Tag Archives: German literature

Tides: Count Edouard von Keyserling (1911)

“She felt like a traveler stranded in some God-forsaken little wayside station, who sits in the dismal waiting-room and finds himself steeped for a while in the melancholy of a life that does not belong to him.”

In Count Edouard von Keyserling’s novel Tides (Wellen), a handful of German aristocrats visit a resort on the Baltic Sea, and a simple holiday becomes the battle ground for the preservation of societal standards. It’s the early 1900s and disaster lies ahead, but there’s also the sense that this elite society is fading into oblivion.

The widow of General von Palikow “Generalin” is at the resort with her companion, Fraülein Malwine Bork. They are to be joined by the Generalin’s daughter, the Baroness von Buttlär and her three children: Lolo, Nini and Wedig. Also to join the party are the males in the family: the mustache-twirling Baron and Lolo’s dapper fiancé, Hilmar von dem Hamm, a Lieutenant in the Brunswick Hussars. It’s clear that the domineering Generalin is at the top of the totem pole when it comes to rank, and several sentimental, “tender” observations made by Fraülein Malwine Bork are patronizingly suppressed.

The family’s holiday will be the last before Lolo’s marriage to Hilmar von dem Hamm. It’s a love match; well Lolo is madly in love with her fiancé, and since it’s a very suitable match between social equals, everyone is happy.

Other visitors to the area are the retired government official, witty, entertaining bachelor Privy Councillor Knospelius (we are told he has a “deformity”) and Doralice Köhne-Jasky, a beautiful young married Countess who fell in love with Hans Grill, a lowly artist hired to paint her portrait. She scandalized society by running away from her elderly husband who then subsequently suffered a stroke.

Doralice’s presence shocks, threatens and excites various members of the Generalin’s party. The Baroness, who seems to take the news particularly hard, practically faints away when she hears that Doralice is nearby, but then given her husband’s philandering ways, she has every reason to be worried. The middle-aged Baroness “worn out by motherhood and housewifely duties” is a bit on the neurotic side and lacks her mother’s serene detachment. Even Lolo notes that her mother’s temperament seems “strangely out of harmony with the sea.”

“Of course, I knew it would come out. You were already jealous of Madame Grill. But, my dear Bella, your husband is after all not a man of that sort. Oh well, yes, there was that little affair with the housekeeper–it’s time you forgot that. Now and then in the springtime the Cuirassier officer in him wakes up, it’s like a sort of hay-fever; but it’s you women with your jealousies that drive the men to wrong ideas. No, my dear Bella, why are we what we are, why have we our social position and our ancient name, if we are to be afraid of every runaway little wife? You are the Baroness von Buttlär and I am the widow of General von Palikow. Well, doesn’t that mean that we are two fortresses to which people who don’t belong to us have no entrée? And now let us go to bed and sleep quietly as though there were no Madame Grill. We simply issue a decree–and Madame Grill ceases to exist.”

Fraülein Malwine Bork as a bridge between the Generalin’s high society and the lower echelons, has notions, that occasionally are quietly voiced and quickly squashed, as she questions the rigid nature of society:

But Countess Doralice herself was once just such a poor little fortress.

The younger generation are swept up in the romantic tale of Doralice’s flight and long to meet her. Pretending that Doralice doesn’t exist is great in theory but poor in practice–especially since the Generalin’s three grandchildren are determined to fabricate excuses to run into her, and then events take place that bring all the characters together.

Tides is an examination of elite Prussian society. Doralice, married off to an elderly husband, threatens the foundations of that secure society when she rebels and runs off. She must be ostracized as she is seen as a dangerous, contaminating influence. Doralice is a tragic figure; she escaped the suffocation of her controlling husband, thirty years her senior, only to find that she’s married to Hans and living in a dingy little cottage. A beautiful bird in the Count’s gilded cage, she seems to have exchanged one cage for another. Hans is just as displeased with Doralice as the Count was. The Baron and the lieutenant make no attempts to hide their desire for Doralice, who is, after all, seen as a woman who’s ready to abandon all for love, and Hans, jealous and insecure, becomes obsessed with painting the sea. He begins leaving Doraclice on her own. She finds she’s just as bored and lonely now, with her supposed ‘freedom’ as she was when married to the stuffy Count–a man who trained her daily. No wonder she ran off.

But it was his method of training to act as if she were what he wanted her to be. He was constantly praising her for the ideas that he wished to instill into her: he was, as it were, imposing upon her his ideal Doralice by acting as if she were already there. If, for example, she was too obviously amused in the company of a young man at a party, then he would say: “We are perhaps somewhat exacting, perhaps too sensitive, we cannot always get the society of our own choosing; but you are quite right about that young man, his manners are objectionable and we will do our best to keep him at a distance.” Or at the theatre she may have laughed gaily outright at a piece which displeased the count and on the way home he would say: “We are perhaps too censorious in these matters, but we found the play disagreeable, not to say shocking; however, it doesn’t matter, you are quite right, it was a mistake on my part to bring you to see it. I ought to have known ma petite Comtesse better: forgive me for this once.” And it was the same on every occasion: this ideal Doralice. that was imposed upon her, intimidated her, tyrannized over her, constrained her like a dress that was not made for her.

The male wandering eye is ever present in the tale–even 15-year-old Wedig is eyeing the servant girls, and as the tale continues the formidable Generalin becomes a more sympathetic figure. Finally the magnificent ocean, beautifully described here is the force of nature so destructive, so uncontrollable, that its hunger and strength levels all else.

Also translated as Waves. Edouard is also spelt elsewhere as Eduard.

Translated by Arthur J. Ashton. The picture above is Waves, the Dedalus edition. Translated by Gary Miller.

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This House is Mine: Dörte Hansen

My first selection for German Literature Month X (2020) is the rather grim read: Dörte Hansen’s This House is Mine. Spanning 70 years, this is the story of a drab farmhouse and the three generations of tough women who live there. The book opens in the aftermath of WWII. Dour Ida Eckhoff owns the farmhouse and shares it with her son, Karl, who was lucky enough to return home from a Russian POW camp. He’s not the same man any more. His mother “didn’t recognize him, now that he’d started talking to snowflakes and trying to escape from the Russians.” The arrival of Polish refugee Hildegard von Kamcke and her 5 year old daughter, Vera, ignites a war as the two women, Ida and Hildegard struggle for control of the house. Hildegard wins, marries Karl, and after Hildegard lays down an ultimatum to her mentally absent spouse, “it’s your mother or me,” Ida is found hanging from an attic beam.

Possession of the house brings no joy to Hildegard, and a few years later, she buggers off to a Hamburg suburb with a lover, abandoning Vera to Karl’s dubious care. But it’s Vera who ends up taking care of the childlike Karl, and in time, Vera grows up and becomes a much-feared dentist.

Vera is a respected and yet also loathed figure. In spite of the fact that she has lived in the farmhouse for almost her entire adult life, she does not fit in.

For just as long as it took to do one round of the garden, she longed not to be the other, the foreigner.

She owns ferocious dogs, is an avid hunter, and the local men are afraid of her (with good reason). Enter Anne, Vera’s niece, another displaced person (for a different set of reasons) who seeks refuge at the inhospitable farmhouse.

This is a grim tale and it includes a few scenes with Vera slicing and dicing her many kills from hunting. The women in these pages are tough, tougher than the men, and even though the story spans 70 years, from the grimness of post WWII to the 21st century the stains of the war remain for those who endured it. For this reader, the house is a metaphor for life:

This house wasn’t built for people who wanted warmth and comfort. It was the same as with horses and dogs; you couldn’t show any weakness, couldn’t let yourself be intimidated by this colossus, which had stood with its legs apart on the marshy soil for nearly three hundred years.

This House is Mine is a tale of fitting in–fitting into the world, fitting into our families, making choices and dealing with the tragedies life throws our way. The story moves between the fearsome Vera who projects the desire to be left alone, when in fact all she wants to do is belong, and her niece Anne who rather intrepidly begins renovating the decaying farmhouse.

She still didn’t trust this house, but she wasn’t going to let it throw or spit her out. She wouldn’t let herself be rejected like a foreign organ. She refused to let herself be rejected like the majority of refugees, who’d gotten out of the large farmhouses as fast as they possibly could and moved into small houses in developments grateful and scrupulously intent on avoiding becoming a burden to anyone else for the rest of their lives.

Translated from the German by Anne Stokes

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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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Brigitta: Adalbert Stifter

German literature month 2019

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

Brigitta

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly

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Mrs Sartoris: Elke Schmitter

German Literature Month 2018

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

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

Mrs sartoris

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

Another review at Winston’s dad

Another review at Vishy’s blog

And Caroline’s review. 

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German Stories and Tales: Robert Rick ed. (Part III)

Back to German Stories and Tales, and here’s part I and part II for anyone interested in the contents of this modest OOP book. Readers who are seeking German stories really can’t go wrong with this collection, for most of the tales here are excellent.

In Moritz Heimann’s  (1868-1925) story The Message That Failed, a tale of unrequited love, humble revenue clerk/poet Vincentius Hüttenvogel returns from the theatre following a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. In a burst of enthusiasm, he writes a poem to the singer who played the role of Cherubino in a sexually ambiguous fashion:

Vincentius, who had often seen and heard her, but had formerly resented her crude, naturalistic vocal style, was at first vexed and then enkindled by her Cherubino’s ambiguity. Artlessness this time impressed him as superior art; no love song had ever had the elemental quality of this gay, careless outpouring from a creature who did not lure a woman with male wiles or try as a woman to seduce a man. This was no longer yearning or mere concupiscence. This was rapture itself an all its sweetness. 

Vincentius considers sending the singer, Nanette, the poem, but decides against it. His landlady. however, finds the poem, copies it, and sends it to Nanette. Nanette is used to fan mail, but this poem strikes at her heart, and somehow the adulation shown by its author make her impatient with her young, wealthy lover, Xavier. So begins a search for the poet, a search laced with irony and a bittersweet ending. (translated by E.B. Ashton)

Arthur Schnitzler’s The Bachelor’s Death reminded me, slightly,  of the old film, Letter to Three Wives. A doctor, a writer, and a businessman are called to the bedside of their friend, a bachelor, but they all arrive too late; the bachelor is dead. The doctor discovers a letter written by the bachelor and reads it aloud. To state the contents of the letter would be to give away too much, but I’ll say that the letter is a confession which has profound implications for the three men. (translated by Richard and Clara Winston)

Another great favourite is Hermann Broch’s Zerline, the Old Servant Girl. At first it seemed as though the focus would be A., an affluent businessman with the Midas touch. But no, the focus is Zerline, a bitter, nasty old servant who tells a story of her youth and the competition between her and her mistress, the Baroness, for the love of a dissolute man.

Man is cheap, and his memory is full of holes that he can never patch up. How much of what you forget forever you have to do in order for what you have done to be able to carry the little that you keep forever. Everyone forgets his everyday life. With me it was all the furniture that I dusted day after day, all the plates that had to be wiped, and like everyone else. I sat down every day to eat. But as with everyone, it’s only a knowing about it, not a real remembering, as though it had all happened without any weather, good or bad. Even the lust I enjoyed has become a space without weather, and though my gratitude for what was alive has remained, the names and features that once meant lust and even love to me have vanished more and more from my mind, vanished into a glass gratitude that has no content any more.Empty glasses, empty glasses. And yet if it weren’t for the emptiness, if it weren’t for the forgotten, the forgettable wouldn’t have been able to grow. The forgotten carries empty-handed the unforgettable, and we are carried by the unforgettable. 

It’s a long quote, slightly awkward in the beginning, but it captures life and memories so well, and how at the end of our lives, we forget all the meals we’ve eaten, all the boring stuff, and instead our lives are accordioned into some “unforgettable” memories. In the case of Zerline, the unforgettable shrinks down to a few days with Herr von Juna…. (translated by Jane B. Greene)

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German Stories and Tales: Robert Pick Ed. (part II)

Following on from the first post about German Stories and Tales ed. by Robert Pick, I’m going to cover a few more of my favourite selections from this stellar collection. The three stories described here (I’m not counting Krambambuli by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach) explore various scenarios regarding tragic love.

An Episode in the Life of the Marshall de Bassompierre by Hugo von Hofmannsthal is a story told in retrospect by a man who’s attracted to a beautiful French shopkeeper. She has formed the habit of standing outside of her shop and greeting the narrator as he passes by on his horse. The woman’s interest is so noticeable, that the Marshall de Bassompierre sends a servant to secure an assignation with this beauty.

The assignation is a bit tawdry with the meeting taking place at a procuress’s grubby establishment. Since there’s plague in the city, the Marshall takes along (by his servant’s advice) his own mattress and sheets. Bassompierre’s new mistress, it turns out is married, and the assignation, while enjoyed by Bassompierre, clearly means a great deal more to the woman who has given herself freely but may suffer consequences. The couple make another assignation. …

There’s a gothic feel along with an accompanying sense of dread to An Episode in the Life of the Marshall de Bassompierre. What means so much to the young woman is clearly less meaningful to Bassompierre, yet the incident haunts him for years to come. (Translated by Mary Hottinger)

Lukardis by Jakob Wasserman has a similar theme of a woman who sacrifices a great deal for a man. This story is set in Russia and concerns a young dragoon named Evgen who, when he hears that his sister has been deported to Siberia for subversive activity, revolts when he’s ordered to suppress a protest in the streets. In the skirmish that follows, Evgen joins the protestors and is shot by his fellow dragoons. Subsequently, Evgen is smuggled into a network of sympathetic people, but with the police on the hunt for Evgen, hiding this badly wounded man is a liability that most households won’t risk. Enter Anastasia Karlovna, an influential woman who agrees to hide Evgen, but finds that she soon runs out of options until she comes up with a brilliant plan. But she needs a respectable young woman who is willing to make a sacrifice.  … (Translated by Lewis Galantière)

For animal lovers, I’d recommend passing on Krambambuli by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach. It’s a short story that shows that we humans mostly don’t deserve, or understand, the animals in our lives, and it has scenes of  animal cruelty.

Cardiac Suture from Ernst Weiss is an unusual story for its depiction of an operation. The story begins in an auditorium where students attend lectures, but the auditorium converts into an operating room when, mid-lecture, a young woman who stabbed herself through the heart, is rushed into the room. The lecture turns into demo, and as fate would have it, one of the students is the love interest of the dying girl.  It’s a strange story which leaves the reasons for the suicide attempt vague, but instead focuses on the doctor who lectures and then operates on the girl in front of his students. While the doctor (he’s known as the General) who operates dehumanises his patient, he’s nonetheless efficient–all business while the girl’s lover, who assists, is patently disturbed.

Upon reflection, the story is terrifying as the silent, anguished emotional drama between the student and the girl is subsumed by the efficient process of the operation. We know that the operation, in full view of a class full of students, will conclude, but what will happen afterwards? (Translated by E.B. Ashton)

Operating time: seven minutes and a half. A hundred years ago Napoleon’s personal physician could amputate a leg in that time, including everything, blood-stilling, et cetera. But those were other masters than we are. Well, pick the patient up carefully and lift her into the bed-or rather, let me do it. That’s it-that’s the way. Hot-water bottles ready? Cover her. Cover her! Everything all right. Everything else we’ll leave to luck. Good morning, gentleman, good morning. 

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German Stories and Tales: Ed. by Robert Pick (Part I)

As part of my 2017 TBR project, I committed to read 48 books that I’d bought any time prior to January 1st. One of the books that made the cut is German Stories and Tales edited by Robert Pick. This paperback was given to me in 1987, but it was published more than 20 years prior to that: 1966. I mention the date of the publication as a couple of the authors whose stories appear in the collection were still alive in 1966. It was eerie reading about Alexander Lernet-Holenia in the present tense, living in “Vienna and Sankt Wolfgang, Upper Austria,” and Hermann Kesten living in NYC.

German stories and tales

So here I am thirty years after being given this book, finally reading it. This is such a modest looking little paperback but what treasures it contains:

Youth, Beautiful Youth by Hermann Hesse
Kannitverstan by Johann Peter Hebel
An Episode in the Life of the Marshal de Bassompierre by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Lukardis by Jakob Wassermann
Krambambuli by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Cardiac Suture by Ernst Weiss
The Message that Failed by Moritz Heimann
Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter
The Bachelor’s Death by Arthur Schnitzler
Unexpected Reunion by Johann Peter Hebel
Mona Lisa by Alexander Lernet-Holenia
The Picnic of Mores the Cat by Clemens Brentano
Zerline, the Old Servant Girl by Hermann Broch
The Friend in the Closet by Hermann Kesten
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
A Little Legend of the Dance by Gottfried Keller
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
The Hussar by Johann Peter Hebel

I’ve never read Herman Hesse although I’ve looked at, and passed on, his books many times. Youth, Beautiful Youth is a wonderful bitter-sweet short story that captures the feeling of lost youth. The story is told in retrospect, by Hermann, a man who recalls his visit home. He’s been away for a few years and has employment lined up for the autumn. This then is his last summer before settling down, possibly permanently, so this is an auspicious visit home:

With creeping caution the train descended the hill in great winding curves, and with each turn the houses, streets, river, and gardens of the town below came closer and grew more distinct. Soon I could distinguish the roofs and pick out the familiar ones; soon, too, I could count the windows and recognize the stork nests. And while childhood and boyhood and a thousand precious memories of home were wafted toward me out of the valley, my sense of arrogant triumph at the homecoming slowly melted away. My desire to make a big impression upon all the people down there yielded to a feeling of grateful astonishment. Homesickness, which in the course of the years had ceased to trouble me, assailed me powerfully in this last quarter-hour. Every clump of broom near the station platform and every familiar garden fence became strangely precious to me, and I asked each to forgive me  for having to be able to forget it and get along without it for so long. 

It’s a wonderful carefree summer with the narrator taking long walks, reading, setting off fireworks with his brother Fritz, and falling in love. The summer stretches out far ahead, and yet it ends all too soon.

And as all loveliness and sweetness is mortal and has its destined end, day after day of this summer, too, slipped through my fingers-this summer which in memory seems to have brought my youth to a close.

This summer is a moment in time–a moment that will never be repeated. Hermann presses memories and scenes into his mind where they remain even though the world Hermann knew passed away. There’s the sense that something happened after the narrator left–was it WWI? And here is how the story ends.

As the train approached our garden, I caught sight of a powerful blood-red flare. There stood my brother, Fritz, holding a Bengal light in each hand. At the very moment that I waved to him and rode by, he sent a skyrocket shooting straight up into the air. Leaning out, I saw it mount and pause, describe a gentle arc, and vanish in a rain of red sparks.

Translated by Richard and Clara Winston.

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Filed under Fiction, Hesse Hermann, Wasserman Jakob

Schlump: Hans Herbert Grimm

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

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

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

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

schlump

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

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

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

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

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

Jacqui’s review is here.

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

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Filed under Fiction, Grimm Hans Herbert

Crossing: A Love Story by Anna Seghers

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

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

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

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

crossing-a-love-story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy

166 pages

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

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Filed under Fiction, Seghers Anna