Friday 30 November 2012

Grimm Times at the Fusion-Lit Bistro

Last year, the participants of the German Literature Month went on a virtual tour to a famous destination in a Germanic novel.  This year, the bloggers are back on the bus to celebrate the end of the trip with a meal - at a strange restaurant some readers of my blog may have encountered before.  You may like to peruse these earlier posts before you continue with today's offering - then again you may not.  Either way, what follows is unlikely to make much sense...  Guten Appetit!

[The camera fades in from black to reveal a large coach pulling up in a quiet street in a town somewhere in the north of Germany.  Through the gently falling snow, the words German Literature Month Tour Bus” can be seen on the side facing us.  After a few moments, a group of people slowly begin to get off the bus, stamping and shivering as they are reacquainted with the harsh, north-German winter.  Across the road, there is an old building, a strange mix of styles with a faded sign above the door, reading FUSION LIT BISTRO...]

Caroline: Nice of you to arrange a meal for the end of German Literature Month, Tony... [Glances at the restaurant] ...but are you sure this is the place?
Tony: Don't worry - I know it doesn't look much, but it specialises in literary diners.  Believe me, the food is great. [Under his breath] The service, however...  

[The bloggers cross the road and stoop to pass through a small, ancient-looking doorway... 
They enter a busy restaurant. It seems as if there is some kind of party going on, perhaps fancy dress.  Most of the women appear to be princesses with long, flowing hair, although some are wearing red cloaks and carrrying baskets.  A group of men dressed as animals are standing on a stage, pretending to play various musical instruments.  As the bloggers pass, they stop - the imaginary music goes quiet. Tony swiftly leads the group past the musicians to a collection of tables near the back of the restaurant, each of which has a sign with 'Reserved' written on it in Gothic script.  On each table, there are six burgundy, leather-bound menus with Fusion Lit Bistro written on them in gold script. As the newcomers begin to arrange themselves around the tables, a tall, gaunt waiter approaches unhurriedly and elegantly, allowing the new guests to sit down before he arrrives.]

Waiter: I see you made it - I must admit, I had my doubts.

Tony: [Smiling] As I said on the phone, the fairytale special for a party of thirty...

[The bloggers sit down at the table.  Tony is seated between Lizzy and Caroline, while the other places are filled by Gary, Stu and Tom.  Tony spots the usual blank name tag on The Waiter's jacket and appears to be about to say something, but obviously thinks better of it.]

Waiter: Let me just explain today's menu.  While we usually offer a wide selection of literary delights for your pleasure, today, in honour of the anniversary, our menu consists entirely of Grimm'sche tales, a little gem each and every one.  If you'd like to have a brief look at your menus...

[The diners pick up their menus.  As they open them, rolls of parchment cascade out of the binders, each with a long list of items written on it...]

Waiter:  A wonderful selection.  You can't really go wrong here... [Pauses] ...although I wouldn't try anything with apples.
Stu:  [Confused] There are hundreds here!  How are we supposed to choose...
Gary: A couple of everything maybe?
Waiter: [Coughs] Might I suggest the Reich-Ranicki special?
Caroline: What's that?
Waiter: It's a choice selection of the finest cuts, guaranteed to suit the pickiest of diners.  Perhaps you might like to order a few of those...
Tony: That sounds good.  OK, we'll have six of the Reich-Ranicki specials, with Rapunzel chasers please, Rumpelstiltskin.

[The Waiter takes the menus and turns on one heel to stalk off back to the kitchen, somehow indicating his complete disdain despite his silence.]

Tony: [Weakly] Sorry.  I thought it was worth a shot...

[The bloggers wait in silence while their order is being prepared.  As they look around the restaurant, they notice that the room is not quite as crowded as it was when they arrived.  A few waitresses in glass slippers are clearing up the mess diners have left behind.  A sudden scream pierces the air, causing the party to visibly jump.  Once the sound has died away, the guests examine their table more closely.]

Tom: Have you noticed the cutlery?
Lizzy: [Looking at the knife and fork in front of her] What about it?
Tom: Smell it...
Lizzy: [Picks up the fork and sniffs it uncertainly] Is it...
Tom: Yep - gingerbread.

[Silence again.  Caroline looks at the table's centrepiece, a beautiful metallic statue, and stretches out to touch it.]

Caroline: This is lovely - what do you think it's made from?
Waiter: [Returning with the order] Recycled spinning wheels.

[Caroline snatches back her hand as if she's just been bitten.]

Waiter: [Putting the order on the table] Guten Appetit - just let me know if you need anything else...

[The bloggers tuck into the assorted platter, and for a while there is little to be heard other than the digestion of the morsels and the occasional groan from the direction of the kitchens.  After a while, the diners start to discuss the meal...]

Stu: Great, I really enjoyed that.
Gary: Unusual, but a nice change from the rest of the month.
Caroline: They do slip down nicely, but I'm not sure... I'd have liked something a bit meatier.
Tony: [Speaking with his mouth full] I liked it, a bit sweet at times, but with a bitter aftertaste. [Sighs] You know what they say - A moment on the lips,...
Tom: ...a lifetime of waking up screaming with flashbacks.

[Tony smiles nervously, then grimaces, bending over the table.  He looks up and beckons The Waiter.]

Waiter: Yes?
Tony: I think something must have disagreed with me.  Could you remind me where the toilets are?
Waiter: Just look down.
Tony: Sorry?

[The Waiter looks down at the floor.  Tony follows his gaze and sees a trail of white breadcrumbs leading off into the distance.]

Waiter: Just follow the trail...
Tony: Oh, right.  Thanks.

[Tony hurries off in search of the toilets.  The Waiter casts a scrutinising glance at the remaining diners and moves off towards the kitchen.  The other five bloggers look at one another uneasily.]

Tom: [Looking around] Have you noticed that there are fewer people now?  I haven't seen anyone actually leave through the exit though.  And all those screams...
Lizzy: Come to think of it, it's getting pretty hot in here too.  [Nervously] Those ovens must be pretty big back there.
Stu: But the food wasn't particularly warm...
Gary: [Looking around] Is it just me, or does that waitress have a bit more facial hair than you'd expect? Although she does have very white teeth - very big white teeth...
Caroline: Perhaps we should...

[The five bloggers stand up as one and dash for the exit.  Stu bowls over a waitress in a red cloak, sending her basket flying.  As the other members of the group see them run, they panic, and flee the restaurant too, overturning tables and scattering gingerbread cutlery all over the floor.

The Waiter returns to a room empty of customers - the only sound is the groaning of various figures in costume getting up off the ground.  He sighs.

Tony returns from his untimely trip to the toilet.]

Tony: [Looks around, confused] Wh... where is everyone?

Waiter: [Smoothly] They'll be back soon, they're just on a guided tour of the kitchens.  It's a special feature of today's event.  Would you like to...
Tony: Of course!  Is there anything special to see?
Waiter: Well, there is a very big oven...

[Tony and the Waiter walk towards the kitchens.  In the background, you can hear the sound of a bus racing away into the distance...]

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Introducing J-Lit Giants

It's time for another post over at the January in Japan blog, and this week sees the start of my series on Japanese writers, J-Lit Giants!

Today's post is a brief introduction to one of the undisputed greats of modern Japanese literature, Natsume Soseki, so please pop over and have a look :)

There'll be more J-Lit Giants in the months to come, so why not follow the January in Japan blog and keep up with all the posts?  Also, if you're interested, I'm still looking for people to write their own entries in this series.  Just drop me a line if you'd like to write about your favourite Japanese writer...

You're still here?  Get over there now!

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Endstation: Berlin Alexanderplatz

My original list of reads for German Literature Month was a fairly random selection, made up of books I had lying about and a few classics that had been downloaded to my Kindle.  However, as I began reading and reviewing my selection, I noticed a couple of themes which each ran through several books.

The first was the origins of the German nation and the rise of the Prussian state, as you can see in my reviews on Goethe, Heine, Wolf and Fontane.  The other, tangentially-linked, topic was the city of Berlin, German capital and the heartland of Prussia and its bureaucracy.  As well as Fontane's portrayal of late-nineteenth-century Berlin, we were also treated to Cees Nooteboom's description of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Birgit Vanderbeke's flight from the grey capital and Judith Hermann's stories of the young and carefree living it up in a newly prominent city.

So, having noticed the patterns which emerged from the month, I decided to change my plans a little.  Apologies to Alois Hotschnig, and his novel Leonardos Hände, but I had another book on my shelves, one I'd been meaning to get to for quite a while, and a novel which would cap off my reading for the month quite nicely.  You see, when it comes to books about Berlin in German, there's one which you just can't avoid...

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a book which regularly appears in the top-ten lists of German novels and has also been known to occupy the top spot on those lists.  The story begins in late 1927, when Franz Biberkopf, the hero of the tale, is released from prison and heads off to Berlin to start a new life.  The reader suspects that this may be a tall order, but just in case we have any doubt, the writer immediately informs us that after four years in prison:
"Die Strafe beginnt."  p.15 (dtv, 2011)
For Franz, the real punishment for his crime (which we later find out is the manslaughter of his girlfriend) really is just beginning...

Initially, Franz persists in his plan to go straight, taking on a number of menial jobs, and he manages to get by, finding many friends (and women) to help him with his return to society.  However, there is always a feeling that this is destined to be short lived.  One of the men in his local pub says:
"Man soll sich nicht dicke tun mit seinem Schicksal.  Ich bin Gegner des Fatums.  Ich bin kein Grieche, ich bin Berliner." p.56
"You shouldn't boast about your fate.  I am against destiny.  I'm no Greek, I'm a Berliner."
In fact, Berlin Alexanderplatz plays out exactly like a Greek play, complete with prologues to each part telling us the woes our poor, mortal hero will face over the next fifty pages...

The book is not just about Franz though.  In reality, it is the story of a city, a snapshot of Berlin over the period of a year and a half during one of the most uncertain, but exciting, times in its history.  The Weimar Republic is still in power, having survived hyper-inflation and various revolts, and the Great Depression is just around the corner.  Both Nazis and Communists are attempting to convert people to their cause - either could still rise to take over power in the Reichstag.

For the majority of the people though, politics is something that can be worried about another day.  The cast of Berlin Alexanderplatz (mostly drunkards, thieves, wheeler-dealers and prostitutes) are more concerned with making the most out of life.  This is the time of Cabaret, and there's a lot more splurging and sleeping around than concern about extremists rising to power.  Döblin often leaves Franz to his own devices for a while, taking us off to other bars and dance clubs, showing us what else is happening in the metropolis.  As we get to know lawyers, shopkeepers, moneylenders and newspaper vendors, we begin to get a fuller view of life in 1928 Berlin.

So, a novel from the 1920s, set in and around a large European city, following one man's story, interspersing it with snapshots of what is going on around him - that sounds oddly familiar...

And so it is.  The more you read Berlin Alexanderplatz, the more it reminds you of Ulysses.  Just as Joyce shows the reader Dublin through one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, Döblin uses the hapless Biberkopf to paint us a picture of his chosen city, even if his picture concentrates on a slightly nastier, and more lawless, section of society than his Irish counterpart's portrait.  Ulysses, on the whole, is a story of the Irish (lower) working class - Döblin's characters seldom have any intention of working...

The parallels are also prominent in the way the writers play with language.  Berlin Alexanderplatz contains a lot of dialogue, the vast majority of it in the Berlin dialect, which would make it tricky to read at the best of times.  However, Döblin's experiments with language go a lot further than that.  The writer uses many different varieties of language in his novel, constantly breaking the flow of the narrative with sections written in various registers and genres.  One minute you're reading one of the numerous nonsense rhymes that permeate the text, the next you're wading through two pages of legalese contractual jargon; after reading a very familiar weather report for the Brandenburg region, you then find yourself in the middle of a mock-mediaeval text... 

All of which (as you can imagine) makes reading Berlin Alexanderplatz - in German at least! - a very difficult task at times.  However, it's well worth the effort.  The book was published in 1929, which means that Döblin was writing about the society he was actually living in, making it a fascinating glimpse of what was happening at the time just before the Nazis came to power.  In fact, several scenes (possibly unintentionally) give hints as to how events would later unfold...

As for Franz, well, he's a man of his time, full of inner rage and unable to control his drinking or his temper.  I won't spoil the story by telling you what happens to him, but it is interesting to think about why events happen as they do.  Is he destined to fail? A victim of circumstances?
"Denn der Mann von dem ich berichte, ist zwar kein gewöhnlicher Mann, aber doch insofern ein gewöhnlicher Mann, als wir ihn genau verstehen und manchmal sagen: wir könnten Schritt um Schritt dasselbe getan haben wie er und dasselbe erlebt haben wie er." p.217

"Because the man I'm talking about may not be an ordinary man, but he is ordinary in the sense that we understand him completely and sometimes say: we might have done exactly the same as him and experienced exactly the same things."
There, but for the grace of God,...

Sunday 25 November 2012

I Spy, With My Little Eye...

Although Peirene Press is a champion of literature from all over Europe, their list has a strongly Teutonic slant, and that will continue next year with the publication of German writer Birgit Vanderbeke's Das Muschelessen (The Mussel Feast).  Knowing a while back that a Vanderbeke was on the way (but not knowing which one!), I plumped instead for an intriguingly-titled novella, one which takes the reader on a fascinating journey of discovery.   Good job we've got the bus then :)

Ich sehe was, was du nicht siehst (I See Something You Don't - or, less literally, I Spy With My Little Eye) begins in post-reunification Berlin, a city where a woman with a young son has recently taken up residence in an attempt to make a change to her life.  Finding that a small alteration is not enough, she decides on a slightly more dramatic gesture - one which sees her buy a place in the south of France, to which she soon moves, along with her son and various other domestic animals ;)

Initially, she treats life like an extended break, taking advantage of the long school holidays to explore life in a new setting (with a son who is only too eager to spend his days messing around in woods and rivers).  If she wanted a change, then her new home is everything she was looking for.  It is a foreign land, with unfamiliar weather, confusing wind patterns and frankly frightening bush-fires.   And as for the people... well, let's just say that they do things a little differently here.

While Ich sehe was... sounds like a typical fish-out-of-water, sea-change kind of story, it's actually a lot more.  The beautiful painting on the cover of my cover (by Van Gogh) gives you a hint of the kind of story it is.  Vanderbeke avoids a straight-forward, realist (dare I say it, German...)  description of her character's experiences, opting instead for a more hazy, flowing narrative which skirts around the need for excessive description.

Our unnamed friend, despite her initial problems, is very happy in her new life - you suspect that one of the reasons she decided to move in the first place is that she didn't fit into her home society.  Vanderbeke's Germany is one of grey skies, low-grade paranoia, a fear of leaving keys in locks and a need to have a constant supply of egg cartons on hand for primary school art projects.

Luckily, life is a lot less stressful in France.  As she makes her way to a local festival with her son, they spot something interesting in the road:
"Vor der Stadt stand ein Schild, auf dem stand >>Straße gesperrt, Stadt feiert<<.  Ich übersetze es dem Kind, und wir fanden, alle Verbotsschilder müßten ein bißchen so sein wie dieses..."
p.60 (Fischer Verlag, 2009)

"On the edge of town, there was a sign which said "Street blocked, Town celebrates".  I translated it for the child, and we decided that all warning signs should be a little like this one..."
While the chaos of the festival (with bulls making an unexpected entrance) is a little unnerving, the pace of life gradually starts to make sense.  Where initially the local custom of deliberating over every food purchase seems a little silly  (each potato being inspected minutely before being placed in the basket), our friend soon starts to pay more attention to her own groceries - and is helped by the local shopkeepers too, who begin to see her as more of a local than a tourist.

She soon discovers that many other things are different here, and one of those is the fact that in this small community (and in the country as a whole...) everybody does everything at the same time.  This applies to shopping, social gatherings and - most importantly - the annual return to school, when the whole of France goes shopping for new clothes and stationery.  It's a small, but happy, coincidence that Emma posted on this very phenomenon while I was in the middle of this book...

As much as we learn about the French though, ritual mocking of Teutonic efficiency is never far from the surface.  Visitors to our hero's new house are concerned only with how it can be improved (and how much it would bring in each week when properly run as a guest house), and a French girl from the local school asks:
"...Madame, ist es wahr, daß man bei Ihnen bestraft wird, wenn man einen Joghurtbecher auswirft, ohne ihn vorher auszuwaschen." p.71

"... Madame, is it true that you are punished in your country if you throw away a yoghurt tub without washing it first."
It's a comment which brings back some rather disturbing memories from my own time in Germany...

Ich sehe was... is an excellent book, a novella which can be devoured in a couple of sittings, but one which contains more than you would think.  Like the picture which adorns the cover, it requires us to adjust the way we see things, to open our eyes to new experiences and see them in (literally) a different light.  Vanderbeke's style is pivotal to this - her sentences are lengthy but light, caught between narrative and dialogue, giving the story an airy, at times slightly unreal, feel.

I can see why Peirene wanted Vanderbeke as their next writer.  Her style will fit in perfectly with some of the other offerings, and if Das Muschelessen is anything like this one, it will continue their run of great choices.  I'll certainly be trying it (in the original, of course!) - I just hope that the poor old Germans don't come off quite as badly next time...

Thursday 22 November 2012

The Tortured Artist

We've had writers from Austria, Switzerland and Germany so far this month, but now it's time for one from a country which no longer exists - East Germany (AKA the GDR/DDR).  Christa Wolf is one writer who stayed on her side of the wall despite the constraints this put on her art - and one way writers throughout the ages have dealt with this problem is by projecting their thoughts a long way away...

Kein Ort. Nirgends (translated as No Place on Earth) takes us back to a part of Germany we visited not so long ago.  It's 1804, and we find ourselves in a large house in the village of Winkel am Rhein, privileged (and hidden) spectators at a tea party.  A group of upper-class Germans are laughing, joking, talking and sipping tea; generally having a wonderful time.  Yet two of them, a man and a woman, appear to be a little distanced from the others, both pretending to enjoy the company while actually lost in their own worlds - now, who could they be?

We quickly learn the identities of the two outsiders.  The woman is Karoline von Günderrode, a German romantic poet; the man is Heinrich von Kleist, one of the most famous playwrights and prose writers of the early nineteenth century.  In Kein Ort. Nirgends, Wolf has created an imaginary (if plausible) meeting between two spirits who have a lot in common.  Both are creative talents; both suffer for their art; both are to later take their lives...

Kein Ort. Nirgends is a short work, barely reaching a hundred pages, and the story is divided into two parts.  The first is set in the house, where the two main characters gradually become aware of each other's presence and start to want to get involved in a conversation.  They both sense that the other is an outsider: in her mind, Günderrode sees the small party as interconnected lines on a page, with a space around the point denoting Kleist; Kleist, likewise, sees an imaginary space around Günderrode, a protective buffer against the real world.

The second part, when the group goes out for a post-dinner walk, gives Kleist and Günderrode the opportunity to find out more about each other, allowing them to explore their thoughts on art and life.  As the two walk along the river, lost in a world they share, things get a little more abstract and philosophical.  Perhaps it is apt that they often managed to shake off this reader...

It's certainly not a book for someone wanting a quick, fun read.  The style is dense and deliberately confusing, switching rapidly between the two main characters, intermingling thoughts and words with little but context to tell you which are which.  In addition, there is little action, just discussion, and the topics are, on the whole, not the easiest to follow.  The two artists are mainly concerned with the nature of art and the toll it takes on the artist, as well as the dilemma of how to be yourself, yet live in the society you have been born into.  It's not a dilemma the others at the party share, and Kleist recognises this, asking his friend:
"Wie soll der Gesunde den Kranken verstehen?"
p.39 (Suhrkamp Verlag, 2007)

"How can a healthy person understand a sick one?"
That very fine line between genius and mental illness was obviously of concern a long time before we started tweeting about it...

Of course, other factors contributed to this feeling of uncertainty.  The story is set at a time of great upheaval in Europe, with fear of Napoleon and his ambitions dominating politics (and life in general) all over the continent.  Chronologically, this piece actually falls nicely between Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea, an early paean to a united Germany, and Heine's Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen, where the poet takes a satirical look at what the Prussians have done with the idea of a German state.  Kleist himself was Prussian, fighting in the army and working within its bureaucracy, and this conformity is one of the factors slowly driving him mad.  Another of the (real-life) characters, Savigny, is described as forcing a decision between following science and art, his entweder..., oder... ('either..., or...').  In the end, our two friends take the third option...

When we start discussing the story in terms of artists struggling to reconcile their art with everyday life though, especially under a bureaucratic regime centred on Berlin, it becomes very tempting to shift our attention from the early nineteenth century to the second half of the following one.  In many ways, it appears that Wolf is alluding to her own situation, cunningly highlighting the pressures on writers in East Germany.  In which case, should we be visualising Wolf when Kleist and Günderrode bemoan their plight?
"Können Sie sich einen Menschen vorstellen, Doktor, der hautlos unter die Leute muß; den jeder Laut quält, jeder Schimmer blendet, dem die leiseste Berührung der Luft weh tut.  So ist mir, Doktor.  Ich übertreibe nicht.  Das müssen Sie mir glauben." p.40
"Can you imagine a person, doctor, who must go forth with no skin amongst people; whom each noise tortures, each gleam of light blinds, whom the merest breath of air causes pain.  That is how it is for me, doctor.  I'm not exaggerating.  You must believe me."
Poor Heinrich.  Poor Karoline.  Poor Christa...

Wednesday 21 November 2012

More on January in Japan

Today I've posted another appetiser on the January in Japan blog, a post I published a while back on translation and Japanese literature - please click here to see it :)

If you're interested in the whole event, please sign up by commenting on any post, and also follow the new blog - there's lots coming up!

Next week, I'll be posting the first in my J-Lit Giants series, brief introductions to Japanese writers with suggestions for starter books.  Number one next Wednesday will be Natsume Soseki, and I also have a post on Yukio Mishima (and possibly a guest post on Osamu Dazai) ready to go.

If you would be interested in contributing to that series, please let me know - whether you would like to talk about the Murakamis, Natsuo Kirino, Yasunari Kawabata, Kenzaburo Oe or Hiromi Kawakami, I'd love to publish your thoughts and advice!

So, in short:
  - Have a look at the translation post
  - Follow the January in Japan blog
  - Get ready for J-Lit Giants
  - Let me know if you want to contribute

See you next Wednesday :)

Tuesday 20 November 2012

All Roads Lead to Berlin

While I had a very detailed plan for German Literature Month, I am always open to suggestions, so when I received another unrequested surprise package from Maclehose Press, I was happy to take the bus on a detour.  Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom is also a well-regarded travel writer, and his latest offering in English is very relevant to our November travels.  Looks like we're off on another trip to the capital...

Roads to Berlin (translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson) is an updated version of a book Nooteboom wrote over twenty years ago.  Back in 1989, the writer received a government grant to spend a year or so in (West) Berlin while he was writing a book about Germany.  In what turned out to be excellent timing, his stay in the country (during which he wrote columns about his experiences) turned out to coincicide with one of the pivotal events of modern history - the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We read it as the writer experiences it, a series of philosophical musings, dated at the end of each section, leading up to the day in November when he returns to Berlin from a reading tour to find the city in uproar.  The borders are opening, people are streaming across from the East and the wall itself is about to be turned into one of the longest dance floors the world has ever seen.  Unknowingly, Nooteboom has been writing a countdown to history...

It's an emotional time, and the reality is yet to sink in:
"As I write these words, church bells are ringing out on all sides, as they did a few days ago when the bells of the Gedächtniskirche suddenly pealed out their bronze news about the open Wall and people knelt down and cried in the streets.  There is always something ecstatic, moving, alarming about visible history.  No-one can miss it.  And no-one knows what is going to happen."
p.72 (MacLehose Press, 2012)
However, once the initial euphoria dies down, reality kicks in, and people begin to question whether this is such a good thing after all.  The 'Wessis' worry about an influx of poor migrants and the possibility of higher taxes; the 'Ossis' wonder what exchange rate they will receive for their massively overvalued Ostmark and whether they will be able to keep their jobs in this brave new world.  And Nooteboom is there to write it all down.

Roads to Berlin is an updated version of Nooteboom's book, supplementing the original work with chapters from later visits to Berlin and various pieces of writing connected with the topic.  After the main event, the writer also branches out a little, turning his Berlin-centred story into a wider, German collection.  In trips to Munich, Regensburg, Weimar (home of Goethe) and the Teutoburger Forest (where, crossing paths with Heine's journey northward, he sees the great statue of Hermann), Nooteboom indulges in his interest in art and architecture - and, of course, history.

It's an excellent book, one I enjoyed dipping into immensely, but I do have some reservations.  For one thing, Nooteboom is a writer who appears to be writing primarily for himself, and he often takes his story in directions which may interest him a little more than his readers.  There were times, particularly when he became sidetracked by paintings and statues, where I was very tempted to skip a few pages (the reading equivalent of having a pint in the pub while your partner checks out an art gallery).

The other issue I had with the book is that it felt like exactly what it is - a slightly uncohesive collection of writings which, while tangentially connected, fail to make up an integral whole.  After the first 100 pages or so, I was never quite sure what Roads to Berlin was meant to be.  Is it a book about Berlin (or Germany)?  Is it mainly concerned with history, geography or politics?  Is it really about Germany, or more about Nooteboom himself?  I really couldn't tell you...

If you're prepared to overlook the (necessarily) messy nature of the book though, there's a lot here to like.  Nooteboom is an accomplished writer, and each of the pieces, taken separately, is of enormous interest to a reader who wants to know more about the topic.  Part of the credit here must go to Laura Watkinson as you really forget that Nooteboom is speaking to you through a third party, such is the quality of the translation.  The voice that comes through is consistent, and very similar to the one I found in a novel I read earlier this year (Lost Paradise).

One idea that comes across particularly clearly is that despite inauspicious beginnings (Nooteboom's first memory is of the Germans invading the Netherlands...), the writer is very fond of Germany, particularly Berlin, and regrets a little the fact that he is no longer a part of the history being made there:
"What happens in this city in the coming years in the coming years will continue to interest me, but when you are not there, you no longer belong.  You drop out of the ongoing conversation, the options, the constant regrouping of possibilities, memories, expectations..." p.201
It's a feeling many people share when they leave a place they have lived in for a long time.  I have similar feelings whenever I look back at my time in Germany, knowing that however much I read and watch the news, I can never quite regain the connection I once had.  In this way, Roads to Berlin, as much as being a story about the city, is just as much a book about a memory of once being a part of its story...

Sunday 18 November 2012

Stories of a Generation

Today's post will be taking us on another trip to Berlin (and I can assure you that it won't be the last time we'll be visiting the German capital in November...).  Unlike our previous journey though, this one is a lot more contemporary, and we'll be rubbing shoulders with the cool kids of the capital.  It's time to put your going-out clothes on...

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 BerlinIt'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.176

"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."
By 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...

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 ;)

Thursday 15 November 2012

You Can Check Out Any Time You Like...

One writer I've been wanting to try for some time is Joseph Roth, author of Radetzkymarsch, one of the most famous novels in the German language.  While I won't be getting to that one this month, I thought I'd get a taste of his work by reading a famous novella, Hotel Savoy, so I was all set to start the bus off on the road to Vienna.  That is, until I discovered that despite being described as an Austrian writer, Roth was actually born in Eastern Europe (present-day Ukraine) - and that his book takes place in Poland...

Hotel Savoy is set in the years after World War One in the Polish town of Łódź.  Gabriel Dan, a returning prisoner of war, arrives in the city on his journey westward.  He is hoping to press onwards to America, but as his rich uncle, Phöbus Höhlaug lives in the city, he decides to stay for a while in the hope of getting the money he needs to emigrate.  While he is waiting, he takes up residence in the Hotel Savoy, an imposing building in the centre of the town, where rich and poor alike are in residence - albeit on different floors.

Right at the start of the book, we see the hotel through Gabriel's eyes, his and our first impression of the town:
"Zum erstenmal nach fünf Jahren stehe ich wieder an den Toren Europas.  Europäischer als alle anderen Gasthöfe des Ostens scheint mir das Hotel Savoy mit seinen sieben Etagen, seinem goldenen Wappen und einem livrierten Portier."
"For the first time in five years, I stand once again before the gates of Europe .  The Hotel Savoy appears more European than any other resting place in the east, with its golden coat of arms and a liveried porter."
(my translation)
Once he enters the hotel though, we see that this grand facade hides a slightly more prosaic existence.  While the bottom floors belong to the wealthy, the poor and displaced are hidden away in the upper floors.  As is claimed in the book:
"In allen Städten der Welt gibt es kleinere oder größere Savoys, und überall in den höchsten Stockwerken wohnen die Santschins und ersticken am Dunst fremder Wäsche."
 "In every city in the world, there are small or large Savoys, and everywhere, on the highest floors, live the Santschins [the name of a poor family] of this world, suffocating in the steam of other people's washing."
Perhaps though, those on the higher floors are, as is occasionally alluded to, closer to God than the luxury-worshipping people down below...

The hotel is more than just a building, of course.  It's a representation, an embodiment, of society, and the book is an allegory for the sorry state the world found itself in after the horrors of the Great War.  Just as in the wider world, the hotel quickly separates the rich from the poor, and those lucky enough to live on the lower floors make sure that they pull together.  For example, whenever a worker from the local factories dies, the doctor makes sure to give the cause of death as heart failure - and not lung failure caused by breathing in tiny fragments of cloth day in, day out at work...

Gabriel intends to move on quickly, but he finds himself strangely in tune with life in the hotel, in part because of the attractions of the cabaret artist, Stasia.  As the days and weeks pass, it appears that he will struggle to ever leave the town - and the hotel.  It's all very reminiscent of a book I spent a lot of time on last year :)

Unlike in Kafka's work though, there is a revolutionary streak running through Hotel Savoy.  When Zwonimir, Gabriel's old friend from his army days, arrives in town, he acts as a catalyst, setting a light to the volatile atmosphere, sending the story towards a dramatic climax.  As the rich housewives see a hypnotist to have their headaches cured (while their husbands cavort with naked dancers in the cellar bar), the poor and hungry are dying in the streets, lying in the dirt.  It doesn't take a genius to see that things aren't going to end well.

Hotel Savoy is an entertaining story, fairly easy to read, but with a serious message underneath.  What makes it even more interesting is that the hotel depicted in the novella is real, located in the central-Polish city of Łódź.  There was a picture on Wikipedia of the hotel after its renovation, with beautiful, gleaming white walls.  However, I decided that the picture above was far more interesting and, what's more, better suited to the story.  While I wouldn't like to live at the Hotel Savoy myself, it is definitely a fun place to while away a few hours ;)

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Introducing January in Japan!

As promised, I'll be hosting a J-Lit event at the start of 2013, entitled January in Japan.  I've created a separate site for the event, so please take a look, follow the new blog and sign up - it'll be worth it, promise ;)

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Home is Where the Plums Are

As most of you will have gathered by now, far from being restricted to the big three countries (Germany, Austria and Switzerland), German-language literature comes from a wide area scattered across the heart of Europe.  In the past on my blog, we've travelled to Poland and the Czech Republic on our literary travels, and today's journey takes us back into eastern Europe, for a first look at another country with a German-speaking minority.  Make sure you're seated - this may be a bumpy ride...

Herta Müller was fairly unknown in the English-speaking world before her Nobel Prize win back in 2009, but she is fast becoming one of the must-read German-language writers.  Herztier (The Land of the Green Plums) is one of her most famous books and a good one to start with, describing as it does the life of a young woman in Müller's home country of Romania.  While the novel is fiction, you suspect that there is an awful lot of Müller herself hidden within its pages.

Herztier is narrated by an unnamed woman in her early twenties, a student in 'the city' (possibly Bucharest) whose life is changed by the death of one of her university room-mates, Lola.  Lola is flamboyant and carefree, and her morals are rather looser than certain people would like - and in 1980s Romania, standing out in this way is always going to cause trouble.

Lola commits suicide, using the narrator's belt to hang herself, and is posthumously expelled from the party.  This action is the catalyst for the narrator's rejection of the system and her friendship with three young men (Edgar, Kurt and Georg) who are also ambivalent about the country they live in.  At first, they enjoy messing around together and thumbing their nose at reality.  Eventually though, real life begins to press down on them, exerting pressure that not all of them will be able to bear...

Herztier is a book about life in a repressive regime, a state where freedom is a distant dream.  Even if daily life is fairly prosaic and uneventful, the knowledge of the potential repercussions of stepping out of line weighs down on the people, effectively rendering themselves self-censored.  An example of this is given when a 'vote' is held to determine whether poor Lola should be expelled from the party:
"Der Turnlehrer hob als erster die Hand.  Und alle Hände flogen ihm nach.  Jeder sah beim Heben des Arms die erhobene Arme der anderen an.  Wenn der eigene Arm noch nicht so hoch wie die anderen in der Luft war, streckte so mancher den Ellbogen noch ein bißchen.  Sie hielten die Hände nach oben, bis die Finger müde nach vorne fielen und die Ellbogen schwer nach unten zogen."
p.35 (Fischerverlag, 2007)
"The P.E. teacher raised his hand first.  And all the hands followed his.  While raising their hands, everyone looked at the raised hands of the others.  If their hand was not quite as high in the air as the others, they straightened their elbow a little more.  They held their hands high until their fingers fell forward, tired, and their elbows drooped heavily downwards."
Of course, everyone raises their hand - even the narrator...

The writer portrays several ways to live your life, each of them chosen by one of the main characters in the novel.  You can go with the flow and decide to cooperate with the regime, spying on family and friends.  You can ignore it all and live life like an animal, working all day, having sex in the bushes, drinking, fighting and doing it all again the next day.  You can give up on life in your homeland and apply to cross the border, never to see your country again.  Or you can despair of anything ever happening and leave it all behind, once and for all...

While the story can be seen as an attack on the Ceausescu regime in general, though, it can also be read as a description of the treatment of ethnic and linguistic minorities in Communist Romania.  The narrator and her friends are all ethnic Germans, descendants of German-speaking people who settled in the region generations before.  They tease each other with insults about their background, but other people are more serious in their dislike of the 'outsiders'.  The state is only too keen to pressure them into fleeing the country, leaving their homes and goods behind for 'real' Romanians.

Reading Herztier can be a little depressing at times.  There is very little (almost no) joy and laughter, and the writer's style enhances this feeling of emptiness.  The book consists of short sections moving around in time, most following the narrator's story, some exploring her childhood in the country, others foreshadowing future events.  The prose is fairly plain on the whole, devoid of any descriptive beauty that might lighten the tone.

Other reviews of this book that I've seen have been very mixed, and I can understand why a lot of people aren't too keen on it.  For me, it's a novel where the focus is squarely on the content rather than the style, but which still doesn't have a strong plot driving it forward.  However, that's a deliberate choice.  Herztier is meant to reflect the place the writer came from - decorating the starkness with pretty words would lessen the effect of the story.

I enjoyed Herztier, but I'm not convinced that Müller will become one of my favourite writers.  I get the feeling that her success is due more to what she says than how she says it, and that (for me) is the wrong way round ;)  Still, she's definitely a writer I'd like to try again, so if anyone has any suggestions, you know where to leave them.  Comments, please :)

Sunday 11 November 2012

Back to Berlin

Theodor Fontane was definitely one of my better G-Lit finds last year.  In addition to taking part in last year's Effi Briest readalong, I also read Frau Jenny Treibel and Unwiederbringlich (Irretrievable), so I was always going to add to that list for this years challenge.  This time around, I've picked another of Fontane's tales of marital woe, so get comfy - the bus is off to Berlin today...

L'Adultera is set in the German capital towards the end of the nineteenth century and is another of Fontane's Gesellschaftsromane (Society Novels).  Wealthy businessman Ezekiel van der Straaten lives with his wife, Melanie, and their two children in a luxurious Berlin mansion.  The fifty-two-year-old van der Straaaten married his beautiful Swiss wife ten years earlier - when she was just seventeen...

Although the marriage initially appears to be a happy one, it isn't long until the cracks appear.  Van der Straaten can be boorish and arrogant at times, and his behaviour at a dinner party embarrasses his wife immensely.  When the weather gets warmer, and it is finally time for Melanie to move out to the couple's country residence, she is only too glad to get some respite from her husband, whose work keeps him in the city for much of the time.

All that is needed for things to take a dramatic turn is a catalyst, and it is van der Straaten himself who unwittingly supplies one, in the shape of Ebenezer Rubehn.  This young businessman is a relative of a business partner, and van der Straaten finds himself obliged to offer the young man a home while he is finding his feet in Berlin.  Oh, did I mention that he was handsome, intelligent and cultured?  This can't end well...

Anyone who was with us last year will immediately see that comparisons with Effi Briest are unavoidable.  Once again, the writer is exploring the perils of a marriage where there is a significant age gap, and the inevitability of a bored young housewife having a wandering eye.  However, in some ways it is a very different novel.  Van der Straaten, despite what I've said so far, comes across as a much more sympathetic character than Effi Briest's Innstetten ever did.  As for Melanie, well she's not quite so loveable - she's certainly no Effi ;)

The couple's true characters are revealed in a wonderful scene in Chapter 16, entitled 'Abschied' ('Farewell').  Van der Straaten acknowledges his shortcomings and pours his heart out to his estranged wife: 
"Und sieh, Melanie, weiter will ich auch jetzt nichts, oder sag' ich lieber, will ich auch in Zukunft nichts.  Denn in diesem Augenblick erscheint dir das wenige, was ich fordere, noch als zu viel.  Aber es wird anders, muß anders werden."

"And Melanie, I want nothing more at the moment, or rather, I will want nothing more than this in future.  At the moment, the little I demand still seems too much for you.  But that will change, it must change."
Melanie, however, is unable to see that her husband's brusque, humorous tone hides true feelings and simply feels repelled.  It's tempting to say that she doesn't really deserve him...

There are constant intimations of impending disaster in L'Adultera, whose title, as well as being that of a painting, is the Italian for 'The Adultress'.  Melanie is warned of such occurrences by one of her closest friends, and a story told to her by the gardener comes very close to home.  Even van der Straaten himself, in buying the painting and in his anecdotes hints at the possibility of getting your fingers burnt:
"Und in die Luft geflogen warum?  Weil die Leute, die mit dem Feuer spielen, immer zu sicher sind und immer die Gefahr vergessen.  Ja, Melanie, du lachst.  Aber, es ist so, immer die Gefahr vergessen."
"And why was he blown to kingdom come?  Because people who play with fire are always overconfident and always forget the risk.  Yes, Melanie, you may well laugh.  But it's true, they always forget the risk."
Sadly though, despite being a man of the world in many ways, in others he is blind and unsuspicious.  As the narrator says:
"Und am wenigsten sah er sie von der Seite her gefährdet, von der aus die Gefahr so nahe lag und von jedem andern erkannt worden wäre."
"And he saw the least danger to her in the direction from which it was most likely to come and which would have been perceived by anyone else."
Hindsight may be a wonderful thing, but surely most people would think that bringing a handsome young man into your house and leaving him alone with your beautiful young wife is tempting fate a tad, no?

While L'Adultera is not quite up to the standard of a couple of Fontane's other novels (the ending, in particular, is a little weak), it's still an enjoyable read, especially because such novels are relatively rare in nineteenth-century German-language literature.  In a sea of novellas, Fontane's longer works stand out like beacons, particularly to those of us reared on Victorian blockbusters which require wheels if you're planning to take them out of your study.

In fact, it is the similarities with another of my favourite writers, Anthony Trollope, which attract me to Fontane.  Like Trollope, Fontane is skillful in his depictions of the well-off citizens of a successful empire, and he is also very sympathetic in his portrayal of unhappy marriages and the effect they have on the women involved.  In one way, Fontane even has an advantage over his English counterpart - he is able to be much more daring when writing about characters with loose morals, which leads for some fascinating ethical dilemmas.  So, if you've always fancied reading some Victorian novels without implausibly virtuous young women, you could do worse than give Fontane a try...