Monday 7 November 2011

A Couple Of (Metaphorical) Big Guns

The German language has produced thirteen Nobel prizes in literature so far, behind only English and French, and today's post celebrates two of those Teutonic laureates, in what could be described as skillful planning on my part, but which would be more accurately described as blind luck and quick thinking - enjoy ;)

First up today is one of my favourite German authors, Heinrich Böll.  He received his prize in 1972, but today's offering, Und sagte kein einziges Wort (And Didn't Say A Word), is one of his earlier offerings.  Set in Cologne in 1950, the book relates two days in the lives of Fred and Käte, a married couple whose recent life together has actually been spent apart.  Unable to cope with living in a cramped single room with three noisy children, Fred has moved out, sending Käte his pay packet each month and occasionally meeting up with her for clandestine dates.  However, Käte has had enough of this demeaning existence, and the events of the weekend force the couple to face up to both their responsibilities and reality.

Post-war blues among the poor is Böll's speciality, and once again he portrays the plight of people going nowhere with a clear, sympathetic and, at times, ironic pen.  He also continues in his attacks on the Catholic church, an organisation which he sees as putting the horse before the cart in its insistence on adherence to doctrine above brotherly love.  By comparing the pomp and ceremony of the church with a procession of pharmacists in town for a convention (the neon signs imploring us to trust in our pharmacist are a particularly deft touch!), Böll pokes fun at an organisation that is perhaps taking itself a bit too seriously.

The book is divided into thirteen chapters written in the first person, alternating between Fred and Käte.  The couple tell us in their own voices about the struggles they face, and it is perhaps more what they tell us about the other than about themselves that gives the reader an insight into their exhausting existence.  With their contrasting ways of coping with the daily grind (Fred lives recklessly, unable to see the point of living; Käte takes each day as a battle, facing up to her enemies, whether they be landladies or dirt...), the question has to be asked: are they actually right for each other?

You'll have to read the book to find out...

Gerhart Hauptmann was honoured sixty years before Böll, but ninety-nine years later I still hadn't got around to reading any of his works (now that's laziness for you!).  That has now changed, mainly thanks to the miracle of free e-texts, as I was able to download a well-known novella - plus an unexpected bonus...

Bahnwärter Thiel is a short novella featuring the aforementioned railway attendant, a gentle giant of a man who loses his first wife while gaining a son.  Unable to continue his work and take care of his child, he marries again, this time for practical purposes rather than love.  As it soon becomes clear that his new wife is less than fond of his son, Thiel is forced to choose between domestic harmony and standing up for his child.  The wrong decision could prove deadly for all involved...

The story, written in the late 1880s, is a beautiful piece of naturalism, its lengthy, elegant descriptions of the woods around Thiel's work hut reminiscent of one of my favourite writers, Thomas Hardy.  The tragic outcome of the tale only strengthens that connection, and in fact Hauptmann was greatly influenced by Hardy's writing.  Thiel could be a Hardy hero, tormented by someone whose presence should make his life more bearable, doomed to an unhappy life despite his able faculties and propensity for hard work.

However, one could argue that it is all his own fault.  The crushing blow he receives is directly related to his failure to face up to his moral dilemma.  In shying away from his duties, he fails himself and his son...  A sad story, but beautiful writing.

The Kindle file showed that Bahnwärter Thiel was 818 sections long, but it actually finished a while before that, leaving a further story to fill the remaining space.  Der Apostel is a short story about a man who walks through the Swiss countryside believing he is an apostle, or even the son of God himself.  Our hero considers himself to be chosen to spread the word of peace, abstaining from conflict and from eating the flesh of animals.  He attracts amazed stares wherever he goes, crowds of children following him through the streets as he walks ever onward... least that's what he tells us.  You see, I'm not entirely convinced that Hauptmann intends the apostle's ramblings to be taken completely at face value.  We never see what is actually happening around our egotistical friend, and I'm tempted to believe that the writer may just be poking fun at his creation.  Of course, I may be very, very wrong (one of the two!).  Whatever the truth is, Der Apostel is an unexpected tale in more ways than one :)