Tag Archives: German literature

Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz: Maxim Biller

German 2015

Back to German Literature Month, and this time it’s a modern German novella inspired by the life of Bruno Schultz: Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz by Maxim Biller.  Bruno Schultz, a polish writer, critic, teacher and illustrator was murdered in 1942 in the Drohobycz Ghetto. He had been commissioned by Nazi officer Felix Landau to paint a mural and in exchange Landau promised protection. Schultz was shot, according to many sources, by another Nazi officer, Karl Günther  in revenge for Landau killing Günther’s “personal Jew,” a dentist. So yet again another brilliant talent wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis.  In spite of the fact that very little of his work survived (his final novel The Messiah is lost,) there’s a mythic quality to Bruno Schultz. Just check out the Wikipedia page to see how authors have integrated Schultz into their fiction. Biller’s novella is an imagined glimpse into Schultz’s life.

The book begins with Schultz frantically writing a letter to Thomas Mann:

“My highly esteemed, greatly respected, dear Herr Thomas Mann” wrote a small, thin, serious man slowly and carefully in his notebook, on a surprisingly warm autumn day in November 1938–

The letter, subject to multiple edits, is intended to warn Thomas Mann, currently in Switzerland, about an imposter who’s arrived in Drohobycz. In the letter Schultz admits to Mann that  “I cannot say with complete certainty that he is not you, but the stories he tells alone-not to mention his shabby clothes and his strong body odor-arouse my suspicions.” Right away there’s a sense of the absurd, of playfulness, but behind this there’s also a frantic plea and a fearful, neurotic quality to the letter writer. The imposter Thomas Mann is making a spectacle of himself at a local restaurant, seizing food in his hands and stuffing it into his mouth.  The imposter Thomas Mann is a sinister demonic character who plans to write a novella in which Jews are murdered by Christians:

“Well my friends, ” said the false stranger to us when he had finished, and was wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, “how do you like this story? How would you reply to the question of guilt that I am about to ask? I would say: if the Hebrews had never come to Drohobycz, that pointless and utterly destructive pogram would never have taken place, would it?” Then he beat a short but vigorous drum roll on the manager’s head with the palms of both hands.

In his letter, Schultz bemoans the fact he must teach “drawing to my beloved but totally untalented boys” at a high school, and it’s at this high school that Schultz is terrorized by a sturdy sports mistress, Helena, “small and athletic and with a hairy face like a clever female bonobo chimpanzee,” who aggressively harasses him about his next novel.

Bruno had really been hoping that no one in school would notice his absence particularly not pretty Helena, whose thick, blonde and often badly combed hair unfortunately gave off the pungent smell of an animal cage, a mixture of urine and damp hay that had been left lying around. Yesterday she had shut him up, for almost a whole hour’s lesson and without any light on, in the little room containing broken gymnastics equipment next to the sports hall. He didn’t know why, but probably because he had trembled even more than usual during their last conversation in a break period, and couldn’t be soothed even by the pressure of her short, but sharp and unfiled fingernails. So what? She shouldn’t have asked him to let her see at least a few pages of his novel, and he had been cold as well, in spite of the summery days that came like a gift in mid-November, and in spite of the fact that he was wearing his heavy jacket. When she finally let him out he was feeling much better, or so he told her at least, for fear of making her even angrier, and she promised to shut him up again sometime soon. Maybe, she added, she’d come into the little room with him herself for a while if he liked. She could go to one of the chaotic shops beyond the market place that opened only late in the evening for a few hours, sometimes not even that, and buy things she’d been wanting to try out with him for a long time he could guess what she meant! No, he had replied, he’d rather she didn’t, although he immediately felt very safe and well at the thought of those things–black leather Venetian Columbine masks stuffed with sawdust; penis-sized Pierrot made of willow rods, and Easter whips interwoven with thin steel chains; silver nipple clamps, and Japanese shunga candles (their dripping wax left no blisters on the skin).

Schultz lives with his sister, Hania, who’s in denial that her husband committed suicide by slitting his own throat ten years earlier. While Schultz writes in the basement, Hania, a Cassandra-like figure, tells him gossip about a man who “looked remarkably” like Bruno visiting a brothel and there he “examined the half-naked girls like a horse dealer, drank a lot of wine, and told dirty jokes.”

Inside the head of Bruno SchulzMaxim Biller’s Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz, in its blurring of reality and fantasy, mirrors Schultz’s own work, so it’s cleverly executed. Biller’s story itself blends fact with fiction, and it is a bit frustrating not to be able to peel the two apart, yet this dilemma is partially bolstered by Schultz’s life itself; even the story of Schultz’s death is subject to some debate.  What of the fictional imposter Schultz who manhandles women at a brothel? Is he real or imagined by Schultz’s sister? Is the imposter Thomas Mann just a figment of the fictional Bruno Schultz’s imagination? We cannot tell the ‘real’ or the imagined apart on so many levels in this novella.

Evidently Schultz did admire Thomas Mann and gave him the manuscript of his novella The Homecoming (1937), a work that is referred to in this story. The Homecoming is lost, and taking that loss into consideration, the letter Schultz writes in the book acquires a much deeper poignancy, and again a mythical quality. While Inside the Head of Bruno Schultz shows Schultz reaching, frantically, desperately, to the outside world represented by Thomas Mann, tragically while Mann did acquire Schultz’s sole work written in German, it is now lost. And that gives a sinister, surreal significance to the whole idea that a Thomas Mann imposter has taken up residence in Drohobycz, popping up a year after Schultz finished The Homecoming. Biller’s novella is set in 1938, and the Germans had yet to arrive in Drohobycz. The “alleged” demonic Thomas Mann appears to be a harbinger of the Nazis:

“You must write your novel. What is it to be called? The Messiah, am I right? To work, get down to work, and when you have finished those bandits will come from Berlin to your little town and burn you along with your wonderful manuscript. Too bad–it’s your own fault!’ He laughed, “terrific, what a subject! But who will write a novel about it where you are dead, Jew Schultz?”

This is another gorgeous little book from Pushkin Press, and it includes two stories from Bruno Schultz: Birds and Cinnamon Shops (translated from Polish by Celina Wieniewska.) Reading these stories and looking at Schultz’s art add a great deal to Biller’s novella.

The murals Schultz created for Landau were discovered in 2001. Here’s a link for those interested.

Review copy/own a copy.

Translated by Anthea Bell


Filed under Biller Maxim, Fiction

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


Filed under Fiction, Von Kleist Heinrich

A Crime by Heinrich Mann



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.


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



Filed under Fiction, Mann Heinrich

The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann



What would German literature month be without E.T.A Hoffman? I recently read Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson which I thoroughly enjoyed, and since the collection opened with Hoffmann’s short story, The Sandman, it seemed a perfect addition to German Literature month.

The story is just 30 pages and begins as an epistolary. A very troubled young man named Nathanael writes a letter to his friend, Lothar, but in emotional turmoil, he makes the mistake of addressing the letter to Lothar’s sister, Nathanael’s love interest, Clara. The letter details Nathanael’s childhood exposure to tales of the Sandman;

He’s a wicked man who comes to children when they don’t want to go to bed and throws handfuls of sand into their eyes; that makes their eyes fill with blood and jump out of their heads, and he throws the eyes into a bag and takes them into the crescent moon to feed to his own children, who are sitting in the nest there; the Sandman’s children have crooked beaks, like owls, with which to peck the eyes of naughty human children.

Yes, a wonderful thing to tell children especially at bedtime.

Nathanael relates a childhood in which a strange visitor he identifies as the Sandman (a creature who, according to Nathanael’s mother, does not exist)  periodically visits his father. These mysterious visits throw an atmosphere of gloom over the family and are accompanied by foul-smells suggesting the practice of alchemy. One terrifying night, Nathanael, after getting a good look at the Sandman, realizes that the Sandman in none other than Coppelius, an “old advocate.”

Years later, in the letter to Lothar, Nathanael, now a student, is convinced that he has met Coppelius again…

After 3 letters, the narrator of the tale takes over, and we shift from the Sandman as a major threat to Nathanael falling in love with Olimpia, the strange daughter of professor Spalanzani.

We could take the tale at face value or we can, from a psychological viewpoint, consider this a tale of obsession and madness. Clara, who believes that the “demon” exists only in Nathanael’s mind,  offers her fiancé some sensible advice:

If there is a dark power which malevolently and treacherously places a thread within us, with which to hold us and draw us down a perilous and pernicious path that we must never otherwise have set foot on–if there is such a power, then it must take the same form as we do, it must become our very self; for only in this way can we believe in it and give it the scope it requires to accomplish its secret task.

Nathanael is annoyed with Clara and considers her unfeeling, but no matter, to Nathanael, Olimpia seems to be the perfect woman–she sits and listens, never argues, never expresses an opinion of her own, and it seems only a small flaw that she can’t dance well. …

At around 30 pages, this is a short tale, and for its psychological elements,  I much preferred this to Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scuderi. Nathanael makes an interesting main character and while we can sympathise with him, it’s easy to see that he’s his own worst enemy–a man who, haunted by childhood demons, seems to rush with both arms open towards his own fate.


Filed under Fiction, Hoffmann

A Dangerous Encounter by Ernst Jünger

German literature monthBack to German Literature month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, and this time it’s Ernst Jünger’s A Dangerous Encounter (Eine Gefährliche Begegnung). I don’t usually read historical fiction as I am annoyed by modern sensibilities that tend to creep into the narrative all too often. A Dangerous Encounter is historical since it was published in 1985 but it’s set at the end of the nineteenth century.  In the case of A Dangerous Encounter, this was a book I couldn’t resist, and I’m glad I didn’t.  Jünger shows us a decadent, glittering wealthy Parisian society full of unhappy people, but underneath it, in the substrate, “meanness, ugliness, even crime were smouldering beneath the varnish.”   In a world plagued by fears of Jack the Ripper, two valiant, dedicated detectives re-establish order in the chaos caused by infidelity, violence and murder. 

a dangerous encounterThe book begins with a young, very handsome and very innocent young man named Gerhard, an embassy employee, strolling in Paris on one Sunday in Autumn. Gerhard’s walk takes him into unknown territory deep into the seedy side of Paris. Gerhard isn’t comfortable there; he’s so innocent that people find him “childlike.” This innocence, of course, extends to women–creatures he regards as unapproachable beings. Gerhard is so innocent that he even fails to notice that women find him very attractive and send signals that they’d welcome his attention.

Gerhard heard the rustle of silk, when their skirts nearly brushed against him, like the murmur of a distant tide carried on the breeze. And he was always seized with awe as before a sublime painting, as if goddesses were offering themselves to his gaze; fairies and enchantresses followed at their heels.

He was always surprised, indeed amazed when he saw them in the company of men. To approach them struck him as imprudent; the very thought of it was inconceivable. But wonderful, uplifting conversations would be possible with them; he felt this intuitively. Yet he would be incapable of opening his mouth–this he knew for sure. In his dreams, he was their servant; their confidant as well. He saw himself as their deliverer from perils and his destiny bound up with theirs amidst vicissitudes that are depicted in novels.

This a passage like that, it’s not hard to see that Gerhard is out-of-his depth with women, and that leads to the idea that Gerhard is the sort of young man who could so easily find himself in trouble if the wrong woman enters his life. From Gerhard’s stroll, there’s a segue to a recent conversation between Gerhard’s uncle, the ambassador and his wife as they discuss the young man’s vulnerability. Herr von Zimmern tells his wife that Gerhard is like his father and that he will mature through experience and “encounters that crystallize what is at first only vague rumination.” Frau von Zimmern isn’t convinced and sees Gerhard as likely, through his total innocence, to have “evil encounters.” As it turns out, she’s correct.

Gerhard has a “chance encounter with Léon Duchase, a jaded and dyspeptic aesthete,” and they join each other for lunch. Duchase  is a wonderful character–someone who belongs in a Huysmans novel, and there’s something nasty about his sordid world-weariness set against Gerhard’s innocence … almost as though Duchase would enjoy ruining this young man. Although Duchase has an aristocratic background, “he was only to be seen on the fringes of society; at the races, at the gaming tables, and the luncheons.”  Duchasse made a “fabulous marriage,” but recklessly squandered his wife’s fortune. Now left only with “infallible taste,” Duchasse, who attaches himself to wealthy people, is a broker of sorts–antiques, carpets, paintings, houses and even of relationships. He appears to have a certain bonhomie yet beneath that social mask lies “hatred for the pleasures and for those enjoying them.”

The lunch is littered with barbed, bitter comments from Duchasse which sail over Gerhard’s head, but then Gerhard notices a woman who triggers his gallant, heroic streak. The neglected married woman is Irene, unstable, volatile and very beautiful. Duchasse thinks that in the “old days” Irene, who is trying very hard to commit adultery, was the sort of woman who would have “been stuck in a convent.”

Beauty and agitation were at variance in this face. Misfortune always ensues when power is inherited without the self-assurance needed to control it. Just as a large fortune only causes mischief when it passes to a spendthrift, beauty can prove to be a dangerous endowment for whoever inherits it, as well as for others.

To Duchasse, “society is ruined, there are no boundaries,” and the “open hunt” for married women is a “basic right.” Duchasse, maliciously anticipating the fallout from a delicious scandal, throws Gerhard into Irene’s path by sending her a bouquet of roses and including Gerhard’s card. And Gerhard, who has no idea of the implications of his actions, finds himself meeting this married woman as he’s literally shoved inside a sordid little hotel known as a meeting place for discreet lovers….

Then the novel becomes a murder mystery, and Gerhard, Duchasse, Irene, and Irene’s husband, a very dark character named Kargané–a man who owns distant estates in Transylvania–recede into the background as the detectives Inspector Dobrowsky and his protégé, Etienne move forward to investigate the crime which is initially laid at the feet of Jack the Ripper who, it’s assumed, has hopped the Channel. A considerable portion of the book is spent on the detectives, their backgrounds and their relationship.

While I enjoyed all of this, the author removes one set of intriguing characters and replaced them with another set. The inside flap of my copy explains this structure by saying that “Jünger’s trap is sprung: after luring us (like Gerhard himself) into the languorous world of decadent pleasure, he plunges the reader into a crackling detective novel, complete with an engagingly metaphysical investigator.” There’s nothing to really argue about with that statement except to say that I wanted to read more about Gerhard and Duchasse, and they moved from being at the centre of the drama. There’s an expectation that the narrative will follow a more traditional trajectory with Gerhard falling madly in love with Irene and then learning some painful lessons of life through a torrid love affair. This doesn’t happen, and while Gerhard learns some lessons, it’s not what we originally expect, and just which “dangerous encounter”  is indicated by the title could be one of several scenes in the novel. Clearly Jünger loved these characters, and he spends no small amount of time filling in character outlines with delicious details, so that characters who could be considered as secondary, Wilhelm von Goldhammer: The Rittmeister, and Madame Stephanie, for example,  are given several pages of their own. My complaint, if I had one, is that the novel at 187 pages, shut some characters down too soon. I wanted to read more about these people, and there’s the feeling that the characters of Etienne and Dobrowsky could have their own series of novels.

Finally, I loved the wisdom here:

There are several reasons why excess is antagonistic to happiness and fulfillment


Like so many men, he had married the type that was least suited to him.

But the wisest character has to be the remarkable Dobrowsky who expounds on his theories of crime, and why random crime is harder to solve than the most carefully planned and executed schemes:

Intelligence gets caught in its own snares, He who proceeds according to the rules of his art poses a problem that can be solved. The man in the woods who knocks down and robs the first person to come along is more difficult to track down than the most cunning check forger, who must constantly leave traces, even as a signature. Hence we criminologists are faced with the peculiar fact that the dilettante gives us harder nuts to crack than the experts.

Translated by Hillary Barr


Filed under Fiction, Jünger Ernst

Transit by Anna Seghers

“A tireless pack of officials was on the move night and day, like dogcatchers, intent on fishing suspicious people out of the crowds as they passed through, so as to put them into city jails from which they’d be dragged off to a concentration camp if they didn’t have the money to pay the ransom or to hire a crafty lawyer who would later split the outsize reward for freeing the prisoner with the dogcatcher himself. As a result, everyone, especially the foreigners, guarded their passports and identification papers as if they were their very salvation. I was amazed to see the authorities, in the midst of this chaos, inventing ever more intricate drawn-out procedures for sorting, classifying, registering, and stamping these people over whose emotions they had lost all power. It was like trying to register every Vandal, goth, hun, and langobard during the “Barbarian invasion.”  

Earlier this year, I read Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck, and Transit from German author Anna Seghers is the perfect companion read. While Diary of a Man in Despair is non-fiction, diary entries kept by Reck during the 30s and 40s, Transit is the fictional story of a German, a former prisoner who first escapes from a Nazi concentration camp, and then escapes from a camp in Rouen. He makes it to Paris, and there, while performing a favour for a friend, he becomes caught up by fate in a life that belongs to someone else.

TransitTransit is a novel that deserves a bit of grounding. Author Anna Seghers (1900-1983) came from an upper-middle-class Jewish family. She was a communist living in France when the Nazis invaded, and she was fortunate enough to escape from Marseille to Mexico in 1941 “on a ship that included among its passengers Victor Serge, André Breton, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.” This cliff-hanging experience of desperate exile found its way into Transit–a novel that could only have been written by someone who experienced trying to escape from the Nazis. According to the introduction written by Peter Conrad, Seghers was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933, and taking the hint, after her release, she moved on to Paris. After the Germans invaded France, she went to Marseille where most of the action of Transit is set. Conrad tell us that “Marseille was one of the few ports that offered an exit from a continent that was closing down. Here Seghers joined the harried strays she describes in her novel, scuttling from one consulate to the next in an attempt to assemble the visas and permits required for their onward journey. Not for the last time, modern life had turned into the enactment of a Kafka novel.” The introduction also explains the death, by suicide, of the author’s friend, Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, one of a group of Jewish refugees, was in Portbou, a Spanish border town, trying to get a transit visa that would allow him to pass through Lisbon and eventually sail to America. The Franco government cancelled all transit visas and announced that all refugees would be returned to France. Benjamin took an overdose of morphine rather than face the alternative. There is some speculation about a missing manuscript that Benjamin kept in a briefcase. It’s impossible to read Transit and not make connections between Benjamin and the character of the writer, Weidel–a dead man whose very absence  is seminal to the plot of Transit.

Transit is narrated by a young German man who goes by the name of Siedler, currently stuck in Marseille. He escaped a German concentration camp in 1937 only to end up in a work camp in Rouen. News trickles down that the Germans will shortly arrive in the region, and this sparks panic amongst the prisoners who anticipate a grisly end when the Nazis arrive. A second escape and flight to Paris ensues with a handful of other men, including Heinz, who lost a leg in Spain. It seems as though the entire country is on the road:

a silent stream of refugees was still pouring south from the northern villages. Hay wagons piled high as farmhouses with furniture and poultry cages, with children and ancient grandparents, goats and calves, trucks carrying a convent of nuns, a little girl pulling her mother in a cart, cars with pretty women wearing the furs they had salvaged, the cars pulled by cows because there were no gas stations anymore; and women carrying their dying children, even dead ones.

This early scene sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It’s chaos– “the dissolution of our world order;” People are uprooted, “a silent stream of refugees” on the road and looking for an escape from the Nazis, and there’s a sense of futility here in the very disorganization of the displaced refugees when compared to the thorough mechanized progress of the German units. Luck is with Seidler who makes it to Paris and here the Nazi presence is both jarring and a little surreal:

I walked into Paris. A swastika flag was actually flying before the Hotel de Ville. And they were actually playing the Hohenfriedberg March in front of Notre Dame. I couldn’t believe it. I walked diagonally across Paris. And everywhere there were fleets of German cars and swastikas. I felt quite hollow, as if emptied of all emotion.

Seidler runs into Paul Strobel, a writer and an old acquaintance from the work camp who is the first character to introduce the topic of visas. Strobel is heading for Marseille as he has a “danger visa” which is a “special emergency visa for especially endangered people.” Strobel argues that he wrote a “book and countless articles against Hitler” and that has left him particularly vulnerable.

I thought of Heinz who had been beaten half to death by the Nazis in 1935, who was then put in a German concentration camp, escaping to Paris, only to end up in Spain with the International Brigade where he then lost a leg, and who, one-legged was then dragged through all of France’s concentration camps, ending up in ours. Where was he now? I also thought of flocks of birds being able to fly away. The whole earth was uncomfortable, and still I quite liked this kind of life; I didn’t envy Paul for that thing he had–what was it called?

This is an interesting scene, fully of irony that is only fully understood as the novel progresses, for Seidler is saying a couple of things here–1) he doesn’t yet grasp the importance of visas, and yet his life is shortly to become consumed by them and the inability to acquire all the necessary documentation to leave France, and 2) while Strobel sees himself as “especially endangered” Seidler clearly sees Heinz as physically a much more heroic type–a man of action rather than a man of ideas. This is ironic for Seidler soon finds himself donning the identity of a dead writer.

Strobel rather shiftily asks Seidler to go to a small hotel and deliver a letter to a writer, Wiedel, who’s registered there, and through a chain of events Seidler comes into possession of Weidel’s suitcase, a “forensic object,” and an unfinished manuscript. This incident marks the shift in Seidler’s life and also the emergence of meaningless bureaucracy. Learning that Weidel has a visa and travel funds waiting at the Mexican Embassy in Marseille, Seidler, who has no papers whatsoever, decides to don Weidel’s identity.

When Seidler/Weidel arrives in Marseille, he thinks it’ll be a fairly simple matter to collected Weidel’s papers and leave, but he discovers that he’s entered a bureaucratic labyrinth of almost insurmountable complexity. You need a “safe conduct” pass to travel to Marseille, a residence permit once there (only granted if you prove that you are actually planning on not staying,) an exit visa to leave,  and a transit visa to pass through various countries. It’s a puzzle, a sort of desperate scavenger hunt in bottle-necked Marseille with those desperate to leave required to pick up various visas to fulfill bureaucratic demands, and all this to be achieved in chaos as the borders of civilization melt down. Meanwhile rumours fly about ships that may or may not be arriving or leaving.

Throughout the novel, Seidler is submerged into Weidel, and Seidler is an intriguingly opaque character who should appeal to fans of Nabokov. We know that Seidler was sent to a concentration camp, but we don’t know why–although he states that he belongs to no political parties, it’s clear that he understands the Nazis and their “dirty tricks.” He’s a displaced German who doesn’t particularly want to leave France, and even the name he uses, Seidler, belongs to someone else. His total lack of identity makes becoming Weidel the natural choice, and yet it’s a choice, a trick of fate, that leads to a great deal of trouble. Once in Marseille, Seidler merges easily with all the other dispossessed refugees, flotsam and jetsam washed up in an unfriendly Marseille by the German invasion. Identity–any identity that can be claimed–suddenly becomes of paramount importance, and the drama that ensues as various characters struggle to claim their identity (and this includes Seidler/Weidel) would be a comedy of errors if those involved weren’t facing dreadful options. One man with Polish identity papers learns that the town he was born in is now considered Lithuania, and he is required to return to his place of birth, now under Nazi occupation, in order to gather papers certifying his birth from a town that no longer exists.

Naturally since Marseille has become refugee central, it’s full of desperate people who will do anything to get a ticket on an outward bound ship. One woman who cannot escape, eats her way through whatever time and money she has left; others give up in various ways. Another woman cossets and grooms two enormous Great Danes who are her visa “guarantors“–given to her for safekeeping by two Americans in exchange for an “incontestable affidavit” of her spotless morality. A group of Legionnaires of German extraction are travelling back to Germany for repatriation–only the healthy are accepted back, and those rejected are prosecuted by the French and sent to “work in the mines in Africa.” The refugees’ pitiful fate is decided by “bureaucratic goblins” who base their decisions on an endless stream of perfectly stamped papers. There’s a Kafkaesque sense to the circular bureaucracy placed on these desperate people, but there’s also a sense that the refugees almost seem to expect that all their problems will be solved if they can just get to their destination “exchanging one burning city for another burning city, switching from one lifeboat to another in the middle of the bottomless sea.” 

Transit is going to make my read-of-2013 list. This really is an incredible book with its cast of hopeless, desperate refugees, mostly anonymous who melt into the masses who simply disappeared during WWII. Author Anna Seghers has a unique perspective on events, events that shaped her life, and which in turn she shapes by being the author. The various bureaucratic personnel seem almost sadistic in their demands that these refugees produce impossible slips of documentation, but that is, of course, just the perspective of those on the other side of the desk. The bureaucratic institutions  in Transit aren’t malicious; they’re simply indifferent. This NYRB issue also includes a marvelous afterword by Heinrich Böll–not to be missed.

Translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Seghers Anna

On the Edge by Markus Werner

“I’m talking about the marriage ladder, where you climb down from desire to liking, to pleasant habit, to listlessness, all the way to aversion and possibly hatred. Then comes the hour of professional or non-professional counselors, and maybe a see-through negligee or a desperate tanga provides a last few sparks, and then it’s the lawyer’s turn.”

on the edgeOn the Edge, a novel from German author Markus Werner  is told by 35 year-old bachelor, Clarin. He’s travelled to his small vacation home in Agra with the plan to work on an article for a professional law journal. The subject is “marriage law,” and Clarin has a self-confessed interest in the subject–especially from the historical perspective. Clarin, who in his work has seen the very worst of human nature, has very definite ideas about marriage, but then again as a divorce lawyer, he probably can’t escape an attitude that’s squarely against the institution of marriage. Stopping at the Hotel Bellevue, the place Clarin contemplated exactly how to dump his mistress Valerie with the least trauma to himself, he meets a man in his 50s named Loos, and there’s something about the man–some elusive quality that he finds intriguing

Most people you can classify in a basic way after fifteen minutes, even if they don’t say a word; you can at least rank them as sympathetic or unsympathetic. But with him I couldn’t determine even this much. I only knew that he interested me. He made me think of Valerie, her opaqueness, which fascinated me at the beginning, but ended up putting me off.

Over a meal, the two men strike up a conversation with Clarin working hard at first to engage his moody dinner companion in conversation. Eventually Clarin learns that Loos has lost his wife, and the subjects of marriage and divorce emerge:

“…it must be very disillusioning for you to be constantly confronted with divorce cases. Doesn’t it tempt you to regard marriage as impracticable?”

Tempt, I said, wasn’t the word; the right one was convince. I was positively compelled by the constant torment I saw couples in to regard marriage as a mistake, or at least a simple overburdening of human nature, which seems too wayward to allow itself to be permanently tamed or to be able to accept the few rules that might make marriage possible, if they were followed. It defied all description, I said, what couples did to each other once they got divorced, whether by continuing to act the same way they acted during the marriage or by denigrating their former happiness. But the craziest thing was that people couldn’t keep from marrying, despite the fact that one of every two marriages already ended in divorce, and it was even crazier that more than twenty percent of divorced couples get remarried.

Loos who had listened so attentively that I would gladly have gone into more detail, interrupted me  and said, “You’re a bachelor, then.”

That passage occurs very early in the novel, and it’s at this point, I knew I was in for a grand read. There was something so intriguing about the set-up. Here are these two very different men at different phases of their lives–one, melancholy and missing the love of his life, a much cherished wife, and the other, a man who will not contemplate marriage as he sees it as largely an impossible institution that asks too much of the average human nature. Put these two men in the same table, and lively discussions will ensue, and that’s exactly what happens.

“For me it was home.” I tried to catch his eye, but he was looking across the valley. “What was?” I asked. “Marriage,” he said. “Was?” He nodded. “Are you widowed?” He drank. “You know,” he said, “I’m not unfamiliar with your statistics. I even know that there are two million dust mites rioting in every marriage bed, and I’ve learned from an even more disturbing study that after six years of marriage German couples speak to each other an average of nine minutes a day, and Americans four point two.”

“Exactly, exactly,” I said.

“And now I ask you,” he continued,”whether this finding permits conclusions about human nature or perhaps not rather about the nightly TV ritual, among other things.”

“Both presumably,” I said, “for if we accept that couples’ increasing reticence depends on increasing TV consumption, the question remains why the TV screen is preferred to an hour of conversation. It isn’t true–I hear this as a lawyer–that people don’t talk because they’re watching television. No, people talk television because there’s nothing more to talk about, at least nothing new or interesting. ‘It’s gone dead’–that’s the expression I hear most often; and from that I conclude that human nature craves diversion and colour, and can’t really get used to habit.”

“You’re all too right to be right,” Loos said, “and, as I said, my experience was different. Your health!”

The men meet twice, and each seems to be intrigued with the other. While they don’t set out to change the other’s opinion, nonetheless they are both prepared to argue their cases and that means the sharing of experiences. Loos, a teacher of “dead languages” is disillusioned and uncomfortable with modern life, but he’s a believer in love and marriage. He appears to be at the hotel for sentimental reasons–his wife was a patient at a local health spa after recovering from the removal of a brain tumor. A great deal of the discussion spins around the question of why some marriage partners appear to need novelty or change, while for others, deep-rooted routines are cherished. This isn’t exactly an unanswerable question since it addresses the differences between some natures vs others, belief systems, opportunity etc. (just to cover a few reasons), but nonetheless there is no one definitive answer: some people probably should do the world a favour and never marry or produce children if they are more suited to bachelor life. This idea certainly emerges through the conversations between Loos and Clarin; they are very different types of men, and while Clarin loves lightly and moves on, Loos does not.

He asked how it happened that people sat happily in front of the TV, evening after evening, craving the same thing over and over, their series for example, their quiz shows and so forth, whose popularity obviously consisted in their constant and unremitting repetition of the familiar. How did it happen that hundreds of thousands of people were fixated on a moderator’s or talkshow host’s moustache and that a howl would sweep through the nation when he suddenly appeared without it? How could it be explained that the desire for the most inane uniformity was felt only in front of the television screen and not in the rest of everyday married life? But no sooner did people get up from their chairs than they started thinking about divorce, just because their partners were brushing their teeth and gargling the same way they did the day before. “What Mr Clarin, is our nature really after?”

I’m adding these rather long quotes to give a sense of the novel. A great deal of the plot is composed of these encounters between the two men and the discussions they have, but I also want to convey the philosophical nature of the content. There were many points at which I put the book down and mulled over my own opinions as if I were at silent third at the discussions between Loos and Clarin. Of course, apart from these lively debates, there’s a story, a love affair in all of its various stages: the initial throes of passion all the way to boredom and the desire to escape told by Clarin, and it’s this tale that forms the mystery at the heart of the tale. I really enjoyed the book–not just for its two main characters who are perfectly drawn opposites–one man who appears to be the marrying type, and the other a permanent bachelor, but also for its rather bleak look at marriage and the questions raised about its sustainability given the mercurial aspects of human nature, the inexplicable nature of attraction and the selfishness of desire.

Translated by  Robert E Goodwin. Review copy.


Filed under Fiction, Werner Markus

Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner

First the confession: I’d picked Going to the Dogs: The Story of  a Moralist by Erich Kästner as part of my German Literature Reading Month participation. Well that was November and this is December, so forget the reading month. Or not. One of the books I read and thoroughly enjoyed for German Lit Month was Heinrich Mann’s Man of Straw. It’s currently OOP in English and seems sadly neglected, yet after concluding the novel, I cannot but think that this is a seminal novel for its depiction of the militaristic features of Wilhelmine Germany. And that brings me to Going to the Dogs. We’re back in Germany, but it’s a terrible state of affairs. All that discipline and saber-rattling from Man of Straw appears to have disappeared and instead we are presented with the ultra-decadence of Weimar Berlin.

going to the dogsOriginally titled Fabian (after the main character), the book appeared in 1931. My copy is from New York Review Books, and it’s not a new translation. It’s the original translation by Cyrus Brooks, but this edition includes an Epilogue (“rejected by the original publisher“) and the Preface  (added by Kästner for a later edition). There is also an extensive and informative introduction which addresses various interpretations and criticisms at the front of the book by Rodney Livingstone, and for those who don’t want to know how the book ends, I recommend reading the intro after you’ve read the book.  Going to the Dogs is considered one of the key novels from Weimar Berlin, so add it to your reading list if you want to dig around in this period. In spite of the fact that the action takes place in the giddiness of a very decadent society, this is not what I would call a fun or light-hearted read, and that’s due in part to the main character, Fabian who’s often revolted by the society in which he struggles to survive. But there’s a second reason why this novel is a somewhat depressing read, and that’s because we know that Weimar Berlin, in all its frantic, frenetic, tawdry glory is spinning out of control; it’s on it’s last legs and its about to swept away and replaced by Hitler and the Nazis.

The book is set in Berlin in the late 1920s. The intro explains that there were 350,000 unemployed in 1930 Berlin but that zoomed to 650,000 just two years later, and that “one Berliner in four depended on welfare payments.” On to “the elections of September 1930 [when] five and a half million people voted for the NSDAP … making it the second largest party in Prussia.” The tone in Germany was shifting and the “pre-dominant atmosphere was right-wing.” Swastikas are mentioned in the book, and it is clear that society is in a state of chaos, a freefall, and of course, we all know where society landed when Hitler became Chancellor in 1933.

Kästner, who was born in 1899 and died in 1974, managed to live in Nazi Germany in spite of the fact that his books were banned and burned–with the exception of his 1928 novel, Emil and the Detectives. The others were personally consigned to the flames by Goebbels on May 10, 1933. As the introduction explains, there’s a great deal of Kästner in the character of Fabian–although perhaps the creation of Fabian allowed Kästner to survive in an ever-changing Germany. When reading Going to the Dogs, it becomes clear that Fabian isn’t really part of society. He’s an observer–a wounded morally lost observer. The society in which Fabian flounders clearly profits the opportunistic. Count Fabian out on that score. But that said,  Fabian doesn’t particularly condemn Weimar society, but neither does he participate. He watches….

The book begins with 32-year-old Fabian earning 200 marks a month as an advertising copywriter. This is just the latest in a series of jobs, and with rent at 80 marks a month, it’s a marginal, unstable living. At the newspaper office, the political editor , Münzer, arguing that “what we make up is not half as bad as what we leave out,”  believes in fabricating stories to fill up space, and when he invents a story about street fighting in Calcutta with “fourteen dead,” he tells his officemates to “kindly prove” him wrong:

There’s always fighting in Calcutta. Are we to report that a sea-serpent has been sighted in the Pacific? Just remember this: reports that are never proved untrue –or at least for a week, or so–are true.

Not far into the novel, Fabian loses his job, and if things looked bad before, they quickly become hopeless. The streets are full of drifters, hungry unemployed men, prostitutes, and sex-crazed women, and a visit to the unemployment office underscores the destruction and uselessness of societal institutions.

In the midst of Fabian’s bleak despair, the novel contains some very funny scenes which emphasize the feeling that society has gone insane, and in one of the book’s best scenes, Fabian attends a cabaret in which the acts are performed by lunatics. As the acts, managed by a man called Caligula, become more outrageous, the audience grows increasingly out of control until a “lanky ballad-monger” begins catching, by mouth, the lumps of sugar thrown at the stage.

One of the arguments concerning the novel is whether Fabian is a critic of his society or whether he’s a product. I’d argue that he’s both. He attends orgies out of curiosity, turns down an offer to become a male prostitute, constantly fights off sexually rapacious women,  and lives in a state of despair at the state of humankind:

If you are an optimist, you should despair. I am a melancholic, so nothing much can happen to me. I don’t tend towards suicide, for I feel nothing of that urge to action which makes others go on butting their heads against a wall till their heads give way. I look on and wait. I wait for the triumph of decency; when that comes, I can place myself at the world’s disposal. But I wait for it as an unbeliever waits for miracles.

But just as Fabian’s life appears to hit rock bottom, he meets a young woman who has ambitions to become an actress.

My conviction is that there are only two alternatives for humanity in its present state. Either mankind is dissatisfied with its lot, and then we bash each other over the head in order to improve things, or, and this is a purely hypothetical situation, we are content with ourselves and the universe, and then we commit suicide out of sheer boredom. 

Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist offers a contrast to Man of Straw. The sane, decent or kind people do not fare well in Fabian’s Berlin, and Fabian, who doesn’t think that anything will change as long as people are “swine” senses another war ahead. Here’s a clip from Fabian’s nightmare:

In front of them towered a machine as vast as Cologne Cathedral. Before it were standing workmen, stripped to the waist. They were armed with shovels, and were shoveling hundreds of thousands of babies into a huge furnace where a red fire was burning.

Uncanny when you think that this was published in 1931.

And now we are again seated in the waiting room, and again its name is Europe.


Filed under Fiction, Kästner Erich

Man of Straw by Heinrich Mann

“Only when he himself received punishment did he feel really big and sure of his position. He hardly ever resisted evil.”

For German Literature Month 2011, I meant to read Heinrich Mann’s wonderful novel Man of Straw (Der Untertan) along with some  other books , so now for the Second Annual German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, it was time to finish what I started–not just as a point of pride but also because I had throughly enjoyed Heinrich Mann’s The Blue Angel Plus I’d seen the fantastic film version Man of Straw, The Kaiser’s Lackey, so I more or less knew the plot. The biggest obstacle to the book was my lack of knowledge of the politics of the time; the names of various political parties are bandied around, so I needed a little background reading along the way to bolster my understanding. There are also a great number of characters in the small fictional town of Netzig, and as the names begin to appear, it’s a good idea to compile a who’s who list along with their relationships. This helps as the plot thickens.

Mann shows us a post-Bismarck Germany in a state of flux: Bismarck, as Chancellor of Germany, was responsible for the unification of Germany, and concerned about the growth of the Social Democratic Party instituted many social reforms–including the institution of health insurance and accident insurance, and an Old Age Pension Plan. In 1888 Emperor Wilhelm I was succeeded by his son Friedrich III. When Friedrich III died a few months later, Wilhelm II came to the throne, and this marked the waning of Bismarck’s power and influence in Germany.  Bismarck resigned in 1890 at Wilhelm II’s ‘request’ while predicting a dire future for the monarchy.

Published in 1918, Man of Straw is an indictment of the Wilhelmine regime, and it’s no mere coincidence that the book’s main character, Diederich Hessling, a weak, petty, small-minded tyrant who embodies the worst aspects of the society from which he springs, looks incredibly like Wilhelm II or that Diederich’s acts occasionally become mixed up with those of the Emperor. An ultra-patriotic, besotted admirer of the Emperor Wilhem II, Diederich is opposed to any social change and instead admires militaristic culture. In one sense, Diederich is small-town bourgeoise, so he only rates society on its benefits to his own comfort, but there’s another part of Diederich that worships order, repression, and ceremony. A flatterer, a sycophant, and ultimately a coward, Diederich has no principles beyond self-preservation and self-promotion, and yet in Wilhelmine Germany, this mediocre, talentless man of limited intelligence and no imagination rises to the top of the pond scum solely on his lack of merit gilded by his ability to accept political corruption. Through Diederich’s rise that we see a portent of Nazi Germany, and that makes Mann’s novel a chilling read.

Given the subject matter, Man of Straw could potentially be a dreadfully serious and dreary novel, but Heinrich Mann appears to have great fun with his creation of Diederich whose character weaknesses are revealed mainly through his relationships with others. Although Diederich is, at times, capable of the most appallingly bad behaviour, the author creates many comic scenes in which Diederich’s gloriously inflated image of himself is in wild contrast to the weasly, shallow, vain reality. Mann’s novel is incredibly subversive and so it should come as no shock that his books were consigned to Goebbels’ bonfire on May 10, 1933–after all, Diederich Hessling, who loves to blame bad events on jews or Social Democrats, would be a perfect fit for Nazi Germany.

The book charts Diederich’s life beginning with his childhood. The only son of a Netzig paper factory owner, Diederich’s flawed and oddly duplicitous character is already apparent in childhood:

Whenever he had pilfered, or told a lie, he would come cringing shyly like a dog to his father’s desk, until Herr Hessling noticed that something was wrong and took his stick from the wall. Diederich’s submissiveness and confidence were shaken by doubts when his misdeeds remained undiscovered. Once when his father, who had a stiff leg, fell downstairs, the boy clapped his hands madly–and then ran away.

The sympathies we may have had for the child dissipate rapidly with his sneaky behaviour, and by the time Diederich is an adult, his character flaws, while still evolving, are obvious. Mann describes the child, Diederich, as morally weak, and that weakness becomes a veritable abyss in adulthood–not that anyone notices, and this is, of course, another comment on the corrupt society in which Diederich thrives in spite of the fact that he’s a mediocre, inept and emotional twerp. Shipped off to study in Berlin, and initially lost in this more cosmopolitan society, Diederich becomes a Neo-Teuton–a brotherhood of men whose adulation of militarism and ultra patriotism allows them to lead lives of debauchery and faux heroism while violently acclaiming blind loyalty to the Emperor. The Neo-Teuton identity, along with the ends of the moustache turned up at right angles, is cherished, nursed and fetishized by Diederich throughout the novel, and when other men might find themselves questioning their conscience during a moral crisis, Diederich strokes himself with his Neo-Teuton, proto-fascist identity which largely becomes an excuse for his bad behaviour.

Unleashed as a student in Berlin, and bolstered by his proto-fascist ideals, Diederich eventually gathers the courage and moral despicableness to seduce and abandon the daughter of a family friend. Returning to Netzig to oversee the family business upon the death of his father, Diederich aligns himself with those who have the power. In this nasty little small town, a hot bed of gossip and intrigue, a number of significant events take place including Diederich’s courtship of a local heiress whose bovine qualities he finds attractive, and a case of alleged lèse majesté against his almighty royalness the Emperor. These incidents show the town’s citizens at their worst. Herr Buck, a significant figure from Diedrich’s youth, and a hero of ’48 who’s initiated social reform in his factory represents the fading power of Bismarck, and so it becomes the unspoken goal of the petty-minded gossip-ridden community to ruin Buck’s family. Some of the book’s nastiest scenes are built around the legal case for lèse majesté against Buck’s son-in-law– a case in which Diederich plays a significant role. There’s also a sensationalistic play, The Secret Countess, written by the wife of an influential citizen that appears to be a massive derisive joke against the once-respected Buck family.

Since readers are not required to live under Diederich’s tyrannical thumb, we can enjoy his silliness and immaturity from a distance. He talks a great deal about his ‘sacred manly honour,’ but of course honour is a meaningless word that can be flipped around to suit the circumstances. At one point Diederich orders a new machine for his factory against the advice of his long-time experienced workers. Then when faced with the payments, he presses a thoroughly corrupt worker to sabotage the machine in order to get out of paying for it. In another episode, he fobs off one of his sisters on a visiting  lust-ridden paper cutting machine executive, and it’s all very funny. Here’s a scene from his family life–it’s Xmas Day and Diederich is feeling melancholy against the backdrop of his squabbling sisters.

Outside Emma and Magda were quarrelling about a pair of gloves , and their mother did not dare to decide to whom they had been sent. Diederich sobbed. Everything had gone wrong, in politics, business, and love. ‘What is left to me?’ He opened the piano. He shivered, he felt so uncannily alone that he was afraid to make a noise. The sounds came out of their own accord, his hands were unconscious of them. Folk songs, Beethoven and drinking songs rang out in the twilight, which was thereby cosily warmed so that a comfortable drowsiness filled his brain. At one moment it seemed to him that a hand was stroking his head. Was it only a dream? No, for suddenly a glass full of beer stood on the piano. His good mother! Schubert, what loyal integrity, the soul of the mother country … All was silent, and he did not notice it, until the clock struck: an hour had passed. ‘That was my Christmas,’ said Diederich, and he went out to join the others. He felt consoled and strengthened. As the girls were still quarrelling about the gloves, he declared that they had no sense of the fitness of things, and placed the gloves in his pocket, to have them changed for a pair for himself.

I’m not an expert on German Literature, but it seems a no-brainer to state that Man of Straw is a significant German novel–not just for its prescient themes but also for its incredible ability to create a unique time and place and the unforgettable character of Diederich Hessling. While he’s a shallow character, there are times when he appears to know better, but thanks to the society from which he springs, Diederich, once faced with a moral choice, will always chose the easy (and bad) option.

Finally, here’s Diederich on his honeymoon–a trip that’s diverted from Zurich when he hears that the Emperor is visiting Rome:

For a long time he could not sleep for excitement. Guste snored peaceably on his shoulder, while Diederich, as the train roared through the night, remembered how at that very moment, on another line, the Emperor himself was being carried by a train, which roared similarly, towards the same goal. The Emperor and Diederich were having a race! And, as Diederich had more than once been privileged to utter thoughts which in some mystic way seemed to coincide with those of the All-Highest, perhaps at this hour His Majesty knew of Diederich, knew that his loyal servant was crossing the Alps by his side, in order to show these degenerate Latins what loyalty to the Emperor and country means. He glared at the sleepers on the opposite seat, small, dark people, whose faces seemed haggard in their sleep. They would see what Germanic valour was!


Filed under Fiction, Mann Heinrich

The Blue Angel by Heinrich Mann

I recently read an article in the LRB about brothers Heinrich and Thomas Mann. By the article’s conclusion, I’d decided that of the two brothers, I would have much preferred the company of Heinrich, and after deciding that, I realised it was time I picked up The Blue Angel–a novel I’d hoped to read during German literature month. I’ve seen the Marlene Dietrich film, of course, and while the film which made Dietrich an international star is marvellous, the novel pokes fun at the hypocrisy of German bourgeois society and is wickedly delightful and funny.

The Blue Angel, originally titled Professor Unrat, was published in 1905. According to von Sternberg’s memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, literally translated Unrat “is the equivalent of filth, garbage, or excrement.” In the German edition, the main character is Raat, but in English version, the main character is Professor Mut nicknamed Mud by his students.  As Mann notes, “teachers were all given nicknames,” but  in this case, the nickname is a “joke” which has spread outside of the classroom and is used by Mut’s colleagues and also the townspeople.

Professor Mut teaches at a boy’s school in an unnamed backwater town. He’s a widower (unlike the film version in which he’s portrayed as a bachelor), and estranged from his son who insists on keeping “bad company” with women of “doubtful character.” Mut has taught at the school for decades, and generations of the same families have passed through his hands.

The events of the school life seemed to old Mud as serious as anything in later life, laziness was to him equivalent to the worthlessness of a ne’er-do-well and disrespectful laughing at a master was a revolt against authority and law, while a boy letting off a squib was perpetrating an act of revolution, and an attempt to cheat meant a ruined future. Such things were life to Old Mud; when he sent any boy out of the room, he was as proud of it as a detective might be who sends a batch of criminals to gaol, but he felt both triumph and grief, as if he knew he had brought his highest powers to bear upon the matter and yet–as if he felt a secret dread that something gnawed at the roots of his being.

As the generations pass through his classroom, Old Mud has become an institutional joke.  He’s aware of the fact that he’s the object of ridicule, and that’s precisely why he takes his disciplinary actions and observations of the boys’ bad character traits so seriously. It’s a way of simultaneously denying his impotence and, in his mind, predicting their futures (an “evil fate“) while inflating his role by detecting their theoretically insurmountable flaws. At the worst of times, teaching has a stagnation quality to it–the Professor sits behind the desk year after year as a steady stream of pupils pass through. They eventually leave the classroom forever and pass into adulthood. Some will fail, but some will go on to splendid careers, and some of Mut’s own mediocrity chafes at his subconscious and shapes his treatment of the pupils. In Mut’s malicious eyes “everywhere he saw unruly, depraved boys,” who need to be punished and learn discipline, but of course, they are just normal rowdy schoolboys–no better or worse than any others.

The professor’s Bête Noire, “the worst of them all,” is the schoolboy named Lohmann–a rather cool customer who comes from an affluent family. There’s a component of envy to Mut’s loathing of Lohmann, and he silently rages that he is “so badly paid that a well-dressed cub of that sort, with money in his pocket, thought he could swagger and strut in front of his betters.” Lohmann, who’s probably the most intelligent boy in the class, is above Mud’s petty rages, and when Lohmann doesn’t respond to Mut’s rants, the situation is only exacerbated.

Old Mud hated Lohmann even more than the others, chiefly because of his insubordination, and almost as much because Lohmann did not use his nickname, for he felt vaguely that he thought of him by an even worse one. Lohmann met the old man’s hate with quiet contempt, and even a spice of pity was apparent in his disgust.

Mud discovers that his pupils are hanging around a club called The Blue Angel and are ardent admirers of a, “actress woman” called Rosa Frölich. Mud decides he needs to “interfere,” and of course this is partially motivated by his desire to catch the pupils at any perceived bad behaviour but also perhaps there’s a little sublimated and misplaced parenting afoot. After all, the professor’s own son gambles and runs around with women of ill-repute, so while he can no longer curtail his son’s behaviour perhaps on some level he derives a displaced satisfaction from nipping youthful corruption in its first throes of iniquity.

Mut’s excited and expectant initial storming of the club soon finds him as part of the audience watching the entertainers. He watches a singer performing a titillating number as she “lift[s] her frock and with a sly pretence of bashfulness cover her face with it” and sings, “I’m such an innocent little thing.” The Professor becomes angry:

He grew angry again, feeling himself imprisoned in this world which seemed the negation of himself, and a contempt rose from his innermost heart for these men who did not read, but went to a concert without even running through the programme. It irritated him to think that there must be over a hundred people gathered here, who observed nothing, thought of nothing clearly and spoke of intimate things openly and without shame.

Rosa thinks very little of the Professor’s moral quest, and when he threatens her, she responds aggressively. The Professor has never met anyone quite like the slovenly, sexually liberated singer, and he suddenly finds himself outmaneuvered.

The force of her personality seemed to imprison his thoughts, driving them down to some innermost place where even he himself could not distinguish them. He stared at her; this was no naughty schoolboy, disobedient and meet for punishment, as were to him the inhabitants of the little town. No, this was something new. He managed to collect the gist of what she had been saying and weighed it in his mind; he found it confusing. She was a new experience and she seemed utterly indifferent to him. He did not know how to answer her and something began to stir in him–a certain respect for her.

The Professor becomes obsessed with Rosa, and sacrificing all for her, he makes Rosa his wife ….

If you’ve seen Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, then it’s around the point of the marriage that the film begins to differ significantly from the novel. The film is tragic, but the book is really quite funny as Mut and his wife, sink into a “regrettable mode of life.” After the Professor marries Rosa and leaves his former employment–which to a great extent formed his identity–Mut should become the town laughing-stock, but something else much more twisted occurs. It would seem that Mut has finally discovered a way of exacting revenge on his former pupils and thereby he sows the seeds of his own destruction.

Hate and love worked upon one another, dangerously inflammable. He was haunted by the delectable vision of mankind at his feet begging for mercy; of the town, shattered and laid waste; one mass of gold and blood running molten to grey, burnt out ashes. But then he would be seized with the thought of Rosa loved by others, and the vision of her in their arms suffocated him. And they all showed the face of Lohmann! The worst, the most hated, most deserving of hate was always–Lohmann! The boy he had never been able to “catch” and who had now left the town.

A note on my copy which is published by Howard Fertig and is a reprint of the 1932 edition published by Jarrolds. My copy makes no mention of the translator–although I discovered that Ernest Boyd translated the novel as Small Town Tyrant in 1905. My edition has strange little curlicues over some of the letters ‘s’ and ‘c’.


Filed under Fiction, Mann Heinrich