Posts Tagged ‘german literature month’

Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl

November 30, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billiards at Half Past Nine

November 25, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Dark

November 10, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lilly and Her Slave

November 4, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.