Friday, 1 November 2013

'Nichts als Gespenster' ('Nothing but Ghosts') by Judith Hermann (Review)

Welcome, once again, to German Literature Month!  For the third year in a row, Lizzy and Caroline have thrown down the gauntlet of thirty days of German-language books and reviews, and I (as ever) am more than happy to take up the challenge.  The shelves have been tidied up, the Kindle's fully charged, and the German Literature Month bus has come back from the workshop ready to take us all on a magical mystery tour through the corners of the G-Lit world :)

This year's event has female writers as its focus, and while I'm not promising that I'll manage a fifty-fifty split, I am hoping to review a few books by women over the course of the next month - starting today...

Judith Hermann is a writer who first came to my attention when I read Alice for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shadowing in 2012.  Last year, I also tried and enjoyed her first book, Sommerhaus, später (Summerhouse, Later), so it was only a matter of time before I got around to her only other work of fiction.  It's a longer collection, and this time we've left Berlin (mostly) behind - we're on the road...

Nichts als Gespenster (Nothing but Ghosts***) only contains seven stories, but it clocks in at about 320 pages.  While there are a couple of thirty-page stories, the longest, at sixty pages, is actually more of a novella.  The focus is on travel and seeing new places, but Hermann's protagonists are far from being happy travellers.  They are mainly women in their thirties with a lot of stuff to work through - in Hermann's drab, grey world, travel appears to be a sort of therapy.

In 'Acqua Alta', a depressed woman who has just turned thirty travels to Venice to meet up with her parents.  Far from enjoying the trip, she feels a little worse than before, particularly after a chance encounter on a crowded bridge.  'Zuhälter' ('Pimp')  takes place in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary, and the narrator once again sets out on a trip she's not really sure she wants to make:
"Vielleicht dachte ich daran, daß ich diesen Moment gerne hinausgezögert hätte, den Moment, bevor jemand die Tür aufmacht und mein Gesicht einen Ausdruck annimmt, um den Ich nicht weiß, aber ich bin mir sicher, daß ich auch daran nicht gedacht habe."
p.158 (Fischer Verlag, 2012)

"Perhaps I was thinking that I would have liked to draw out this moment, the moment before someone opens the door and my face takes on an expression, I don't know what kind, but I'm sure that I wasn't thinking that at all." (My translation)
Travelling is good, but arriving isn't always desirable...

There's a sense of strangeness running through the stories.  'Ruth (Freundinnen)' ('Ruth
(Girlfriends)') is a tale of a bizarre, unconventional one-night stand, where the narrator betrays her closest friend with an arrogant gigolo.  In 'Zuhälter', one of the characters suffers a laughing fit half-way through, one which lasts so long that it goes beyond the funny or hysterical and begins to verge on creepy.  One of the strangest stories though is the last one, 'Die Liebe zu Ari Oskarsson' ('The Love for Ari Oskarsson'), which begins with a trip to the Norwegian town of Tromsø and ends with an unusual night on the tiles...

In addition, the (mainly) first-person narrators don't exactly make it easy for you to immerse yourself in the stories, as many of them aren't very nice.  The voice of 'Wohin des Wegs' ('Where Are You Going?') is a calculating, selfish woman, leading her friend on and trampling over his feelings.  While this is a story where she's looking back at past events, there are enough clues to suggest that this will happen again to her present partner.  The betrayal in 'Ruth (Freundinnen)' is, as discussed, a particularly nasty one, and even in 'Acqua Alta' the seemingly passive protagonist comes across as a selfish, childish woman.

On finishing the collection though, the dominant idea for me was the collection of strong, overbearing men.  The women in the collection, while ostensibly in the spotlight, are there merely to suffer in silence.  There's abuse both physical (a sleazy man on a bridge in 'Acqua Alta', a slap and a spit in 'Zuhälter') and mental (the way Johannes drags his friend to Karlovy Vary in 'Zuhälter' and Raoul's unbearable arrogance in 'Ruth (Freundinnen)').  Even the men who aren't trying to assert their dominance are such large, loud characters (like Jonas in the Icelandic-set story 'Kaltblau' ('Cold-Blue')) that the women fade in their larger-than-life presence.  This female passivity pervades the book, and many readers might be put off by the constant macho displays.

Some of the stories don't really work, and as they're all long, that's an issue.  Some do though, and they're usually the ones where a little hope shines through.  'Kaltblau' is one I enjoyed, a story with a great dual-strand plot and a slight twist at the end.  While the ending is not exactly happy, there is a glimmer of hope.

The title story 'Nichts als Gespenster' ('Nothing but Ghosts') is another I enjoyed, a laid-back tale of a chance encounter in desert-town USA.  Again, we meet a man who at first glance appears to be the typical Hermann alpha male:
"Das, was an Buddy anziehend war, worauf Felix reagierte - Ellen hatte später oft nach einem Wort dafür gesucht und schließlich eines gefunden, das ihr nicht gefiel und das sie dennoch für passend hielt -, war seine Dominanz.  Seine Sicherheit, so etwas wie eine sichtbare Kraft und Konzentration, die ihn umgab, er war ein Wortführer, ohne daß er viel gesprochen hätte." (p.214)
"What was attractive about Buddy, and what Felix reacted to - later Ellen often searched for a word to describe it and finally found one which didn't please her and yet which she found suitable - was his dominance.  His certainty, something like a visible strength and concentration which surrounded him, he was a spokesman, a leader, without actually saying much."
Buddy though is actually one of the more sympathetic men in the book, and his charisma is perhaps what Hermann was trying to portray all along...

I've had a good look around at other reviews, and this book seems to have got a very mixed reception online and in the press.  The disappointment some readers have felt is
probably due to the desire for another Sommerhaus, später - and to the frustration at not getting it.  Nichts als Gespenster is a much darker book, in many ways even more so than Alice.  It's not for everyone, but there are some enjoyable stories here; you just have to look hard enough :)

***There is an English-language version available: Nothing but Ghosts, published by Fourth Estate, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo