Posts Tagged ‘german literature month’

Stella

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.

Veilchenfeld

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.

On a Day Like This

November 26, 2019

As with so many of Peter Stamm’s characters, Andreas, in his 2006 novel On a Day Like This (translated, as always, by Michael Hofmann), makes a series of apparently impulsive decisions which will change his life dramatically. Typically, Andreas’ motives are not entirely transparent, though we understand that his life as a teacher in Paris has gradually been drained of meaning:

“Emptiness was his life in this city, in eighteen years in which nothing had changed, without his wishing for anything to change.”

With a secure, if increasingly unrewarding, job and two casual lovers, Andreas considers himself settled into the pattern of his life, but there are signs that he is beginning to long for change, imagining, for example, what it would be like to be run over by a bus:

“The collision would be the end of what had been thus far, and at the same time a sort of fresh start.”

Nothing quite so dramatic occurs – as Stamm has said in interview, “The behaviour of people in daily crisis seems much more varied than when big things happen” – and Andreas continues to feel both the insignificance of his life and his detachment from it:

“He was both an extra in the imaginary film and a member of the audience.”

He will also complain:

“He life was too formless, and at the same time too much of a tangle.”

Much of his dissatisfaction is rooted in a story from his youth, a summer afternoon when he went swimming with two friends, Fabienne and Manuel. While Manuel is swimming in the lake, Andreas kisses Fabienne. Nothing more happens, and later Fabienne and Manuel begin a relationship that will end in marriage, but Andreas feels that “Fabienne and Andreas was a love story that had never quite happened.” This has allowed Andreas to continue to idolise Fabienne – “he couldn’t imagine Fabienne sweaty or tired” – and this, in turn, at least partly explains why he has never sustained a relationship with a woman:

“From that time, she had accompanied him through all his relationships.”

Though Andreas seems, unconsciously at least, to be longing for change, it is, as previously stated, a series of minor decisions, rather than one major one, which lead his life in a new direction. Stamm has described his writing technique as:

“…more to do with feelings than with thoughts. I use my intuition to decide whether a person would do one thing or another. There is no planning, most of the time it’s not even real decisions.”

When Andreas decides to walk one of the younger teachers, Delphine, home at the end of term, and they end up sleeping together, it does not seem particularly out of the ordinary; afterwards, knowing that she will be going to a new job after the holidays, he assumes “that would be the last either of them would ever hear of the other.” This choice, however, coincides with an event Andreas has less control over, a small exploratory operation, which leads Delphine to move in with him while he recovers. This, too, ends abruptly – “I want you to leave” he tells her – but he is not only reacting to the threat of someone getting close to him (“He had always been careful not to be loved too much himself”) but to fear of the results of the biopsy:

“Someone had made a diagnosis and come to certain decisions about him, someone he didn’t even know.”

In the end, he cannot face finding out that something serious may be wrong with him, and he misses the appointment. It is this which leads him to decide to return to his home town in Switzerland, abandoning his life in France by selling his flat and buying a car instead, and asking Delphine to go with him, while at the same time intent on seeing Fabienne again:

“He had to begin a new life. That, he thought, is my only choice.”

The novel then contrasts the relationship with Delphine – casual, uncertain – with his feelings for Fabienne. As with many of Stamm’s novels, this represents a contrast between fiction and reality – if we weren’t sure that Andreas and Fabienne’s ‘relationship’ was ‘fictional’, Stamm has already made this clear by connecting it to the story in an instructional booklet which Andreas uses to teach German. Though he is set on meeting Fabienne again, “He didn’t know what he expected from her. He didn’t even know what he wanted.” It is almost as if he, too, wants to believe that part of his life is not real:

“He wanted to convince himself that the only reason that his love had lasted so long was that it had remained unrequited.”

Fabienne also makes the point clearly:

“What I have with Manuel isn’t a story. It’s reality.”

In many ways Andreas is an unsympathetic character, showing little understanding of others, but it becomes clear that this originates in a lack of self-knowledge – “He had never had a very clear sense of himself.” His failure to follow up on the moments he shared with Fabienne (“You were so dismissive, after you kissed me”) is what he has been missing in holding on to that memory.

On a Day Like This is another fascinating Stamm novel, its title capturing both the banality of Andreas’ world and his long-stifled hope for change.

The Bread of Those Early Years

November 17, 2019

Heinrich Boll’s fifth novel, The Bread of These Early Years, originally published in1955, is a story of hunger. The hunger originates in the narrator’s childhood: the rationing of the Second World War, and the poverty of the post-war period. But it also encompasses a more ambiguous longing, one which rejects the conventional life he has gradually accrued for the love of a woman he barely knows. As with The Train was on Time, it is short enough to qualify as a novella, and exists within an even briefer time period, a single day, a fact Boll emphasises by echoing the first sentence (“The day Hedwig arrived was a Monday…”) in the opening line of the final part: “It was dark, still Monday…”

On that Monday morning the narrator receives a letter from his father asking him to meet the daughter of a fellow teacher, Hedwig, who is coming to the city to train as a teacher herself. He is already aware of Hedwig’s approaching arrival as he has previously been asked by her father to find her a place to stay. Having lived in the city for seven years, only rarely visiting his father, he remembers her only as a child, “playing with some empty flower-pots in the garden.” In his recollection her hair is blonde and so he doesn’t initially recognise her as the young woman he is immediately attracted to at the train station:

“Her hair was dark, like slate roots after rain, her face white, startlingly white, like fresh whitewash with a bit of ochre shimmering trough…”

This physical description is suggestive of a new beginning – the cleansing rain, the freshening paint – and we are reminded of the narrator’s earlier comments on “how things would have turned out if I hadn’t met Hedwig at the train station”:

“I would have stepped into another life, the way a person mighty step into another train by mistake, a life that, in those days, before I knew Hedwig, seemed tolerable enough.”

His instant reaction is that he must make her his:

“…suddenly I was filled with fear, that fear explorers must feel when they step onto a new land, knowing that another expedition is on the way, might have already planted its flag, taken possession…”

Though the metaphor may feel slightly dated in its description of ‘conquest’, it too conveys the idea of new beginnings, and, in highlighting fear as the primary emotion, emphasises how vital this relationship suddenly seems to the narrator. This is not simply a love story, where the central character leaves one woman (in this case Ulla, the boss’ daughter) for another, but one where that decision is connected to rejecting the life he is currently living for a different one. It is clear that he has already struggled to find a life which satisfies him:

“I didn’t feel like continuing my electrician’s apprenticeship, but I had already tried so many things: I had been a bank clerk, a sales clerk, and a carpenter’s apprentice, each for exactly two months, and I hated this new job too…”

Meeting Hedwig is enough to make him abandoned his current job, fixing washing machines, leaving calls unanswered not only when he goes to meet her, but from that moment on. Even when he is standing in the laundrette he refuses to look at an overheating machine:

“I knew now what I’d always known but hadn’t admitted to myself for the last six years: that I hated this job as I hated every job I had tried my hand at.”

Further, he withdraws all his savings in another sign that he is drawing a line under his old life, this having hardly spoken to Hedwig. This longing is mirrored in his longing for bread as a child – he tells how he ‘prompted’ his father to visit a baker whose son his father taught every Sunday to get a loaf of bread, a gift which ends when his father gives the boy an F. He frequently remembers those who have fed him – Sister Clara, Veronika (“Each time she gave me a piece of bread I had those hands near my eyes”) – and often calculates prices in terms of loaves of bread. He describes his hunger as “the wolf that still slept inside me.” The memory of a visit to his mother in hospital demonstrates he is not the only one marked by this obsession as she says in reference to the woman in the next bed:

“Every time he [her husband] came they quarrelled about the money she gave him to buy food.”

This is perhaps contrasted by his boss’ more abstract attitude to money, also exemplified by his intended Ulla. In the conversation where he ends their relationship, he specifically mentions “the bread that you, that your father, never gave me,” while she speaks throughout in financial metaphors, even telling him, “There are such things a receipts for kisses.” It feels like two different ways of looking at the world are in competition.

The Bread of These Early Years, translated by Leila Vennewitz, is another powerful story from Boll, both a document of Germany’s post-war years and a wider examination of human longing, a longing which, as the ending suggests, can never be assuaged.

The Left-Handed Woman

November 8, 2019

When it comes to who will win the Nobel Prize for Literature each year (although I may well have an opinion on whether one writer deserves it more than another) what I largely long for is that a writer in a language other than English is the winner, particularly one who has not been widely translated into English, or one who has largely fallen out of print. Patrick Modiano and Svetlana Alexievich would be examples of the former (the translation of Modiano since his win in 2014 has been quite astonishing); J M G Clezio would be an example of the latter, with six of his novels reprinted in November 2008 after his win. This year’s winner, Peter Handke, would seem a perfect example of another writer who falls into this category, with almost all his work out of print in the UK. So far, however, any reissuing is limited to the US (Pushkin Press’ edition of A Sorrow Beyond Dreams had already been planned), with seven of his novels due in December, and New Review of Books reprinting another two next year. Can this be down to the controversy that has surrounded his award, or is he simply seen as a more difficult sell by UK publishers? Whatever the case, it seemed an appropriate time to read the 1982 Abacus copy of The Left-Handed Woman (translator unnamed) I had picked up earlier this year.

The Left-Handed Woman is a novella rather than a novel, not quite reaching 90 pages in this edition. In summary, very little happens: Marianne and Bruno are married with a young son, Stefan, but when Bruno returns from a trip abroad, Marianne asks him to move out and he goes to stay with a friend, Franziska. Marianne is initially quite isolated, but as the story progresses she develops new relationships and the novel ends with a gathering in her house of those she knows, both from before the break-up, and her new acquaintances. The novel explores Marianne’s loneliness and questions whether it is entirely negative.

Our introduction to Marianne immediately suggests she is at one remove from reality, an aspect of her character which is emphasised by the distancing technique of being referred to as ‘the woman’ throughout:

“The woman stood as if in a trance, but instead of going stiff she seemed to bend to her thoughts. The child came and asked her what she was looking at. She didn’t so much as blink.”

This idea is repeated throughout the novella:

“Then for a time she remained motionless in the same posture.”

The word ‘motionless’ in particular applies itself to the character again and again: “For a time the woman stood motionless…” and “The woman sat motionless at the desk.” This has the effect of leaving the reader on the outside of the character, looking on as if from a distance – echoing the way in which Marianne herself is often portrayed looking out of the window of her flat. That we have little access to her thoughts or feelings is best demonstrated by the moment she asks her husband to leave, shortly after he has told her, “Tonight I feel as if everything I’d ever wished for had come true” (suggesting she is also closed to him):

“I suddenly had an illumination… that you were going away, that you were leaving me. Yes, that’s it. Go away, Bruno. Leave me.”

Bruno’s frustration shows in later encounters: “Damn it, you’re not well,” he tells her, and:

“Do you suppose there’s no one else in the world but you? I exist, too, Marianne. I exist!”

Her decision is impossible to judge, however, as we have little insight into their life before – perhaps it is Bruno who is solipsistic.

When Bruno leaves she decides to return to work as a translator and her progress from isolation to a new accord with the world can perhaps be measured against the scenes where she is sitting at her typewriter. Initially She struggles to type at all:

“She sat at the typewriter, in the bedroom. She didn’t type… Suddenly the woman pushed the typewriter aside and it fell to the floor.”

Later we are told, “she folded her arms over the typewriter and laid her head on her arms.” Eventually she begins to type, something that seems to coincide with others coming into her life, for example her father’s visit. She also develops new relationships – an actor falls in love with her, and she also invites a shop assistant – who tells her “you seem so free” – to visit her. When Bruno and Franziska visit her near the end – “expecting to find the loneliest woman on earth” – her apartment is full.

Handke, however, is not making a point about the benefits of company. Marianne’s loneliness seems to have purified her and allowed her make new relationships on her own terms, something, now that we look back at the opening scene, was not the case with Bruno (why else would Franziska say, “At last your Marianne has woken up”?). This is revealed in her final statement:

“You haven’t given yourself away. And no one will ever humiliate you again.”

The Left-Handed Woman can be disconcertingly distant but it is ultimately a rich and subtle novella. Many of its initially banal moments remain frozen in the reader’s imagination. It is a brief but fascinating introduction to Handke’s work.

Berlin Finale

November 3, 2019

As with Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, German writer Heinz Rein’s Berlin Finale, published in the same year of 1947, was a best-seller in Germany, and was soon translated into to English (in 1952). Like Fallada, however, Rein’s reputation quickly faded in the UK and US, and, only now, with Shaun Whiteside’s new translation, will it hopefully be restored. Berlin Finale (and here, at least, ‘Berlin’ is uncontroversially in the original title) is set during the final days of the Second World War with the capital surrounded and Germany facing a defeat which Hitler and the Nazi High Command refuse to recognise. Over 660 pages Rein describes in painful detail the delusions of those who still believe the Third Reich can survive, and the defiance of those who wish to end the war and begin rebuilding. Amid the rubble, a dangerous atmosphere of suspicion still exists, with those supposed to be opposed to Nazi victory facing summary execution.

The novel opens as Joachim Lassehn, a disillusioned deserter from the Eastern front, arrives in Berlin. He has only the vaguest idea of why he has returned – his parents are dead and he can barely remember his wife, the result of a marriage that took place only days after meeting, and of which he says:

“It’s quite possible that we could walk past each other in the street and not recognise each other.”

Instead he finds himself in a bar talking to the landlord, Oskar Klose. When Klose speculates that Lassehn has deserted – “you’ve done a bunk, you’re on the run, you’ve high-tailed it, you’ve skedaddled” – Lassehn threatens to shoot him, but Klose, luckily, has been long opposed to the Nazi regime. Rein is quick to establish Lassehn’s innocence: this is partly political but also extends to a lack of life experience in general, particularly when it comes to women. (When he later finds a woman he has just met is attracted to him he doesn’t understand it, “he doesn’t know that there is also an animal lust that requires only the body and nothing else.”) His age, twenty-two, partly explains this, but, as Klose points out, so do the circumstances of his youth:

“You didn’t grow up in normal times… But when you started thinking the trouble-makers had already glued up your brain.”

This is a topic Rein will turn to again and again, the question of how Germany can recover from the war when its young men and women have known nothing but National Socialism. Lassehn himself recognises that, though he has rebelled, he has no other political system to recommend:

“He cannot think of an idea that carries his life and forces its way towards a goal, he knows only rejection of the idea that they had tried to force on him with pathos and brute force.”

Klose introduces Lassehn to a small group of like-minded anti-Nazis including Dr Bottcher and Friedrich Wiegand. Wiegand is wanted by the Nazis and living under a false name. Where Lassehn typifies those who have grown disillusioned and disgusted by National Socialism, Wiegand best represents those who have resisted all along. Wiegand has already spent time in a concentration camp as a political prisoner and, in the course of the novel, he will come under suspicion again, placing his wife in danger. His eldest son, Robert, on the other hand, has fully embraced fascism having “willingly allowed the poison of National Socialism to seep into him.” All live with the fear of discovery, as Wiegand explains:

“Experience has taught me that everyone observes everyone, that everybody suspects his neighbour, whether it’s because he fears he’s being spied upon or because he himself is a spy, quite apart from those creature who, without actually being spies, like to make themselves tools of the party, to demonstrate their loyalty and reliability.”

It is this constant sense of danger which makes the novel feel like a thriller at points (and perhaps explains the endorsement of Lee Childs on the cover). Many of the tensest moments take place in the confined space of an air raid shelter. Lassehn is questioned by an air raid warden when he goes to visit his wife and he is forced to take shelter:

“…in a flash, he is… aware of his situation: a deserter with inadequate papers in a city that is keenly searching for soldiers who have fled the battlefield, a deserter surrounded by strangers, any of whom could give him away…”

Wiegand encounters a different problem when he is recognised by an old comrade and has to deny any knowledge of him. There are later encounters, for example when Wiegand, Klose and Bottcher are questioned in the pub, that end more violently, and, overall, the effect is to have the reader permanently on edge.

The novel is not only the story of Lassehn, Wiegand and the resistance, however; Rein seeks to paint a wider picture of life in Berlin during these final days. This is not only done with set-piece descriptions reminiscent of Berlin Alexanderplatz, but with chapters set aside which take us into the offices of the Gestapo, or tell the story of a man whose wife and child do not return after a raid. One chapter is specifically titled ‘Biography of a National Socialist’. Even within chapters, other characters widen the novel’s scope, like the woman who has lost her daughter denouncing Hitler in an air raid shelter: “something has changed in me.”

Thematically, Rein looks both backward and forward: wondering how Germany will reform as previously mentioned, but also questioning how Germany allowed itself to become enthralled to Hitler in the first place:

“It would drive you mad that a handful of crazy demagogues and charlatans have managed to make an entire people obsessed with their idea.”

Berlin Finale is a classic of its kind: not only detailed and documentary (it seems likely that extracts of Nazi propaganda are verbatim) but incisive and insightful (take, for example, the thought that, “The adaptability of the human spirit is one of the most significant, but also one of the most terrible, gifts of man…”). That it is such a riveting, roller-coaster of a read is an added bonus.

In the Flesh

November 15, 2018

Christa Wolf is a writer whom I have long intended to read, casually acquiring her novels (I have four) without ever quite opening one. I began In the Flesh, probably not a typical entry point, in the appropriate if not advisable surroundings of a hospital waiting room. Published in 2002 (and translated by John S Barrett in 2005), it is one of her later novels (Wolf died in 2011) and does not generally trouble sentences which begin, ‘Her works include…’ It does, however, convincingly portray the experience of a woman admitted to hospital with abdominal pains and a soaring temperature to such an extent that some element of biography is soon suspected.

Wolf’s bravura move is to alternate between the third and first person, in a narrative which is uninterrupted by chapters, thus conveying the sense that patients have of surrendering themselves, or at least their body, to the medical staff, and perhaps the institution itself. I immediately thought of Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Tulips’ where she finds this abnegation seductive:

“I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.”

In the Flesh begins in such a way as the narrator (‘semi-narrator’ sounds a little clumsy) is taken to the hospital:

“Something’s complaining, wordlessly. Words breaking against the muteness that’s spreading persistently, along with faintness. Consciousness bobbing up and down in a primordial tide. Her memories like islands.”

It is in her memories that she becomes alive (or perhaps ‘I-live’), reborn in the first person. While the doctor’s words “barely touch the outer limits of her consciousness”:

“I’m sinking past my mother’s face as she lies near death. I’m standing by the window of her hospital room and seeing myself through her eyes – a black silhouette against the summer light.”

Her memories are largely focussed on Urban, a friend from university who goes on to become someone of importance in the East German state, rising above the narrator and her husband Lothar a functionary rather than an artist:

“Was it just that Urban had been promoted over Lothar and was now in a position to give him orders and pass judgement on his work? Mild judgement if at all possible or, if criticism was unavoidable, criticism cloaked in irony that always made it evident that we’d all been hatched in the same incubator, as Urban put it.”

She meets him years later returning from West Berlin – one of the few trusted to travel back and forward – where he “had to make a presentation about the most recent cultural events in our country.” It is tempting to see Urban as a poison in the body politic, excised in the same way the narrator’s own infection is cut away. Later, she will declare:

“Urban’s dead and they’re a lot more pleased with me.”

However, another prominent memory is that of her Aunt Lisbeth:

“…that’s the face of my Aunt Lisbeth as a young woman, fifty years ago, when I was a child. Isn’t she dead?”

In the ‘memory’, a story she has presumably only been told, Lisbeth visits a Jewish Doctor, Leitner, “who’s no longer permitted to treat Aryans.” Luckily their love affair is unreported.

The connection between these scenes which the narrator experiences seems to be that participant is dead. She reflects on whether “there weren’t special keys – high fever for example – to unlock” our interior worlds, which she describes as an underworld:

“…now she understands… why people speak of the ‘realm of shadows’, call the netherworld the realm of shadows, and why the recently deceased are spoken of as ‘shades’.”

It’s an image she returns to (“someone must have given me a key to the cellar”) just as she uses images of water to describe the experience of pain and anaesthesia. Her closeness to death allows her to reinterpret these stories of others who, conforming or rebelling, neglect their mortality.

In the Flesh may not be one of Wolf’s best known novels, but it is an absorbing examination of the borderland between life and death. “I’m standing on the opposite shore of that river which has no name,” she says at one point. It suggests a writer willing to experiment, to cut to the bone, while ensuring her work remains pulsing with the marrow of lived experience.