Earlier this year, along with some other members of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 'Shadow Panel', I read Judith Hermann's third book, Alice, a collection of linked pieces about men, love, friendship and death. While the rest of the panel disliked the book (and that's putting it diplomatically!), I was a little less critical, seeing enough there to warrant giving the writer's work another go. All of which leads us to today's book, Hermann's first publication, Sommerhaus, später (Summerhouse, Later).
Sommerhaus, später is a collection of nine short stories, many of which are set in or around post-reunification Berlin. It's a celebration and a recreation of the lives of young Berliners, carefree people who have school and study (mostly) behind them and the cares of the world too far in their future to worry about. It's a time for drink, drugs, sleeping around and lazy days in the summer sun. Don't worry though - the writer has a slightly darker angle on these sunny days.
You see, life among the young and beautiful isn't always what it's cracked up to be. In Camera Obscura, for example, a beautiful young woman finds herself attracted to a rich,intelligent and successful man - who happens to be ugly. It's a bleak story, one which lays bare the shallowness of the woman's existence. This shallowness is also revealed in Bali- Frau (Bali Woman), where a typical night of wanton drunkenness somehow merges into real life, a place Hermann's characters would rather avoid.
Even when the characters do have (slightly) more settled lives, they are a long way from having actually grown up. In Rote Korallen (Red Corals), a woman is trapped in a relationship with an older man who refuses to talk to her, wallowing as he is in his own self-pity. Relationships are also at the centre of one of my favourite stories, Sonja, in which a young artist begins a platonic relationship with a young woman (behind his girlfriend's back), one he is unable to break off, even when his friend begins to demand more from him.
One of the themes in Sonja, regret, is echoed in several of the stories. The title story revolves around a man with a dream of finding and repairing the perfect summerhouse, and the woman who can't make up her mind to step out of her infantile existence to join him - until, that is, it is already too late.
Often, there is a sense that the characters could actually be (may already be) happy, if only they could see it. In Sonja, the main character looks back and says:
"Heute denke ich, daß ich in diesen Nächten wohl glücklich war. Ich weiß, daß sich die Vergangenheit immer verklärt, daß die Erinnerung besänftigend ist. Vielleicht waren diese Nächte auch einfach nur kalt und in zynischer weise unterhaltsam. Heute aber kommen sie mir so wichtig vor und so verloren, daß es mich schmerzt."
pp.69-70 (Fischerverlag, 2009)
"Today, I think that I was actually happy on those nights. I know that the past has a habit of changing itself, that memories can be soothing. Those nights may simply have been cold and cynically entertaining. Today though they appear so important, and so lost, that it hurts."He doesn't know what he has until it has gone, for good...
Hermann doesn't stay in Berlin for the entire collection though. Hurrikan (Something farewell) is set in the Caribbean, possibly Jamaica, and its characters are mostly Germans (an ex-pat and his visitors), whiling away the time before two storms (one literal, one metaphorical) hit the island. Hunter-Tompson-Musik, another of my favourite stories, takes place in New York, where an old man waiting for death in a cheap, squalid hotel finds a spark of life (and regret) in a chance encounter with a lost stranger. Getting out of Germany doesn't make life any easier for Hermann's creations though - they suffer from the same sense of Weltschmerz that those in Berlin do.
The final story, Diesseits der Oder (This Side of the Oder), is a slightly different tale, but a fitting one to end the collection. A middle-aged man living in his summer retreat near the Polish border grudgingly allows the daughter of an old friend to stay for a few days. This time, we get to see Hermann's generation through the eyes of a grumpy old man, one who has been there and done that long ago - and who knows how shallow and empty it all is. He muses about the young woman's life, thinking:
"Im Sommer laden sie sich Freunde in alte Autos, fahren an die Märkische Seeplatte, saufen Wein bis zum Umfallen und denken - das, was uns geschieht, geschieht niemandem sonst. Schwachsinn. Alles Schwachsinn." p.176By the end of the story though, he too is lost in regret, secretly yearning for the good old days. And that is where the beauty of the collection lies. While the people in Sommerhaus, später can be arrogant, selfish and stupid, they are having the time of their lives - and nobody can take that away from them...
"In the summer, they pile into old cars with their friends, drive to the Märkische Lakes, drink wine until they collapse and think - what we experience, happens to nobody else. Rubbish. Complete rubbish."
I enjoyed this collection, a lot more so than I did Alice, and I'm already looking forward to trying Hermann's other book of short stories Nichts als Gespenster (Nothing but Ghosts). This is a fairly easy read (I raced through it in a day), but it's one I intend to come back to. There is definitely something about Hermann's writing, and the stories she creates... although it could just be that I'm at that age where I look back at my younger days with regret ;)