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Three Obscurities from the Borderlands: Werner Bergengruen, Adalbert Stifter, Maria von Eschenbach.

German literature month 2019

Werner Bergengruen’s The Hornung Homesickness (Das Hornunger Heimweh) is one of my best-of-year reads. The second story in the collection, The High Forest (Der Hochwald) by Adalbert Stifter was a bit too romantic for my taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed the premise and the descriptions. 

This story is set during the Thirty Years War. The narrator begins with a description of the landscape and a ruined castle surrounded by a forest, and then the tale shifts to two centuries earlier when this castle was the home of Heinrich of Wittinghausen. There’s a gentle, peaceful domestic scene which focuses on two sisters, Clarissa and Johanna. But into this idyllic scene threats of danger and “spooky tales” worm their way into the conversation. There’s been a murder in the woods and there are rumours of a vicious poacher.

The sun had by now risen above the forest; the late morning light shone and glistened over the silent tree-tops. A thin beam of sunlight gradually began to cover the embroidery; and then from outside came a light knocking–someone seeking entry.

It’s the girls’ father, and with a light manner, he suggests a trip into the forest “wilderness” to explore an area where, apparently there’s a tower of rock from which the castle can be seen. The suggestion of what seems to be an excursion is actually an excuse to send the girls to safely as their father is expecting an attack from the Swedes and in every likelihood their “home will be swept away as they pass through.”. The girls are subsequently transported deep into the forest and placed under the protection of a trusted friend of their father. 

The idyllic wilderness has its sinister, secretive aspects, and added to this, there’s a telescope so that the girls can watch their castle home and see if it still stands. 

The third story The Barons von Gemperlein  (Die Freiherrn von Gemperlein) is from Marie von Eschenbach*. The von Gemperlein family is “an ancient and noble one,” 

Largely driving the rapid changes in fortunes of the house have been the members themselves. Nature has never brought forth a patient Gemperlein, never one who could not by all rights carry the title of “The Combative.” This powerful familial trait was held by all. Yet in contrast to this, there are no sharper contradictions than how the different generations of Gemperleins stood to one another in political conviction.

While those of one generation spent their life with sword in hand demonstrating their dependence upon the hereditary ruler, sealing this with their blood until the last drop had spurted out, the others made themselves into pioneers of revolution and died heroes to their cause, as enemies of those in power and as wild despisers of every form of subjugation. 

The last Baron died leaving two sons, Barons Friedrich and Ludwig, and in these two we find “both types of the race, the feudal and the radical.” Predictably Friedrich attended the military academy and Ludwig went off to university. In time, both men turn with some frustration from their ideals and they settle together in harmony at the family estate at Vlastovitz. In middle age, the brothers decide to wed, and it’s this decision that unleashes the story’s action.

The Barons von Gemperlein is my second favourite in this three story collection (with The Hornung Homesickness coming in first place and The High Forest third). At times The Barons von Gemperlein is funny, and then at one point my sympathies for Ludwig’s cause were abandoned. This story explores how the brothers’ characters both direct and impede courtship, so while it’s a tale of competitive siblings, it’s also philosophical. 

This three story collection is a treasure, and for this reader, a wonderful find. There’s a pertinent introduction and extensive notes after each story. I hope the translator publishes more as these stories are marvelous.

(*note: Maria von Eschenbach is also Marie within the text)

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Three Obscurities from the Borderlands: Werner Bergengruen, Adalbert Stifter, Maria von Ebner-Eschenbach (1842-1942)

German literature month 2019

German Literature Month IX

The first story in Three Obscurities from the Borderlands is The Hornung Homesickness (Das Hornunger Heimweh by Werner Bergengruen. The title is intriguing but considering I paid 2.99 for the kindle version of these three stories, I wasn’t expecting much. I’d never heard of Bergengruen, and wanted to try a new author. The Hornung Homesickness  is a contemplative, philosophical take on the issue, and price of, moral cowardice. 

The story is narrated by Georg, the son of a “mid-level civil servant.” Ill health forced the father to retire early and with a small pension he settled at Hornung by the Lake. The narrator’s father died; his mother died and the lad’s uncle serving as guardian, permits him to conclude his education in Hornung before beginning a career at a bank.

Georg notes that: I felt within myself two equally strong drives at odds with each other, one toward separation from my peers and the other toward inclusion, and with time I began to see that it would be my task to find balance between these two. 

I reject here the teachings of some that the experiences of a man, even in the smallest details, have been predetermined from all eternity, and that he has but to live them out. Yet I must admit at the same time, how insufficient his intentions often are at having any recognizable influence on his experiences. So it seems to me that between the determined and the chosen a relationship of opposing pressure and potentiality exists, in consideration of which I am of the opinion that it is not given to us to distinguish with any certainty between the two, the more, though, that we are convinced that both are given us from the one hand, the less then that we need to distinguish between the two. And so, in the long run, even this conflict may be seen as resolved. 

I was hooked by this segment of the story, and reread that passage several time. Georg argues against fate, and then seems to back off from that statement. The full implication of Georg’s thoughts are realised by the time the story concludes, and what a terrific story this is.

So back to our narrator, who as an impoverished child meets and befriends Elisabeth Williger, a girl who is growing up in a secluded state behind the walls of a “fortress-like brick villa above the old part of the city,”  under the care of her grandmother. At first, it appears that these two children, who form a fast friendship, are both orphans, but Elisabeth has a dark secret in her past which scars her future. 

The tale would seem to take a predictable turn when the narrator falls in love with Elisabeth, but then another young man, the very clever, witty, confident Alphonse Kürtzell enters the scene and suddenly three’s a crowd. Elisabeth laughs at Alphonse’s jokes and merry ways, and that leaves Georg simmering with jealousy. One night the three young people go to a tavern, and after Elisabeth leaves, Alphonse and Georg cross the lake in a boat. Only one man arrives on the shore. ….

That’s as much of this fantastic story as I intend to reveal, but there are many twists and turns, with fate playing a large part. But is it fate or is it human nature? Can we tell the difference? At the core of the story festers moral cowardice. The main character slips into that mode more than one time and it always produces disastrous results. But Georg is not the sole moral coward here. Alphonse is guilty too, and poor Elisabeth pays a heavy price.

I cannot emphasize how much I loved this story which I stumbled across by accident (fate?). Unhappily it seems that not much else exists in English from this author. More’s the pity. I like how he thinks. 

It may be that every longing which we feel in our heart, leaving it unsettled and restless, is indeed wrapped in a place that is but a succession of representations, and that every longing for home, is in truth but the promise of a higher homecoming. 

Three Obscurities from the Borderlands includes: The Hornung Homesickness, Adalbert Stifter’s The High Forest, and Maria von Ebner-Eschenbach’s The Barons von Gemperlein. My edition came with a pertinent intro and a post-story note section. This is obviously a labour of love for the translator. And if you ever read this… please translate more. Since I bought this, I discovered that there’s also Four Obscurities from the Borderlands. which includes a story by Joseph Roth–The Bust of the Kaiser. (Both are available in print and kindle versions.)

Translated by Edwin K. Tucker, Dr Sheryl F. Nadler, Editor. 

 

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Tourmaline: Adalbert Stifter

German literature month 2019

“The tourmaline is dark in colour, and the events which I am going to relate here are very dark, too; they took place in times gone by, just like the events described in the first two tales*. In them we can see, as in a letter bearing sad news, how far a man can go when he dulls the light of his own reason and is no longer able to understand things, ignores the law of his conscience–which leads him unerringly along the way of righteousness–yields completely to the intensity of his pleasures and his pain, loses his step, and falls into circumstances which we are scarcely capable of unravelling.”

(*Granite and Limestone)

With an intro like that, Tourmaline seemed to be my kind of story. I’ve yet to get used to Stifter’s pacing and his use of details, but since there’s more Stifter in my future, no doubt that will happen. Just like Brigitta, Tourmaline is a story of passion, but it’s stained with other, much darker elements.

Eight german novellas

The story opens in Vienna with a man of “about forty,” and immediately there’s the sense that there’s something a little off about this man’s domestic arrangements. It’s here that Stifter’s use of detail comes into full play as he describes the man’s home which is located on the fourth floor of a house. The details: passages, an iron grille, a clock so quiet you can’t hear it tick,  iron railings, argue for an oppressive, prison-like environment which is controlled by the man of the house who is known as “the pensioner.” The pensioner has a beautiful wife who is about 10 years younger and they have one child,  a little girl. The wife “did not maintain a great deal of contact with the outer world,” and more or less stays inside. 

A well-known actor, a good-looking, charming man named Dall visits the pensioner, listens to his stories, but eventually Dall begins a love affair with the pensioner’s wife. “This went on for a while until, at last, the wife became afraid and confessed everything to her husband.” The wife vanishes and the pensioner goes to Dall’s home three times and demands the return of his wife, but Dall has no knowledge of her whereabouts.

The pensioner and the child also disappear, the apartment is closed. Years pass and eventually the courts order that the apartment be opened, the belongings sold and the landlord paid. Money leftover from the debt to the landlord is retained in case the pensioner ever reappears. 

In the wife’s rooms nothing whatsoever had been changed, every piece of furniture was in its accustomed place and the objects were still upon them; but the minor changes which had taken place revealed how different things now were.  The heavy curtains, which had always swayed slightly when the windows were open , now hung motionless; the flowers and plants were now shrivelled wisps of brown; the clock which used to tick so quietly now ticked no longer, for the pendulum did not stir, and the clock indicated immutably the same time of day. The linen and other items of handiwork still lay upon the tables, of course, but showed no signs of having been touched, and mourned under a veil of dust. 

The story then shifts to a different narrator: this time it’s a friend of the first narrator, a married woman who becomes involved in the life of Professor Andorf and meets his reclusive concierge. …

Tourmaline is a dark fairy tale, sinister, threatening and bleak in its portrayal of the child who pays a heavy price for the folly of human passions. While the tale stands on its own, reading about Stifter’s disastrous attempts to adopt children added to its meaning. 

Jonathan likes Stifter also. 

Another fan … Tom 

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Brigitta: Adalbert Stifter

German literature month 2019

I’m late to the game with my first review for German Literature month, and my first pick was:

Brigitta

Brigitta is a novella which runs, in my edition, about 47 pages. The narrator is a man who relates a tale from his youth, and the tale covers the narrator’s journey to Hungary to visit an “old Major,” a man he’s met earlier on his travels. The two men met in Southern Italy. At the time the major was about 50 and “feted everywhere in society.”

But, so legend had it, his influence over women’s hearts had once been truly disturbing. There were rumours of victories an conquests he had made, and these were wonderful enough. But he had one fault, so it was said, which made him really dangerous, which was that no one, not even the greatest beauty on earth, had succeeded in captivating him for longer than suited him. He behaved to the end with that charm which won him all hearts and filled his chosen lady with the joy of conquest, then he bade farewell, went on a journey and never came back. But this fault, instead of frightening women off, attracted them all the more.

So the Major is the love-’em-and-leave-’em type. Over time and many conversations, the narrator and the major become fast friends, and the major invites the narrator to visit his estate in Hungary and “spend a summer a year, or five or ten years with him.” After travelling through Hungary, taking his time, the narrator finally arrives in the region of the major’s estate.

Eventually the narrator learns the mysteries of the major’s life, but the great reveal is long in arriving and it’s a somewhat circuitous road. For this reader, the story was a storm in a tea cup and a romantic one at that. There were hints of something sinister afoot but these hints sadly came to naught. For this reader, the best bits were the narrator’s descriptions of Hungarian culture.

My edition came with an informative introduction. Arguably Stifter’s greatest theme, according to the intro, is “seeing and seeing truly,” and that certainly applies to this story.

Translated by Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly

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Genius and Discovery: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017Genius and Discovery is another nifty little collection of Stefan Zweig gems from Pushkin Press. Triumph and Discovery contained select moments in history, and this collection contains the following five sections:

Flight into Immortality

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel

The Genius of a Night

The Discovery of El Dorado

The First Word to Cross the Ocean. 

In the preface, Zweig talks about “genius

Millions of people in a nation are necessary for a single genius to arise, millions of tedious hours must pass before a truly historic shooting star of humanity appears in the sky. 

Genius is pushing it a bit with a few of the people mentioned here.

Flight into Immortality is the incredible story of Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Gold fever grips Spain after Columbus “who always fanatically believes whatever he wants to believe at any given time” tells tales of “gold mines of immeasurable extent,” in the Americas.  Gold seekers, adventurers, ruffians, you name it, arrive in Española (“later San Domingo and Haiti”).

But what a dismal tidal wave of humanity is now cast up by greed from every city, every village, every hamlet. Not only do honorable nobleman arrive, wishing to gild their coat of arms, not only are there bold adventurers and brave soldiers; all the filthy scum of Spain is also washed up in Palos and Cadiz.

While lawyer Martín Fernandez de Enciso readies a ship to sail to the San Sebastián colony “near the straits of Panama and the coast of Venezuela,” many of the Spanish adventurers are stranded on Española and hope to avoid debt by taking a ship out. The governor orders that no man may leave without his permission, but that doesn’t stop Vasco Núñez de Balboa who boldly smuggles himself aboard Enciso’s ship on a crate.

Genius and Discovery

And so begins Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s incredible adventures as he seeks gold and becomes the first European to see the Pacific ocean. This is a story of the highs and lows of human nature; mention is made of how he used hungry dogs to tear apart prisoners.

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel is the story of how Handel recovered from a stroke and eventually wrote the Messiah.

The Genius of a Night is the story of how The Marseillaise was created, and this section wasn’t that interesting for this reader. The First Word to Cross the Ocean is the story of Cyrus Field and the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean

And now The Discovery of El Dorado. This is the story of John Augustus Sutter, born in Switzerland, who traveled to California, and becomes the luckiest and unluckiest of men when gold is discovered on his property. The Zweig version differs wildly in several aspects from the Wikipedia version, and while some of this can, perhaps, be ascribed to our modern sensibilities, some of it cannot. Zweig paints Sutter as a more tragic figure, and tells us that Sutter’s wife died after shortly arriving in California. Zweig says Sutter had three children while Wikipedia says five. Zweig portrays Sutter as a man stripped of everything: attacked by a mob, his “eldest son, threatened by these bandits, shoots himself.  The second son is murdered; the third runs for it but is drowned on the way home.”  Zweig creates a portrait of a widower, a demented beggar whose children are all dead. Wikipedia has Sutter’s wife living to a ripe old age, and one of his sons became the founder and planner of Sacramento.

Zweig didn’t have Goggle.

Apparently Zweig wrote 12 of these vignettes, so between this collection and Triumph and Disaster, we can read ten. Sadly omitted: Cicero and the (mock) Execution of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Review copy

Translated by Andrea Bell

 

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Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017

“Perhaps he also senses the dark wings of destiny beating.”

In Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures, Stefan Zweig explores five moments from history, and with great style he recreates these moments showing instances of human failing, victory and sometimes just the fickle hand of fate. The introduction builds Zweig’s premise as he tells us that in life, “a great many indifferent and ordinary incidents happen” but that “sublime moments that will never be forgotten are few and far between.” In this collection, Zweig isn’t interested in the ordinary–instead he hunts for the “truly historic shooting star of humanity.” 

What usually happens at a leisurely pace, in sequence and due order, is concentrated into a single moment that determines and establishes everything: a single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon, or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity. 

Here are the five sections of this book which runs to just over 160 pages:

The Field of Waterloo

The Race to Reach the South Pole

The Conquest of Byzantium

The Sealed Train

Wilson’s Failure

Of the five chapters The Field of Waterloo and The Conquest of Byzantium are my favourites. That may partly be because I still have queasy memories of Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys from last year, so I was overdosed when it came to the story of the 1910 catastrophic journey to Antarctica.

Triumph and Disaster

The Field of Waterloo is simply magnificent. Most of us have the rudimentary facts of the battle–who won and who lost, but Zweig recreates this incredible moment in history, and brings this episode to life.

Destiny makes its urgent way to the mighty and those who do violent deeds. It will be subservient for years on end to a single man–Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon–for it loves those elemental characters that resemble destiny itself, an element that is so hard to comprehend.

Sometimes, however, very seldom at all times, and on a strange whim, it makes its way to some unimportant man. Sometimes-and these are the most astonishing moments in international history-for a split second the strings of fate are pulled by a man who is a complete nonentity. Such people are always more alarmed than gratified by the storm of responsibility that casts them into the heroic drama of the world.

And that brings me to Waterloo.

The news is hurled like a cannonball crashing into the dancing, love affairs, intrigues and arguments of the Congress of Vienna: Napoleon, the lion in chains, has broken out of his cage on Elba. 

“The fantastic firework of Napoleons’ existence shoots up once more into the skies;” Napoleon takes Lyons and goes to Paris while Wellington advances. Blücher and the Prussian army march to join Wellington. Zweig explains that Napoleon decides he must “attack them separately.” He engages the Prussian army at Ligny, and the Prussians withdraw. Napoleon knows he must ensure that the Prussians do not join Wellington’s forces and so he “splits off a part of his own army so that it can chase the Prussians” with the intention that the Prussians do not return and join Wellington’s forces.

He gives command of this pursuing army to Marshal Grouchy, an average military officer, brave, upright, decent, reliable. A Calvary commander who has often proved his worth, but only a cavalry commander, no more. Not a hot-headed berserker or a cavalryman like Murat, not a strategist like Saint-Cyr and Berthier, not a hero like Ney. […]

He is famous only for his bad luck and misfortune. 

And I’ll stop there. The Field of Waterloo is thrilling and breathtaking, full of Napoleon’s futile hopes and desperation. Zweig paces this perfectly. The Conquest of Byzantium is nail-bitingly tense,  and this section begins with the rise of Sultan Mahomet, a man whose intense duality of passions leads him to “take Byzantium” by siege, and the scene is set with Mahomet’s army of 100,000 men and the city under siege with just 1,000 soldiers who wait “for death.” The descriptions of the fighting are breathtakingly intense, and then “the fate of Byzantium is decided” by an open gate. The Sealed Train, the story of Lenin’s return to Russia, has an ominous undertone to it, and Wilson’s Failure (the Treaty of Versailles) follows Wilson’s health struggles set against the divisiveness of politics of the time.

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell.

 

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The Weissensee Saga (German miniseries)

German Literature Month 2017

Back to German Literature Month and another excellent German miniseries. This time it’s The Weissensee Saga (Weissensee)–the chronicle of two families who live in East Berlin in the 80s. The Kupfers, whose lives are spearheaded by senior Stasi officer,  Hans Kupfer (Uwe Kockisch) and his wife Marlene (Ruth Reinecke), live in a gorgeous home in the prestigious Weisensee neighbourhood nestled on the banks of a lake. They have two sons, the very nasty, ambitious Falk (Jörg Hartmann), and divorced Martin (Florian Lukas) who has a mind of his own. Falk, who is also a Stasi officer, is (unhappily) married to Vera (Anita Loos) and they have one child together. Both sons live with their parents, and while Vera, thanks to life with Falk, is literally falling to pieces under the eyes of the Kupfers, it’s interpreted as ‘her problem’–something she needs to fix.

Enter the Hausmanns: singer and songwriter Dunja Hausmann and her daughter Julia Hausmann (Hannah Herzsprung) who live in a tiny Berlin apartment. Dunja, who is vocal about her criticisms of East Germany, is a known dissident and is under Stasi surveillance. Her performances are monitored and controlled; she isn’t allowed to perform outside of East Germany.  Julia and her German/American boyfriend are stopped by the Stasi one night, and Hans Kupfer reluctantly puts them under surveillance. Hans is seen as a more reasoned Stasi officer, whereas Falk, who is looking for promotion and wants to impress his father, is utterly heartless. Falk appeals far more to the current political climate, so at one point, Hans is moved off to become a lecturer at the Stasi Academy while Falk is promoted (and unleashed) to his father’s job.

Problems erupt when police officer Martin falls in love with Julia. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that all hell breaks loose. These are two people who love each other and want to be together, but we see what happens when Falk, who doesn’t want the taint of being involved with a dissident family, moves to make sure the two lovers are separated. There are scenes at the Kupfer family home which indicate that being involved with the Hausmanns isn’t just  a matter of not wanting to be involved with dissidents. Martin’s attachment to Julia is seen as extremely threatening to the Kupfers, and potentially fatal to Falk’s career. Marriages between politically powerful families cement society. Over time, layers of the Kupfers’ marriage are peeled back and we see a pragmatic relationship built with the bricks of ambition. Interestingly, Martin’s wife divorced him because he wasn’t ambitious enough.

As the series continues, the plot takes us down the dark, twisted rabbit hole of life in East Germany as the Stasi become involved in the lives of the Hausmanns.  Dunja sings a banned song at a concert, and Vera, who can no longer morally turn a blind eye to her husband’s actions, goes off the rails. The machinations of the Stasi (Falk) are incredibly evil, and what happens is mind-blowing. We see how people are manipulated into being Stasi informers: at one point it’s estimated that the ratio of informers when weighed against the total population was 1:6.5.

Watching this is an education in totalitarianism. Forget the benign incompetence of state government. What happens here is so vicious, so heartless, it takes your breath away as it becomes evident how the poisonous tendrils of the Stasi infiltrate every corner of life in East Germany. The series is being lauded as showing what life in East Germany was really like, so forget The Lives of Others.

There are three seasons of The Weissensee Saga so far with a fourth on the way. Do yourself a favour and watch this.

 

Once again, yes I know this isn’t a book, but German Literature Month is about celebrating German culture, and… as I said before you can read the subtitles. You can watch The Weissensee Saga on MHz which is available through Amazon or  Roku. Since MHz is also a distributor, it’s also available on DVD.

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Line of Separation (German miniseries)

German Literature Month 2017

Just as I begin to feel burned out when it comes to books or films about WWII, I come across something new and fresh. In this case, it’s the German three-part miniseries Line of Separation (also known as Tannbach) The series takes place in the fictional village of Tannbach but the situation evokes the very real village of Mödlareuth.  Mödlareuth was partly located in Bavaria and partly in Thuringia. After WWII, the village was divided in half with the northern half of the village falling to East Germany and the southern half belonging to West Germany. Yes, truth is stranger than fiction.

As fellow blogger Lisa knows, I am a fan of the series A French Village, a programme which follows the fates of various characters as they adjust to life under German Occupation. The series (which I’ll admit does have a couple of plot holes, but who cares?) shows the slippery slope of choices faced by several of the characters when asked to ‘cooperate’ with German officials. Line of Separation, a three-part miniseries with each part about 90 mins long, depicts life for the villagers as they transition, abruptly, from life under Hitler to life under the Americans, to life under the Soviets. Naturally, there are casualties and plenty of moral dilemmas along the way. Are the opportunistic more morally culpable than the idealogues?  Are those who disbelieve more courageous than those who swallow the Kool-aid to save loved ones? And what about those who accept the propaganda because it’s too frightening to object or is it perhaps just easier? These are all questions you will ask yourself as you work your way through the series.

Part I: The Morning After the War opens at the manor house of the aristocratic Prussian von Striesow family.  Father Georg (Heiner Lauerbach) is AWOL (and in hiding) from the German army after serving on the Eastern Front. That leaves daughter Anna von Striesow (Henriette Confurius) and mother Caroline (Natalia Wörner) at home. German refugees trying to flee the carnage take refuge at the von Striesow estate, but they encounter tragedy as Germans come hunting for Georg von Striesow and run right into American troops.

This first episode introduces nearly all of the main characters that we follow over the course of the series. Taking refuge at the von Striesow estate is seamstress Liesbeth Erler (Nadja Uhl) and her two sons Lothar (who’s actually Jewish and not her son at all) and the very serious Friedrich (Jonas Nay). These three characters are central to the drama that unfolds. Liesbeth is a proactive forward thinking character, and there’s just a small amount of info dropped about her background.  Another main character is Hilde Vöckler (Martina Gedeck), mother of a German soldier.

The Schobers are another important family. Herr Schober, who really is a nasty piece of work, had three sons–one who died in the war, another who is missing on the Eastern Front and Heinrich who is crippled and therefore stayed at home. A local girl, Lisa Prantl, who’s pregnant by a French forced labourer sniffs the way the wind blows and makes a beeline for Heinrich Schober.

Under American Occupation, at one point the villagers are gathered together and shown footage of the liberation of Buchenwald, and many of the villagers, particularly older residents, are in denial and remain secretly loyal to Hitler. One elderly lady mutters that Herr Hitler cannot have known that this was happening, and we’ll see where that thought leads her later. Party membership cards are hidden or destroyed, and being Jewish or Communist may be good or bad depending on who is asking the questions. Fingerpointing begins when local Nazi, the opportunistic Schober, who has kept meticulous details of who did what during the war, begins ingratiating himself with the American forces. Already just what everyone did or didn’t do during the war begins to be muddied. But by the end of episode one, the Soviet army shows up, and all is set for change.

Episode II: The Expropriation sees Soviet politics taking hold of the village. Those safe under the American occupation are at risk under the Soviets. Land is divided into 5 hectare holdings and for many of the villagers, or newcomers who have lost everything, communism offers hope for the future. Not so for Anna von Striesow who stands to lose everything. The Soviets use concentration camps for prison camps so Buchenwald becomes NKVD Special Camp Number 2. Known Nazis or anyone suspected of wrong doing are shipped off, many to disappear into mass graves.

This episode shows life in flux for the villagers. Many adapt quickly–especially the young who haven’t yet learned to be wary of ideology and promises of a golden future. Konrad Werner (Ronald Zehrfeld), a District Commissioner sent to Tannbach by the Soviets oversees land division, and while he doesn’t like or appear to agree with everything that happens, he sees the reform (and sells it this way) as a (fairly) bloodless redistribution of wealth.

Episode III: My Land, Your Land. It’s 1952. The Soviet instituted farms aren’t quite working out for the small farmholders. They can’t make a living on the pieces of land they have. The mantra from local authorities who run the town is that the West is a pervasive negative influence on their goals. Well…. yes, but then people are trying to get out not get in, so do you choose to believe the propaganda and swallow it whole and perhaps be a little happier? Or struggle against a system that allows for so few personal choices?

The village of Tannbach operates with a dividing line–an ad hoc border. One half controlled is by the Soviets, the other half by the Americans, and the border is operated by villagers who know each other well.  At first, passage from one side to another is possible, but smuggling is rife and escape is common. A crackdown is inevitable, but what is unforeseeable is that it’s an event that forces villagers once again to make political choices.

Line of Separation is a remarkable series which places a very human story into a political context. We see politics and ideology imposed onto a way of life, and how people scramble to meet new demands for conformity. While the series examines the lives of a just a few characters, there are some big ideas here, huge chunks of history and so inevitably some things are not examined. Count von Striesow’s actions on the Eastern Front are hinted at in the third episode, and up to that point, he’s painted as rather decent. A couple of the scenes are overdone. At one point for example, villagers are carted off to an unknown fate, while other villagers object calling out “It’s just like the Jews.” Yes we get it.

Still this is vastly entertaining and the series illuminates a corner of history I, for one, knew nothing about. This miniseries is highly recommended for German Literature Month. Yes I know it’s not a book but you get to read subtitles. According to IMDB there’s another series on the way.

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Schlump: Hans Herbert Grimm

Novels about combat in WWI seem to have commonalities (trenches, lice, endless shell bombardment, and various body parts strewn across the ground). And, of course, there’s always the sense of terrible waste. Hans Herbert Grimm’s (1896-1950) novel, Schlump contains many of the usual WWI scenes we’ve come to expect, and its 17-year-old protagonist, who’s later called a ‘lamb to the slaughter’ while on his first leave back home, goes off to war, like many young men, with absolutely no idea of the horrors that await him.

He pictured the sun shining, the grey uniforms charging, one man falling, the others surging forward further with their cries and cheers, and pair after pair of red trousers vanishing beneath green hedges. In the evenings the soldiers would sit around a campfire and chat about life at home. One would sing a melancholy song. Out in the darkness the double sentries would stand at their posts, leaning on the muzzles of their rifles, dreaming of home and being reunited with loved ones. In the morning they’d break camp and march singing into battle, where some would fall and others be wounded . Eventually the war would be won and they’d return home victorious. Girls would throw flowers from windows and the celebrations would never end.

Schlump became anxious that he was missing out on all of this.

Of course, Schlump enlists and at first he gets lucky. Training camp is “great fun,” and after that, Schlump’s ability to speak French lands him office work, and so at age 17 he is “responsible for the administration of three villages.” Men march in and men march out, and all the time, Schlump is “glad not to have been with them.” But of course, Schlump’s good luck can’t last forever, and eventually he ends up at the front lines.

schlump

Schlump is an interesting fictional character, and we immediately get that sense from his name alone. No hero would have that name, and while Schlump is not an anti-hero, rather he’s an observer, a participant by default and a largely optimistic fellow in spite of all the death that surrounds him. Over time and with horrendous experiences, he “had become smarter.” Yet in spite of everything there’s still an innocence about him, and a moment comes when he decides he must “distinguish himself.

During the course of the novel, Schlump is wounded and manages to get home on leave, and each subsequent leave reveals the deteriorating situation at home. At one point his mother starves herself beforehand so that there’s bread for Schlump when he returns. There are many memorable scenes here: the collecting of unexploded shells “because raw iron was needed back in Germany. The men were promised seven pfennigs for each piece,” and although the German soldiers risk their lives to collect these shells, they are never paid for their troubles. In another scene emblematic of the dearth of military strategy, an officer comes up with the plan to “bring back a British soldier, dead or alive, from the enemy trenches,” and Schlump goes along with another  German soldier to complete this mission.

In one quote, Grimm accentuates that enemies in life are levelled by that great denominator: death

Here lay a multitude of corpses–Germans and British, all mixed together. At one point they’d collected in a heap, as if in death they were trying to warm themselves. All were lying on their stomachs, heads turned to the side, revealing their greenish faces, teeth glinting faintly between pairs of black lips. Rifles, gas mask s everything in a muddle, soaked in blood and more blood.

My NYRB edition states, in the introduction, that Grimm met with East German authorities in 1950 and two days later committed suicide. I’ve been watching The Weissensee Saga on television, a wonderful series set in East Germany, so I have my ideas about what Grimm’s meeting was about and why he opted to commit suicide. Schlump was not a literary success. It’s not first-rate literature and the novel competed against All Quiet on the Western Front which was published around the same time. All Quiet on the Western Front is a seminal WWI novel, a book that can potentially profoundly impact the reader. Schlump doesn’t have that power, and yet it’s still disturbing, still manages to get under the skin.

Jacqui’s review is here.

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

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Crossing: A Love Story by Anna Seghers

“There’s nothing like departure. No arrival, no reunion. You leave a part of the earth behind you for good. And whatever joy and pain you encountered there, once the gangway is raised, ahead of you lie three clear weeks at sea.”

Back in 2013, I read Anna Seghers’s novel, Transit, the story of young German man, a concentration camp escapee, stuck in Marseille, mired down in bureaucracy, trying desperately, to get passage on a ship to safety. Transit made my best-of-year list, and now, three years later, I still think about the story.

One of the things that struck me when I read Transit is how the refugees fleeing Europe were so desperate to escape, passage on a departing ship became the end goal. The refugees didn’t stop to think that a new host of problems would present themselves when they landed on another, distant continent, and that brings me to my first selection for German Literature Month: Crossing: A Love Story in its very first English translation. In many ways Crossing can be considered a companion novel to Transit, for the former follows the fragmented lives of German refugees as they settle and then move on from temporary homes.

german-literature-month-2016The story takes place post WWII on an ocean crossing from Brazil and is narrated by engineer, Franz Hammer. While cargo is still being loaded, Hammer notes, amongst the throng of passengers, an “odd” young man, a doctor named Ernest Triebel. Gradually over the course of the long sea voyage, Triebel tells his story to Hammer. It’s a wonderfully structured story of exile, identity, displacement, and of course, love. …

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Ernest Triebel fled Germany as a young boy with his parents shortly before Kristallnacht, and the family arrived safely in Brazil only to face numerous problems, in spite of the fact that they have relatives there to help. Ernest is separated from his parents, and shortly after arriving his mother dies of Typhoid. We get a glimpse of the difficulties these exiles had:

The head of a new practice told my father he would be glad of a fine German doctor–although in actual fact he couldn’t legally employ him. therefore he would register him as one of the nursing staff. He admitted that he couldn’t immediately pay my father a registered doctor’s salary.

So little Ernest Triebel grows up in Brazil, and one of his childhood companions is Maria Luisa Weigand, another German refugee who teaches Ernest Portuguese. Of course, it’s easy to see that there’s going to be a romance between Ernest and Maria, but that’s all that’s predictable here. Any more information would spoil the story, but I will add that while Maria is fully integrated into Brazilian society, Ernest is not, and so the time comes when a decision about returning to Germany raises its head. There’s a central mystery here that takes place, and Maria’s behaviour is open to interpretation.

While the war may be distant for the refugees, ripples of the chaos seep through to Brazil:

The war was far away. Its destructive fire was far away. Only now and then did we breathe the smoke.

For the smoke, it reached us. We saw harrowing things in the newspapers and the cinemas. We couldn’t believe that our gentle and quiet native land should suddenly have pierced the world like a thorn.

But the ripples continue even into the long sea voyage which takes place many years after the war has ended. Hammer, for example, must share a cabin with a hostile Polish man. Hammer thinks the Polish man hates him because he’s German and Hammer mentions that his own father was killed in a concentration camp. The Polish man, however, has simply gone Tropo.

The story is peppered with references to the GDR, and it’s important to remember that Seghers lived there and was subject to censorship and political demands. One character defects, other characters integrate into the new GDR. At one point, there’s a conversation that includes Joseph Conrad, and Hammer notes that he’ll have to find a Conrad novel when he returns home, “if we actually printed him.” While the reference to Conrad includes a hint of censorship and banned materials, it also refers to Conrad for a reason as Crossing is very Conradian in its wonderful structure. And that brings me to the marvellous descriptions of the ocean:

Twilight flooded the sea. Two currents mingled, one already inky blue from the stars’ reflection, the other luminous and restless, perhaps still awash with island foam.

When Communist Anna Seghers and her family fled the Nazis, they’d hoped to make a new life in America, and as the introduction from Min Zhou explains, they landed in Ellis Island in 1941 but were not granted “even a temporary entry.” After the war, Seghers moved from Mexico to West Germany, but in 1950 she became a citizen of East Germany. The invaluable introduction explains how any examination of the work of Anna Seghers is fraught with political implications.

If anyone decides to read this novel, I’d love to have a spoiler discussion about Maria.

Review copy

166 pages

First English Translation: Douglas Irving (with biographical note and an excerpt from The Visit)

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