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The Weissensee Saga (German miniseries)

in the 80sGerman 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. …

crossing-a-love-story

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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Thumbprint: Friedrich Glauser (1936)

“Everyone is at least half mad and any investigation has to take that into account.”

German 2015I’ve had a handful of Friedrich Glauser novels on my bookshelf for some time, and German Literature Month was the perfect time to blast off with the first book from the series featuring Sergeant Studer: Thumbprint. My copy, from Bitter Lemon Press, has a short biographical paragraph about the author and an excerpt from a letter written by the author in 1937. Glauser, a morphine and opium addict, was born in Vienna in 1896. He served in the Foreign Legion (there’s a Foreign Legion novel apparently that I would love to read,) was sent to prison and spent years in psychiatric wards and insane asylums. He died of a stroke in 1938 at the age of 42. He left behind a body of work that includes 5 Sergeant Studer novels which are all set in the 30s. Given Glauser’s history, I knew I had to read his work.

Thumbprint begins with Sergeant Studer discovering that the man he has just arrested for murder, an ex-con named Erwin Schlumpf, has attempted suicide in his cell. Studer, acting on intuition, returns to Schlumpf’s cell and resuscitates him–perhaps it’s this act which sparks Studer’s determination to discover the truth behind the crime Schlumpf is accused of. It seems to be an open-and-shut case, and while all those involved in the judicial machinery are happy to close the books on this murder, Studer isn’t satisfied that Schlumpf is guilty. Schlumpf is accused of laying in wait for salesman, Witschi, robbing him and committing murder in the process. It doesn’t help Schlumpf’s case that he was seen later that night at a tavern spending a large amount of money….

ThumbprintThis first chapter which opens with Schlumpf’s attempted suicide is called: “A Man Has Decided to Call it a Day,” and that should give you an idea of the type of humour here. One of the best aspects of this police procedural is the main character, Studer. He’s odd and unconventional. When he travels to the country village of Gerzenstein to investigate the murder which is supposedly already solved, Studer senses that the village is a close knit community full of secrets and lies. Studer has far better relationships with all the ex-cons employed in a local nursery than the so-called respectable, upstanding citizens of Gerzenstein. There’s a lot that’s odd about the case. The accused killer, for example, is in love with the victim’s daughter, and the victim who’d dabbled in various investment scams was heavily in debt. Why aren’t the victim’s son and wife mourning? And what about the insurance policy on the victim’s life? Why are the ex-cons hired by the nursery owner willing to help while the locals give Studer the cold shoulder?

While Studer is an unconventional, outwardly unimpressive detective, obviously favouring the underdog, Studer can also be his own worst enemy. After saving Schlumpf, he begins questioning the magistrate in charge of the case, and manages to move the magistrate from a stubborn, snotty lack of cooperation to impressing the magistrate into listening about the holes in the case against Schlumpf. This is all achieved by Studer’s understanding of human nature and adjusting his attitude in order to get under someone’s skin.

The examining magistrate broke off, though he couldn’t have said why himself. The man on the chair before him was a detective, a simple policeman. He was middle-aged and there was nothing special about him: a shirt with a soft collar, a grey suit that had gone slightly baggy in places because the body inside it was fat. He had a thin, pale face with a moustache covering his mouth so that you didn’t know whether he was smiling or not. And this simple policeman was sitting there in the chair, legs apart, forearms resting on his thighs, hands clasped …

The magistrate himself couldn’t have said why he suddenly adopted a slighty warmer tone.

“You must realize, Sergeant, that it looks to me as if you’ve exceeded your authority.” Studer nodded and nodded. Of course, his authority! “You handed over this Erwin Schlumpf to the prison officer, all according to regulation. What reason did you have for going back to see him again? Your return, I have to admit, was highly opportune, but that is not to say that it is covered by police authority. You have been with the force long enough Sergeant, to know that productive collaboration between the various branches of the legal system is only possible if each ensures to stay strictly within the limits of its own authority …”

That word: authority. Not just once, no, three times. Now Studer knew where he stood. That’s a piece of luck, he thought, they’re not the worst, the ones who keep going on about their “authority”. You just have to be nice to them and let them see you take them seriously and you will have them eating out of your hand.

That’s a really long quote, but it gives a sense of the author’s style but more importantly, it gives a strong presentation of Studer’s character. He can read people–the problem is, however, that while his readings are accurate, he can’t keep in the appropriate role, in this case, of obsequiousness. He’s too sincere, too intense a thinker, so while he adopts the appropriate role, he always slips out of his contrived character when he starts thinking.

Thumbprint is at its best in its emphasis on the psychological aspects of the case and in the character of Studer, a man who’s both endearing and admirable. On the down side, too much of the solution piles up in the last few pages, but I enjoyed this enough to commit to the rest of this unique series.

Translated by Mike Mitchell.

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The Poggenpuhl Family: Theodor Fontane

German 2015

Back to German Literature Month and another novella from Theodor Fontane. This time it’s The Poggenpuhl Family, the story of an aristocratic Berlin family fallen on hard times after Major von Poggenpuhl died an “honorable death” in battle. The family, the major’s widow and five children live in an “aura of expiring grandeurexpiring but nevertheless bearing witness to past glories.” Most of those ‘past glories’ linger in the military reputation of the dead Poggenpuhl males, so it’s no surprise that a huge portrait of an ancestor, a long-dead military hero takes pride of place in the parlour.

a woman taken in adulteryThe widow Poggenpuhl and her three daughters lead a life of stringent poverty while any resources squeezed from their penury is directed towards the two sons, both military officers. A familiar story of course, since the hopes of a shift in the family’s fortunes reside in the males. The girls might marry (Melanie de Caparoux married well in The Woman Taken in Adultery,) but that seems unlikely–at least for the eldest, Therese, who is thirty years old. The two youngest girls, Sophie and Manon, have adjusted to their lowly status or as Fontane says they have “adapted themselves to their condition and to the modern world and they worked as a team.”

Therese, already thirty, might seem somewhat unpractical at first sight, and that is what she was often taken to be. The only art she appeared to have learned was that of reclining gracefully in a rocking chair. But she was really just as capable as her two younger sisters; it was only that she labored in a different vineyard. Because of her particular character, she was convinced that the task of upholding high the Poggenpuhl banner had fallen to her, and it was her duty to take her place more deliberately than her sisters cared to in the world to which they rightfully belonged. So she was at home in the families of generals and ministers of state in the Behren-and Wilhemstrasse; their tea tables never failed to resound with approval and applause when she gave one of her maliciously humorous accounts of her younger sisters and their adventures in the “would-be-aristocracy.”

Sophie, the middle sister, is immensely talented–as talented with art as she is in the kitchen. Manon, at seventeen, is popular and she has made a point of befriending the families of bankers. Manon always offers the services of Sophie for a range of tasks, and consequently the widow’s tiny pension is supplemented by the crumbs of the “would-be-aristocracy.” Fontane shows how the two younger sisters have adapted to their new social and financial reality. Manon was born after her father’s death, so she knows no other life than that of poverty. All three sisters reflect the phases of the family’s fortunes with Therese, who remembers better times, hanging onto that place in society while her two younger sisters navigate social roles Therese rejects.

The novella centres on the birthday of the widow Poggenpuhl; her eldest son, the eminently responsible Wendelin, sends his younger sibling, Leo, home to celebrate. Leo finds his lack of financial resources difficult to bear. He’s the type of young officer who wants to cut a dash but lacks the funds to do so. At several points in the story, the Poggenpuhls’ ancient servant offers food to Leo–it’s always meagre leftovers and Leo, a young man with a ravenous appetite, either never quite gets or chooses to ignore his mother’s situation. Yes, he’s told what food is available in an either-or way and he always polishes off the lot.

The family’s hopes, then, reside in the military careers of the two sons, but then there’s also an uncle who’s married a rich widow. Uncle Poggenpuhl is a good-hearted man who’d clearly like to do more for his brother’s family, but his wife holds the purse strings. Plus then there’s no love lost between Uncle Poggenpuhl’s wife and her in-laws. She may have money but she’s middle-class.

Class plays a huge role in this novella with the widow Poggenpuhl desperately hanging onto the grandeur of the family name while covering her poverty in a way that fools no one. Uncle Poggenpuhl married out of his class, and that has created an awkward situation even though at the same time this alliance proves to be fortuitous.

The Poggenpuhl Family, IMO, is a better novella than The Woman Taken in Adultery. Although the scenario of the family living in poverty while keeping their pride is familiar, Fontane added some very nice touches here–especially in the way he showed how the youngest two girls adapted while the eldest did not.

Translated by Gabriele Annan.

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The Woman Taken in Adultery: Theodor Fontane

“She’s got a bit of Geneva chic. But what does it all add up to? Everything from Geneva is secondhand for a start.”

Back to German Literature Month and this time it’s a novella from Theodor Fontane (1819-1898). Fontane’s most famous work is arguably Effi Briest, and The Woman Taken in Adultery, an earlier work, is another tale on the same theme: an unhappy marriage and infidelity. The book’s back cover states that the book is “remarkable” for its portrayal of adultery with a “happy ending.” Compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, well yes, the book has a “happy ending,” and yet somehow the conclusion wasn’t as ‘happy’ as I expected.

a woman taken in adulteryUnder scrutiny here is the marriage between financier van der Straaten and his much younger, charming wife, Melanie. It’s Berlin in the 1880s and the van der Straatens, parents of two girls, have been married now for ten years. Before marriage, Melanie was a Caparoux or de Caparoux (depending on who you’re talking to), the daughter of French-Swiss nobility, and although her childhood was wrapped in privilege, her father, a consul-general died young and left only debts behind. As a penniless 17-year-old, she married 42 year-old van der Straaten. Very early in the story, we get a sense of van der Straatan’s temperament; he “oscillated between the earthy and the sentimental, between one extreme and another.” Melanie ‘manages’ her husband, flattering him, and she “played with the man whose plaything she appeared and pretended to be.”  She loves spending time alone in the country villa as “her supremacy depended on self-control, and to be free of this restraint was her constant secret desire.”

Van der Straaten is an extremely wealthy man but he’s a problem when it comes to society: “he had been too little in the world and had failed to acquire a generally acceptable degree of polish or even a bearing suitable to his position.” In chapter one, we’re told that van der Straaten is frequently asked if he’s related to a famous actor who has a similar name. These days, there’s a good implication to being asked if you’re related to an actor–but in 19th century Germany…. the question is loaded with social snobbery. This theme, that van der Straaten, although good-natured, doesn’t quite ‘fit’ into society, continues, and as the story develops, we see that the financier’s behaviour pains his wife, Melanie. Trouble appears in the marriage when van der Straatan insists that Rubehn, a former cavalry officer, soon-to-be apprentice, take up residence in his home.

There’s a dinner party scene in which van der Straaten dominates his guests and while the scene itself was rather tedious, it’s the after-dinner conversations that spark interest as the departing guests share their opinions of the van der Straatans’ marriage. Some of the guests have sympathy for Melanie van der Straaten and consider that she, an elegant woman of refined sensibilities, is wasted on her husband. Others don’t share that opinion and consider that Melanie’s impoverished family have no bragging rights.  Melanie’s brother-in-law, Major Gryczinski, married to Melanie’s younger sister, Jacobine de Caparoux, has his own opinion:

When they were in the middle of the brightly lit square, the lovely young woman nestled fondly against her husband and said, “what a day that was, Otto, I did admire you.”

“It wasn’t as hard for me as you think. I just play with him. He’s just an old child.”

“And Melanie! She feels it, you know. And I’m sorry for her. You’re smiling? Aren’t you sorry for her?”

“Yes and no, ma chère. Nothing in the world comes free. She has her summer villa and her picture gallery.”

“Which she doesn’t care for. You know how little it means to her.”

“And she has two charming children…”

“For which I almost envy her.”

“There you are,” laughed the major. “We all have to learn the art of making do with what we have. If I were my brother-in-law, I should say…”

But she closed his mouth with a kiss, and the next moment the carriage drew to a halt.

It would seem that Jacobine and Major Gryczinski married for love, but another guest speculates that the Major selected his wife on the basis that he would acquire a useful, extremely wealthy brother-in-law. But regardless of speculation, Melanie’s marriage to van der Straaten had to be an advantageous move for her younger sister. Would the major have married Jacobine if she didn’t have this advantageous, powerful connection? Would Jacobine even have been in society if Melanie hadn’t made a great match? These questions linger, unspoken, underneath the Gryczinskis’ criticisms.

Fontane initially “rejected the title as too aggressively moralistic,” but the title (based on a real life incident) works rather interestingly with the plot’s argument against moral judgment. The title also highlights an early scene in the story when van der Straaten, fascinated by a Tintoretto painting, acquires a copy. Van der Straaten’s later behaviour, in the face of his wife’s affair,  illustrates that he’s a decent, good-hearted man–not someone who passes moral judgment–even when he suffers. Looked down upon by the fussy, snobby society forced to accept him because of his financial standing, he’s a much better person than those who patronize him behind his back.  The Woman Taken in Adultery, IMO, is not as good as Effi Briest. Melanie van der Straaten’s marriage isn’t miserable enough, and the love affair isn’t charismatic enough to rouse much emotional investment, but it is an unusual tale of adultery when compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. There’s very little moral judgment here–and most of the moral judgment within these pages comes from Melanie van der Straaten’s eldest daughter–a sensitive girl who sees that Rubehn is a threat immediately.

Translated by Gabriele Annan

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Ice Moon: Jan Costin Wagner

German 2015

For German Literature Month 2014 one of my selections (on a tip from Caroline) was Jan Costin Wagner’s fantastic crime novel Silence. There’s a film made of Silence btw, so if you’re not into reading crime, but you like watching crime, then the film comes highly recommended. Author Jan Costin Wagner is German and lives in both Germany and Finland with his Finnish wife. His crime series featuring detective Kemmo Joentaa is set in Finland but written in German. Since I enjoyed Silence so much, I decided to go back to the first book in the series: Ice Moon.

Ice Moon begins with the death of Joentaa’s wife from Hodgkin’s disease, and the book, a police procedural, follows two narrative arcs–the actions of a seemingly innocuous young man who is a serial killer, and the actions of Joentaa who’s hot on the killer’s trail. Sections in the chapters jump back and forth between focus, and sometimes, for a few sentences of this third person narrative, it’s impossible to clarify whose mind we are in: the killer’s or Joentaa’s. While I disliked the confusion, it’s a technique which reinforces the similarities between the killer and the man who is trying to capture him. The similarities are mindset connections and are also ways in which Joentaa understands the killer’s motivations. When the first body turns up–a woman killed in her bed, Joentaa’s short-tempered boss, Ketola, suspects the culprit is either a lover or a burglar. Joentaa is convinced that the murder isn’t random, and when a second corpse is discovered, Joentaa is certain they have a serial killer on their hands–Ketola thinks the two crimes are unrelated.

ice moonJoentaa’s wife, Sanna, dies on page one, but she appears throughout the book in her husband’s fluid memories. Joentaa, obviously, is severely depressed, and Ketola thinks Joentaa has no business returning to work. Work, however, for Joentaa, is a welcome distraction, and the business of death helps Joentaa connect to the killer’s mind. The killer is a very creepy human being, and because he seems so harmless, he’s also very dangerous.

We get a good look at a very troubled Ketola, that “model of self-discipline,” who’s retired in Silence, and frankly he’s the best character in the book.

Joentaa had always respected Ketola but never liked him. For a time he’d even considered putting in for a transfer, but Sanna had dissuaded him. His addiction to harmonious relations was almost unbearable, she said with a wry smile, but she couldn’t believe that anyone who had fought so hard to get into the CID would throw in the towel after a few harsh words from his boss. Although annoyed with her, Joentaa had known she was right.

Structurally the novel’s premise is problematic for the first in a series. Readers have no emotional investment in either Sanna or Joentaa, so we can’t really mourn along side of our main character. Sanna is dead on page one, and the mourning, the loss, the depression carries on throughout the novel. Sanna’s parents, deep in denial about their daughter’s health (aided and abetted by Joentaa’s poor communication with his in-laws), seem to be more stock characters than human beings. For this reader, killing off the spouse of a main character immediately on page one of the first book seems dicey. I’m thinking of Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford novels. Wexford’s sidekick, Mike Burden’s wife became ill and subsequently died well into the series. The news is broken gradually to the reader and the emotional investment in the characters, already well established, continued throughout the books.

I’m not an author; I’m a reader, and I found this novel problematic and rather depressing. When Ketola tells Joentaa he should stay home, I agreed. Joentaa is a mess. Sanna’s death overwhelms the crime section of the novel, and yet since these are new characters, it was impossible for this reader to catch the appropriate wave of concern. Ice Moon did not come close to the excellence of Silence. If I’d read Ice Moon first, I doubt I would have bothered with the rest of the series. The first book is often the weakest, often almost a throwaway when it comes to jumpstarting a series. Ice Moon sets up its series parameters: Joentaa is a lonely man, a widower who is committed to the region and to solving crime, but I found it hard to whip up much enthusiasm for the main character. The quality of Silence convinces me to continue the series in spite of being disappointed in this novel.

Translated by John Brownjohn

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Anecdote from the Last Prussian War: Heinrich von Kleist

German 2015

For German Literature Month 2015, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, I decided to pick a range of works–even though I was sorely tempted to concentrate on crime. Here’s a very brief short story from Heinrich von Kleist: Anecdote from the Last Prussian War–literally an anecdote as the title suggests. It’s not quite 5 pages for the kindle, thoroughly enjoyable, very cinematic, and although brief, it was well worth the 99c asking price.

This tale is told by an innkeeper to a traveler passing through. The inn is located in a village near Jena, and the innkeeper recalls that the village, which had been occupied by the Prussians, was subsequently “completely abandoned by the army of Prince von Hohenlohe.”  When the Prussians leave, the village is “surrounded by the French,” when suddenly a reckless “single Prussian cavalryman” rides up to the inn, says he hasn’t “had a drop all day,”  and asks for brandy….

The story concludes this way: “I haven’t seen such a fellow, said the innkeeper, my entire life long.” Lord Cardigan, famous or infamous for promoting dash and daring behaviour (and a lot of other things) amongst his men, would have approved of this Prussian officer.

For German Literature Month 2014, one of my choices was Heinrich Mann’s short story, A Crime, available only for the kindle, from the same translator, Juan LePuen. Here we have two short stories written originally in German and available via the kindle for those of us who can’t read German, so the post not only celebrates German Literature Month and Heinrich von Kleist, but also the entrepreneurial enthusiastic efforts of translators who utilize the kindle.

For those interested, at the end of this short story, there’s a list of other translations available for the kindle from Fario Books.

Translated by Juan LePuen

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A Crime by Heinrich Mann

2014

 

For German Literature Month 2012 I read Heinrich Mann’s novel, Man of Straw, a book which follows the life of an ultra-patriotic, pompous, proto-fascist petty bourgeois. There’s a film of the book, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and both the book and the film are highly recommended.

Der Untertan

Earlier in 2012, I read The Blue Angel–also known as Professor Unrat. This is the story of a professor, a widower, who teaches at a boy’s school in a small provincial town.  He discovers that some of his pupils are hanging around a disreputable club known as The Blue Angel and he takes it upon himself to catch the boys. While on his moral quest, he runs into the nightclub singer, Rosa (Lola Lola in the film) and so begins a self-destructive obsession.  The book and film differ in significant ways with the book allowing the professor to exact his revenge against the inhabitants of the town while the film version, from director Von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich, is tragic. My favourite scene in the marvelous film version is Marlene Dietrich singing “Falling in Love Again.” This is the scene where the professor loses himself to the singer, but the scene is extraordinary for the presence of the delicious Marlene Dietrich. There’s a moment at the end of the song, as she’s sitting on the chair, and she gazes into the camera. She knows she nailed the scene.

blue-angel-marlene-dietrich-1930

I’m bringing up these two books (both made into excellent films) written by Heinrich Mann for a couple of reasons: 1) Thomas Mann seems to the Mann brother most talked about and 2) I found a short story by Heinrich Mann available for the kindle. 99c for 10 pages–well there’s an argument both for and against the purchase (hours of work for very little compensation vs I was hoping for a novel…), but since I loved both Heinrich Mann novels I’ve read, plus the fact I’m reading a Goebbels biography (almost 1000 pages) in which Heinrich’s books were part of the book burning ceremony, well, it only seems appropriate that this author should make an appearance for German Literature month. So here’s the short story : A Crime.

The story opens with a retired cavalry officer, Captain von Hecht giving some words of advice about women to a younger man, and from the way he’s talking, we know he has some experiences in mind.

As far as great passion is concerned, the problem is that it never happens to be equally great on both sides. If it’s greater on your side, it’s a misfortune, but here one can say: activity wards off sorrows, or at least it often does. If, on the other hand, a woman’s passion becomes too great, you are seeking rest at the foot of a volcano: a shower of sulfur will bury you.

Then von Hecht goes back to 1882 and tells the story of being stationed in the small town of M. He quickly discovers that the only house worth visiting belongs to a merchant named Starke who has a beautiful wife:

I had seen her on the street, only from behind, to be sure, but she exaggerated the swaying of her hips as she walked. She had an overly short and thus perfectly round waist and striking thick brown hair. Her nose, in addition, was of a delightful fineness, with slightly mobile nostrils. When she smiled, she would bite her blood-red lips with her sharp white teeth as if she were biting into a peach, and her gray eyes would flash with dreamy, veiled curiosity. Later, in moments of transport, I saw silvery serpents flicking out their tongues in them.

There’s some wonderful imagery in that quote which tells us a lot about Annemarie, the wife of the merchant. She’s beautiful, she’s passionate and she’s bad, bad, bad. She’s one of those kamikaze women, a term coined by Woody Allen in the film Husbands and Wives: I’ve always had this penchant for what I call Kamikaze women… I call them kamikaze because they crash their plane right into you. You die with them.”

One look at Annemarie and Von Hecht is hooked. Perhaps the attraction is bolstered by boredom or lack of choices in the small provincial town, but whatever the motivations, von Hecht can’t help but feel sorry for Annemarie’s poor clueless husband. Of course, he’s not so sorry for the husband that he keeps his hands off the man’s wife. The unattractive, seemingly thick Starke is obviously outclassed in the marriage–not by his wife’s status (she has none) or her dowry (she was penniless), but he’s outclassed by her slyness and avarice. She’s a demanding wife, and, of course, she’s also a demanding mistress–one of “those women who take possession of even the slightest fragment of their lovers’ private lives.” With her extravagance and love of finery, Annemarie reminded me of Madame Bovary, and when von Hecht “inadvertently calls her Emma” neither he nor the reader is surprised by the connection. But there’s also an Anna Karenina connection here:

Once a woman whose rightful lot had been to be the mother in a conventional family has set off down the wrong path, she takes madder leaps than any other.

Those ‘mad leaps’ are at the heart of the story, but that’s as much as I’m going to give away. After finishing the story, I ran a search on the translator’s name (thanks for translating Heinrich Mann) and came across many more stories from this translator available for the kindle, including a dual language version of one Stendhal title. I’ll be digging through the list, hoping for more Heinrich Mann but open to whatever’s there.

Original title: Ein Verbrechen: translated by Juan LePuen

 

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