Tag Archives: german literature month

Confession of a Murderer: Joseph Roth

“But, my friends, let me digress for a moment, and forgive me for keeping you here: I wish today that we were still the old grains of dust! Our lives were ordered not by laws but by whims.”

My final entry for German Literature Month is Joseph Roth’s Confession of a Murderer. The tale of tangled identity, jealousy and class envy is told by an observer narrator–a man who has no connection to the story, but he has the ability to listen. The narrator lives in Paris opposite a Russian restaurant called Tari-Bari. It’s an odd sort of place, and since this is post Russian Revolution, the place is full of Russian emigrants. The narrator notes that in the restaurant, “time played no part.

A tin clock hung on the wall. Sometimes it stopped, sometimes it was wrong; its purpose seemed to be not to tell the time, but to ridicule it. No one looked at the clock. Most of the guests in this restaurant were Russian emigrants. And even those amongst them who, in their own country, might have had a sense of punctuality and exactitude, seemed now, in a foreign land, either to have lost it or to be ashamed of displaying it. Yes, it was as though those emigrants were consciously demonstrating against the calculating, the all-calculating and so very calculated, deliberations of the European West.

Complementing the idea that a sense of time doesn’t play much of a role at the restaurant, patrons have an “alcoholic breakfast,” and even though the place closes, patrons remain inside; some even sleep there. But the timelessness that pervades the restaurant goes beyond the sleeping and drinking past regular hours. For these people, in many ways, time stands still. Their lives in Russia have been interrupted. Some emigres managed to adapt to their new lives while, for others, they are frozen in time.

Of all the patrons in the restaurant, the narrator is drawn, not in a pleasant way, to one particular man. He smiles at the narrator and is nice enough, but it’s an odd smile which “disturbed” the narrator. One day, this man, Golubchik, relates his story to the entire restaurant. He’s sometimes addressed as “our murderer” and freely admits that he was once a police spy. But if he was a member of the secret police, why is he tolerated? So Golubchik tells his story; he was the bastard son of Prince Krapotkin and a married peasant woman. He grows up knowing that he’s different (he thinks that means ‘special’) and fanned by the notion that he’s the son of a prince, he decides to seek out his father in order to claim his, as he sees it, birth right. On the way to Odessa to see his father, he has a fateful meeting with a mysterious character, a well-dressed Hungarian named Lakatos. Lakatos befriends Golubchik and after a huge meal and a lot of alcohol, Golubchik tells his story to his new friend. Lakatos encourages Golubchik to confront the prince.

Lakatos, complete with a limp, is a devilish figure who leads the clueless Golubchik to his moral doom, “straight to hell.” Soon embroiled in the labyrinthine layers of murky state bureaucracy, Golubchik finds himself a member of the Ochrana. While Golubchik’s life becomes arguably more interesting, it also grows more confusing–especially when he’s sent to Paris and is assigned to spy on a dressmaker and his models. Here, Golobchik runs into his arch enemy. … Well at least the man he thinks is his arch enemy, Prince Krapotkin’s son–his legitimate son.

This is a tale of tangled identity: Golubchik is a peasant yet longs to be a prince and claim his so-called birth-right. As a spy, opportunities arise for Golubchik to use his power to usurp Prince Kraptokin’s son, but he’s bucking the rigidity of the class system. There’s a comic element here to be found in Golubchik’s fate. Here’s a man who is a spy and yet in some ways he’s completely clueless.

Lakatos also appears in The Leviathan.
Translated by Desmond I Vesey

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The Vaccination: Frank Wedekind

The Vaccination from German author Frank Wedekind is another entry for German Literature Month. Wedekind wrote the Lulu plays which became the basis for the silent film Pandora’s Box starring the intriguing actress, Louise Brooks. The Vaccination, rather like The Seducer, isn’t at all as the title implies. The Vaccination (Die Schutzimpfung), a tale of infidelity, jealousy and deceit, told in retrospect, concerns an affair between the narrator and a married woman named Fanny. There’s the impression that Fanny has strayed before as she’s rather practiced at deceiving her husband.

“You have nothing to fear, darling,” Fanny said to me one lovely evening, when her husband had just come home, “since husbands, by and large, are jealous only so long as they have no reason to be. As soon as there is really a reason for them to be jealous, it’s as if they were stricken with terminal blindness.”

The narrator isn’t as comfortable with this arrangement as Fanny and he’s sure the husband, who sends odd looks his way, “must have noticed something.” Fanny reassures her lover that her husband suspects nothing, explaining the bold “method” she has “devised” which, she insists works, “inoculating him once and for all against any jealousy” and suspicion. She describes how she constantly tells her husband she is “really taken” with the narrator and if she doesn’t “break her vows” of marriage it’s because of the narrator and for “him alone that I have been so unshakably faithful to you.” Fanny swears this sort of talk acts as a vaccination against her husband’s jealousy. The narrator isn’t convinced, but then one day Fanny unexpectedly shows up at his lodgings. There they are, in his small room, both starkers, whopping it up in bed when guess who else pops up unannounced? … Yes the cuckolded husband. So will Fanny’s method of vaccination work?

This tale has an unexpected, delightfully venomous twist in a careful-what you-wish-for sort of way. What a mind Frank Wedekind must have had.

Juan LePuen

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The Pharmacist: Ingrid Noll

Margot was dressed in nothing but a black suspender belt and red boots, and she had perched her purple knickers coquettishly on her head.”

Pharmacist Hella Moorman is stuck in bed at the Heidelberg Hospital for Women. With nothing to do and bored to tears, Hella begins to tell her life story to her roommate, a very dull looking “ageing spinster.” It seems harmless to confess all, and the roommate, Rosemarie Hirte, following a hysterectomy and a cancer diagnosis, seems half asleep most of the time anyway. To Hella, telling all is “a kind of therapy.” Hella admits that in her past she “kept falling for men who were having an even harder time of it than I was.” That is a long way of saying they were LOSERS. Hella, who comes from a good family, has a pattern of trying to salvage hopeless men. By the time she’s an adult, she’s been accused of murder (nothing can be proved) and has had a string of awful men in her life. But she’s intelligent and becomes a pharmacist.

Enter Levin, a much younger man who says he’s studying to be a dentist. Within a short period of time, Levin has moved in, and good at spending Hella’s money, he persuades her to buy a flashy red convertible. There’s the impression that Hella is not very attractive; she’s the one who has to initiate sex with Levin. He doesn’t seem that interested, and he’s much more interested in the sports car. Hella admits the car has its uses: “it was fun roaring around with someone in a perpetual state of euphoria.

Over time, Hella learns that Levin is to inherit his grandfather, Herman’s, impressive mansion and ALL of his money. Too bad the old chap won’t be reasonable and die. In the meantime, Levin, who can’t wait for his inheritance begins to siphon off valuables from his grandfather’s house. Levin employs a vastly unsuitable young woman named Margot to care for his grandfather. Margot looks as though she belongs on a stripper pole rather than behind a wheelchair.

Margot was no thrifty housekeeper but a thoroughly incompetent slut.

As Rosemarie listens to this sordid tale from her hospital bed, she occasionally jumps in with snarky, tart comments. At one point she interrupts Hella:

“Were you really so stupid as to actually marry that waster?” demanded Frau Hirte. “If so, then please skip the wedding, if you don’t mind, and go straight on to the successful divorce proceedings.”

Rosemarie doesn’t seem in the least concerned to hear that Levin was fascinated by Hella’s secret stash of poisons passed on from her creepy Nazi grandfather.

Hella’s tale is tinged with ‘if onlys.’ If only Levin will marry her … If only she can have a child … If only Margot would leave …

Here’s Hella’s wedding day with Margot stealing the show:

I looked so pretty, or at least so I imagined; my costume suited me perfectly and my father had put around my neck, with his own fair hand, the six rows of polished pearls and garnets which had belonged to his grandmother and which I had had my eye on for a long time. But then it all started to go wrong. I caught sight of Margot and was horrified. Was this the mangy cat who had, after a fashion, taken care of Herman Graber’s household? Before me stood a young woman in a black dress, the top half transparent and, at the back, plunging all the way down to the start of the valley between her buttocks; totally out of place, and no doubt paid for out of my money. And confronted with this package of aggressive, low-class sex, many of the men were asking eagerly, ‘who’s that, then?

Things become even more complicated when Margot’s husband, Dieter, Levin’s best friend and former partner-in-crime, shows up. Yes Hella’s life would be perfect … if only Margot would disappear. And then there’s the decision about which man of three (yes, three no less) she should choose. As Hella’s sordid tale continues, and becomes darker, we only have her version of events. She positions herself as an innocent bystander surrounded by users and yet is Hella the sort to be a victim? Is Hella a reliable narrator? This novel, with its dark transgressive humour, follows Hella’s lifestory as told to Rosemarie Hirte. Rosemarie, by the way, has a sordid tale of her own in Hell Hath No Fury.

Goodwill, dependability, loyalty and morality don’t stand a chance when sex is involved.

This was a great pick for German Literature Month.

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The Seducer: Frank Wedekind

After reading Frank Wedekind’s short story, The Seducer, I looked up the meaning of the word ‘seduce.’ “A person who entices another into sexual activity. A person who entices another to do or believe something inadvisable or foolhardy.” Initially I was not sure that either definition quite fits Wedekind’s story, but perhaps it’s a matter of who is being seduced. … The story, set in the 19th century, begins like this:

“It is entirely easy to win the favor of every girl, without exception. But it isn’t always easy. The important thing is to set about it in the right way.”

The rest of the gentlemen of the circle of close friends listened in eager anticipation.

So we have several men gathered while one explains how to win “the favor” of a woman. Thanks to the title, naturally, I decided that the narrator is talking about sexual favors. The narrator goes on to explain how he visited his Aunt Matilda and there met Melanie who has just returned from Brussels. The narrator is clearly sexually attracted to Melanie and that notes that “her hips and most of all the shape of her corset struck me for their magnificent curves.” But while the narrator is impressed by Melanie, the feeling isn’t mutual.

She cast sharp glances at me that made me feel as if I were being peppered with small-caliber shot.

Later the narrator and Melanie go for a walk in the garden. It’s dark and there’s a little bit of seduction going on with Melanie as she “leaned her upper body” over her male companion. The narrator leaves only to return a few days later. At this meeting, with the aunt conveniently asleep, the narrator and Melanie are in the house with Melanie sprawling all over the chaise longue, and she’s so hot, she has to undo the two top clasps of her thin dress so she can “breathe better.” The narrator feels no small frustration during his talk with Melanie as he is only given “a wordless, superior smile.”

The courtship, for that is what it is, continues with the narrator almost driven crazy by Melanie’s behavior. On one hand she’s cold and yet during each of their meetings there are rather unsubtle sexual maneuvers from Melanie. This short story only runs to a few pages, so I won’t go into it any further. For this reader, the story is, given the narrator is lecturing men on the subject of how to win an uninterested woman, ironic. There’s a seducer in this story alright–it’s just not the narrator.

Original title: Der Verfüher.

Translator:Juan LePuen

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New Year: Julie Zeh

Holidays tend to reveal the submerged fabric of our emotional lives and this is certainly true in Julie Zeh’s novel, New Year. Married Henning secretly books a trip to Lanzarote for Christmas away from their apartment in Gottingen. His wife Theresa isn’t thrilled at first as the trip is hard to make with two small children, aged 2 and 4.

Night after night he surfed the web, looking through images of white sea-foam on black beaches, of palms and volcanos and a landscape that resembled the interior of a stalactite cave. He pored over charts showing average temperatures and forwarded his findings to Theresa. But mostly he clicked through countless images of whitewashed villas for rent. One after another, night after night, until late. He’d plan to stop at a certain point and go to bed, but then he’d click on the next listing. He’d devour each image, voracious as an addict, almost as if he were looking for a specific house.

While Henning looks hungrily at the villas, his final choice is much more modest–a townhouse that’s “within their budget.” Henning’s online search through the villas for rent is traded for a tiny townhouse and a holiday “prix-fixe” dinner at a local hotel. It really isn’t Henning and Theresa’s scene but Theresa has the lucky ability to “make-the-best-of it [is] like a pre-programmed setting she shifts into the moment anything goes awry.” Not so Henning. As the novel continues, it’s clear that Henning suffers from panic attacks. This is something fairly new for Henning, and perhaps this partly explains his obsession to be in Lanzarote for the New Year. When the novel opens, he’s strenuously cycling with the mantra “New Year, new you.” Henning’s cycling trip is infused with various memories: Theresa’s annoying self-focused parents who have relocated to Italy, Henning’s absent father, Werner, Henning’s restless troubled sister, Luna, and Henning’s mother–a woman who made sure that her children knew just how much she sacrificed for her children:

Because of them, she’d renounced friends, men, parties, travel, art, reading, films, theater, stimulating conversations, and a better job. Every day, she declared how, because of them, she was condemned to a life that neither suited her or pleased her.

Predictably, Henning’s mother has no interest in his children. Theresa’s parents, Rolf and Marlies, on the other hand, who visit once or twice a year, are only interested in each other. They bring the grandkids unsuitable gifts, and it’s the Rolf and Marlies show–and every show needs an audience:

As they eat, they yammer on and on mostly with one another, as if they haven’t seen each other in ages. Rolf tells Marlies how lucky they were to find that apartment in Rome. Marlies asks Rolf if he, like she, finds German artisans far superior to Roman ones. They tease one another, correct one another, and enlist Henning and Theresa as audience for a conversation they clearly find riveting and hilarious, all the while thoroughly ignoring Bibbi and Jonas until they start bickering.

The holiday serves to highlight the discord in Henning and Theresa’s life, but one can never run away from one’s childhood, and Henning runs right into a repressed memory.

The holiday and the familial relationships ring all too true. The novel includes child neglect so readers who are sensitive to that issue should be aware.

Review copy. Translated by Alta T. Price

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The Girl Who Wasn’t There: Ferdinand von Schirach

Ferdinand von Schirach focuses on the impulses behind murder, and in The Girl Who Wasn’t There, defense lawyer Konrad Biegler faces a difficult case when he represents Sebastian von Eschburg. The novel begins with Sebastian’s childhood. It’s a familiar story of a wealthy family who went down the toilet when one generation made the money and the next spent it. The family mansion fell into disrepair. But it’s still a vast house, sitting on acreage.

Plaster flaked off the walls, the two side wings were not heated in winter, and moss grew on the rooftops. In spring and autumn metal buckets stood in the attic to catch the rain.

In this dismal environment the relics of treasures of various continents mingle with dead animal body parts–the remnants of the Eschburgs’ hunting expeditions. Sebastian is born at home when the car belonging to his parents won’t start. As a neglected, lonely child he’s ‘different,’ and sees his world through a wider range of colour spectrum. The human eye normally sees colours between 400-700 nanometers.

There had always been two worlds in Sebastian’s life. The retinas of his eyes perceived electromagnetic waves between 380 and 780 nanometers, his brain translated them into two hundred tones of colour, five hundred degrees of brightness and twenty different shades of white. He saw what other people saw, but in his mind the colours were different. They had no names because there weren’t enough words for them. His nanny’s hands were cyan and amber; his father’s skin was a pale greenish-blue. Only his mother had no colour at all. For a long time, Sebastian thought that she was made of water, and took on the shape that everyone knew when he went into her room. He admired the speed with which she had always successfully performed this transformation.

He loves the house but is sent off to boarding school at age ten. There are many names given to various psychological states, and no doubt there would be one to fit Sebastian. He’s a disturbed child and he becomes more disturbed after his father’s suicide. Eventually Sebastian becomes an acclaimed photographer, and his work, which questions reality, is controversial. He slides into porn (which is an interesting approach to the reality question) and violence. When Sebastian is accused of murder, there seems to be a natural path from his artistic material to the accusations against him.

The sections about Sebastian’s mother and his childhood are the strongest in the novel. In spite of an intriguing plot, this novel was a limp read. While I felt compassion for the lonely neglected child, Sebastian, as an adult, is not convincing and the whole murder/solution was too sketchy and contrived for this reader.

Translated by Anthea Bell

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Lommbock (2017)

Lommbock (2017)

“Clean urine. You can buy it on the internet.”

The German film, Lommbock, from director Christian Zübert, was an accidental find. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was so funny, I wanted to add this buddy movie to German Literature Month 2021. Yes, I know, this is hardly literature, but what the hell.

Stefan (Lucas Gregorowicz) is back in Germany in order to get the necessary paperwork for his upcoming wedding in Dubai to Yasemin (Melanie Winiger). He’s met at the airport by his lifelong, slacker friend, Kai (Moritz Bleibtreu). Kai, with blasé that flies in the face of Germany’s drug laws, brings Welcome Back drugs to the airport in a pizza box for Stefan, and Stefan, frantically eyeing the airport police, dumps the box, berating Kai in the process. This early scene sets the tone between the friends. At one point they were social equals, but now Stefan is expensively dressed and looks every inch a success. He’s a former lawyer, about to marry into an extremely wealthy family, and in the process of opening a bar in Dubai, while pothead Kai, who owns a run-down, abandoned Pizzeria is married to breadwinner Sabine (Mavie Hörbiger) and has a stepson Jonathan (Louis Hofmann). Sabine has clearly outgrown Kai, and Kai has adopted hybrid gangsta-hip lingo and is convinced he’s the only one who can get through to his increasingly alienated stepson.

The plan is for Stefan to stay, briefly, with Kai, take care of the paperwork and then fly back to Dubai. What could possibly go wrong???? Stefan and Kai are soon back to their old ways and Stefan must find excuses to tell his fiancée when it becomes necessary for him to wait out a clean urine test in order for him to return to Dubai. Kai and Stefan, team up when Jonathan gets in trouble and their misadventures include a hunt for marijuana, a pot van and an institutionalized stoner.

Some scenes involve Kai’s (he’s high) rifts of how breast implants explode at high altitudes. Kai has theories about everything in the universe. His confidence is in sharp contrast to Stefan’s almost constant worries, and this is made even funnier by the fact that Kai, given his failures in life, should be the insecure one. Given this confidence dynamic, it’s easy to see why Stefan so rapidly drops his responsible veneer once off the Dubai leash.

The final section of the film takes place in Dubai and these scenes are boldly original. I couldn’t stop laughing. Underneath the humour runs a strain of Stefan’s homesickness, the idea of staying true to oneself, and the lure of selling out for financial security. Stefan didn’t realise how much he missed Germany until he returned. And then there’s his relationship with Kai. It’s fraught with problems and yet there’s still a deep bond and synergy between the two men.

The back story of this pizzeria which was a front for Kai and Stefan selling marijuana as part of the pizza delivery is the story in the film Lammbock (2001)

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The Weissensee Saga (4 seasons German TV series)

Hard to believe that I wrote about the spectacular German TV series The Weissensee Saga 3 years ago. Here I am back for season 4. This is the story of the Kupfer family, East Berliners in the 80s-90s. When the series begins, senior Stasi officer Hans Kupfer (Uwe Kockisch) and his wife Marlene (Ruth Reinecke), live in a large lakeside home in the prestigious Weisensee neighbourhood. 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, Roman, 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.

Over the course of the series, we see how policeman Martin tries to break away from his family and his Stasi-connected ex-wife. When Martin becomes involved with the gentle Julia Hausmann (Hannah Herzsprung), all hell breaks loose. Julia is the daughter of dissident singer, Djuna, a one-time love interest of Hans Kupfer and now Djuna, in spite of her ex-lover’s protection, is under Stasi surveillance. Marlene and Falk Kupfer are opposed to Martin’s relationship with Julia–it’s partly personal but also this is potentially fatal for Falk’s career.  

The Weissensee Saga examines how the tendrils of Stasi surveillance infiltrated every aspect of East German life. Emotionally twisted Falk’s vicious determination to destroy Martin’s relationship with Julia has tragic and far-reaching consequences.

Series 3 takes us to the fall of the Berlin Wall, so series 4 finds the Kupfers in a whole new Germany. It’s hard to say just who has the harder time here–the older generation who hide their Stasi past, the middle generation who try to find footholds in the new economy, or the younger generation who suddenly have freedoms they never dreamed of. Series 4 shows the wolves at the doors as East Berliners, after initial euphoria, cope with economic and social shock. Workers in an economy that can no longer compete, lose their jobs, while others fall prey to various slick conmen. We see how a couple of cheeky entrepreneurs manage while other East Berliners are treated like second-class citizens in their own country. Of course, the Big Question here is what will happen to the Stasi elite? Will they pay for their crimes? Will the Stasi files be opened? Many Stasi submerge and then reemerge in prime positions in the New Germany all-too ready to throw their old Stasi skill set into capitalism. The Kupfer family continue to be divided and loyalties are thrown into question once more as some family members throw others to the wolves.

Highly recommended.

Series 4 clip

 

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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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