Archive for November, 2022

Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl

November 30, 2022

In the Afterward to his translation of his father’s novel, Michael Hofmann makes the claim that Hofmann senior had two main subjects: art and childhood, and that his later novels (of which Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl is an example) touched, to some extent, on both. Its title character, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, is not a work of fiction, but a German physicist of the eighteenth century. Although a scientist, his fame perhaps mainly rests on his writing. Known as a satirist, he also kept ‘scrap’ books of quotations, sketches, reflections and so on, some of which were published after his death giving him a reputation as an aphorist. (Hofmann also reveals that many of these aphorisms are featured in the novel, though not all of them are genuine). The ‘little flower girl’, too, was a real person, Maria Stechard, whom Lichtenberg met when she was a child of thirteen. She soon moved in with him, and it is this relationship which lies at the centre of the novel.

Lichtenberg is already a focus of curiosity in Gottenberg as he was born with a hunchback:

“Stop, little chappie, they cried, and reached out their hands towards his hunchback.”

Hofmann returns to his treatment repeatedly – people turning round to look at him after they pass, discussing whether his hump is getting bigger or smaller – but the writer’s aim is not simply to elicit sympathy for his character. He is portrayed as vain, particularly in the way he dresses, and he is always on the look-out for attractive women:

“It lifted up the women’s skirts, that was the best thing about the wind. Lichtenberg went out onto the street to keek under a skirt or two. To see the odd ankle and calf, and maybe even a knee.”

When Lichtenberg first sees Maria she is selling flowers and he is immediately besotted:

“She is thirteen, and, I have to say, beautiful. I have never seen such a picture of beauty and gentleness.”

Certainly, his affection for her is genuine, but it is also physical. How should the reader fell about this? Maria’s age has led to comparisons with Lolita, though this rather ignores the very different settings and intentions, but one similarity is the way in which the style to some extent neutralises the predatory nature of the relationship. There is a lightness and liveliness to the narrative which we instinctively associate with Lichtenberg’s character. We see it in colloquial language such as ‘chappie’ and ‘keek’, but also in the short linking paragraphs (“And then?”) and the often exclamatory dialogue. When Maria moves in, this is at first relayed by the choral (and prurient) voice of the town:

“Lucky so and so! It must be the hunchback that does it! But what will he do with that little slip of a thing?”

Far from presenting Maria as a woman, or even an adolescent, Hofmann is clear she is a child:

“The child thanked him for her food and drink, and then she ran off into her room.”

Even when he first sees her naked, Hofmann is at pains to point out her physical immaturity:

“Her breasts were hardly worth mentioning. They hadn’t yet begun.”

The development of their relationship into a sexual one, however, is a slow process – it is a few weeks before “When they happened to touch now she didn’t straightaway shrink back.” In some ways, Lichtenberg is as innocent as she is:

“He had never yet undressed a girl, he needed to learn how it was done.”

These different versions of innocence bring them together. Lichtenberg is also careful to keep his home life separate from his professional life. Always aware of his deformity, he can be jealous, and Maria remains hidden for others in the early part of their relationship. While he thinks of traveling together (“We’ll go out into the world, she’d be happy with that.”) it never happens, in part because he has all the happiness he needs at home. The novel covers only their relationship – it is not a biography of Lichtenberg. Its tone both manages to suggest a lightness in which all such relationships need not be taken too seriously, while at the same time insisting on the depth of feeling involved. It is an unusual book but one which it is difficult not to be moved by.

Billiards at Half Past Nine

November 25, 2022

Billiards at Half Past Nine is Heinrich Boll’s sixth novel, originally published in 1959 ten years after his first, The Train Was on Time, and available in a 1961 translation by Patrick Bowles. As with much of Boll’s work, it centres on post-war Germany’s relationship to its past, here personified in three generations of the Faehmel family, Heinrich (on whose eightieth birthday the novel is set), his son, Robert, and his grandson, Joseph. All three are architects, and one building in particular is central to the novel’s schematic, the Abbey of St Anthony, which is built by Heinrich, demolished in the war by Robert, and redesigned by Joseph.

The novel is told from a variety of viewpoints – for example, it begins from the point of view of Robert’s secretary, Leonora, who is surprised by his rudeness when she interrupts his daily game of billiards at the Hotel Prinz Heinrich between nine-thirty and eleven, the mystery of which is later touched upon by his father, Heinrich:

“What’s he up to, what does he do, my son, the only one I have left, Leonora?”

In the next chapter, we find Robert in the Prinz Albert where the staff have clear instructions he is not to be interrupted, instructions which are challenged by the arrival of Nettlinger, an acquaintance from Robert’s school days. This chapter is told from the point of view of Jochen, a desk clerk at the hotel, who recognises Robert’s goodness despite his unusual behaviour:

“He’s one of the few people for whom I’d stick my hand in the fire anytime, anytime, d’you understand, this old hand here, corrupt and crabbed with rheumatism.”

This physical representation of age gives some indication of the way in which the past is constantly invading the present for the novel’s characters, often as unwelcome as Nettlinger is in the Prinz Albert. The losses of the past are often to the forefront of their minds: when Heinrich refers to Robert as “the only one I have left” it is because his other children are dead, two in childhood, and Otto, killed in the war. Robert reflects on the loss of his friend Schrella, constantly bullied by Nettlinger and others:

“On the way home they fell on Schrella, dragged him into doorways, beat him up between dustbins and abandoned prams, pushed him down steps into dark cellars, in one of which he had lain a long while with his arm broken…”

He remembers a baseball game in 1935 where he hits the ball so well it is never found, but Schrella is tormented by the other team’s players with the connivance of Nettlinger – it perhaps sticks in Robert’s mind because he knows Nettlinger is desperate to win but still places bullying Schrella above that. Nettlinger, of course, is already part of the Nazi movement – and still an important man after the war, an injustice that torments Boll in so many of his novels. Schrella, meanwhile, has to leave Germany and live in exile. He returns towards the end of the novel, welcomed by Nettlinger – for him it is better if the past is forgotten.

Boll divides his cast using an unusual, quasi-religious symbolism. Schrella describes himself as a ‘lamb’ and tells Robert, “…we’ve sworn never to taste of the Buffalo Sacrament.” This is a little disconcerting at first as it seems to be entirely of Boll’s invention. In the course of the novel, the Buffalo Sacrament is associated with Hindenburg and German imperialism, as well as a Nazi marching song. ‘Lamb’ already has connotations of pacifism and sacrifice – though that one of this group, Ferdi, is executed for attempting to assassinate a leading Nazi suggests it is anti-war rather than non-violent. Robert resists in his own way, becoming a demolitions expert in the army – the very opposite of his father – intent on destroying German buildings to remove them from the line of fire. This culminates in the destruction of the Abbey which he knows is unnecessary, as do the Allies when he is captured days later as the war ends:

“Why did you blow the Abbey sky-high when it so obviously had no tactical or strategic importance whatsoever?”

It does not seem to be a question of his relationship with his father, but a protest at the capitulation of German institutions. Both Robert and Heinrich are invited to the consecration of the new Abbey, and both say they will go while knowing they will not – an illustration of the necessity of pretending the past is forgotten. Robert feels he cannot go as he is not reconciled to “the powers guilty of Ferdi’s death” and Heinrich because he is not

“…reconciled to my son Otto who was my son no longer, only my son’s husk, and I can’t celebrate my reconciliation to a building even if I did build it myself.”

Billiards at Half Past Nine is a complex novel – Boll himself apparently later thought it too schematic in its construction – but it is also very moving in places. It demonstrates the difficult choices faced when a country succumbs to dictatorship and the tensions which remain in the aftermath. Rebuilding alone, it suggests, is not enough.


November 18, 2022

Sevgi Soysal’s Dawn was first published in 1975 and is only now translated into English by Maureen Freely, perhaps best known as the translator of Orhan Pamuk. Its origins lie in the declaration of martial law in Turkey in 1971, a time when Soysal lost her job as a teacher and was later imprisoned. Freely’s love for the novel is clear from her preface, but in describing Oya, a woman who has been released from prison into exile in Adana where the novel is set, as its “protagonist”, she does it a disservice as one of its great strengths, both technically and empathetically, is the range of characters with which it is concerned.

Taking place over a period of only twelve hours, the novel begins with a raid on the home of Ali, a man with no political affiliations who cares only for family. His nephew, Mustafa, a teacher, has just been released from prison, and is there in the company of his brother, Huseyin, a lawyer. Huseyin has invited Oya along, sympathetic to the loneliness of her exile. Also present at the table are Zekeriya, another relative, and Ekrem, a neighbour (Ali and Zekeriya’s wives serve but do not sit):

“They were strangers, or they had been until the police kicked the door in. Now they were initiates, facing a single fate.”

In the novel’s first section, The Raid, we experience that moment when “it took just one rough kick to break down the flimsy door,” but, although this occurs in the second page, Soysal goes on to build towards it for the different angles of various characters in the room. We learn of Mustafa’s anxiety regarding his relationship with his wife Guler – “She was one enormous question mark, looming over him” – one reason why he is visiting his brother and uncle rather than going straight to her. We also learn of the debt he owes Ali, who has helped finance his education:

“At the end of the day, a family had to be a single body.”

Huseyin has also been supported in his education; now, as a lawyer, he is expected to return the favour to his relatives:

“Every time they have a problem that needs solving, or a question that needs answering, they come to him.”

Unfortunately for this reason he is struggling to make a living from his practice. His initial contact with Oya is an attempt to gain a new client. She knows no-one in Adana and, until the raid, has gone out of her way to be careful – only loneliness drives her to accept Huseyin’s invitation.

Having introduced her characters as the raid occurs, Soysal uses the second section, The Interrogation, to focus on prison life. Not only does she continue the story of those captured by the police during the raid, but she describes the previous experiences of Oya and Mustafa when incarcerated. This is the heart of the novel, with the characters poised between past and future imprisonment. Oya’s fears are different from Mustafa’s: she worries her period will start, and is called a prostitute simply for sitting at the table with the men:

“She longed to make a shell for her thoughts and climb inside.”

Both Oya and Mustafa doubt they have the courage or skills to cope with the torture that may come with interrogation. “A committed activist behaves differently from an indifferent bystander,” Oya thinks to herself:

“What if I really did belong to an illegal organisation? I’d have been a disgrace, an absolute disgrace!”

Mustafa, meanwhile, finds it difficult to stay quiet: “It took more than honesty, courage and commitment to stay silent.” In both cases, memories of prison return. Mustafa remembers his interrogations there – “What made torture unbearable was wanting it to end.” Oya remembers how the women were assaulted with truncheons. Ironically, only Ali, entirely innocent, is beaten up.

The final section of the novel, like the novel itself, is entitled Dawn, a dawn which follows the imprisonment of the night. Whether it can be seen as hopeful will be for each reader to decide – certainly, it is not entirely pessimistic. One reason for this is the depth with which Soysal imbues her characters. By the novel’s end you may well feel you, too, have spent a night in the cells with them and developed that accidental comradeship. In one way or another, their lives will have touched you and, whatever hope you have left, you will hope for them. An important addition to the literature of oppression, Dawn will resonate with the experience of many even fifty years later, and its translation into English is to be commended.

Getting Dark

November 10, 2022

How real are other people? This seems to be the question Peter Stamm is asking in his latest collection of short stories, Getting Dark, translated once again by Michael Hofmann. In these twelve stories, characters are attracted to people who don’t exist, to different version of themselves, and even begin to fade from existence entirely.

Perhaps the most obvious example is ‘Supermoon’ where the narrator doesn’t seem to be so much leaving her job as fading away completely. “I’m sure they didn’t mean any harm by it, they were in the elevator, chatting, and they just didn’t notice me,” it begins innocently enough, but soon the narrator will struggle to get anyone to notice them – colleagues, a young man on the tube, even their partner, Hedwig. Initially the narrator can make themselves heard by repetition, speaking a little louder, but soon even that doesn’t seem to work; they stop receiving emails, their colleagues go out to lunch without them, they find their home empty. Their insubstantiality begins to have a physical effect as they struggle to unlock their own door:

“I’m tired, but have a great feeling of lightness, weightlessness.”

In summary it sounds less subtle than it is, but the questions it raises are probed in more straightforward scenarios in stories such as ‘Sabrina 2019’. Here a young woman is asked to model for a statue. Once the statue is put on show, she becomes attached to it, visiting it every day at the gallery. It is bought by a wealthy art collector, Robert, who has (according to the gallerist) “an amazing house”:

“It was strange, but suddenly Sabina envied her silvery double the chance to live in a beautiful house, remote from the unpleasantness of daily life…”

The reality of the statue becomes more attractive to Sabrina than her own reality, and she becomes obsessed with visiting Robert.

The idea of a different life waiting for you can also be seen in ‘Nathigal’, where David sits in a café with a squirrel mask and unloaded pistol in his bag, watching the bank across the street. He tells himself he is planning to rob it, but it soon becomes clear he is far from a hardened criminal, and by the story’s end it is difficult to differentiate reality from daydream, though the causes of David’s unhappiness are clearer. Other characters use fantasy to escape their mundane lives. In ‘The Most Beautiful Dress’, the women working for a design company creating information boards for an archaeological dig become infatuated with the chief archaeologist, Felix:

“He was the George Clooney of dendrochronology, said Nicole, our boss, after their first meeting.”

In ‘Dietrich’s Knee’ a man finds a flirtatious email to his wife from the titular knee. Not wanting her to know he has read it or discover he has deleted it, he sends it again from a different email address which he then uses to correspond with her as ‘Dietrich’. As with many of the stories, the ending is not quite what you would expect.

Interactions with a different version, or at least a different perspective, of reality also occur in ‘Cold Reading’ and ‘First Snow’. In the former, a woman on holiday encounters a medium as she tries to escape a sudden rain shower. Although she is sceptical of all she is told, she is still changed:

“Still, I felt as content as if at the end of a good book or a film I’d enjoyed.”

In the latter, a man heading for a skiing holiday with his family is distracted by work and left at a service station by his wife. When she doesn’t return, he sets off on foot:

“My irritation with Franziska was long since gone, and I took a quite delight in the beauty of the snow-covered hills.”

He eventually comes across a school, and a teacher takes him in, treating him like child and asking him to draw a picture for his wife. As strange as this encounter is, it ultimately makes for a very moving story.

The first story, ‘Marcia from Vermont’, also set in winter, was originally published separately. It brilliantly captures the different versions of reality which exist within memories. The narrator is invited to an artists’ retreat in the USA, a country he visited as a young man. As memories resurface of that earlier visit, he discovers that the retreat is funded by the family of a woman he met at that time, Marcia, with whom he had a relationship that also involved another couple. While there, he also encounters different versions of that period – a story written by the other man, photographs taken by the Marica – which make him reconsider his own memories.

All the stories in Getting Dark probe our relationship with reality in Stamm’s usual provocative manner, but all grounded in ordinary life. For some reason UK publishers only seem interested in his novels, but his short fiction deserves an audience just as much.

Lilly and Her Slave

November 4, 2022

Lilly and Her Slave is a collection of short stories by Hans Fallada “based on the manuscripts found in the evaluation reports of forensic psychiatrist Ernst Zeimke” and now translated by Alexandra Roesch. In some cases, the stories were known from previously discovered manuscripts, though two here represent revised versions, and a further two are entirely new. Despite this, there is a certain amount of thematic unity to the collections as in most of them the central character is a woman, and the subject is love.

‘The Machinery of Love’ is the longest of the stories at over a hundred pages. The narrator, Marie, tells us that she is “someone who has decided to write in the following pages about her marital and extramarital experiences with various men.” Her attitude is undramatic – she has no intention of leaving her husband as “such a goodbye would require a very firm belief in life,” and this is a faith she no longer has. In fact, she goes on to describe her initial aversion to love as being rooted in the experience of her older sister, Violet, who is raped one night on her way home, and immediately breaks off her engagement, telling no-one what has happened. Eventually she confesses to Marie but forbids her to tell anyone else. Violet never recovers, and Marie tells us that for many years:

“…I felt a loathing and disgust for love… to me this word was intertwined with the idea of a cruel soulless machine that has us all at its mercy.”

It is for this reason that she marries “a good, faithful companion” rather than allowing love to decide her choice. She tells of “three incidences of infidelity” as if to prove that no-one is immune, but writing from a point in her life when:

“I am tired of the deceptions and the detours; I no longer want to be fooled by the machinery of love.”

Our relationship to love is a question Fallada returns to again and again in these stories. ‘Lilly and Her Slave’ also features a female character who wishes to control, love, but here she uses it like a weapon. Spoilt as a child, “she often sat dreaming, imagining herself beautiful, passionate, idolised by all men.” Her dream comes true, but Lilly has an uneasy relationship with her own passion:

“She felt the urge to put her arm around his neck, to kiss him back, to respond to the advances of this strange young man. But it passed, she was overcome with anger…”

This is an example of how Fallada’s characters can verge on caricature, and then complexity will be revealed. This story has two scenes one feels only he could write – when Lilly convinces (well, blackmails) her cousin to allow her to meet his ‘girlfriend’, who turns out to be a prostitute, and the final scene when Lilly wins the love of an older man but can only use that love cruelly against him (more cruelly than you can probably imagine).

Conversely, in ‘The Great Love’ we see a love which lasts through years of difficulties, but this does not necessarily make for a more optimistic story. Thilde and Fritz meet when they are young:

“This was the love she had read about, the great love, and it could never end.”

As time passes, however, Fritz becomes less certain. “Do you really know me?” he asks Thilde. They do marry, but it is not idyllic: “He is strict. He can be mean.” He is an atheist, and they are further divided when she baptises their first child against his wishes. She fears he has another woman; that he cares more for his friend than for her; that he is less and less present in her life. Yet, all this time, she insists she loves him, even as their relationship looks beyond saving. Here, too, love seems dangerous, a delusion that excuses cruelty.

The remaining stories are shorter. ‘Pogg, the Coward’ is also on the theme of love as Pogg, who has lived his life fortuitously, and always to his own benefit, eventually succumbs to a love for which he gives up everything. The final story, ‘Who Can Be the Judge?’, gives us the best clue to Fallada’s writing as he compares the law, “a purely fictitious world, a world of fixed norms” to the real world:

“It is an unreal world, a world that has nothing, nothing in common with life.”

In Fallada’s fiction we find the real world, one where characters are not judged but simply portrayed; for, as he says:

“…no judge can be just, and no judgement can be final.”

This is his great strength as a writer, and one that shines through in these stories.