Posts Tagged ‘german literature month’

Women in a River Landscape

November 30, 2021

Heinrich Boll completed Women in a River Landscape shortly before his death in 1985, with an English translation by David McClintock appearing in 1988. Whether he knew it would be his final novel or not, there is a directness about it, largely created by the absence of a mediating narrator, which suggests the urgency of its message. Boll describes it as ‘a novel in dialogues and soliloquies’ and, on the page, it appears very like a drama script, though there is little in the way of action, and the dialogue is not naturalistic. Its focus, as with so much of Boll’s work, is the corruption of post-war Germany, and the continuing power and influence of individuals and institutions that have escaped justice or, at the very least, shame.

These hidden pasts are evident throughout the novel. In the opening conversation between Wuber and his wife Erika, she refers back to the days when he and his circle of friends were coming into power:

“I saw you drive out to dump the Klossow documents in the lake.”

This disposal takes pace at the behest of Chundt, a powerbroker who continues to appoint ministers (“Chundt always frightened me with his boundless ambition to control heaven and earth”), and also to remove them when they are no longer of any use:

“Plukanski couldn’t be supported any longer: an old wartime story has just emerged.”

These secrets are used within the ‘gang’ to ensure obedience; Chundt threatens Blaukramer:

“And you’d better keep quiet: I now have a few photos in my dossier… The photos show you ordering the men to fire on the poor swine who were trying to escape from a concentration camp…””

Erika has kept these secrets, but other wives have found this harder. Blaukramer’s wife, Elisabeth’s, refusal to keep quiet has led to her incarceration in an institution, “where all the discarded wives live – in a high-class prison”:

“They go there to have their – what’s the expression? – to have their memories corrected.”

Plottinger’s wife, on the other hand, drowned herself in the Rhine – a river that is used throughout as a symbol of all that is hidden away:

“To think of all the different objects that jostle one another down there in the green slime: SS skull and crossbones, and swords with black, white and red tassels…”

The river landscape is also a reminder of the past: the owner of a dilapidated building on the bank refuses to sell as his father was killed in a concentration camp, leaving it instead as a “monument to shame”.

The story itself has a few key points: Erika overhearing the “voice that used to make us all tremble” in her home when the ‘gang’ are meeting, the voice, we assume, of some Nazi with a new identity, the same voice Elisabeth claimed to have heard before being put away. This prompts her to refuse to go to a public event where she is expected with her husband, and also causes some soul-searching on his part. Later it will be Erika who finds that Elisabeth has hanged herself; Plukanski, too, dies from the shock of his dismissal (and a girl dies from an attempted abortion – Chundt is the father – as if to demonstrate how cheap life is to the group). Characters talk of escape – to Cuba, to Chile – particularly the younger generation. Both Church and culture are seen as corrupt – the Church as useful “window-dressing”.  Someone is dismantling the grand pianos of bankers, following the example of Karl, who kept only the castors which he is now using to make a buggy for his son. It is a novel, then, in which symbolism runs deep, and the country is fixed with an accusatory eye. Politicians are blamed (“politics is a dirty business”) but Boll is well aware of the power behind the politicians:

“We politicians collaborate in producing all the shit, and then clearing it all away, so that they can do the dusting without getting any dirt on themselves.”

The fixation with the Church and aristocracy may seem a little dated at times, but we might just as easily recognise the behaviour of contemporary politicians and powerbrokers – Plukanski, for example, has been used because “there wasn’t the slightest trace of spiritual dimension in his make-up.”

Women in a River Landscape is an appropriately elegiac novel, as ageing characters discuss their pasts, their hunger and desperation, and the compromises they have made. Despite Boll’s anger and condemnation, his approach is nuanced, his characters both created by and reacting to circumstances. It is not his easiest, or best, novel, but it has the hypnotic power of a confession.

The Assistant

November 25, 2021

The Assistant was one of four novels that Robert Walser wrote in the early 1900s, between The Tanners (1906) and Jakob von Gunten (1909). (The fourth, now lost, was a second novel also called The Assistant – “fantastical,” according to translator Susan Bernosky, “where the others are psychological and domestic.”) It is at least partly drawn from life as in 1903 Walser worked as secretary to an inventor in Wadenswil near Zurich – the names of the inventor’s four children remain unchanged in the novel, though the inventor himself undergoes a minor transformation from Carl Dubler to Carl Tobler. The novel opens with the arrival of Tobler’s new assistant, Joseph Marti, sent to the inventor’s villa by an employment agency. (Later we will meet the previous assistant, Wirsich, whose cyclical behaviour of drunkenness and remorse has eventually led to his dismissal). Joseph could not be more pleased with his position, which is in contrast to the poverty he has previously known:

“He took second helpings of each dish on the table. It’s true, he had arrived here from the lower depths of society, from the shadowy, barren, still crannies of the metropolis. It had been months now since he had eaten as well.”

The conversational “it’s true” is typical of Walser’s style, as the narrative flits in and out of Joseph’s point of view both indirectly and directly, with Joseph’s speech frequently accompanied by his thoughts. He is throughout a sympathetic character: lacking in confidence (“Will I be good enough?” he wonders) and perhaps too aware of his flaws (“I have always had trouble comprehending new and unfamiliar things”). The position as assistant is a new start for him, as we can see when he writes to his to his previous landlady:

“Do you still remember how often you had to shake me out of my dull, hermit-like existence and all my wicked habits?”

The letter itself suggests Joseph’s loneliness, and the reason he enjoys feeling part of Tobler’s family, lodging, as he is, in Tobler’s house. Thus he develops a relationship not only with Tobler but with the rest of his family, a relationship which changes when Tobler is away:

“The entire house was a different one when the master was absent. Frau Tobler, too, seemed to be a quite different woman, and as for the children – particularly the two boys – their relief at the absence strict father was visible at quite some distance.”

Joseph regards himself as a part of the Tobler household, particularly when it comes to his sympathy for the youngest daughter, Silvi, a “beaten down, slovenly little creature” with whom he can, perhaps, identify, who is regularly punished for wetting the bed:

“As an employee of the Tobler household, I am obligated to put in a word for Silvi, for Silvi too is a member of this household whose interests I am supposed to represent.”

Though generally meek, Joseph can at times stand up to others, telling Tobler, for example, when he is reprimanded for being a little late that “a few minutes one way or another made little difference.” Despite his love of his position, he seems untroubled by Tobler’s furious response, and he generally retains a calm demeanour in the face of emotion:

“This remark was smashing success! For one thing, Joseph was treated to the sight of a livid face…”

Tobler’s anger, we suspect, partly originates in the fact he has invested money he has inherited into developing his inventions and has yet to see any reward. Much is expected of the Advertising Clock – a clock on which adverts can be displayed. Joseph describes the clock in less business-like terms:

“It’s like as small or large child this clock… like a headstrong child that requires constant self-sacrificing, care and doesn’t even thank one for watching over it. And is this enterprise flourishing, is the child growing? Little progress can be seen.”

In fact, the Tobler household is running out of money, and Joseph’s job becomes increasingly focused on keeping creditors at bay as Tobler tries to raise further money from various sources. This creates some tension in the narrative both for Tobler, threatened with the failure of his enterprise, and Joseph, who may lose his job, but it will not be a surprise to learn Walser is not plot-driven and has plenty of time for detours, including a spell in prison for Joseph as a result of failing to present himself for military service which enters the story rather unannounced. The meandering tale feels like a commentary on Tobler’s capitalist dream: Walser gives us a glimpse into the early days of entrepreneurs, but through the eyes of a man who offers a very different perspective. Far from being driven by future plans, Joseph tends to take each day as it comes. Though lonely, he cares for others – even offering his predecessor, Wirsich, money when he falls on hard times. Joseph is a gentle character who at times seems not of this world, and certainly at odds with the cut-throat world of business. Yet, by the end, we might think he is all the better for it.


November 18, 2021

Though many of Gert Hofmann’s novels explore the Nazism which for any German writer born in 1931 must have felt both important and urgent – whether its rise (The Film Explainer), its dominance (Veilchenfeld) or its aftermath (Before the Rainy Season) – others, such as The Parable of the Blind, demonstrate a writer capable of embracing a variety of topics. Luck is another such novel which turns away from the 30s and 40s to pursue a solidly domestic focus, the divorce of a couple with two young children. Luck, like the recently published in English Veilchenfeld, is translated by the author’s son, Michael Hofmann, and is also from the character of the son’s point of view. One difference, however, is the extensive presence of the other characters in the narrative through direct speech, particularly the Father. We are told at the beginning:

“As he didn’t know how things would develop with Mother, he often assembled us in his study when he wanted to talk to us, and locked the door.”

The father’s tendency to speechifying is a characteristic of his profession (“Being a writer of a kind, he was given to poetic tuns of phrase, so we often couldn’t understand him”) and his preference for talk over action. One of his most treasured possession is a postcard from Thomas Mann, but, he explains, the correspondence ended there as he never got around to replying. Faced with the prospect of divorce, his reaction is inaction:

“For days now, Father had been crouched in his corner wondering: What am I going to take with me into my new life?”

The novel opens on the day he will leave, taking his son with him and leaving his daughter behind. His wife, we learn, has already found a replacement in Herr Herkenrath. Yet there is so little urgency in his manner the reader might begin to doubt whether this will happen, particularly as Hofmann is also in no hurry with the narrative – in almost 300 pages we will not go beyond these 24 hours. Little will happen but our understanding of the characters will deepen, and our sympathies may change. Initially the Mother appears cruel and unfeeling – it’s clear that she is the force behind the Father’s expulsion, and Herr Herkenrath’s imminent arrival (the same day – with a planned crossover where they can have tea together!). When she is heard laughing, the son tells us:

“She was making fun of him and his plight as a writer.”

His loyalty, and to some extent the younger sister’s, seems to be with the Father. Yet, as the novel progresses, the Father’s faults become clearer. Hofmann does not portray him as an artist down on his luck, but as a man whose ambitions far outrun his capabilities. He is writer who rarely writes, and produces little in the way of income (he tutors as a side-line, but at times will ignore his pupils when they arrive at the door). He also has a tendency to self-pity: when asked why he thinks no-one will read his articles, he replies, “Because the world is against me,” and later:

“That was the last thing I’ll ever write…I’m through with writing!”

Rather than packing he takes the time to walk around ten time telling those he meets that he is separating for his wife, although on each occasion suggesting that he is heading for a different place. He compulsion to stray from the truth is not new as his son is well aware, worrying when he points to a mourning ribbon he is wearing that he “was about to fabricate some lie about it,” and stating baldly:

“I’m writing something at the moment, he lied.”

The son also has his own farewells to make, particular to his friend Hutsche. The friendship has homo-erotic undertones, with an emphasis on physical intimacy such as, “That day, we brushed against each other many times,” and:

“I opened my mouth as wide as could, and Hutsche stuck a piece of chocolate between my lips.”

Given that he must now leave, there is not time to develop this relationship, either for Hofmann or for the narrator, and that is surely the point: the Father is so absorbed in what he might lose he gives no consideration to what his son might be leaving behind. Similarly, the Mother’s focus on what she hopes to gain blinds her to the damage she may be causing her children. His bad luck, her good luck is, for the children, simply luck – chance, events over which they have no control.

Luck is another example of Hofmann’s skill with child narrators, and his great empathy for child characters (not only the son but his sister too). It also shows that he does not need the grand drama of history in the background to write a novel which possesses the same tension, albeit in a domestic setting. But then, Hofmann’s work frequently focuses on the small personal tragedies no matter what the wider circumstances as he casts a dispassionate eye over humanity with all its flaws.

Baron Bagge

November 8, 2021

Last year New Directions reissued Alexander Lernt-Holenia’s novel Count Luna, originally published in 1955 and translated into English a year later. That 1956 publication also included the earlier novella Baron Bagge (1936), translated by Richard and Clara Wilson, with the subheading ‘Two Tales of the Real and the Unreal’. Both were reprinted in the Eridanos Library edition of 1988. The novella begins with the Baron being challenged to a duel, a challenge resulting from a rumour that two women have killed themselves after falling in love with him. The story which follows is his explanation of why he cannot marry – because, though no-one has seen his wife, “I am already married.”

It begins in the midst of the First World War when the Baron is a Lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army. His commanding officer, Semler, is “a temperamental, unpredictable character”, and when the squadron are sent on a reconnaissance mission, his recklessness sees them riding on in the dark, and planning an attack on a bridge even though they should not be engaging with the enemy unless absolutely necessary. All Bagge and his fellow officers can do is ask Semler for his orders given that “the likelihood is that within half an hour you will be lying on the ground, and probably not you alone but most of us.” The attack takes place and Bagge is surprised to find that, not only has he survived, but the enemy is routed:

“Suddenly I found myself stopping in the middle of the village and was conscious of a tremendous astonishment at still being alive. A cavalry attack against infantry is normally doomed to fail. But this one had succeeded.”

Shortly after they advance to Nagy Mihaly, as their orders instruct them, a town where Bagge’s mother has friends:

“…she had remarked there was a girl I might well marry one of these days; she was already a pretty young thing and would come into no mean fortune.”

When they arrive at Nagy Mihaly, Bagge is surprised by the sheer number of people – “every single family was extraordinarily large” – but decides that “all of them had thronged into the town because of the presence of the Russians.” Bagge meets the young lady mentioned by his mother, Charlotte, and is surprised to find her already in love with him:

“You have simply become for me the person of whom I have dreamed.”

Soon, however, Semler decides that they must move on in search of Russians (“Semler seems to think he can’t live without the damned enemy”) and so Bagge and Charlotte are hastily married, Charlotte telling him:

“If you go… you will not come back.”

If the story sounds a rather ordinary one of love and war, that is because it centres on a twist which you may or may not see coming (and if you do not want to know, read no further, though the introduction to the Eridanos edition reveals it), which is that, although Bagge is still alive, Semler and his comrades died in the attack, and he has somehow crossed over with them into the land of death. Lernet-Holenia does, of course, provide numerous clues before this is revealed, from the moment after the attack when Bagge notices Semler is ‘transformed’ – “quite unlike himself in manner, completely calm and composed.” When, shortly after, Bagge comments to his fellow officers how lucky they were in the battle “the two of them suddenly averred in an impatient, rather sullen manner that it had not been so extraordinary at all; they at any rate had guessed long ago that it would turn out as it had.” Our attention also is drawn to the possibility that the town is inhabited by ghosts ironically when Bagge comments on the ‘excessive’ population of Nagy Mihaly: “It was as if nobody died here.” Of course, the opposite is true, as the landscape around the town suggests:

“The plain lay before us utterly lifeless, and the bank of clouds that veiled the sky was unusually low-lying, gloomy and oppressive… The rest of the population had completely vanished… Even the stables appeared to be empty.”

Charlotte, too, is dead, and when Bagge leaves and returns to the land of the living, crossing a bridge “covered with sheets of metal that gleamed like gold”, he will never see her again. Despite this, he still regards himself as married, hence the disappointed lovers. Baron Bagge is a wonderful example of a novella: a story which would feel diluted by greater length, but rather thrown away if it were any shorter. It utilises many of the skills Lernet-Holenia demonstrates in his novels – the atmosphere of war, the constant tension, and the sympathetic narrator – and manages its twist expertly with neither too many nor too few hints stitched into the narrative. Now difficult to find, it would make an excellent beginning to a collection of his shorter fiction.

Pigeons on the Grass

November 3, 2021

Last German Literature Month I read Wolfgang Koeppen’s first novel, A Sad Affair, the story of a tempestuous relationship between an infatuated young man and a woman who seems incapable of loving, originally published in 1934. In 1935 he published a second novel, Die Mauer schwankt (The Wall is Swaying / Fluctuating – I suspect the English title, should it be translated, would be different!) about a master builder which he seems to have later disregarded, perhaps because elements of it were nationalistic. In 1951 his third novel, Pigeons on the Grass, finally appeared, a portrait of Munich, where he had settled in 1943, in the aftermath of the war. Originally translated into English in 1988 by David Ward, it appeared in a new translation by Michael Hofmann (who had already translated the two following novels which form a loose trilogy) last year.

Pigeons on the Grass is, quite simply, a tour de force. A novel set in one city over the course of one day, it owes something to both Berlin Alexanderplatz and Ulysses, yet, in one sense, goes further, having no central character, no still point for the reader in the heart of the hurricane. The novel opens with planes overhead, their bomb bays “still empty”, immediately raising one of Koeppen’s key questions: has the end of war brought peace, or, like the First World War, will it simply lead to further conflict? No one looks up, however:

“The people had forgotten their sirens, had forgotten their bunkers, the collapsing houses, the men were no longer thinking of the yell of their sergeants, pitching them into the dirt of the barracks yard, the trenches, the field dressing stations, drum fire, encirclement, retreat…”

Richard, an American soldier with a German father, wonders, “So what was it that had been destroyed here?”

“A few old buildings had fallen down. Well, it was probably high time.”

The novel contains a number of American characters. Richard, searching for relatives, worries about “sinking into the swamp of origin.” Two of the most important American characters have no such fear, both being black. Odysseus Cotton arrives as the novel opens with “the victor’s aura”. Like all Americans he is assumed to be rich:

“The Yanks were rich. Their automobiles glided along like ships, like Columbus’s caravels back from the New World.”

Odysseus is, one assumes, a nod to Ulysses; he travels around the city carrying a radio, the familiar voice keeping “him warm when he was in foreign lands.” Or rather, Josef, an elderly porter, carries his case and follows him from pub (where he outwits some Greeks!) to church tower, to the Black American soldiers’ club. The second black American is Washington Price who, in contrast to Odysseus, is settled in Munich, with a woman he loves, Carla, who is expecting his child. Even so, he knows that being a rich American is important to the relationship:

“Carla would have faith in the colour of his money.”

Carla is less keen on the baby she is expecting, “a little black creature stirring in her belly.” In the course of the day, she is arranging to have an abortion, and Washington is attempting to stop her. Washington remains a hopeful character (as represented by his “sky blue limousine”), with a dream to open a bar in France where all are welcome. (Koeppen seems to see racial discrimination seems as an echo of anti-Semitism).

In contrast to the optimism of the Americans, the German characters often seem defeated. Emilia, “the rag princess”, spends the day trying to sell what valuable belongings she has left after losing her family’s wealth in the war:

“She wanted to forget the worthless stock, the expropriated rights, the Reich treasury bonds on deposit, paper, all paper, so much paper, forget the crumbing real estate, the mortgaged stone of the walls she wasn’t allowed to sell…”

Her husband, Philipp is a writer who is unable to write, or take up any other opportunity he is given to make money, describing himself as “incompetent, cowardly superfluous.” Their doctor, Behude, who we first meet selling his blood, wonders, “What am I trying to heal them of?” The contrast between Americans and Germans is perhaps best articulated by Philipp when he meets a young American school teacher, Kay:

“She had the sort of youth that didn’t seem to exist yet in Germany.”

Other characters abound – a visiting poet, an actor, and his “nymphomaniac wife”, numerous children, a dog. Koeppen cuts between them, using links of various types. For example, a section describing the poet, Edwin’s, arrival in the Consul’s limousine ends with the car brushing a cyclist – “Oh dear, he’s going to fall, he’s wobbling…” The next section begins with Dr Behude on his bike (presumably the cyclist), “He kept his balance.” At other points the sections are linked by a word: “He needed money. Now-” – “Now hop off the 6 onto the 11.” And at others it is an idea that joins them, for example “he melted out of the shop” is followed by “- like snow on their lips”, a reference to the froth of the beer Odysseus and Josef are drinking. This creates an enormous energy in the narrative, an unstoppable flow, and is one of a number of reasons why the novel is so compulsively readable despite its complexity. The novel ends as the day ends:

“A day is over. A page of the calendar is torn off. Next, please.”

The novel’s title comes from Gertrude Stein and suggests both the possibilities of randomness and pattern (like the novel itself). It returns us to the question of ‘What next?’ by questioning whether even the present or the past can be understood:

“The birds are here by chance, we are here by chance, and maybe the Nazis were here by chance, Hitler was a chance, his politics were a dreadful and stupid chance, maybe the world is a dreadful and stupid chance of God’s, no one knows why we are here, the birds will fly off and we will walk on.”

Koeppen cannot offer us an answer, but what he does provide is an exceptional novel capturing a moment in time in all its hope and despair.


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.


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.