘Bloch’, of course, means ‘block’, as in ‘block of wood’, suggesting his emotional blankness, as well as being a particularly appropriate name for a goalkeeper. Just as a goalie blocks shots, so Bloch blocks out emotional connections. In fact, at times he seems to block out life itself, creating episodes of disorientation:

“With his eyes closed, he was overcome with an inability to visualize anything. He tried to tell himself the names he knew for each thing in the room, but he couldn’t picture anything…”

This perhaps explains why, throughout the narrative, he is intent on noticing small things such as “the grape skins he had spat out the day before were still lying on the sidewalk,” which is generally as much of his interior life as Handke reveals to us. A few pages in, Bloch spends the night with a woman (Gerda – though “he hadn’t even wanted to know” her name) and then kills her in the morning. The murder is sudden and dealt with very briefly in the narrative:

“Suddenly he was choking her. From the start his grip was so tight that she’d never had a chance to think he was kidding.”

It’s interesting that Handke moves for this moment to Gerda’s perception. There has been no warning of the violence (both for her and the reader) only a sense of Bloch’s growing irritation. After killing her, in further evidence if his detachment, he falls asleep.

Conventionally, the rest of the novella has Bloch on the run, as he leaves for a border town where an ex-girlfriend runs a tavern. The border offers a theoretical opportunity of escape, but it does not seem to be the type of escape Bloch is looking for.

The rest of the book continues in an atmosphere of unease. This is caused, of course, partly by Bloch’s guilt which places him on edge whenever, for example, he sees any policemen:

“To show that he had nothing to hide, Bloch stayed by the fence and went on looking in at the empty pool.”

But even these fears are something of an abstraction:

“…it struck Bloch that what he saw while looking after the policeman looked for a moment like a simile for something else.”

Handke also increases the unease with the story of a missing schoolboy which is much talked about in the town, a potential crime which overshadows Bloch’s actual crime. Meanwhile Bloch continues to reduce everything to its parts: at one point he can’t look at anything without hearing the word in his head, at another “he noticed he had an odd compulsion to find out the price of everything.” Later he begins to see pictographs instead of words. Only at one point does the disassociation stop, when he is talking to two girls and “they talked about things and especially people he couldn’t possibly know as if he did know them.” Though this sense of belonging is both temporary and fals

“As long as they had gone on with this familiar talk, he had also forgotten the surroundings more and more; he had even stopped noticing the child and the dog in the next room…”

Of course, this feeling doesn’t last, but it is a rare moment in the novella when we feel sympathetic towards Bloch.

At the centre of The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is an acceptance that the origins of actions can be unknowable, not only to others but to the actor themselves. This is often an inconvenient fact for both writers and readers, but it is one that Handke faces time and again. (It also perhaps explains why his work is best suited to the novella form). Despite this, there still remains an undeniable narrative power which will keep the reader turning to the next page – and, while they may never quite find the answers they hope for, those demanding that it at least live up to its title will not be disappointed.

Count Luna

November 16, 2020

Readers will likely know Alexander Lernet-Holenia from Pushkin Press’ publication of I Was Jack Mortimer and Mona Lisa. In fact, these are only two of a number his novels to have been previously translated into English, and now New Directions have resurrected another, Count Luna, originally published in 1955, and translated a year later by Jane B Greene. The novel opens with Alexander Jessiersky entering the catacombs in Rome and, so it appears, failing to resurface, despite having booked a passage to Buenos Aires in the days that follow. A search can find no trace of him:

“So there was no alternative but to give him up for lost, to assume that yet another dead man had been added to the ranks of the ancient deed, and to call a halt to the investigations.”

The chapters that follow tell the story of what leads Jessiersky to undertake this dangerous journey into the underworld. We begin with a lengthy summary of Jessiersky’s family which takes us back to 1806 and seems an unnecessary detour in a writer who is usually so adept at pace. (The same will happen with the family of Count Luna which Jessiersky researches at length, and there are what would now be called ‘info-dumps’ on the catacombs both in the opening and closing chapters). The story proper begins during the Second World War when the transport business which Jessiersky has inherited – but largely leaves for others to run – needs Count Luna’s land, which he refuses to sell. The company arrange for Luna to be “accused of belonging to certain monarchistic and, therefore, anti-German circles and put under arrest” thus forfeiting the land. By the time Jessiersky discovers what has happened, Luna is in a concentration camp:

“Jessiersky found the whole episode extremely painful. He told himself that, though he himself had not done anything, he had, out of his very inactivity, failed to do what should have been done.”

Unable to get Luna released, he sends him food parcels, and instead vents his anger on the company directors whom he blames for Luna’s imprisonment, doing everything in his power to get them sent to the front:

“It was not until one of them was killed in France that Jessiersky experienced a measure of satisfaction; the more he thought about it, in fact, the more it pleased him.”

That Jessiersky so easily rejoices in another’s death is a warning, however, of what is to come.

When the war is over, Jessiersky attempts to discover Luna’s fate, but is unable to unearth any information: “He was definitely not among the living, but neither was he among the dead.” A few years later, however, he becomes convinced that Luna is not only alive, but is seeking revenge. Leafing through a volume of engravings he comes across the picture of a man who looks very like Luna only for one of his children to exclaim, “That’s he!” It soon transpires that his children have met a similar looking man when out walking with their governess. Jessiersky immediately assumes the man must be Luna, forgetting that his discovery relies on the portrait of an entirely different man. The next day he follows them to the park, but the man never reappears. When one of his children falls ill, however, he blames sweets the man has given her:

“Perhaps the man had conceived the diabolical plan of killing the children not all at once, but one by one. It would be like Luna to do something like that.”

The final sentence gives us a sense of Jessiersky’s loss of perspective – after all, he knows very little of Luna, and nothing that would make him assume that he would kill children. If anything, it sounds more like a plan Jessiersky would come up with. Initially his reaction is to communicate with Luna and convince him that others are to blame for his imprisonment:

“As far as I am concerned, he can pay back those scoundrels of directors and he can mete out punishment to them. But he’s not going to persecute me and my family.”

Such is his fear of this persecution, however, that he believes it has already begun, and he is prepared to do anything to stop it. His guilt, we assume, is the real driving force behind this belief, and his actions to ‘defend’ himself and his family seem more likely to inflict the punishment he so fears.

Bar the genealogical discursions (which again seem to reflect Jessiersky’s fears that he is not really noble onto Luna), Count Luna is a fast-paced ride which takes place internally as much as externally. Like Mona Lisa, it concerns a character who is convinced the dead live. Lernet-Holenia once again demonstrates his ability to look into the dark hearts of his characters for motivation, and that is what makes his novels superior to the average thriller.

Novellas in Translation

November 12, 2020

How long is a novella? And does anybody really care? Texts, of course, can only really be measured in words, but, with the average reader unable to access the word count of every book they take from the shelf, we are left with the less exact maximum of pages. Which, particularly during a month when the reading of novellas is encouraged, can often stretch lycra-like to accommodate the beefier book. Usually we can keep below 200 pages, but, even that barrier is sometimes broken in an attempt to remove a long-standing obligation from the piles of the unread. So, in an effort to obtain certainty, here are eight translated novellas short enough not to feel like novels, coming in at 100 pages or less.

Well, I say 100 pages or less, but Daniel Kehlmann’s You Should Have Left (translated by Ross Benjamin) is officially 111 pages, though those pages are all an inch smaller than normal making this a novella in every dimension. Speaking of dimensions, You Should Have Left is a haunted house story where the narrator is haunted by the (very modern) house itself which does seems to resist being contained by the physical laws of space and time as we understand them. Isolated setting (the Alps) – check. Small child (four-year-old daughter) – check. Warnings from locals (“Get away, quickly”) – check. Everything needed, in fact, for a particularly modern take on the ghost story.

Jean Echenoz’s 1914 (translated by Linda Coverdale) comes next in the page count at 109 – but adopts the format where, if a chapter finishes on the right-hand page, the next page is blank. Echenoz’s work has always tended to be short, so much so that his trilogy of biographical novels – Ravel, Running, Lightning – have been published in one volume. 1914 is, unsurprisingly, a story of World War One. Luckily Echenoz shares a tip on how to make sure your novella doesn’t creep into novel territory: “All this has been described a thousand times, so perhaps it’s not worthwhile to linger any longer over that sordid stinking opera.” Instead the focus is mainly on a love triangle between brothers Charles and Anthime and the woman they both love, Blanche. It’s the effect the war has on relationships which interests Echenoz the most.

Peirene Press should, of course, be represented in every list of novellas, as the imprint began with the intention to provide something that can be read in two hours or less. Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast (translated by Jamie Bulloch), at 105 pages, is one of their shorter books, and also one of their most popular (so much so that Vanderbeke became the first author they published twice). The entire novella takes place over one meal as the mother and two teenage children wait for the father’s return. Slowly we come to realise the tyrannical character of the father, which in turn exemplifies tyranny itself (Vanderbeke is East German). It is a masterclass in how much can be done with so little.

Tommy Wieringa’s The Death of Murat Idrissi is another novella which just creeps over the hundred page mark (102). Translated by Sam Garnett, it made the International Booker long list in 2019. It’s a timely examination of immigration from North Africa into Europe which features both second generation, European passport holding children of immigrants alongside those who are now desperately trying to make the journey. This allows Wieringa to examine immigration from a number of different angles: Alham, whose parents are Moroccan, is repulsed by the poverty and heat of Morocco, however, at the same time, she does not feel fully Dutch; yet, of another child of immigrants she senses: “He would beat them at their own game and be Dutcher than the Dutch.” It’s complex story which offers no easy answers.

Nina Berberova’s The Accompanist (translated by Marion Schwartz) is the first of our novellas to fall below 100 pages. It’s a classic example of how the brevity of a novella can be used to present the intensity of a relationship, here between the pianist Maria and her accompanist, Sonechka. Sonechka idolises Maria but her sense of inferiority leads her to develop a longing to discover a weakness, a secret which she can keep to show her loyalty, but also to gain some power over Maria in a relationship which seems entirely one-sided. (At one point Maria dismisses Sonechka’s boyfriend as “silly” so she ends the relationship). We increasingly sense that to be more than the accompanist, Sonechka will need to betray Maria.

Goncalo M Tavares’ A Man: Klaus Klump (translated by Rhett McNeil) is one page shorter at 93 pages but just as powerful. Here, we have not only love, but war. Klump is a writer, and a lover rather than a fighter, until one event changes both his life and that of the woman he loves, Johanna. When Klump is out, a group of soldiers rape Johanna and this terribel act of violence drives them in opposite directions: he becomes a fighter with the resistance and she a collaborator with the occupying army. Tavares’ examines the way in which war changes people – in fact, how it is impossible to remain untouched – in a detached, one might even say tongue-in-cheek, style that highlights rather than hides the horror.

Now we begin to reach a page count where some might argue what we have is a long a short story, starting with Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole (all 70 pages translated by Rosalind Harvey). It is narrated by a young boy, Tochtli, who wants for nothing, even if it is a Liberian pygmy hippo. It soon becomes clear that the reason for this is that his father has made a lot of money selling drugs. Villalobos exposes the macho culture of criminality though the voice of the child and the ‘lessons’ he has learned, for example that “people who cry are faggots.” As the novella progresses, we see the damage that Tochtli’s upbringing has done to him in what is a wonderful example of how a child narrator can bring a fresh perspective to an old story.

Another 70 page novella is Kornel Filipowicz’s The Memoir of an Anti-Hero, originally published in 1961 but only recently translated into English by Anna Zaranko. The ‘anti-hero’, who is also our narrator, experiences the German occupation of Poland with acceptance – as far as he is concerned “I belong to the side of the losers and I have to succumb to those who now run the country.” His ability to speak German allows him to adopt the ‘neutrality’ of moving between the two nationalities when necessary. Above all, his credo is self-preservation, probably not an unusual sentiment at the time. Though there is little to admire in our ‘anti-hero’, it is difficult not to sympathise such is the skill of the narrative.


November 6, 2020

Originally published in 1986, Veilchenfeld appeared towards the end of Gert Hofmann’s career as a novelist, though it lies in the middle of what has been translated into English, the earliest of which is Balzac’s Horse and Other Stories from 1981. Veilchenfeld, which has only just been translated by Eric Mace-Tessler this year, deals explicitly with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. It is told from the point of view of a young boy – perhaps unsurprising as Hofmann was born in 1931 – but the title character is an elderly Jewish philosopher (though it is never specifically mentioned that he is Jewish). In the novel we see Veilchenfeld’s increasing persecution through the innocent and bewildered eyes of the narrator.

The novel opens with Veilchenfeld’s death, denying the reader hope of any other escape from the cruelty he is subjected to, and making later scenes in the novel when Veilchenfeld attempts to get a passport, and therefore permission to leave the country, even more affecting. Aspects of Veilchenfeld’s treatment are immediately illustrated, for example when the narrator’s Mother wishes he had moved into a house with a larger garden, and his Father replies;

“And how was he supposed to know that one day he would not dare leave his garden when he wanted to have some exercise?”

At the same time the narrator and his sister are told not to speak to him if they meet him in the street. Hofmann uses the child’s perspective to highlight the absurdity of Veilchenfeld’s persecution: when the narrator asks his Mother why Veilchenfled is to be relocated she tells him, “Because of what he thinks,” but when he asks her what he thinks she cannot answer. The irony is that, being a philosopher, it is unlikely anyone in the town would understand what he thinks should they be interested enough to find out. Her reply is more pointed when his sister asks how they think: “Like everyone.” It is not accurate – his Father has remained sympathetic to Veilchenfled – but it does identify the central danger faced by the other characters, that of non-conformity. The Mother’s frequent illnesses, we are led to assume, are of a nervous kind, caused by having to ‘fit in’.

The novel then rewinds to its earliest scene when the family invite Veilchenfeld to dinner. After the meal, however, one of their windows is smashed:

“Wherever I go, I bring misfortune in the form of brutal violence.”

Hofmann’s child’s eye view allows him to focus on the most poignant details, such as Veilchenfeld trying to drink his too hot coffee before he leaves at his hosts’ insistence. The narrator’s innocence is also reflected in his speech. When he visits Veilchenfeld – he has been allowed to go for drawing lessons – he tells him he can be seen from the street and Veilchenfeld “turned a little pale.” This ability to see him, even his shadow, will be important later, when a mob arrives outside his door. The narrator is also excited at being one of the few people allowed to see round Veilchenfeld’s flat, a scene that will be repeated at the end when he takes his sister there to see Veilchenfeld’s body. On this first visit Veilchenfeld tells him that his earliest work was his most important:

“The older one then becomes, the less courage one has and also the less one succeeds.”

Although he is referring to his life as an intellectual, the comment equally applies to the people of the town who are sympathetic to his position but who slowly retreat from him in the course of the novel.

Much of what the narrator tells us is overheard and not fully understood (“It’s not that I don’t hear their sentences, it’s simply that I don’t grasp their meaning”). For example, the attack on Veilchenfeld which soon follows, is relayed as a conversation between his Mother and Father and the Laubes. This allows Hofmann to do more than simply arouse the reader’s sympathy by describing the attack; more importantly, he reveals attitudes in the town even among those who are not overtly anti-Semitic. Herr Laube questions why Veilchenfeld would walk passed a particular pub:

“And he wonders if it were not even perhaps an unconscious provocation.”

Hofmann is not interested only in the violence or the overt cruelty (as when, after weeks of attempting to get a passport, one is produced in front of him only to be torn into pieces), but also the reactions of those citizens who might be termed ‘neutral’. Later, when a crowd gathers outside Veilchenfeld’s house a neighbour, Hindenburg, tells them that despite the light being out, Veilchenfeld is probably in:

“And having said this, he stops himself, with his fist in front of his mouth, because it’s suddenly clear to him that he should not have said this, because now they won’t go away anymore. I should have warned old Veilchenfeld about them instead, he thinks.”

Each of these small choices creates the atmosphere of persecution in which Veilchenfeld lives, and dies.

Veilchenfeld is a powerful and affecting examination of the way in which ordinary people collaborate with violent oppression, and CB Editions and Eric Mace-Tessler should be congratulated for this timely translation. Its gentle pace and child narrator make it even more chilling. It is often argued that fascism must be resisted before it is too late; Veilchenfeld exists in that moment when it is too late.

A Sad Affair

November 2, 2020

Wolfgang Koeppen is widely regarded as one of the most important German writers of the twentieth century despite writing only five novels – two in the 1930s and another three in the 1950s. Though he did not die until 1996, he only published travel books and a memoir in that time, and the much promised sixth novel never appeared. A Sad Affair is Koeppen’s first novel, published in 1934, and written, according to translator Michael Hofmann, in a very short period of time after Koeppen spent the advance travelling to Italy, and, when he returned without the expected book, his publisher resorted to locking him in a room with a typewriter.

A Sad Affair is a story of tormented love. Its narrator, Friedrich, is completely entranced by a young actress, Sibylle. Unfortunately Sibylle thinks little of his, or any man’s, love, an aspect of her character that Friedrich is warned of even before he first encounters her when he overhears a conversation between Sibylle and his friend, Beck, which he describes as “a dance on hot coals.” Meeting her in the flesh, however, he feels “sandbagged or hexed” and struck with “sudden paralysis”. His broken arm leads her to declare, “you’re a cripple!” but he is also crippled by her presence:

“At the moment of my first encounter with Sibylle, I got into the habit of feeling crippled with indecision.”

Soon Sibylle is happy to go out with Beck and Friedrich, and use them to torment the man she is living with, Walter, declaring:

“I’m not your creature, I’m not your slave, I’m not your dog, I can do what I want, and if you don’t want to stand over me while I sleep with someone off the street, then you’d better get out and leave me alone.”

Sibylle is a powerful, one might even say empowered, female character. She may seem heartless, cruel even, if we judge her with conventional notions of morality (particularly if we wish the novel to be a ‘love story’) but she does not invite the attentions of the men who love her, nor does she make promises she does not keep. (As Friedrich tells us, “She had never used untruths or strategic evasions to gain a small, momentary advantage”). It is Friedrich who convinces himself that they are destined for each other, and that somehow the power of his love alone will win her over. At one point he complains that she does not see him:

“To Sibylle, he was a shadow. Her eyes barely took him in as a physical shape. He might stand before her, as now, or he might be far away in a different country – it made no difference, he was still a shadow.”

Yet, it is Friedrich who cannot see Sibylle, instead imposing his idea of her on the young woman in front of him.

Cleverly, Koeppen does not tell the story in this order, but begins with Friedrich already quite lost in his love for Sibylle and searching for her in a “foreign city”. It seems any attempt to get over her has failed:

“And there it was again, his heart was once more in someone else’s hand, sometimes they squeezed it shut, sometimes they allowed it to breath, it wasn’t to die on them, a little bird in a cage that had to sing.”

Their relationship stalls on the fact that neither one wants to sleep with the other: Sibylle because, despite her promiscuity, “I’ve never met a woman who was less able to give herself against her own will,” and Friedrich because he wants the moment to be an admission of Sibylle both acknowledging and returning his love – “He refused to take her against her own will.” Despite this, he begs her to travel to Italy with him. Whether she will go with him or not seems to be the defining moment in their relationship, though we also fear that, such is Friedrich’s passion, he may not be able to move on under any circumstances.

A Sad Affair is not a happy book so perfectly does it capture the pain of unrequited love. For the crueller reader there may be some humour in Friedrich’s utter helplessness, while for the more sympathetic minded there will be be frustration at his inability to extract himself from feelings which are clearly damaging. But Sibylle herself is an equally interesting character, though one viewed through the unreliable lens of the narrator. For all her flaws, the reader may find themselves a little bit in love.