Posts Tagged ‘german literature month’

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.

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Dance by the Canal

November 12, 2018

Gabriela von Haβlau – the ‘true name’ she writes under on packing paper as the novel opens, homeless and alone – is a woman who has been unable to find her place since her childhood in Communist East Germany. Her confusion, in Kerstin Hensel’s 1994 novel Dance by the Canal recently translated by Jen Calleja, is immediately reflected in her two nicknames, one for when she is good, and one for when she isn’t. Her father’s position – first as a surgeon and later as Chief Medical Officer –marks her out, even in a supposedly classless society –

“I couldn’t go to kindergarten because Father was the chief vascular surgeon and Mother was a housewife. I couldn’t play in the street either because there wasn’t anything to do on our street.”

He insists that she learn to play violin despite her lack of talent:

“I was so unmusical that Frau Popiol gave up on me after a year of futile effort.”

Only the illicit kisses and caresses of her violin teacher bring an end to the lessons – “Frau Popiol is sick,” her Father tells her. At school she is also singled out, her aristocratic ‘von’ ill-suited to the Communist system – “a bourgeois relic,” according to her teacher:

“…there was a big red ‘I’ for ‘Intelligentsia’ next to my name in the register as a result of my Father’s occupation. Next to all; the others were ‘L’ for ‘Labourer’ or ‘C’ for ‘Clerk’.”

She responds by befriending the “smallest, fattest and dirtiest among the girls”, Katka. Together they torment their teacher, play truant, and steal sweets.

Where Gabriela is unable to decide who she is, her Father’s idea of his identity is being taken away from him. He insists on holding parties because he is a ‘somebody’ but remains unhappy: his perception of his own ‘prestige’ is at odds with the society around him and, increasingly, his only remedy is alcohol. Her Mother, meanwhile, finds escape, in the arms of a young actor, Samuel.

Gabriela’s adult life is no happier. When she leaves school she begins an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer where she is given the task of filing the edges off iron plates:

“After working on three plates I had blisters on my hands and my shoulders and back ached.”

She rebels again, assaulting her foreman and falling into the hands of, presumably, the secret police who encourage her to write, though by this time the narrative is increasingly incoherent, culminating in a concert which seems peopled with characters from her childhood. It is in the aftermath of this that she begins living outside of society, finding work on a farm.

Alongside the story of Gabriela’s past, which we are led to believe she is writing, we learn of her present, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As it begins, she remains without a place:

“This was the one thing I knew from my first day of homelessness back then: it was forbidden in doorways, gateways and under balconies. So I headed for the Green Bridge… but the Green Bridge was occupied too.”

Only her writing brings her satisfaction:

“By midday I’ll have filled the whole reverse side of the packing paper. I feel the momentum within me, a heaving, driving pleasure.”

Dance by the Canal tells the immediately recognisable story of childhood unhappiness and rebellion, but in a context where the freedom to define yourself is absent, and Gabriella must absent herself instead. Distant from both her mother and father, her discontent originates from the same place. She clings to transitory relationships with Frau Popial and Katka because they represent the only affection she has been shown. In her final rebellion, against the two policemen who have attempted to recruit her, she rejects the state, and is left rootless until the state itself changes; offering her a second chance. Hensel gives us a glimpse into the lives of those who reject totalitarianism for personal rather than political reasons in a novel which insists on the ability of writing to reclaim and reform our lives.

The Tobacconist

November 27, 2017

Remaining unconvinced by much of the praise piled upon Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, my decision to read The Tobacconist (an earlier novel translated by Charlotte Collins last year) was influenced by my uncertainty over whether it was the novel itself or the general interpretation of its title as suggesting approval of Egger’s life – an exemplar of resilience perhaps – which had irritated me to the point of exhaustion. It was also hinted at the time (by those who read German) that A Whole Life was not typical of Seethaler’s work. One noticeable difference is evident from the opening lines:

“One Sunday, in the late summer of 1917, an unusually violent thunderstorm swept over the mountains of the Salzkammergut. Until then, Franz Huchel’s life had trickled along fairly uneventfully, but this thunderstorm was to give it a sudden turn that had far-reaching consequences.”

The storm will drown Preininger, who has provided Franz and his mother with an income, forcing Franz to leave home and work in Vienna in a tobacconist’s; but the storm is also history, which will dictate Franz’s life over the pages of the novel. (This, it seems to me, is in contrast to Egger who seems to exist outwith history even during the Second World War). As a lady comments to Franz on his arrival in Vienna when he is overcome by the stench: “It’s not the canal that stinks…It’s the times. Rotten times, that’s what they are. Rotten, corrupt and degenerate.”

Franz begins working for Otto Trsnyek, an old friend of his mother’s, who lost a leg in the First World War. The tobacconist, in a small way, represents the civilisation that Austria will soon leave behind: note, for example, Otto’s instructions to Franz regarding the reading of newspapers:

“The correct reading of newspapers, equally extending both mind and horizon, encompassed all the newspapers on the market (and therefore also in the shop), if not from cover to cover, then at least in greater part…”

The tobacconist’s welcomes all viewpoints, and all customers, something the country no longer does. When a Communist unfurls a banner before committing suicide, the press reports “the graffiti he scrawled on it, which cannot be reproduced here, was intended to vilify our Reich, our people, and our hope-filled city.” What he had actually written was:

“Freedom of the people requires freedom of the heart. Long live freedom! Long live our people! Long live Austria!”

The tobacconist’s also suffers from the intolerance of the times, waking one morning to find JEWLOVER written on the window in pig’s blood. One of the Jewish customers in question is Sigmund Freud whom Franz quickly (and, it has to be said, improbably) befriends. Freud finds Franz exasperating but endearing, and recommends he finds a girl, answering his questions about love with the declaration that “nobody understands love” but:

“…you don’t have to understand water to jump in head first.”

Franz will pursue a relationship with a young woman, Anezka, with varying degrees of success, and occasional advice from Freud, throughout the novel. In the highs and lows of the relationship, Franz is always the innocent, his youth emphasised by her “sonny boy,” an appellation which will be ironically repeated in Franz’s final scene.

For these reasons, The Tobacconist often reads like a comic novel. Even when Otto is taken away by the police, Franz’s response is both brave and foolish, turning up at police headquarters every day to inquire after him. He remains a holy innocent until the end, resistant to both the corruptions of the world and character development. This also prevents Seethaler from developing the other characters, such as his mother or Otto, in much depth as Franz remains both the focal and view point of the novel. Even Freud’s cameos exist largely as a counterpoint to Franz. Having said that, like A Whole Life, there is an undeniable power to the narrative, which is often touching, and a similar sense that our world, sadly, is no place for innocents:

“I feel like a boat that’s lost its rudder in a storm and is now just drifting stupidly here and there.”

The Parable of the Blind

November 21, 2017

A couple of years ago I read Gert Hofmann’s The Film Explainer, winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1995, during German Literature Month, an experience which left me intrigued to explore his work further. As luck would have it, I came across a copy of The Parable of the Blind earlier this year (Hofmann’s work is largely out of print – though, unknown to me, this particular novel was reprinted by Verba Mundi in March). The novel, translated by poet Christopher Middleton (one of three Hofmann novels he translated), not only shares its title with that of a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder but seeks to describe the origins of that particular artwork, narrated entirely by the blind men who have been assembled by Bruegel to model for him.

As the novel opens the blind men are awakened by a knocking. The communal voice which narrates the novel describes a dream of burial:

“Good, it’s over now, we say, and we’ve been buried. First as far as others are concerned, then as far as we ourselves are. We’re beginning to be forgotten.”

The knocking is a summoning back to existence in the world –a world largely confirmed by sight. The initial conversation suggests that the blind men remember little of where they are or why. Once awake they must confirm their own presence as well as that of their comrades:

“Then we pass our hands over our bodies. Yes, we’re still the same people as yesterday.”

Their daily returning to being echoes the work of the painter’s more permanent creation and Hofmann is clearly interested in the irony of the painting which its models cannot see. Hofmann presents the world entirely from their viewpoint, one which is excessively focussed on dialogue. When actions do occur, for example when a child touches their faces, only what they experience is described:

“Then through the morning breeze the child’s warm hand comes and strokes our cheeks, right and left, and creeps into our ears.”

This scene also illustrates the curiosity of the villagers and the vulnerability of the blind men. After they are fed they are taken to relieve themselves, but the promised privacy is a deception:

“But when we’re crouching in the cold and tickly grass we sense that we’re not alone at all, there’s breathing and gasping and giggling in front of us and behind us.”

Throughout the novel they remain reliant on others to lead them, not always honestly or successfully, to the painter. That help is rarely offered and they must first of all discover if there is any other person there:

“But probably there’s nobody there, it’s the same as ever.”

Bruegel is famed for his powers of observation with this particular painting often being cited as evidence, not only in the detail of the clothing but in the way in which each of the men’s blindness can be seen to have its own cause. In the novel, however, the men tell the villagers a common story:

“One evening in the summertime when it was very hot they were sitting under a cherry tree and birds came. The birds sat in their shoulders and pecked their eyes out.”

The blind men themselves know this isn’t the case – one of their number, for example (Slit Man) has had his eyes removed as a punishment – yet they frequently ask if there are crows following them. Bruegel’s accuracy is a refutation of superstition, just as Hofmann’s fiction has often tackled history with a view to seeing accurately in the face of assumed narratives. Bruegel also paints so that his subjects can be seen. When the child tells the blind men that people can’t always be seen he gives this explanation:

“Because one day they die, the child says, then they can’t be seen anymore, and that’s why he paints them. And that’s why he also paints himself, so that he’ll always be seen.”

Yet if blindness is a misfortune, so is sight. Bruegel is tormented by the pictures he must paint:

“More and more often now, since the slaughter at Liege, the pictures are of people dying and dead.”

When the blind men finally arrive he asks for them to be described to him:

“No, I don’t want to look at them, the painter says after hesitating a bit, not yet. The mere sight of people like that had a devastating effect on him in his present state because he at once put himself in their place. He couldn’t see people who’ve been broken without being broken himself.”

The Parable of the Blind is an impressively sustained exercise in limited viewpoint, and also interesting simply in its portrayal of the immortalised but forgotten models of the painting. However, it can also be read as a parable itself, a tortured Pilgrim’s Progress, where we are the blind leading the blind with death hovering above us, shouting our questions into the darkness.

Euphoria

November 17, 2017

Euphoria begins with a group of men huddled together for warmth:

“When it’s too cold to lie down at night we remain standing. We stand close together, back to back, side to front. We turn slowly over the course of the night so that each one of us gets a turn in the middle, and from time to time each one of us has to be on the outside.”

Little do we know that this will be one of more optimistic scenes in Heinz Helle’s ironically titled, end-of-the-world novel (translated by Kari Driscoll). The next few pages reveal the scale of the disaster when they encounter a child sitting in the road next to the charred remains of a tent. That they simply leave the child (“The kid looks quite well fed. He will last another week at least”) even when they find his murdered parents lying further along the road suggests how ruthless their survival instincts have already become. As we shall see, the appearance of another human being will be a rare event.

Eventually Heinz allows us to glimpse the everyday world which lies before the burnt-out landscape of the novel’s present. The five men are friends who have rented a cabin in the mountains for a weekend break. The first sign that anything might be wrong is “thick, black smoke over the village in the valley” on the morning of their departure. At no point do they, or we, find out what has happened: the narrowness of their viewpoint, deprived of communication, is one of the most terrifying aspects of the novel. They walk in the hope of outpacing the devastation, but with no way of knowing how widespread it is:

“We see pylons with no wires between them, abandoned petrol stations, supermarkets, holiday homes, vacancy signs, here and there the burnt-out wreck of a car.”

Despite the destruction all around them, the most damaged aspect on the new world is human relationships. Where Cormac McCarthy’s The Road preserves a certain amount of balance in its presentation of the love between father and son, here the men act like a tribe, regarding outsiders as enemies. The few people they meet, like the boy, are either dismissed or attacked. When they encounter a woman, they casually rape her (“When it’s my turn, she doesn’t even raise her arms…”) leaving her unmoving, a piece of bread laid on her stomach. The world around them is portrayed in a similar fashion: they find an overturned tanker which has been forced off the road by ramps built out of logs:

“I imagine that the driver in the cab was desperate to get away, but he probably also had a broken leg, and so he had to lie and wait, and he knew what was coming.”

When one of their number, Furst, breaks his ankle, they leave him behind without debate:

“We leave him sitting in the wet grass, and we hope the night won’t be so cold that he will die in the dark. But cold enough that not long after sunset it will be over.”

Euphoria is a deeply pessimistic book. Though the friends stick together their unity is animal, to the point that there is very little dialogue in the novel. The short chapters also suggest the incoherence of their experience; although a first person narrative, there is little in the way of reflection as the basic needs of each day supplant all other thought. In comparison the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead looks positive cosy with its undamaged ecology and access to shops and vehicles. Reduced to walking and scavenging, Helle portrays human life as, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The novel’s conclusion drives the final knife into any hope we might have left, though a final chapter in which the narrator imagines “another perfectly ordinary Monday” might be read as a desperate plea to preserve what we have, characterising the novel’s incessant bleakness as a warning rather than a prediction.

The Clown

November 29, 2016

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Heinrich Boll is a writer who (in English at least) has come to be largely defined by one book, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Once widely published by Penguin, he is now largely out of print in the UK, though Melville House recently reissued a number of his books, including The Clown. (The Marion Boyars edition I have was translated by Leila Vennewitz in 1965, two years after the novel’s German publication, but this is the same translation Melville House has used). It is perhaps for this reason that I had little idea what to expect from The Clown, which I found surprisingly readable despite the critique of German post-war Catholicism which was clearly central to Boll’s intentions.

Its readability lies largely in the novel’s voice, that of its titular clown, Hans Schnier. Though the novel covers much of Schnier’s life (albeit he is still young, in his early twenties) we only spend a matter of hours with him, the novel consisting of an extended cry of anguish against his present circumstances. In particular he is angered and upset by the fact that his partner (though I’m using this word anachronistically, it accurately reflects Schnier’s feelings: living together, he regards their relationship as akin to marriage), Marie, has left him to marry another man. Her departure coincides with the (self-inflicted) collapse of his career as a clown:

“After three weeks there were already no more flowers in my room, by the middle of the second month I no longer had a room with a bath, and by the beginning of the third month the distance from the station was already seven marks, while my fee had shrunk to a third. Instead of cognac, gin, instead of vaudeville theatres, curious clubs which met in gloomy halls…”

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Schnier now finds himself with barely a mark to his name, and, on his return to Bonn, he lists all those he might ask for money. Though his family are wealthy he has little to do with them. He blames his mother in particular for the death of his sister Henrietta, who was allowed, and even encouraged, to volunteer for anti-aircraft duty towards the end of the war when she was sixteen years old. His mother’s support for the Nazi regime is encapsulated in her comment at the time, “You do see, don’t you, that everyone must do his bit to drive the Jewish Yankees from our sacred German soil?” When Schnier phones her during the course of the novel he cannot resist introducing himself as:

“…a delegate of the Executive committee of Jewish Yankees just passing through – may I please speak to your daughter?”

This anger at his mother is part of a general anger at those who supported the Nazis but now prosper in post-war Germany. Talking to his mother reminds him of Schnitzler, one of a number of artistic hangers-on his mother indulged, who encouraged his mother to enrol Schnier in the Hitler Youth, and is now working in the Foreign Office:

“A hypocrite like that doesn’t even have to tell lies to always be on the right side of the fence.”

Schnier’s choice of clowning as a career seems, at least in part, directed towards all the writers and artists his mother fawned on – he frequently refers to it as an art while knowing his mother will never regard it as seriously.

Schnier and Marie’s relationship founders because he cannot agree to have their children raised as Catholics. We learn that Marie has had miscarriages in their time together, though later it is hinted that, unbeknownst to Schnier, they might be abortions. This reflects a more general sense that the Catholics in the novel only take their Catholicism seriously as it suits them. (At one point Schnier is told, regarding priests and hunting, “There are certain rules, Schnier, but there are also exceptions.”) Schnier says he is by nature monogamous, and that Marie is putting her soul in danger:

“When she marries Zupfner, then she will really be sinning. That much I have grasped of your metaphysics: what she is doing is fornication and adultery…”

Schnier, then, has something of the holy fool about him; though not religious he is innocent in a way those who are religious either dislike or misunderstand. This innocence (as with Holden Caulfield) is often mistaken for rebellion. As his father says to him:

“…do you know what’s the matter with you? You lack the very thing that makes a man a man: the ability to accept a situation.”

Clowning is a refusal to accept the seriousness of life, even if it originates from despair. Acceptance leads to tyranny; dictatorships hate humour. Schnier goes as far as to refuse to accept his success as a clown. He refuses his father’s offer of financial help, then phones his father’s mistress to see if she will intercede on his behalf – his rebellion is not a matter of principal but an innate reaction. It is for this reason that, although The Clown is clearly a critique of post-war Germany (the nuances of which will always escape me), it is equally a coruscating response to the threats of complacency and amnesia.

Unformed Landscape

November 25, 2016

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Having read Peter Stamm’s last three books to be published in English (Seven Years, We’re Flying and All Days Are Night) the time had come to delve into his back catalogue (Stamm has been well served over the years by his translator Michael Hofmann). Fellow Stamm fan Tony Malone recommended Unformed Landscape as a good place to start, and German Literature Month seemed a good time to read it.

Unformed Landscape is a relatively short novel in which a lot seems to happen. The novel opens one particular Saturday with Kathrine heading out across country on her skis:

“Finally, after perhaps an hour, she moved away from that last landmark at a sharp angle, and glided out into the limitless white of the fjeld.”

The “limitless white”, as we shall discover, is the first hint of the unformed landscape of her life. Stamm, however, moves quickly from this particular morning to more general summary of Kathrine’s life:

“Kathrine had married Helge, she had had a child, she had divorced Helge.”

Soon the two methods of narration are transposed:

“After work she went to her mother’s. The three of them would eat supper together, later Kathrine would pick up the child and go home. Eventually, the child learned to walk, and she didn’t have to carry him anymore. That was in summer. Then the days grew shorter, autumn came, the first snow, and then winter.”

This sense of time passing quickly suggests Kathrine feels her life slipping away. She looks to others to change that, for example a visiting Dane, Christian, who is installing new machinery at the fish factory: “Kathrine waited for him to kiss her, but he didn’t kiss her.” Alexander, a Russian ship’s captain she befriends in her job at customs, tells her:

“You expect too much from other people. You’re responsible for your own life.”

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Kathrine, however, still looks to others to change her life, marrying again. Her attraction to Thomas is perhaps best summed up in the sentence, “His life was going somewhere.” That marriage, too, falls apart – his controlling family accuse her of infidelity (by sending a letter to everyone she knows) and Thomas moves out of the flat they were sharing while waiting to move into his family home. Typical of the way the story is told, we learn of this before we hear much about the marriage itself. Clearly Thomas has attempted, and Kathrine has allowed him, to imprint himself upon her life, as can be seen from the furniture in their flat:

“He had been generous, and bought expensive, new things. He hadn’t liked her furniture, he had mocked her collection of books…And every time they tidied up…she noticed that something disappeared, until there was hardly anything left.”

It is at this point that Kathrine decides to become responsible for her own life, leaving her village, her job and her son, and setting out to find Christian in Aarhus. This may be the first time she has seized control of her destiny in such a way, but this does not man she has transformed into a different person overnight; the haphazard still plays a large part in her life. She stays with the sea captain who took her across the Arctic Circle for a few days, and when she reaches Aarhus Christian is not there; neither is she entirely clear why she wishes to see him, except that he represents a chance of escape she didn’t take.

The novel questions how far Kathrine can take control of her own life. She represents the many people who remain largely where they were born, not because they choose to stay there but because they do not choose to move away. She is aware she is not entirely happy, and is not afraid to walk away from that unhappiness, but is less certain about where to walk towards. She searches for the (male) catalyst which will transform her life only to be disappointed, but not disheartened.

This makes Unformed Landscape an unusual novel: Kathrine is neither powerless in face of its plot, nor the power behind it. Like most people, her life is a confused combination of choices and chance. It is this that gives the novel both its depth and its resonance; her very ordinariness makes her extraordinary. It is certainly the best of Stamm’s novels that I have read so far.

Thumbprint

November 19, 2016

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Though Friedrich Glauser is described as the ‘Swiss Simenon,’ his life most resembles that of German writer Hans Fallada: an opium and morphine addict, he spent much of his time either in jail or insane asylums, though he did manage to fit in two years in the Foreign Legion. Thumbprint is the first of his Sergeant Studer novels, all five of which have been translated into English by Mike Mitchell and published by Bitter Lemon Press (Glauser died at the age of forty-two and therefore certainly did not match Simenon for productivity) Even in this first novel, Studer is old for his rank having lost his position in another force for what are hinted to be political reasons, creating an impression he is both a maverick and incorruptible.

Initially we are invited to consider that the murder in Thumbprint is

“…an open and shut case. Wendelin Witschi, travelling salesman, had been found on Wednesday morning lying on his front in a wood not far from Gerzenstein with a bullet hole behind his right ear. His pockets were empty but the murdered man’s wife claimed her husband had three hundred francs on him… And on Wednesday evening Schlumpf had paid for a few drinks in the Bear with a hundred-franc note.”

The novel begins, however, with Studer saving Schlumpf’s life, returning, having arrested him that morning, to find him hanging by his belt:

“Why? Because he had never had a son of his own? Because the man had kept protesting his innocence during the journey here? No. They were all innocent. But Schlumpf’s protestations had sounded genuine.”

Studer decides (of course) to follow his gut feeling that “there was something not quite right about the whole business” and persuades the examining magistrate on the case to allow him to investigate further.

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Once in Gerzenstein, the case appears more open than shut, with a steady procession of suspicious characters parading in front of Studer: Witschi’s daughter, Sonja, who was also Schlumpf’s fiancée; his son, Armin, generally to be found in a local bar flirting with the waitress; Schlumpf’s boss, Ellenberger, who habitually employs ex-cons (thus, at a stroke, creating even more suspects); and Aeschbacher, the mayor, and Witschi’s brother-in-law. Witschi, naturally, has money troubles, but suicide is ruled out by the absence of powder burns and the angle of the wound – at least at first. A gun and bullet cases are found – but not in the same place, and pointing towards entirely different theories as to why Witschi died.

Glauser not only shares his intricate plotting with Simenon, with its feints and false turns, but Studer, like Maigret, is an instinctive detective who takes things at his own pace:

“It was never a good idea to plunge straight into a case, like a pig at the trough.”

Similarly, the reader is only allowed occasional glimpses into his thought process if he discusses the case. Meanwhile he sometimes befriends, and at others provokes the various witnesses and suspects. Frequently he simply watches:

“He squinted across at Armin’s table. Something seemed to be going on.”

Glauser is particularly adept at adding twist upon twist to the narrative without ever losing credibility. The possibility that Witshci may have committed suicide, for example, is juxtaposed with Schlumpf’s confession. Adding to the jeopardy is Studer’s worsening health as the novel progresses:

“Studer shivered. The stabbing pain in his chest was back. He broke out in a cold sweat.”

Yet even a visit to a doctor simply provides him with an opportunity to use his microscope to examine evidence.

Thumbprint is an excellent crime novel, one I can’t imagine any connoisseur of the genre being disappointed in. My only disappointment is that there are no more than four others to look forward to.

Mine-Haha

November 8, 2016

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Frank Wedekind was a German-American writer, best known as a dramatist for plays such as Spring Awakening and the ‘Lulu’ plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. It would be fair to say that his work, and his life, was very much taken up with sex. Writing towards the end of the nineteenth century his work can be seen as a rejection of what he regarded as an artificial, socially-constructed morality, which was anyway hypocritical. Spring Awakening (as the title suggests) explores the developing sexuality of teenagers at odds with a society which wishes to keep them ignorant and to associate desire with guilt. In the course its three acts, the play features masturbation, rape, sado-masochism and homosexuality. Mine-Haha, you may be pleased (or disappointed) to hear is less explicit, but the same tensions between desire and morality lie at its heart.

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The novella is presented as an autobiographical manuscript given to the author by an elderly woman, Helene Engel, a few weeks before she commits suicide. It tells of her unusual upbringing, with no mention of parents, and with the focus very much, as the subtitle suggests, on ‘The Bodily Education of Young Girls’. Initially in mixed sex groups, this education involves learning how to move: running, skipping, walking. All the girls are dressed in the same way, in short white dresses:

“We had to gather up our dresses and clasp them in our hands firmly over our hips. Then we set off marching so slowly that between each step one could have run once round the house.”

This sets the tone for much of what is described in the novella: activities which are superficially innocent (the white dresses are clearly designed to suggest purity), especially to the participants, but which have a sexual or erotic undertone.

Once the narrator, known as Hidalla at this point, reaches a certain age (though still pre-pubescent) the sexes are separated and she sent to an all-girls school; taken for her bed naked she is placed inside a box and delivered to her new life. This ceremony represents both a death and rebirth, but with the suggestion of the body as an object to be packaged and posted. In this new institution her education continues much as before:

“From the very first day they put me to task and made me walk on my hands. Two of the girls held me up by the legs. My hair hung down to the ground, the dress fell from my belt down to the back of my neck.”

The school is funded by shows which the girls put on in a theatre when they are older (from around the age of twelve). Wedekind describes one of these shows in some detail; s with the activities we have already witnessed they are performed in innocence by the girls but intended to give erotic pleasure to the audience, from whom the dancers are kept quite separate:

“A grille from floor to ceiling separated us from the tiers of seats, which rose on all sides as in an amphitheatre, and it was dark beyond that so we could not even discern whether the seats were occupied or not.”

After this period in their life is over, the girls are put on an underground train and reunited with the boys; Hidalla’s hand is taken by a particular boy and she is led through a crowd of people as the story ends.

As translator Philip Ward points out in his introduction, “Mine-Haha can be read a dozen ways.” It’s tempting to think of it as a lurid fantasy, or perhaps a misogynistic fable. What makes these readings less plausible, however, is the sheer lack of sexual content. Though the body is fetishized throughout, physical contact, even among the girls, is frowned upon. Similarly, though Hidalla finds the bodies of others attractive, even as she enters her teenage years there is no sense of desire. Instead we have a dystopia disguised as a utopia. The girls’ lives may appear idealised – the white dresses, the beautiful surroundings of the school, the focus on music and dance – but in fact they are confined, kept away from the opposite sex, and kept ignorant about many aspects of live, including sex. In other words, their life is not dissimilar to a (middle class) girl of that time.

Mine-Haha is certainly an unusual, and at times unsettling, tale. Despite its rather measured style, it still has the potential to shock. A recent film adaptation (Innocence directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović in 2004) suggests that the uncomfortable mirror it holds up to our view of female sexuality is not entirely dated.

Ludwig’s Room

November 3, 2016

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One of the best aspects of Peirene Press’ powerful novellas is the way in which they introduce new writers to an English-reading audience; an unfortunate downside of this is that frequently no other work is available in translation leading to the frustration of discovering a writer you love but with no way of accessing their writing (short pf learning a new language). Alois Hotschnig, whose short story collection, Maybe Next Time, Peirene published in 2011, is a rare exception, with a previous novel, Leonardo’s Hands (which I reviewed for German Literature Month in 2014) already available, and a second, Ludwig’s Room, appearing in 2014 from Seagull Books translated, like Maybe Next Time, by Tess Lewis.

Ludwig’s Room is an unsettling, suffocating narrative, greeting us in the guise of a ghost story. From the very first line we feel we are entering haunted house territory:

“I should never have accepted the inheritance, that’s when it all began. The house had made others unhappy before me.”

And, in case we are under the mistaken impression this might be down to persistent drafts and dodgy plumbing, we are told, “The previous owners had all died but hadn’t yet left.” As in any classic haunted house story, the locals don’t take to incomers, and the latest inhabitant of the house, Kurt Weber, is soon warned, “you have to protect yourself from people here.”

Weber has been to the house before as a child, a process that was designed to select the next heir, and remembers a room that he was never allowed to enter. When he knocks on the door and asks if he can come in, his Uncle Georg replies, “Not as long as I live.” There is a rumour that another Uncle, Paul, hanged himself in the room, which is also known as Ludwig’s room, though no-one will say who Ludwig is.

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The novel’s ominous and enigmatic first half includes the visit to the house of an elderly woman who is soon a regular presence, having been forbidden by her son to enter while the previous inhabitants lived; she tells him:

“Maybe this one’s different… after all, he isn’t guilty, not from the beginning.”

Merging into the first person narrative we find Weber’s dreams, not always initially distinguished from reality, and the stories of others, as direct speech is never indicated. Death is all around, from the body Weber sees being dragged out of the lake (“Every year one of them washes up here, at least one”) to the coffin being carried out when he first meets another neighbour, Mr Gartner. Weber’s memories of his relatives frequently focus on their deaths:

“The lake was Georg’s deathbed. He went out in his boat one night and never came back.”

As his aunt, from whom he inherited the house, once told him:

“You’re only truly at home when you’ve got someone in the graveyard.”

It won’t surprise anyone who recalls that this is a German (or, at least, an Austrian) book (or anyone who has read the blurb) that the answer to this mystery lies in the Second World War:

“The Security Service had its training camp on that mountain. Their surveillance, the terror, began there. From their outpost up there, they monitored the lake and the surrounding area. And this house.”

In the novel’s second half it becomes an exorcism, an exorcism which begins with Weber clearing the wood around the house, but continues with his search for the truth. The inheritance Weber refers to in the opening sentence is not simply the house, but the guilt associated with the house, a guilt which previous occupants have attempted to keep locked in a room.

I initially found Ludwig’s Room dense and opaque – it reminded me of trying to find a way through the typically foggy surroundings of a haunted house. Ostensibly a first person narrative, it is, in fact, a web of voices, living and dead, as complex as the truth it uncovers. Weber is a character often at the mercy of his own unease, both awake and asleep. However, he persists, and so should the reader, the novel’s difficulty and confusion enhancing the emotional pay-off at the end.

“The dead linger for a long time but eventually they do leave.”