Posts Tagged ‘german literature month’

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.

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.