Tag Archives: german literature month 2018

Hell Hath No Fury: Ingrid Noll

“How am I to know you’re not some criminal lunatic?”

Ingrid Noll’s Hell Hath No Fury is a darkly funny tale of obsession, murder, and female competition for a worthless man. The tale, told by an insane stalker who sees her actions as perfectly reasonable and granting her a new enthusiasm for life, examines two questions: how far would someone go to get what they want and do they really want it anyway?

52 -year-old dowdy spinster Rosemarie Hirte leads a quiet life; she’s a good, reliable employee, and she’s only had a couple of romantic relationships. After being dumped by a fellow law student in her youth, she never managed to finish her degree, but instead moved into the insurance business. Now she lives in an apartment in Mannheim, and she has a friend, Beate, a woman she first knew in school. Beate, at one point, had everything that Rosemarie didn’t: a husband, a home, a family, and a social life. “Deep down” Rosemarie is “consumed with hostility towards so much sunshine,” but when Beate’s marriage ends, the two women become closer.

Hell hath no fury

Due to Beate’s drive towards self-improvement and new experiences, Rosemarie first sets eyes on middle-aged academic Rainer Witold Engstern. She becomes obsessed with him, has her hair cut, begins wearing clothes that are “romantically frivolous,” and begins stalking him.

Throughout this tale, the figure of Frau Romer, an older woman who works with Rosemarie, flits in and out of the narrative. With significant health issues, she lodges her elderly dog with Rosemarie, and the dog becomes a prop in Rosemarie’s twisted schemes to be with Witold.

Now I had a crazy idea. I thumbed through the telephone directory. Where did my Rainer Witold Engstern live? Or should I just call him Witold? My first flick through produced nothing, but at last I struck oil. R. Engstern, Ladenburg–got him! Good grief, with no rush-hour traffic, I could drive there in fifteen minutes. I even dug out a street plan of Ladenburg and found his street too, a little way outside the old town. The dog was giving me questioning looks. I felt young, thirsting for adventure. I still had a jogging outfit from my last day at the spa in Bad Sassbach, although I never wore it. So, on with that, dog on its lead, down the stairs, into the car and off we go!

A few trips, later spying on Witold’s house, Rosemarie decides the mess in his home is due to his “slovenly bitch” wife, who is conspicuously absent. It’s the appearance of Witold’s wife that sets a macabre chain of events into motion, and as Rosemarie wheedles her way into Witold’s world, the women in his life don’t realize that they have a rival who will stop at nothing to win the prize. Such as it is…

Hell Hath No Fury is brilliantly and unreliably narrated by Rosemarie. She tends to see what she wants to see, and this twisted vision leads down the path to murder. Rosemarie is the sort of woman people don’t notice, a woman defined by her status and not by the bitter, seething, buried cauldron of repressed desire and emotion bubbling away just under the surface. She lives the life of a “martinet,” keeping her spleen to herself when parents wax on about their children and their love lives. Rosemarie loathes the parent-child bond, hates other women, especially if they are attractive and can cook, and she knows she is one of the “leftovers sat on the fringes like fossils.” She’s always been hiding in plain sight, but it’s her desire for Witold that unleashes her true nature.

As the story progresses, Witold is clueless, and being in his self-centered, not particularly bright orbit, Rosemarie begins to wonder if the prize is worth all the effort, but by this point, she’s narcotized by “an addictive urge,” the power of wielding life and death.

The dark humour springs from the incongruity of Rosemarie as a serial killer and the tart, spiteful inner dialogue about the people she socialises with. Most of Witold’s friends include her as a form of kindness which is rather wasted on Rosemarie. Rosemarie’s thought processes seem so very reasonable, but juxtaposed with her actions, the story takes on a macabre comic tone. She toys with the idea of whether or not to kill someone with the lightness of tone that’s more appropriate to deciding which shirt to wear.  At one point she experiments with poison and decides: “No I told myself, poisoning is not my thing.”

And when I arrived at the last page, I laughed out loud.

Highly, highly recommended

Translated by Ian Mitchell

(This is one of my picks for German literature month, and many thanks to Caroline for pointing me towards this author. )

 

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Mrs Sartoris: Elke Schmitter

German Literature Month 2018

“We all wanted a little house and a garden and children and trips to Spain and to grow old in peace, and if we weren’t badly deceiving ourselves, then we could be happy with that, and why should we be deceiving ourselves so badly with someone if he came from the same town and we’d known him forever and his parents had a shop around the corner or they cut our grandfather’s hair or sat behind the counter in the savings bank.”

Mrs. Sartoris, another choice for German Literature Month 2018, is a stunning novella that explores passion and compromise. The story is narrated by Margaret Sartoris, a middle-aged married woman whose reliable husband Ernst, daughter Daniela, and adored mother-in-law Irmi, cannot compensate for a tragic love affair that occurred decades earlier.

Mrs sartoris

When the story opens we know that something is seriously wrong with Margaret’s life. She has a drinking problem (Ernst “checks” her breath when she returns home) and a problem with her nerves, so she’s on pills to ‘help.’ Regarding her life, Margaret says she doesn’t know “when it got lost. The certainty, the strength, the concentration that was automatically there for what is known as everyday life.” Gradually chapters reveal Margaret’s past which includes an early romance that went badly and resulted in a period in a sanatorium.

After the sanatorium, Margaret’s passionate nature is switched off, and then she meets Ernst, affable, safe Ernst who has one leg.  When she decides to marry Ernst on the rebound, she acknowledges that she’s driven by “a form of ice-cold delirium.”

I would marry Ernst and live with him and Irmi; in spite of everything, Ernst looked good, he treated me with real consideration, he earned a good living, he was a good, dear man who wouldn’t deny me anything, and Irmi was simply a treasure. I imagined how nice it would be to have her around, and I imagined Ernst’s dazzled gratitude that he wouldn’t have to leave his mother, the war widow, alone, but would be allowed to bring her with him into the marriage. I would go on working, in the evenings we would often be with friends–nothing would become of my dancing now–and when we came home, Irmi would be there, a source of life and good cheer.  Perhaps we would have a child. 

To outsiders, Margaret pulled her life together: she has a solid, stable career, a long-standing marriage to the steady Ernst and is devoted to her mother-in-law.  But all these years, all these seemingly satisfactory elements of Margaret’s life, are just window dressing. It’s as though she’s an iceberg with an exposed functioning tip while hidden passions of incredible intensity lurk beneath the surface. Underneath the routine, the household arrangements and her intimate domestic life, Margaret maintains a detachment, an apathy towards her life and her future.

Middle age is a peculiar time of life: it’s a time of accounting, and very often a time when we measure our lives against our early expectations. No wonder so many people go off the deep end. Margaret Sartoris has a life that is on auto-pilot. She and her husband go out with friends, she laughs and participates, is a good, dependable employee, a good wife and daughter-in-law, but there’s also a huge chunk of Margaret that doesn’t engage with her own life. Then, after more than twenty dormant, albeit, outwardly successful years of  life with Ernst, she meets a married man, a serial philanderer.

My energy had made an impression on him, as had my uninhibitedness, and I had swept us both into a feeling that we could live all over again. The last twenty years unfolded in front of me like a bleached out map; I could find paths on it I had walked a thousand times and yet had hardly a single visible contour; I could have made a list of the sentences I’d said or heard again and again: Sleep well! Or Does it taste good? or Is Daniela in bed yet? or Have you thought about Irmi’s birthday? or Are we taking the car or going on foot? or Did you get the things from the dry cleaner? or Where is the aspirin? or Is the coffee finished? or Did you lock up downstairs? or Are the eggs still fresh? or I think I’ll keep reading for a bit.

[…]

There weren’t many unfriendly sentences in this catalogue, lots of friendly concern, lots of good will, lots of good cheer, though none of that was mine, not much worry, not much anger, not much surprise; as sentences, they were like oar strokes, regular, always on the same beat, always pulling in the same direction: we’re rowing across the sea, the sea, we’re rowing across the sea now. But I was no longer rowing with them.

The story unfolds with Margaret’s life in the present and flashes of memory–her first, damaging love affair, and the unexpected passion that shakes her from her dormant life. This is a woman who made a sensible choice, packing away all her passion, desires and disappointments, until one day they are unleashed again, and this time, these passions, rather like Pandora’s box, cannot be packed away again.

The book’s blurb connects the plot to Madame Bovary. As far as the similarities go, the two books are about unhappily married women who have illicit love affairs. This is not Madame Bovary. Mrs Sartoris is something quite different, and the plot takes the reader in an unanticipated direction. Margaret is an interesting woman who dons the circumspect ‘costume’ of respectability and reliability. She subsumes and controls all passion, passion which in her case is destructive, and she manages to act the part for more than twenty years until one day she throws caution aside. Margaret’s voice is calm, cool, detached and yet … we know that incredible passions lie dormant, just underneath the the surface. How much compromise is too much? Are ‘sensible’ choices the best ones? Or are we just delaying the day of reckoning? Highly recommended.

Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

Another review at Winston’s dad

Another review at Vishy’s blog

And Caroline’s review. 

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The Spoke: Friedrich Glauser (1937)

German Literature Month 2018

German Literature month rolls around yet again. I’m late to the party–or at least my reviews are.

“There ought to be a law, the sergeant said to himself, against women painting and powdering themselves. The layer covering their cheeks could easily, all too easily, hide a flush, a sudden pallor.”

A few years ago, during German Literature Month 2015, I reviewed Friedrich Glauser’s Thumbprint. I had more Glauser on the shelf, so it was time to take the plunge…

Detective Sgt Studer of the Bern police is back once more for what should be a happy occasion. His daughter is going to be married, and the groom is Albert Guhl, a corporal in the Thurgau Cantonal Police. Studer, his wife Hedy, and daughter travel to Schwarzenstein for the ceremony and stay at a hotel run by Studer’s childhood sweetheart, Anni. Anni is now married to Karl Rechsteiner who is bedridden and has been treated for consumption.

The Spoke

Murder seems to follow fictional detectives, and this is certainly true for Studer who should be concentrating on his daughter’s wedding and instead is confronted with a corpse inside the hotel. Murder never takes a holiday, I suppose, and so Studer begins to investigate. The victim, a young man, has been skewered with a sharpened spoke from a bicycle, and guess what, there’s a bicycle repair shop right next to the hotel. …

The case seems to present its own solution, especially when the owner of the bicycle shop, Ernst Graf, seems to be one part of of a love triangle involving the murder victim.

The Spoke was more enjoyable than Thumbprint, possibly because we get to see more of Studer’s personality, investigation style, and his sense of humour, plus there are some very interesting characters/suspects here–including Fräulein Loppacher who appears to have been in relationships with both Graf (the main suspect) and Stieger (the victim). Other detectives would rush to close the case and move onto the wedding, but not Studer. Studer’s family exist in the periphery and he seems to spend far more time dwelling on Anni’s sad, hard life. The novel explores early forensics (this was published in 1937), and reflects attitudes of its time.

Studer’s sense of humour is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the tale, but unfortunately I guessed the culprit very early in the book. My copy, from Bitter Lemon Press contains a brief bio of the author, Friedrich Glauser, who was, apparently, addicted to opium and morphine. A diagnosed schizophrenic, he spent “most of his life” in various insane asylums, did a stint in the Foreign legion and prison when he was caught forging prescriptions. He died at age 42.

Translated by Mike Mitchell

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